I bided my time through May, waiting for the weather to warm up enough to let me take my best cycling buddy Kerr along with me. Predictably, that was the last weekend in May, but the forecast was good enough and so off we headed for Braemar on Saturday straight after lunch. As usual, I had no choice in our destination as Kerr was determined to return to “His” camp spot in Glen Quoich. Since he was a year bigger, I figured I would make him work for it this time out. We parked up at Invercauld, with the aim of riding along the Dee to Glen Quoich and then climbing up and along the high eastern side of the glen.
The weather was warm and sultry, just right for shorts and t-shirt, though the first steep climb away from the Linn of Quoich got us hot and sweaty. Luckily I had brought Irn Bru to use as bribery along the way, as well as a pack of Maoam in his bar bag!
We had left later than I would have liked as usual, but I made sure there was no rush other than needing to get the dinner on before he got too hungry. We undulated along above the glen, my only real worry being the level of the river crossing once we reached the end of this track. We had come back this way the previous year, but it had been later in the summer and the warm weather, plus lots of snow still on the hills meant it could be pretty high.
As we dropped to the ford at the Quoich Water, my fears proved well founded, as there were a couple of sections I really didn’t want Kerr walking through unaided. His lip started to wobble at the thought of not getting to our camp site, tantalisingly in view across the water, so I did a bit of scouting round for our options. By dropping off the side of the track a little way back from the ford, there was a wider option available which should go if we were careful. I had to abandon thoughts of crossing barefoot as usual to make sure I had good purchase for looking after Kerr. After two trips for the bikes and a final one for Kerr, who found the whole thing a great laugh and had the advantage of a pair of Crocs to keep his shoes dry, we were finally at our camp site.
The massive exodus of post- lockdown campers to the mountains luckily hadn’t extended as far as Glen Quoich, so we found our favourite spot uninhabited. After receiving some sporadic help with the tent pitching, I left Kerr to play at the river bed whilst I got everything else sorted in camp.
Kerr was ecstatic to find that his stone causeway had somehow survived the winter and we wound the evening down messing about at the water’s edge and constructing a cooling area for our drinks once our luxurious macaroni cheese dinner had been dispatched.
Time was getting on so we decided to turn in for a bit to get cosy, before another night excursion to see what was about and about. As it turned out, it was neither of us – after plenty of one way chat from Kerr, we both drifted off to sleep, with the outer door still held open to let the breeze in on a pleasantly mild night.
We woke early and dozed around for a bit until Kerr decided he was hungry, meaning I had to get myself up and shuffle around our campsite barefoot, as my shoes were still propped up on the nearby tree to dry in the steadily warming morning sun. I sent Kerr to collect the milk from my fridge, but he returned gleefully informing me it had dried out and that we should have stuck with his original spot, to which he had moved it to cool again after being heated up all morning.
We whiled away the morning with cups of tea for me and general splashing around in water for Kerr, with the sun beating down and a complete lack of midges, despite the low winds. All good things must come to and end, however, so I started packing up the tent and kit, ready for our return. As usual, Kerr asked if we could come back and camp out for more than one night next time – he never seems happier than when he’s hanging out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nature and I vowed to try and do this more often.
To get back to the car, I decided Kerr was going to get a bit more adventure. Rather than head back the way we came, we would continue up the glen to cross the Quoich Water much higher up, allowing us to link onto the top of Gleann an t-Slugain. Distance wise, it’s a shortcut, but effort wise, not at all. Once we got past the river-eroded parts of the path, there was a great surface for riding on for a good while. This was a marked improvement on what was there 15 years ago on my last passage.
After crossing a smaller burn, we had a steep push up onto some more rooty singletrack which wound its way through the trees. Despite it being a constant uphill, Kerr just kept powering along, with his wee fat tyres gripping their way out of every dip and rise. We just had the one mishap, with a pedal strike on a steep camber leaving him wrapped up in his bike upside down. I gave him a bit of a break and some more sweets before coaxing him back into action. Luckily, the surfaced track reappeared, which meant a bit less shuttling of the two bikes on the dodgy bits for me and a feeling that he would soon be at the river crossing whose proximity he had been nagging me about for the last half hour.
Finally, the ford was in sight and we dropped down steeply to appraise it. Whilst the levels weren’t too bad, I opted to keep my shoes on again and walk Kerr and the bikes over separately. Job done, we sat on the far side eating our lunch and letting my shoes dry out in the sun.
Once fed, more pushing interspersed with riding brought us up to meet the track from The Sneck. I had promised Kerr a constant downhill from here, which was kind of true, though my memory of the condition of the upper track down Gleann an t-Slugain didn’t quite tie in with reality. It was pretty steep and loose at times, with Kerr sensibly opting to walk his bike down the bits that made him nervous.
