Lochnagar

“Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.”

Whilst I was grateful for how true this was, I was also acutely aware that this would be a mighty foul place to twist or break an ankle. It was at this point that I felt my foot give way and the strength fail in my ankle, bugger.


Lochnagar, an iconic hill and one of the most popular and recognisable in the southern Cairngorms. Not so much a peak, as a promontory that juts from a jagged ridge line into its equally impressive coire. Whilst being the main objective of the days ride, it is in fact one of five munros that can be bagged by foot or bike from this route. Whilst the stats suggest a big day, the numbers can be misleading as to just how big, with more than 1000m of climbing over the 30km of frequently tough ground.

Loch Muick.jpgThe day started on the shores of Loch Muick, the weather gods had blessed and cursed me with blue skies and a blistering temperature to match. I had ample provisions and camera gear and was prepared for a big day on the hill.

Rolling out of the car park the route took me along the southern shores of Loch Muick, I covered quick ground before the wall of the Capel road climb came to dominate my field of view. This stiff and completely dried out sand dune of a climb is an early introduction in what to expect higher on the plateau.

The loose trail surface and record breaking drought had conspired to rob me of any and all climbing traction. But with a mix of pushing and zig-zagging up the unforgiving trail I was rewarded with views over the plateau and towards Mount Keen in the east.

Looking to the east Cappel Road.jpgThe deep sandy nature of the trail persisted as I gained more elevation, the deer grass slowly encroaching into the centre of the trail, rooting it to more solid ground. The drought had also wrought its withering work on the peat bogs. Normally a broken collection of dark black pools would greet you, the depths hidden by the darkness of the peat filtered water. Even with the weeks without rain, I was still surprised to find them dried up. A cracked skin of white glistening sand and gravel reflecting the light where the ripples on the water’s surface should have been.

Peat PoolsThis made me aware that burns to refill my water would be few and far between and that even with the heat, I would need to be careful with my fluids, mindful not to over exert or over heat myself.

After a few quick kms I passed the wind battered pony hut that marks the start of the climb towards Broad Cairn. The initial strides of the climb are on a stretch of newly resurfaced walkers’ path. With large steps and water bars it was very tempting to turn around and rip back down, if it wasn’t for the fact I would have to climb back up again.

I’ve tried this route before, a good few years ago but lack of time and high winds turned me back, that attempt ended at Broad Cairn. I am sure a more efficient route through this munros boulder field exists, I’m sure one time I will find it, this would not be that day. The trail melted into a morass of increasingly large boulders, the route through fading into the chaotic yet perfectly balanced hillside. I didn’t want to climb over the top, the map told me a path around the shoulder was there, I thought I had found it, I had in fact found a deer path.

With the bike shouldered across my back I methodically picked my way, one step following the next. The desiccated moss and lichen squeaked unnaturally as I walked over it, the land was more of a desert than normal. With my mind beginning to wander I remembered a passage from Nan Shepard’s “The Living Mountain” that I had read the day before.

“Eye and foot acquire in rough walking a co-ordination that makes one distinctly aware of where the next step is to fall, even while watching sky and land.”

Whilst I was grateful for how true this was, I was also acutely aware that this would be a mighty foul place to twist or break an ankle. It was at this point that I felt my foot give way and the strength fail in my ankle, bugger.

Estate Boundary lines.jpgSitting on the moss and lichen covered slope I looked at the coire below, shapes moved and gathered. A large herd was rallying to move on, they had no doubt caught my scent on the warm breeze and felt that my presence was too great a risk. The grace and speed that they covered ground with was beautiful to watch. The deer here are used to gamekeepers stalking and rifle cracks echoing off the cliffs from higher ground. Yet had I not slipped I would not have seen them, and if I had kept moving they would have remained still. To see them was to disturb them.

Awaking myself from my reverie, I took some vitamin I with flapjacks and pressed on. The elation I felt when I finally contoured the shoulder and saw the small marker cairn signalling the path, pure joy. Building momentum I joined the line of cairns together, the ibuprofen had kicked in and I was back on the bike and flying across the short alpine grass.

