I had big plans for October, since I was going to be in Nethy Bridge for the first week of the half term holiday as usual. This meant I had the northern Cairngorms as my playground if I could manage to sneak out one night of our stay. I had managed to stuff my bivy gear in as I packed the car with everything we needed, so I just needed to pick a decent night. The weather however, had other ideas and was particularly wet from the minute we arrived. Coupled to this I was feeling rough with a pounding headache, as was Yvonne, meaning I couldn’t abandon her even if I did feel up to it. We still managed to squeeze in plenty of fun with the kids and I even recced the track from Ryvoan back to the house with Kerr, riding back from a canoe day at Loch Morlich on a mostly dry afternoon. The track was an absolute state, thanks to the diggers that have used it to access the hills, though Kerr seemed happy enough getting covered head to toe in mud!
Late in the week, I finally felt up to a night out, setting out just after the kids’ bedtime. The forecast wasn’t great, but I was hoping to do something similar to last year’s October bivy on the Bynack More summit, but this time on Cairn Gorm itself. I headed straight up the road and into Abernethy Forest, making a beeline for the Forest Lodge track. I nearly had an off before I even left the tarmac, as I met some mountain bikers coming the other way, who collectively gave a cheery wave whilst pointing around 2 million lumens of lights and head torches in my face, causing me to lose the edge of the road and fall into the ditch there. This was quite a contrast, as I was currently only using the light off one of the kids bikes in an effort to save the Joystick until I needed it, thanks to them having taken it somewhere below 50% battery running around the cottage in the dark on previous nights! I still wasn’t feeling 100%, so I just trundled along uphill, only pausing for a snack at the edge of the forest before heading on to Ryvoan.
I reached An Lochan Uaine and stopped for a wee bit to think about my plans. I was feeling crappy and it was going to take me a good while to reach the top of Cairn Gorm. I had a faint hope there might be a cloud inversion so I actually saw something in the morning, but it was unlikely. As I pondered my options I noticed rain drops passing in front of my headlight, meaning it was only going to get more persistent and pervasive as I climbed. Finally I came to my senses – it was neither productive or responsible to carry on to the summit and try to bivy in my state and these conditions. Instead I rolled up to the fancy viewing platform and started to get my kit out, occasionally pausing as I had second thoughts, such is my stubborn nature.
I drank my tea and had a snack, sitting on the luxurious bench and not feeling particularly sorry for myself. I eventually got into bed well before midnight and arranged my kit so the rain wouldn’t find its way into my boots. One bonus of the level sleeping area was that my ultra slippy bivy bag didn’t go AWOL during the night – it was also its first test in some proper rain, though the surrounding trees helped too. After a cosy night’s low altitude sleep I woke in the grey drizzle and gradually worked up the energy to get myself up and going.
I could have packed up and gone back the way I came, but my lack of riding the night before and my severe case of antiloopophobia would have kicked in, so I made for Loch Morlich instead and straight onto the old logging way.
I turned off to the north at the end of the loch and started heading for An Slugan, which is a handy shortcut for getting back towards Abernethy offroad.
Once down the other side, I just needed to whip along the old declassified road past Tulloch Moor and I’d be just about home. First of all I had to stop and admire the boardwalk bypassing the puddle of doom which beat the semi-submerged pallets that were there on my last crossing.
After my North Shore excursion, I continued onto the roads near Loch Garten, hopping off into the Forest as soon as possible to enjoy some lovely forest riding on my way back to join in for breakfast with the kids. I’d done nothing like what I’d planned, but who’s keeping score anyway?
Getting my October bivy in nice and early for me left me with plenty of time to think about my November effort. I was hanging on for a weekend when someone could come with me, but with Jon and Brian too busy to manage it, I had to bite the bullet and sort something out. The first step was to book a train ticket to Kyle of Lochalsh for Friday after work.
As usual, I’d been up late the night before, doing all the stuff I had been meaning to do to the bike for ages. I swapped my Hunt front wheel for my Shimano dynamo one, as I’d be in darkness for the majority of the ride. This also prompted me to finally admit defeat and fit my winter mudguards before noticing that my Schwalbe Pro One rear tyre was worn through to the carcass in a few spots. Probably not the best idea to add another 200 miles onto it, so I stole the back wheel off my commuter too, swapping the single cog for a cassette. By the time i was done fiddling, it was getting on for 2am! Never mind, I could snooze on the train.
I had a bit of a wait in Inverness for my second train, so whiled away the time in a coffee shop, before jumping the train to Kyle. Eventually I started to pass stations I’d be cycling past tomorrow and the temptation to jump out and get a head-start. As I passed Achnasheen, I scoped my most likely bivy spot for the night and it looked lovely and clean in the darkness, which was good to know.