The temperature ramped up as we descended, so we stopped at a mini ford and started splashing about and topping up on water, now that Kerr had finished his emergency Irn Bru ration. We were briefly interrupted by the passage of a Mountain Rescue Land Rover as we made sure the bikes were out of the way. They weren’t for chatting, but hopefully nothing too serious had occurred on the hill.
Eventually, we rolled on to enjoy a speedy ride down the rest of the glen, Kerr happily chatting and veering around the track as he saw fit. The more adventurous route home had used up plenty of the day and we arrived back at Invercauld almost exactly 24 hours after we left. Kerr was right, we need to get a multi day trip organised – though I imagine his version has more messing about in rivers and a lot less cycling than mine!
Last night of the month? Check. Set out after 10pm? Check. Have work the next morning? Check. All the ingredients for my standard monthly bivy were there, with the added bonus of needing to be back home by 0630 to start getting the kids ready for school/nursery as Yvonne was also in work the next day. For these reasons, I decided on something relatively short, so I’d not be in a rush in the morning. No route planned in advance I went with an idea and a rough location in my head.
I’d decided to give the mountain bike and its plus tyres a go on some sand to see if it would be viable for a longer coastal trek in future. I also wanted to see how light I could pack for a night out in summer. As usual I was on my way after the standard Co-Op shop at about 10pm and rolling down towards the sea after throwing in some town based singletrack. I was a fair way downhill when I realised my phone was still sitting in the garage. As the true horror of being unable to post a sunrise picture on instagram/facebook or obsessively check the weather forecast every 20 minutes began to dawn on me, I briefly considered going back up to fetch it. My main concern was that I wouldn’t have an alarm to wake me up, but i figured the fact that I seem to wake up every 30 minutes when bivying would probably see me right.
I popped out of Seaton park near the bridge and turned down the first road that would give me access to the beach. After hitting a couple of dead ends where the shore line had been eroded I found my way down to the tide line and got rolling North without any sinking issues that would have required fatter tyres. It really was lovely to just pedal along on the flat without a care in the world, taking in the views of Trump’s beloved wind turbines.
I started looking for a suitable bivy spot as the light faded further – somewhere near the base of the dunes with a little elevation to make sure I wasn’t caught out at high tide in an hour. I finally identified a likely looking shelf and scrambled up to take a peek. It looked just right to fit me and the bike in together, so I pulled up the bike and unpacked my gear. My minimal sleeping gear consisted of a Klymit Ultralite V pad, a SOL Escape bivy and my old silk sleeping bag liner, adding up to less than 700g I’d guess. I had a bit of tea and a sandwich before sticking on my light down jacket and sliding my knee warmers down to cover my legs to my socks. It was a mild night, so I didn’t foresee any problems with having so little shelter, as I got myself comfy and tried to sleep.
It was one of those nights that never really gets dark and I found myself able to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout, without any condensation issues. Eventually it got light enough for me to check the time on my GPS – far too early. I dozed for a while longer and eventually struggled upright to take in the sunrise. There was a break in the cloud, allowing the sun to stream through for the perfect picture opportunity I was missing. Instead, I was forced to suffer the indignity of absorbing the view with my eyeballs and brain alone whilst sipping my tea.
My natural fear of out and back rides had me checking out the top of the dune I was camped on to see If I could go back a different way. Directly above, after some bike hefting was a faint path through the undergrowth to a working area at the back of the local golf course. I recognised it as one of the ones I had passed through on a similar bivy last year, so I knew I’d be able to follow the mix of gravel and tarmac paths through this and the next course back to where I’d joined the beach. At just after 5am, golfers were thin on the ground, so I had the courses to myself as I made my way back to the Don.
I didn’t stick to the road long, immediately diving onto a path above the riverside which eventually deposited me in Seaton Park. From there, I followed my usual mix of riverside trail and back field shortcuts to get me home before even the kids had woken up.
Jon was about to get the most thoughtful of 40th birthday presents – a free weekend in close proximity to a sweaty Scouser in the mountains. After receiving a text from his lovely wife that we were to organise something for him as a treat, a plan was finally made during the balmy week in February, henceforth referred to as Fools’ Spring. We were going to meet up in Blair Atholl on a Friday night in March, kip in the car and head out on a weekend ride of one of the Cairngorms Loops, depending on progress and weather conditions.
Needless to say, once the plan was formed, the mercury began to plummet and lots of chat about kit ensued – Jon loves a good bikepacking gear geek-out. When the weekend arrived, snow had returned to the mountains in earnest, so we were going to head out and see how conditions on the ground were before committing to anything too ambitious. I headed out in the late evening on Friday, after getting the kids to bed and made a dash for Blair Atholl, as Jon was already on the train up there from Edinburgh. The roads were quiet and I made good time, leaving us a bit of time for a drink and chat in the Atholl Arms before popping over to the car park in the forest to get our heads down.