Making up for time, the stretch over Cairn Bannoch to beneath Carn an Sagairt Mor was a euphoric fast blast. Smooth trail, short grass and glacial smooth rocks for booting off of. This is why.

EndlessSo far I had seen no-one since the shores of Loch Muick, but it was now late enough in the day for the hillwalkers to have made it this far in. Small patches of coloured goretex came and passed cordially moving aside allowing me to keep rhythm.

The tempo slowed and after crossing the first hint of running water on the high tops it was on to possibly the stiffest climb of the day. An unrelenting push up the western flanks of Carn a Choire Bhoidheach, it was part of the price for the final descent, re-gaining elevation and being rewarded with yet more sublime views.

A brief spell of implied, if not real, exposure around the edge of the coire cliffs above Loch Nan Eun delivered me to the final push up Lochnagar itself. Steeling myself for the main descent of the day, I could see the trail precipitously falling from view. I had heard rumours of the Glas Allt, a long unforgiving and at times, arguably, the most technical trail this side of Scotland. Hoping the Ibuprofen would hold I saddled up and dropped in.

The rock strewn trail was fast yet deceptive, drops and wheel sized hollows lay hidden from view until you were on top of them. The Glas Allt is famous for its staircases, huge unshaped rocks wrenched into place. The first of these was intimidating as I rolled in, a feeling that only increased the further I went down. Speed control was vital, a little too much or too little of either brake at the wrong point would lead to a high consequence crash.

With my heart rate fully elevated and adrenalin coursing it was on to the first more open high speed stretch. Water bars measured in feet not inches started to punctuate the trail. I tried to pre-hop or use a natural lip to boost across these bars but I started to come up increasingly short, the strength in my ankle started to fail and the pain increase with each loading of the bike. This already long descent was going to take a whole lot longer than expected.

With the whispers starting to become audible in my head, caution and stiffness started to enter into my riding. I was aware that I was riding defensively and features well within my limits were stalling me in a way that they wouldn’t have on any other ride. Breathing deep I knew I would not clean this descent. The main techfest was yet to come and the way I was riding would make the water fall towards the shores of Loch Muick too great a risk. Sometimes caution is the better part of valour.

When I reached the falls the pain in my ankle was constant and quite intense, with that and my head not in the game I dismounted and carried the bike back to the treeline. There is nothing more soul destroying than a downhill hike-a-bike.

Back within the comforting blanket of the treeline a fast spin delivered me back along Loch Muick to the car park. With a day spent amongst proper mountains, returning both sunburnt and hollowed out, yet with memories and emotions that will remain long after the body has recovered.

This is why.

Lochnagar Route.png

Fungle Road Infection

A evenings ride towards the end of summer, some final days of late northern light to play in, but be sure to be home before the street lights are on.

With the wee man settled and the chores done there was still enough light for a stolen hours or so of riding, yearning for some wilder terrain than the local woods (the local woods has some fairly wild trails mind you) I loaded up the wagon for a raid on the infamous Fungle Road single track.

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The Fungle Road is an old drovers road that links Aboyne and northern Deeside with Tarfside and Glen Esk, it is a classic stretch of natural trail mixing rough LRT with single track, fast descents and steep, persistent climbs. but when people refer to the Fungle singletrack, they mean a ribbon of perfect natural trail that nestles between Ballochan and Aboyne. It is the kind of rare naturally occurring single track that perfectly blends flow, speed and light tech with some drops to keep you sharp. It is the kind of trail that when you have a clean run, it instantly becomes your new favourite trail.

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Parking up at the Forest of Birse Kirk I set off with Sven for a hardtail mission, this ride was about attacking the climbs and getting some pace on a prolonged natural trail, it certainly wasn’t going to be volume training but it would be a fun jaunt. The sky was showing the first signs of dusk as the hillsides darkened with slithers of golden light streaking illuminated ribbons across the heather. It wont be long until the get you home lights will be mandatory kit once more.

The south climb from Birse castle is very much the lesser of the two options, it may only be a cat4 climb, but on a very sandy track which only adds to the effort. Thinking ahead to the climb out from Mamore lodge in a few weeks time, I concentrated on keeping my weight balanced and the power even, ground it out and focused on the work. Once your elevation is earned its a quickly sprint to the trailhead, the sky’s where still light but the ground was quickly darkening as the late evening light was starting to pale out.