As soon as I got going, I felt how cold it was. The forecast had been for low temperatures, but my GPS soon started reading temperatures around -6. This was at sea level, so climbing up to Achnasheen should be interesting! I climbed out of town and began the rollercoaster of a road along to Plockton, Stromeferry and eventually Strathcarron. Despite the cold, there were no issues with ice, bar one frozen trickle across a steep climb that warranted a dismount and some Bambi action to navigate.
Once I turned up the glen, I knew at least I had a steady gradient to keep me warm without slowing me down too much. I wasn’t planning on going any further than Achnasheen, so I was glad to see the roundabout at the edge of the village. I went straight to the train station and over the footbridge after checking to see if the toilets were open. They were, but it didn’t really feel like staying there would constitute a bivy. The wooden shelter on the platform was immaculately clean and had a bench just wide enough for my sleep mat – hopefully keeping off the ground would compensate for the fact I only had a sleeping bag that went down to -2 degrees.
There was no time to hang about – I needed to get some layers on and get into my bag quick. I lay there eating sandwiches and drinking my ice cold Irn Bru from the seat pack. The water bottle full of Lucozade had the consistency of a slush puppy at this point, so I didn’t fancy my chances of a liquid drink in the morning. After my customary half an hour of wriggling to get my various layers of Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag, silk liner and SOL Escape bivy where they were supposed to be, I settled down for some kip. It was my usual restless night’s sleep, exacerbated by bouts of shivering as the mercury plummeted some way below the -6 I had seen before turning off my GPS.
There was no need to set an alarm, as I knew a train would pass by on the opposite platform shortly after 6am. However, some time after five I heard a van pull up at the station and the clink of the gate as someone with a bright torch started shuffling about on the platform, crunching through the thick layer of grit that covered it. He was there a while and the light kept piercing through the side window of the shelter, making me feel he was right outside. I finally figured out he was adding yet more grit to the platform, eventually coming over the bridge and approaching my home for the night. I wasn’t expecting any bother and just as he finished he took a look in and asked me if I was okay, which was preferable to being poked to see if I was a frozen corpse! It would have been sensible to just get up and make an early start on the long way home, but I didn’t really want to miss riding the more picturesque end of the ride in a bit of daylight. Instead I half-dozed/shivered my way through another hour or so, before reluctantly sitting up to start eating and psyching myself up to leave the sleeping bag after the scheduled train had passed through.
As I started getting my self sorted, I decided to stick with the wool socks I had slept in as they were a bit thinner than the new winter cycling socks I had been trying the night before and I needed a bit more wriggle room in my Giro Alpineduro boots which I had had wisely supplemented with some windproof overshoes for this ride. I kept my lovely Montane Hydrogen Direct jacket on as I carried the bike back over the bridge and popped into the mens toilets to shed some weight and get my cycling layers sorted. I begrudgingly packed away the fluffy Polartec Alpha lined jacket and stuck my waterproof on as a wind stopping layer over my Brevet insulated gilet that has seen a lot of action since I got it in a sale 3 years back. Once I had liberally applied some chamois cream, I was ready to find out how well I would keep warm at faster speed for the next flattish section. As I joined the main road, I was already shivering violently and jerking the handlebars around, but I knew that would pass after a bit of pedalling my way towards Garve. I paused every now and then to try and take a decent picture, slightly hampered by the fact my phone was frozen solid and needed thawing out under my layers between shots to stop it shutting down. I had more electrical woes further along, when I tried changing gear and got nothing from my Di2 lever. A slight panic set in, but I was pretty sure the battery was good, as I’d checked the level the previous night. Then I remembered, I’d wrenched on the right hand lever a ways back after noticing it had worked its way inwards. That, coupled with the bar bag leaning up on the cables had probably popped the wire out of its socket. Sure enough, I tried the left hand lever and all was good. The beauty of the 1x setup was that I had reprogrammed the levers so they both controlled the rear derailleur, meaning I didn’t have to stop and fanny about fixing my usual one.
Despite the low temperatures, ice wasn’t a problem at all due to the dry weather in advance of the cold snap. One good thing about using these non-tubeless weighty wheels was that I had fitted my old Continental GP 4 seasons, which have an uncanny ability to feel grippy in conditions where they just shouldn’t work. I reached Garve without too much drama. I would rather have done the next stretch to Contin earlier to avoid the inevitable impatient traffic, so I just got my head down and tried to bang it out as quickly as possible.