In my head, I thought we’d be up and riding about 6-ish, to give us a good chance to hit the top of the route before the wind turned to a Northerly. In reality, we woke about half an hour after that and then spent 2 hours fannying about with our kit in the steadily increasing snowfall.
With the thought of wading through snow at some point during the ride, I’d brought along the Giro gaiters that match my Alpineduro boots, to see if they would squeeze over the Adidas Goretex mid boots I was cycling in. They looked just the ticket, so that was a boost, as the snow felt pretty wet anyway. Jon however, had been so excited about wearing his new Terrex flat shoes, that he had declined my advice to wear boots for this trip, thinking I was winding him up! He went for some wool socks with SealSkinz over them and hoped for the best.
Finally, we were up and running along the A9 cycle path, following the treads of a solitary digger that had hit the road before us. The snow was very soft and added little resistance, so we could just enjoy the muted crunch of it beneath our tyres.
It wasn’t long before we reached the turn off at Dalnacardoch, where an easy climb would hopefully get the blood pumping enough to warm the extremities, as John’s feet were already beginning to feel the cold. We stopped under the trees for a while to allow him to hop about and get some blood into them.
The scene ahead looked both forbidding and inviting. The snow was extremely slippy, so any attempts to switch ruts along the estate track led to an instant dismount, which was funnier to watch than experience!
As we passed Sronphadruig Lodge, I guided Jon onto the first track up to the watershed, promising him a decent walk to get his feet working again. The usual bog- hopping took us across to start of the elevated path along the side of Loch an Duin, which I’d been planning to walk today regardless in these conditions.
We slipped and slithered along, enjoying the absurdity of the situation as feeling slowly returned to Jon’s feet and the wind swung around to start blowing the snow across our faces, rather than the tailwind we’d enjoyed thus far.
As the path levelled out near the far end of the loch, I got to put the 29+ tyres to work rolling through whatever was hidden under the snow and made a beeline for the crossing point of the Allt Loch an Duin. In the past, I’ve taken off my shoes to keep them dry for this crossing, but I figured I’d manage alright today. Jon was not so lucky however and his newly warmed feet were instantly chilled again.
The going is normally really quick on this side of the pass, but as the speed increased, so did the wind chill. Jon’s suffering increased and we were forced to use any steep climb as a chance for him to walk and allow his feet to thaw out a little. Once he started mentioning the numbness spreading above his foot, I called it a day in my head and started planning alternative possibilities. Or, as I put it to Jon: “No fucking way am I ending up with your feet in my armpits!”.
First priority was to get Jon warmed up, so we continued on our way down Glen Tromie in the same fashion, hammering the flats and downhills and using the uphills to give Jon’s feet some movement when walking. This worked for the most part and when we Reached Tromie Bridge I diverted us onto the National Cycle Route that would take us straight to Loch Insh on the back road. After bit of speedy road riding that tested Jon’s foot pain threshold to the limit, we exploded into the restaurant in a flurry of disrobed layers and steaming socks. Jon got himself propped up against the radiator whilst our gloves and headwear slowly dried and attempted to coax life back into his feet. There was no rush now, as one of the proper loops was out of the question and I had time to fill Jon with hot tea and healthy snacks to take his mind off the defrosting limb pain.
After an hour of being well looked after by the nice staff, we started formulating plans. My initial option of bivying in the forest nearby and then riding back down the A9 cycle path to Blair Atholl was sensible but a bit of a letdown compared to what we were here for. I put a more interesting option to Jon, that we could ride down Glen Feshie to Ruigh Aiteachain bothy for an easier night’s sleep and possible warming fire. The next morning, if all was well, we could do part of the Inner Loop backwards by continuing on to Glen Geldie and then back via Glen Tilt to the car. He was well up for this, so we had another hour’s drying time, switched Jon to dry warm socks and made our way over the hill in the deepening snow towards Tovah.
We found the bridge and switched to the other side of the river, climbing up onto the path that would take us to the bothy. A bit of scrambling down the down and up the big landslip at the mouth of the Allt Garblach and we were on some lovely tracks through the forest. Jon was feeling much better with dry socks and fun riding, so we were at the bothy in no time – I was interested to see what the renovations had done to the place. On arrival, we said hi to the other two inhabitants and had a look around. The work had been done brilliantly – upstairs was clad completely and looked pretty posh. The young couple downstairs had cut some of the damp firewood from outside and were trying to coax it into a decent burn in the stove with the door open. Strangely, they had also put their tent up in the middle of the room, so we went back into the first room and got ourselves set up on the bench there – even without a fire, we should be warm enough overnight, with the added benefit of minimising smoke inhalation! We got ourselves out of any remaining wet kit and arranged it around the stove next door, before cooking up some food and heading back through for a warm and a chat.