Dropping into the trail I rode within myself to begin with, having not been here in over a year, a lot might have changed in that time, would it still be passable or even worth riding? I soon forgot these question and let the bike run as the trail was exactly as I remembered it. Speed was easily gained with a narrow heather dodging rut giving way to rocky stream bed followed soon after by a root strewn, drop filled wooded trail. The bike was flying, a full sus would of been faster but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable.

that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time.

The sensation of every once of power, every hip shift, wrist flick all having a direct and instantaneous output on the bike as you feel the trail through your hands and feet. Looking ahead and working as one with the bike to make the trail as smooth and fast as possible. A full sus may of been faster, but the connection of a hardtail on natural terrain is just indescribable and whilst a well set up full susser can feel like this, those who know, know.

But like all those who “know” know, that deflating feeling, like the battery is just running out as the bunny claps the cymbals lethargically one, last, time.  Tubeless fails can happen to the best of us.

Sorting the puncture took more air than I would like and far more time to seal than I had. CO2 carts’ and mini pumps combined as I resorted to walking out of the trail hoping that by shouldering the bike and leaving the pierced section of tyre at the bottom of the wheel would bath it in enough sealant to stem the leak, I hoped. Reaching the landrover track the hills where dark and the sky threatening, the hiss from the rear wheel had ceased but the tyre was almost flat, pumping it back up to road bike pressures and cursing my misfortune I was ready to try pedalling. The air seemed to be holding and some how my phone had signal, I sent a message to my wife asking her to still love me when I got home much later than I had promised and tentatively saddled up and slowly built my speed to make sure things where as they should be.

Soon I was careening down what I had just climbed, skipping over water bars and dancing round rocks, trying to stop myself having to much fun incase the sealant failed and the rear gave way again. Cautions aside I was soon passing Birse Castle and scaring the livestock as I made it back to the carpark. What was meant as a short training ride had escalated into more of a  training exercise than anything else, however practising remote servicing in anger is never a bad skill to keep sharp.

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That said I got a unexpected personal best on the climb landing a 20 out of 196, and whilst I wasn’t going to be PB’ing the singletrack on the hard tail, I was feeling fast and the bike was running smooth, silver linings and all that.


Elsewhere

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High Burnside

The winter of 2015 has not been a classic winter,

with record rainfall combined with warm temperatures keeping the snow off the high tops and the rain in the rivers, it has been a disaster for many. Thankfully the worst we and our neighbours have suffered is being cut off with road and bridge closures.

That being said, there is no such thing as poor weather just poor clothing, so with the family packed we set off to Aviemore for the annual New Year trip. After an occasionally fraught journey we safely reached Speyside and found a very different weather picture. The northern Cairngorms were significantly colder and drier with the snow staying on the mountains.

There was standing water in some fields but the flooding was incomparable with what was happening in the southern Cairngorms and Deeside. Importantly for us this also meant the woodlands were mostly dry and frozen solid, not the mud baths of my local trails.

With the drive and weather being what they were, I thought it prudent to leave my bikes at home saving the bearings from a fate worse than death, and to hire a bike there. As it transpired, this was a good plan.

The rental was a Hoot
The rental was a hoot

A quick trip to the excellent Bothy Bikes was in order and a Genesis High Latitude was acquired. This steel 29er fitted with Suntour forks, Maxxis Ardents and a 3×9 drivetrain was a weighty beast, but I thought if I was riding a radio rental for a weekend, then why not wagon wheels? My main concern would be how well mannered the budget forks and XC tyres would be on steeper natural tech, but we would have to wait and see.

We were meeting with family in Aviemore and riding was planned for two days. The first day would be a gentle XC jaunt round Loch An Eilen with my brother-in-law (Jonny) and his partner, the rest of the group (my wife, wee boy and mother-in-law) walking the route with me joining the walking group part way round. The second day would be Jonny and myself exploring the natural trails behind Aviemore in High Burnside.