Contin was reached without too many early morning drivers trying to kill me and I managed to resist going into Contin Stores, as I had plenty to eat for now. I took a right just outside the village and left the busy road to make my way down to Muir of Ord on some quieter roads. When I reached the town, I couldn’t resist a Co-Op restock, mainly to get myself some drinks that were in actual liquid form, as my water bottle contained a giant orange ice lolly since last night. I got going again and started making good time along the road out of town, before I got the feeling I was going wrong. Sure enough, I’d missed an off course warning from my GPS and was headed to Beauly at speed. I briefly considered just carrying on and getting to Inverness that way, but sense prevailed and I did a u-turn to rejoin my planned route, which should be much quieter roads along the Beauly Firth..
North Kessock arrived promptly and I took a side track that climbed up to the A9 so I could cross the bridge. As I rolled across, I was bemused by wide icy strips the whole way along the bike path, before I realised it was caused by the shadow of the fence keeping the sun from thawing it. Around this time, I started thinking about topping up the chamois cream whilst I was still in relative comfort. Unfortunately, after some frantic rooting around my bar bag I came to the realisation that the tub I’d brought was still sitting on the toilet window ledge in Achnasheen – bummer.
I made my way hastily through Inverness by the same route I’d used for my Forsinard to Aberdeen ride, resisting the temptation to sidetrack to McDonalds this time. Instead I availed myelf of a hot chicken curry pie and a cup of tea from a petrol station Spar en route to Culloden.
I used the bike path/pavement on my way round Culloden, rather than mix it with the cars and feel compelled to ride faster up the hill than I wanted. I took the usual right turn and span my way up another long steady hill, noticing some people who appeared to be waiting for a lift up at the top. As I got closer, I began to have suspicions, which were confirmed when I got a better look at the lankiest member of the group – it was Stu, Jenny and the kids! Every time I do a long ride out this way, I’m always tempted to pop in for a cuppa, but resist, knowing I’d never get going again. Luckily, they’d beaten me to the punch by viewing my SPOT tracker and Jen was holding a steaming hot cuppa and some shortbread! It was such a lovely thought, I was delighted to hang around for a natter before dragging myself away, knowing there were a lot of hours of riding still to be done. I had a quick icy descent to the River Nairn, followed by a steep climb up to NCR 7, which I would follow all the way to Boat of Garten. I remembered from last time that it was basically uphill all the way to Carrbridge and took much longer than you’d expect, so I was under no pretence that this would be over quickly. It was still pleasant cycling however on quiet roads in the afternoon light.
I’d been hoping to get into the hills above Nethybridge in time for sunset, but the light was dying as I eventually flew down the hill into Carrbridge. As I reached maximum velocity, I heard a metallic ping under my tyres, as though I’d run over a bit of debris. My spidey-sense thought differently however, so I ground to a halt to see if anything had fallen off the bike. It looked intact, but the extra throw of the front brake lever told me all I needed to know – I had ejected a brake pad! I made a half-hearted attempt to find it, but had no chance, so I rolled up to the pavement outside the village shop and upended the bike to do a pad swap.
The daylight had really died during this brief mechanical, so I switched on my rear flasher and front dynamo before making my way quickly to Boat of Garten, followed by Nethybridge. I didn’t stop at any shops, as I had enough food to get me to Tomintoul, if not the whole way home.
I now had a whole bunch of climbing coming up and it was getting properly cold again, but at least I knew it well enough that there wouldn’t be any surprises. After a wee thawing rest stop and indoor picnic in the visitor centre I slowly climbed away from Nethybridge, which feels like a second home to me for all the times we stay there with the kids. I winched up the last evil steep bit to join the A939, which I anticipated wouldn’t be too busy at this time of year and evening. My knees had been feeling creaky most of the day, but I did okay and soon found myself entering Tomintoul, where I had a decision to make. Stop and get some hot food, or roll through and focus on finishing. I paused at the village centre, still in two minds, but eventually convinced myself that some hot soup and a pot of tea would see me right in the long run. I went in the pub next to the new tourist office and ordered, before stripping down a few layers to let the warmth reach me. I started fiddling with my phone as you do and saw a message from Yvonne telling me the weather was horrendous and I shouldn’t try and finish tonight. The thought of stopping hadn’t occurred to me since some low points in the morning, but asking if they had a room at the inn was slightly tempting now I was sampling indoor life again. Instead, I gave Yvonne a ring to reassure her and made sure all my clothes were nice and warm from the radiator before prepping to leave after my hot refreshments.