We didn’t stress about being up too early the next day, as there wasn’t a lot of distance to cover, so we roused ourselves at 7ish and got breakfast on. I went outside to brush my teeth, whilst Jon used up my toilet paper in a weight-shedding exercise at the fancy toilet block. We could actually see the sky, so were keen to get up and running whilst the weather was inviting.
We cleared up and got rolling on the freakishly snow free path from the bothy, before we started heading for the edge of the river where things got much narrower. All the trees were loaded with wet snow, which was deposited all over us as we passed. The undergrowth was doing the same to our drivetrains, with the snow compacting into balls of ice on the jockey wheels, causing an annoying tick followed by random mis-shifts until it was cleared.
We soon reached the turn off for the raised singletrack that everyone seems to miss in favour of the land rover track below. This was as overgrown as ever, giving us a thorough soaking as we pushed through to the last landslip.
The constant soaking had started to mess with Jon’s feet again, but this time I had a master plan – we would soon be walking, a lot! There was still a bit of uphill riding to do however and we were soon high up the glen, looking down on my bivy spot from the full Cairngorms Loop a couple of years back.
The wide track would start to deteriorate soon, so I kept an eye out for trace of the narrow path that parallels the vehicle track. It was hard to spot in the snow, but is a much better bet, as it has a firm base, unlike the alternative which is full of bottomless mud traps! As we pressed on, you could feel the consistency of the snow changing to a firmer feel due to the cold, which made it more of an effort to ride through.
As we approached the watershed, the snow started to come down again in earnest. We now had a push through the heather to reach the Eidart bridge while the wind drove the snow across us as we made a guess as to where the best path was.
The bit after the bridge is always very vague, so I just headed for wherever the pushing looked easiest whilst the blizzard really kicked in, battering us from the front right. I threw on my snow goggles, which made the whole thing much more bearable, whilst Jon went for putting up his hood. After a bit of tough pushing through the now much deeper snow, the snow eased off so we could take stock of our surroundings.
Were were on the path properly now, so just needed to read the terrain ahead of us to keep on it and enjoy the slightly easier going. It was still a world better than my passage in this direction many years back on a January night in pitch dark with no head torch. I had frozen snow banks to climb up and ended up following the path by the feel of the ground underneath my feet!
We also had the wind at our tails now, so our trudge through the snow was pretty enjoyable if hard work, with the odd comedy disappearance in a waist deep drift or hidden burn
Eventually, the terrain started to flatten out and we could see Geldie Lodge ahead on the far side of the river, meaning the tough bit was nearly over. Once we were level with the lodge we joined a proper estate track, had a bit of lunch and progress increased rapidly.
As we got nearer the Geldie crossing, we started to see the first footprints we’d seen all weekend and discussing what time we’d finish the ride. Jon had a couple of options for trains, but it would be handy for him to make the 6pm one back to Edinburgh. It seemed doable, but we wouldn’t really know until we saw the conditions along Glen Tilt. First of all, Jon had to get his nice warm feet wet on the river crossing!
Once we were past the follow up crossings and the boggy bit after Bynack Lodge, Jon switched to his only slightly damp socks in order to avoid a repeat of yesterday and we started to enjoy a slidey ride along the Glen Tilt singletrack. Some bits are great, some are dodgy and some have rocks that are determined to tip you over the side and into the torrent below.
There was much less snow along this glen, so no big dramas – just a regular donning and disrobing of jackets as the regular blizzards blew over from behind.
Eventually, the snow petered out completely, which was surprising considering the amount that had been on the ground when we left Blair Atholl. Still, it kept the progress swift and it was looking more likely we would make Jon’s earlier train.
Taking the turn off to Fealar Lodge wasn’t going to happen today, but I pointed it out to Jon and explained how upset he was going to be for the real thing, if my experience was anything to go by! As usual, The Falls of Tarf marked the start of the really quick part of the glen and we cranked up the speed despite being unsure if we could make it.
The extra effort was worth it, as we screamed into the car park with about 20 minutes until Jon’s train arrived. I sent him ahead to the train station whilst I packed my bike into the car and drove round with his spare gear. He had a leisurely 5 minutes to throw his stuff into his bag before he hopped onto the train and away home. I wasn’t too bothered not to have completed our original routes as we’d had a great ride regardless. Jon’s dodgy footwear choice had probably been a blessing in disguise, as it had let us chill out chat for a good bit rather than the usual non-stop late night finish my escapades have a habit of descending into!