Loch An Eilien Cairngorms Winter Landscape Scotland Cross Country

The Genesis, as I expected, was an XC mile muncher with the spin from Aviemore to Loch an Eilen passing quickly and easily. I was surprised by how well the Genesis handled rooty climbs and at how easily it maintained speed, albeit being slower to accelerate.

Round the loch the larger wheels were starting to make sense, as when on pedally sections the bike flew with Jonny’s Zesty 514 being easily outpaced. Although not a fair comparison between an XC and more all-mountain bike it was certainly an eye opener.

Cairngorm Golden light Dawn Winter Snow Clear Sky All Mountain Enduro SCotland

We had planned a dawn raid on Burnside and were greeted with a stunning morning and incredible views. The bikes had been left outside as there was nowhere to keep them indoors, not a problem, but we hadn’t thought about the minus temperature overnight.

My drive train was frozen solid as were the pivots on Jonny’s Zesty, a little persuasion with some hot water and GT85 was in order to get the bikes moving again. This may have delayed play but was a good omen for the trails higher up and a preview of what we could expect.

Having been given a comprehensive trail map by Bothy Bikes we had decided to take a suck it and see approach. We quickly gained height with the fire roads being frozen solid with only the occasional sheet of ice to keep you on your toes.

We reached the first trailhead (which transpired was Richards Down) taking a walk downtrail to look before we leaped. It looked a little water-logged to begin with, but no worse than we expected.

Jonny mcconnell Riding Enduro Trails Lapierre High Burnside Aviemore

Rolling into the wet and stacatto start, the flow soon kicked in as a tight sinew of trail with roots and drops wove its way through the trees. The further in we got, the drier and more frozen the mud became and the faster the trail rolled.

The 29er was still making sense, even as the trail steepened with little chutes and wooden kickers providing plenty of scope to be playful on the bike.

Winter woodland frozen landscape

Buoyed by the flavour of the first trail we took a quick gander at the map and headed further up and into High Burnside. The plethora of trails was abundantly clear as we passed trail after trail ending and crossing the fire road as the road climbed higher.

We were surprised by the number and the quality of some fairly substantial park style jumps, they were cunningly hidden and immaculately dug into the edges of the fireroad, a few were hucks too flat, but not what you normally expect to find on a jaunt into natural trails.

Finding the next trail we dropped our saddles and let gravity take over, starting with a similar feel to the first trail, it soon provided a little spice with punchy little ups and exposed rock that was slick with ice. Not to mention the deer skull nailed to a tree at the end of the trail

High Burnside Deer Skull Scotland Mountain bike Enduro XC DH Trail nature
The trails have eyes.

Strava is a wonderful thing and Strava is a terrible thing, it turns every ride into a race whilst giving you a scale to measure yourself and your progress against. It also discourages certain behaviours on the trail, such as sessioning and stopping for a social or to allow a group to reform if it is strung out on a trail.

Ignoring the Garmins, we decided to stop if we found a good techy section or series of turns to session and see where we could improve. Standing at the start of Christ Almighty it was plain to see that this was going to be the steepest trail so far with the trees sharply disappearing on the down slope.

It wasn’t far into this brilliant trail that a series of steep rocky switchbacks appeared, the perfect place to session some turns, there was even a push up path. After smashing out some turns the differences in the handling and turning speed of the 29er HT over my usual 26er were becoming apparent. With more time on the bike you could adapt your riding style, but this steel XC machine certainly needed some nursing over the techier sections.

With the temperature still hovering around zero my front deraileur also needed a little persuasion from my foot to move and change gear. With a solid block of frozen mud immobilizing the mech I was reminded of why I love 1X drivetrains so much.

Having worked on line choice and braking it was time to move on and see what the rest of the trail had in store. Cleaning the switchbacks one more time I followed Jonny down the trail, the gradient eased off and a more flowing and relaxed character emerged. It was the sort of trail you could really enjoy a cruise down or if the mood took you, absolutely cane it on.

Back on the fire roads and with time moving on, we made our way back to the house, knowing full well whilst sampling the flavour of what was on offer, we had barely scratched the surface of the full riding potential of High Burnside.

Jonny McConnell Enduro MTB Mountain Bike

Burnside Profile