In theory, with warm food inside me and warm layers around me, I shouldn’t have suffered once I was outside. In practice, I was shivering uncontrollably by the time I got to my bike and things didn’t improve from there as I swerved my way along the road, looking like I’d had about ten pints in the pub. On leaving the village I had a long steady uphill which slowly got my blood pumping and the shivering suppressed. Up next was the biggest climb of the ride, up and over the Lecht, which definitely promised to warm me up! It’s a tough climb, but nothing like as bad as coming over the opposite way. Eventually, the lights of the ski centre came into view and I rattled over the cattle grid before swerving off into the snowy car park to get some more food on board and put on some serious layers for the descent to come.
No time for messing about, I packed away my gilet and brought out my Montane Polartec jacket. I rejoined the tarmac and started off down the plunging road in the darkness. My dynamo light only pierced so far, so I dragged my brakes a bit to make sure I wasn’t going too fast if a rogue patch of ice took me out. I did let it rip on the bit I knew was dead straight, whizzing up the re-climb with a vague idea of what was ahead. I very tentatively descended the switchbacks, before normal cycling resumed, past Corgarff and down towards Strathdon. As I reached the junction where I had originally planned to take a right and climb over towards Balmoral before riding home along Deeside, I revised my plans. Since the Lecht, the road had got increasingly treacherous, with patches of frozen snow and bands of ice where the day’s thaw had refrozen across it. I decided to head back along Strathdon instead, so I could gradually lose height and hopefully get clearer roads – at the very least, it would get me home sooner if progress was significantly slowed by ice. It meant I wouldn’t hit my 200 mile target, but as I’d originally planned to do this ride on a long summer day, I wasn’t too disappointed in myself!
I loaded up the route I had taken down from Forsinard on my previous 200 miler and started to head eastwards. I could have just stayed on the main road all the way to Alford, as it was pretty quiet, but thought I’d stick to the back lanes again as it was more direct. Temperatures were hovering around -8 at times, so I kept my big jacket on, which was surprisingly comfortable to ride in – I definitely wouldn’t have been able to do that in a down jacket without feeling very clammy. The fluffy Primaloft lining works like a very lightweight Buffalo with a full zip, but I’m yet to put it through it’s paces in a cold downpour to see if it matches the pile/pertex combo.
Luckily the ice wasn’t too big an issue and I was able to maintain decent progress, bar a couple of stops for snacks and almost liquid drinks from my back pockets. As Aberdeen approached, I realised my mental state was deteriorating when I rode through Garlogie massively confused because I thought I should be in Dunecht! Realising where I was was a nice bonus, as it was much closer to home. The last few miles from Westhill were done very cautiously, partly due to my knackered knees and partly down to random patches of ice on the bike path. I managed to navigate them without a cruel final mishap and rolled in about 0030, where I commenced quietly scrounging about for a mountain of food before attempting to watch Match of the Day without passing out.
October saw me in my favourite part of the world with the family in a cottage in Nethy Bridge. I had a week to try and sneak in a bivy, which meant I could wait for a decent weather window in the fickle half-term weather. I was also looking forward to trying out my new 29+ WTB Ranger tyres on the Commando, which I’d hurriedly tubelessed up before leaving.
Tuesday night looked windy and slightly wet, but was still a better bet than the rest of the week. After the usual rigmarole of getting the kids to bed, I threw my gear together and rolled straight into Abernethy Forest, practically from the back door. Rather than head straight to my planned spot, I did a bit of exploring the trails nearby on my way.
I took a side track I hadn’t used before to reach Forest Lodge and headed on up towards Ryvoan. I was aiming for the edge of the forest, where I could set up the hammock with some kind of view of the Cairngorms for the morning. After an easy gradual ascent I emerged into the howling wind, thinking maybe I should have stopped lower down! Never mind, I bashed through a bit of heather to find a suitable spot with slightly less wind and got set up.
Due to the inclement nature of the forecast, I decided to set up the tarp for the first time this year, which either says a lot about this year’s weather or more my tendency to wuss out of the rain! I drank a cuppa from my flask, had a snack and got my head down.
As usual, I slept in a bit later than intended as I didn’t fancy packing up in the dark after putting up with this windy spot in the hope of a decent view. I’d originally planned to make a big loop on my way back by going over An Slugain, but I thought I’d better get home handy to start the day’s entertainments with the wee ones.
I still couldn’t bear to completely retrace my steps, so shortly after heading back, I swung a left and climbed up to the buildings at Rynettin, for a better view South.
From Rynettin it was a fast roll to Forest Lodge, where I took a different way back towards the Loch Garten road, which I promptly left to use the local path network all the way back home.