This was going to be my last chance at doing a proper long mountain bike ride as part of my HT550 preparation, so I booked my self a one way ticket to Aviemore for the May Day bank holiday and hurriedly got the bike ready late on Sunday evening after the kids finally went to sleep. The plan was ride back to Aberdeen offroad as much as possible, with the added interest of trying a new route from Abernethy across to Glen Avon, which doesn’t follow the now traditional outer Cairngorm Loop route through Tomintoul.
My aim was to head out past Dorback Lodge, but instead of taking the left at the first crossing of the Burn of Brown, I was going to keep right and do a lot of climbing onto the moors to the South and see if an old ford across the Water of Ailnack was an option. First though, I had to get there – so after my usual late night fiddling and packing I was up early to catch the 0614 train to Inverness. An uneventful journey saw me ready to go from Aviemore at 1000, after some fiddling with my newly rented SPOT tracker, which I wanted to get accustomed to well in advance of the HT550. I slipped under the railway and onto the Speyside Way to take me away towards Nethy Bridge.
The smooth tracks made for speedy progress, interspersed with some bottom bracket fiddling, as the new bearings I had only fitted last week had decided to set the bike off creaking. No coincidence that this is my only bike that doesn’t have a threaded BB shell!
As I approached Nethy Bridge, the clouds seemed to be gathering in an ominous fashion. Optimistically, I had chosen to believe the Met Office forecast of a cloudy morning, improving later and had opted for minimal waterproof gear, i.e. none! A few drops of impending precipitation hit me as I whizzed along the singletrack before the village.
The heavens opened as I rolled towards the shop, so I went in and got myself a ginger beer and some extra snacks for the ride and sat in a dry spot near the bus shelter cursing my luck whilst I got my jacket and gloves out. With a long way to go, I couldn’t afford to wait it out, so on I went along the river, then up the road towards the Dorback Lodge turn off. I’d skipped the Eag Mhor today to save time and wet feet and luckily the rain eased as I approached the lodge.
The climb after the lodge went by quite easy, especially compared to last time during the Cairngorms Loop, when I wasn’t feeling quite so sprightly! After a quick hello to a couple of other cyclists on the climb, I dropped down quickly to the first ford at the Burn of Brown and prepared to ignore the suggested route to Tomintoul.
A long climb ensued up the flanks of Carn Tuadhan, though luckily never too steep.
I knew eventually the good track would peter out and I would have to see what was on the ground to get me to Ca Du Ford. So it did and I started my heather bashing, contouring round the hill without losing too much height, so I would be able to sight the crossing and pick the best route. I’d plotted a way across where the contours looked least steep, but knew that up close things could be quite different!
Once I was in the right ball park, I took a straight line down the hill and started some foot reconnaissance for a route down once it got too steep. Various deer trails criss-crossed the edge, so I found a way down without too much trouble and was also able to spot a good exit point on the far side, a fair bit upstream from my original guess.
Once down, I relaxed for a wee bit on the rocky beach where the Allt Dearcaige joins the Ailnack and had some lunch in the sun, which had finally made an appearance. Nothing beats time alone in a place that feels so remote, but I still had a long way to go and more heather-bashing to do before I could start making some distance.
I managed to get across with dry feet and started lugging my way up the opposite side, zig-zagging with any deer tracks I crossed. Once up high, I checked out the track high in the distance on the other side of the glen that I could have also used to reach the spot direct from Dorback Lodge. It looked doable, so I made a mental note to give that a shot sometime and compare! The heather was pretty high over here, so dragging the bike was a bit of a pain, but the going eased as I came over the brow of the hill and some unmapped grouse butts provided a rough path I could use to ride down to the main track towards Dalbheithachan.
Rather than take the track all the way down to Glen Avon, I took a right at the bottom of a steep descent and started climbing again, straight up Carn an t-Sleibhe. This would get me high up on the ridge above Glen Loin.
I had been thinking about staying high above the glen and dropping down at the far end after going over the tops, but a lack of any marked path for a stretch along the top made me err on the side of caution, as I didn’t want to be getting home too late with work the next day. Once on the shoulder, I took the first steep drop into the glen, with brakes that had been squealing increasingly all day. Despite the incessant headwind, Glen Loin made for easy progress and I saw Ben Avon loom in the distance as I approached its mouth.
As I emerged into the upper reaches of Glen Avon, the sun was beating down and I saw a tent or two pitched down by the river. It seemed a shame to be rushing through, but I had places to be. I was round the corner and on my way up the steep climb to Donside from Inchrory in no time at all.
As I made my way along the glen, the track gradually improved and turned to tarmac for the last stretch before Corgarff. I was messing about seeing if I could get into some kind of aero tuck, when I realised my front wheel was varying it’s line quite markedly. I squealed to a halt and took a look – one of the Zircal spokes was rattling round in it’s nipple holder and turning it seemed to have no effect. This looked like something I wasn’t fixing today, so I took it easy to the castle, then turned onto the main road briefly, before bearing right onto the old military road.
As I approached the final climb back to the main road, I caught up with some French motorcyclists on BMWs. In the distance, I’d seen someone walking up the hill towards them and realised it must have been one of the pillion passengers having to lighten the load for a steep section. I had no idea if they were supposed to be there, so just said hello and pressed on.
Climbing up the road seemed quite tiring, but I got a little bit of speed up before my turn off, which would take me across the Moor of Dinnet.
I dropped and climbed from Glen Fenzie, round to Morven Lodge, then crossed the Morven Burn to start heading East by Tom Garchory and Culblean Hill. I topped up my water bottles at a burn on the way and got a good feed in the sun. I’d been stripping off layers since I left the Cairngorms and was down to shorts and t-shirt at 6pm, which reflected the upturn in the weather!
The descent down from Culblean looked fast and loose – unfortunately, I was reduced to nursing my failing front wheel and increasingly squealy brakes down without mishap, so I was relieved for it to flatten out and let me pedal to the road. I had been planning more offroad from here leading to a quick whizz down Tarland Trails, but I thought I wouldn’t push my luck and headed towards Loch Kinord instead, taking a chilled out trail through the forest, by the loch and into Dinnet.
From here I took the easy option and hopped onto the Deeside Way to Aboyne and onwards, with a little diversion to the North of Banchory as I couldn’t be bothered going through Scolty.
The sun finally dropped behind the horizon enough for me to put on my lights as I came into Peterculter and I blitzed the last section to get home just after 10pm for a good shower and a pizza before passing out on the couch.
Having turned 40 the previous September, I decided I wanted to set myself a real challenge as a gift to myself. The challenge in mind was to take part in the Highland Trail 550 group start, but to get to the required fitness level I planned to give myself a year to increase my mileage, whilst also completing a ride that counts as qualifying for a chance of entry. Having completed the Capital Trail earlier in the year at a more relaxed pace with a friend, I was ready to push myself and see if I could get round the Cairngorms Loop under the 56 hour deadline. I had an advantage in that the vast majority of my mountain biking and bikepacking has always been done in and around the Cairngorms, so there was very little of the route that would be new to me. My disadvantage would be a cold and a restless 1 year old limiting me to about 3 hours sleep a night in the build up to the event! I was up bright and early on Saturday to drive over to Blair Atholl, which gave me an hour to fiddle with my gear near the station car park before rolling up the the Bridge of Tilt car park with Lucy and Jenny, who had parked in the same place, for the informal start off by Steve.
People seemed reluctant to take the lead and get going, but eventually we all rolled out for the easy road section up the A9 cycle route. I ended up going along in the lead group as the pace seemed comfortable and the people were nice and chatty.
We crossed the A9 and started heading North up the Gaick Pass, as I followed along behind the lead pair up to Loch an Duin.
They pulled away along the lochside, as I made it look difficult and then forded across to the track leading to Gaick Lodge.This was the first time my feet got wet and also the last time they would be dry until the finish. Back on decent tracks, the going should have been really quick all the way down Glen Tromie, but a brisk headwind made you work a bit harder than expected. Down to Tromie Bridge and a short climb through the forest dropped back down by the River Feshie, with a little stretch of riverside singletrack I hadn’t done before on the way to Feshiebridge.
As I climbed away from the bridge towards the trail to Loch Gamhna, the promised rain came in and as I stopped to get my jacket on, Jenny breezed past before swapping places again after she stopped to do the same at Loch an Eilein. It was a very soggy ride through Rothiemurchus across to Loch Morlich, where we found ourselves in the midst of an adventure triathlon. After a stop to stock up on some extra food for the long stretch ahead and a brief meeting with Bob who arrived as I left, I made my way along towards Ryvoan.
I took the right towards the Lairig an Laoigh and made my way up Bynack More. I rode for a while, but decided that this was no time to see how far I could get up the path, as the effort of popping over the drainage ditches wasn’t worth it on a ride of this scale. As the path levelled out, Bob caught me up and we bumped our way along and down the first descent. The burn crossing here was much deeper than I’d seen it before and the general waterlogged nature of all the tracks we’d been on so far didn’t bode well for crossings coming up. We’d met a couple of walkers at the top who had met Jenny passing through the burn: “She didn’t even pause, just went through on a mission!”.
We went up and over a couple of times before finally dropping down towards the Fords of Avon refuge and had a quick stop at the shelter. As we set off towards the ford, Bob’s words “Well here it is, the crux!” were certainly prescient. We took a look and the water was deep, moving very quickly with what looked like real power. After the two of us paced up and down the bank, Bob had decided to be sensible and said he was going to head for Faindouran instead, but he’d hang on if I wanted to attempt it. As my free weekends are limited with two young children to entertain, there was no way I was putting this ride off until another day! I went in, straight up to my thighs initially and eventually waist deep. The flow was strong, but not enough to put me too off balance. The main issue was the bike, as every time I tried to move it forward, the wheels would catch the flow and it would take off downriver, requiring a massive upper body effort to bring back. I inched my way across, wedging the wheels in rocks under the current where possible and eventually heaved it out onto the far bank. I looked back, expecting to see Bob waving me off, but he was already in and on his way over!
He picked a better route and got over with a bit less drama, with his first words out of the water being “You mad ba@#%@rd!”. As we were about to head off, Ian Fitz turned up on the far bank, so we directed him over and started to make our way over the Lairig an Laoigh proper. Ian soon started to pull away and I could feel the constant pushing and tripping over rocks beginning to wear me down, so I was happy to take it easy as Bob distanced me on the final descent into Glen Derry, as I could get a bit of food on board and psych myself up for the coming section through Glen Geldie. I put my light on just I reached the Linn of Dee.
Now it was fast going on the way out past White Bridge and on to the ford at Geldie Lodge, before turning off into the bogs. The path can be quite rideable for a while here at times, but this was not one of those times, so I settled in for a long wet walk, with occasional moments of optimistic riding. The night was clear and cold, but that suited me as it wasn’t raining and I eventually hit the Eidart Bridge, feeling very low on energy. It was tempting to bivy here, but I wanted to be in Glen Feshie, so I’d feel like I’d almost closed off the first loop.
I kept on and was able to ride again along the firm singletrack that parallels the horrible muddy land rover track at the top of Glen Feshie. I had a spot in mind that I’d always fancied camping at and my energy levels had returned, so I arrived there with no issue and got ready for a good night’s kip.
I quickly cooked up some food and pretty much passed out without bothering to set an alarm, not even the spectacular starscape above could keep my eyes open. I was planning on catching up on the beauty sleep I wasn’t getting at home! My GPS told me the temperature had dropped to -2, but I felt comfortable apart from my frozen feet, which had suffered from the constant soakings. I slept well enough and woke up at some point before sunrise. Now if I was one of these expert racer types, I’d have been up and away – however as a man with two insomniac kids, I took this chance for an extra couple of hours. I eventually surfaced at about half six and decided to pack and go, rather than waste more time on breakfast.
As I was finishing up, Pete suddenly appeared on the horizon above the ford I was camped at and dropped down to say hello. I hadn’t expected to see him again as he had been one of the front two that had left me behind on the way down from the Gaick, but he’d done similar to me and had a good sleep up at the Eidart bridge – not sure I could have slept there with all the noise of the falls below! I let him crack on, as the midges has also woken up and followed shortly after.
It was nice to be able to actually ride for a while and the sky even made its first appearance of the weekend with a bit of sun to wake me up fully as I made my way along Glen Feshie.
On one of the faster downhill stretches, I noticed a black drybag to the side of the track and skidded to a halt to retrieve it. It looked like it had a bivy bag and sleeping bag inside, so I figured it must be Pete’s stuff. I attached it to my bar bag with the unused straps and prayed I wouldn’t have to carry the extra weight the whole way round! Next was the turn off onto the high singletrack and across the first landslide.
The trees are starting to overgrow the trail a bit up here, so I was pretty much soaked through from brushing against the dew-soaked branches as I passed by. Not long after I dropped back down to the main track I saw Pete winding his way back through the trees looking worried. I was very happy to hand him his gear and let him push on ahead on towards Ruigh Aiteachain. The bothy is still under reconstruction, but looks like it’s going to be very nice when finished. There were also a lot of wooden beams and construction materials down by the site of the old bridge, which leads me to believe they might finally be replacing it. More straightforward riding, apart from the odd landslide and dead-end washed away tracks brought me to Auchlean.
As I hit the tarmac, it was time for a waterproof, as Pete also popped up from a different track and we made our way down the glen at good speed in the rain. The route stays on tarmac to Inverdruie where I planned to stock up on energy with a leisurely breakfast whilst drying out a bit. I suggested we head for the Rothiemurchus Centre cafe rather than go off route into Aviemore itself – we arrived a few minutes after it opened and I filled my face with a large Bacon and egg roll along with some extremely calorific fruit toast. Pete was checking his mails and came across one from the organiser Steve the previous night, advising that the Fords of Avon and route into Tomintoul were impassable due to river levels! Since we’d already done the first, we figured we’d just see how we got on with the latter. Cake to go and sandwiches and snacks from the farm shop left me with plenty of stocks for the remainder of the ride. Pete was away a good 10 minutes before me, but the sun was out so I was happy.
Next was more tarmac to Pityoulish and then across the abandoned road across Tulloch Moor, around the puddle of doom and on to the turn off to Forest Lodge in Abernethy Forest. After the lodge, the route takes you up a nice singletrack climb through the trees which I imagine would be very fast in less sodden conditions. It was a quick roll down the main track to more singletrack leading me into the Eag Mhor after yet another knee deep river crossing.
As I squelched and slid my way out of the gap, the Braes of Abernethy opened up before me.
Another big river crossing through the Dorback Burn, then round the back of the Lodge, over the hill and down at speed towards the Burn of Brown to see if it was going to be an issue.
The crossings got progressively deeper as the track meandered its way along the glen, but I avoided the worst of it by eventually sticking to the bank nearest the forest where there was a faint, narrow trail. Then it was a question of climbing up the main waterlogged track next to the trees before popping out onto a nice fast track which deposited me on the road to Tomintoul in no time. A quick sandwich and drink stop and I pressed on into Glen Avon which was fast going all to the way to Inchrory, where the track gradually grew rougher as I made my way up Glen Builg.
I bumped my way along Loch Builg in an ungainly fashion and shot down the track to the River Gairn, fully aware of the large climb up Cullardoch ahead of me. I’d been a bit worried that my aching knees wouldn’t enjoy this, but I kept it slow and steady and got up and over without too much trouble as the rain came back with a vengeance. Now for some extremely quick descending down to Invercauld and on to Braemar where the Hungry Highlander was calling my name.
I chatted to another loop rider whilst I inhaled my haggis supper and many cans of juice. He’d had a nightmare and mistakenly gone straight onto the outer loop on the first day at Feshiebridge, only realising his mistake 20 miles on. Then he’d backtracked to the correct course, fought through the Fords of Avon the following day and had a bad crash which had torn a big hole in his 3/4 undershorts. He was ready to call it a day and ride back over the Glenshee road to Pitlochry the following morning. Good on him for persevering that far though!
With the chippy dinner weighing heavy on my stomach, I set out to Linn of Dee again, wanting to get to the Geldie crossing before it was too dark to see if it looked bad or not. The sun peeked out from behind the clouds on its way down ahead of me, bathing me in an uplifting sunset glow.
I sped out to White Bridge as fast as I could manage and got across the Geldie with no problems at all.
In theory, this was the home straight, but I knew I had two big climbs to come after turning out of Glen Tilt. The initial stage was okay and that got my hopes up, but I was soon in the awkward singletrack along the side of the hillside – this is an enjoyable challenge when fresh and unladen, but in my fatigued state I frequently resorted to pushing or scooching along with one leg on the hillside, after a couple of rock strikes threatened to pitch me off into the black chasm below.
After what felt like a long time, the turn off to the Fealar Lodge track finally arrived and I dropped down, crossed the Tilt and climbed up the preposterously steep path which eventually eased off as it contoured round the hillside. I was thoroughly beaten by now and the act off getting on and off the bike every time it sank into a boggy patch became too much, so I resorted to walking most of the time. Those 2km to the lodge were definitely the longest of the entire route and typically one of the only bits I hadn’t done before. After trudging round through the mist and freaky spider encrusted gates, I arrived at a beautiful estate road outside the lodge and got myself a snack.
Next was a fair bit of climbing alongside Carn an Righ to the head of the pass, where I ate my last butty and stuck on some layers for a super fast and long descent into Gleann Fearnach, where I performed a u-turn and headed back along the Allt Glen Loch towards the Allt Coire Lagain. This was another climb, which I’d only done in the reverse direction before but wasn’t half as bad as I expected for once. I still took ages to do it though! Eventually it levelled out and started to drop towards the water on a fun track through the heather. Quickly through the burn and a short climb got me up to the Beinn a Ghlo hill track, which looks to have had a lot of work done to it since my last visit. This meant I could finally get some speed up and flew through the frigid night air toward Blair Atholl. I arrived at the station at 0250, meaning I hadn’t quite managed a sub 40 hour ride, but I really had no idea how quickly I could do a ride of this scale so I was just happy to have finished.
After taking the requisite photos, I quietly packed my gear into the car so as not to wake Jenny who was obviously fast asleep in her camper after finishing many hours ahead of me and drove off somewhere more discreet to lower the back seats and pass out for however long I needed.