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 to Keen

One of the wonders of living in Scotland is the landscape in which we live.

 

 

Sometimes, you need to step out and journey into those hills. Riding with a former student I taught, (Callum Grant) we took in a 45km route that sampled flowing natural singletrack, warp speed loose fire roads and a hike a bike up a Munro.

This route was an attempt to tie together some classic trails and descents whilst racking up some respectable distance and climbing. It would be the longest day on the Banshee and a good bedding in for the new fork. It would also be a good indicator to see if the TDB would be fun (or even achievable for me) on the longer travel bike.

Starting in Aboyne we climbed to the start of the iconic Fungle singletrack via New Mill. After this perfect ribbon of Aberdeenshire trail, we climbed up onto the slopes of Baudy Meg. From here it was a rip roaring descent on a loose and ever so slightly fast fire road down into Glentanar.

Then it is a long grind past the tree line to the foot of Mount Keen (the most easterly munro in Scotland), then comes the hike-a-bike. You can try and ride the first part of the climb, but I always decide to try and conserve energy at a fairly early stage and push. Hiking up the rutted, washed out and rock strewn climb lets you fully take in the tech this descent has on offer.

More than once during the hike-a-bike I reminded myself that I’d only ever done this descent on a 100mm HT.  The additional squish that my Spitfire offered, would open up a lot more possibilities and line choices, hopefully preventing the need for too much vitamin I by the time I was back down!

The descent was a wild ride, starting from above the Grouse buttes the trail is fast, sandy and with enough rocks to keep you focussed on line choice. Once you get to the buttes though line choice becomes a whole other story. The trail morphs into a delta of washed out ruts, the peat and sand cleaned from the hill side revealing a mine field of loose rock and boulders.

With drops and wheel grabbing holes littering the trail speed may not exactly be your friend, but the front brake certainly was your enemy. Focussing hard on the trail ahead , I was feathering brakes and shifting weight, all whilst trying to not get drawn into a rut that would result in a dead end or a wheel killing drop. Venturing onto the open heather whilst initially appearing smoother, still had some surprises as all it did was disguise the rocks and holes on the hill side.

After a few close calls we rattled over the cattle grid and back on to a wide and rough as you’d like it land rover track. this was a short and simple strip of orange rubble with enough snipper rocks to keep you guessing, a strong tubeless game is a must for this descent.

With the heat of over exerted muscles building in my thighs we were back to the river at the base of the hill. With adrenaline and stoke high, the long drag in became a fast pedal smash back, with both of us surprised at home much elevation we had gained on the approach to Keen.

After reaching the tarmac of the south Deeside road, its a short spin back to Aboyne. The weather had played fair, The trails were fantastic and the Spitfire had done itself proud, another great day playing bikes in proper hills.

Fungle to Keen via Baudy Meg

Now this has complicated matters as now I have to decide on 160/140mm or 100mm XC HT for TDB, #MTBproblems

Mount Keen & the Fungle

Mount Keen is a good day on the bikes, doubly so when taken with the Fungle road.

The loop is a long shift taking in everything from some superb singletrack through to long tough climbs and fast fire road descents. Its has been a tradition for me to do the loop at least once a year for a while now and I’m still undecided whether it is best tackled clockwise or anticlockwise.

Clockwise, you unfortunately climb the absolutely sublime Fungle singletrack but Descend the north side of mount keen, which is as testing a natural descent your likely to find. Anticlockwise you get the ridiculously fast LRT down from Keen to Tarfside with its water bars giving you ample opportunities to boost off of, as well as the glorious ribbon down to Birse Castle finishing off with the Fungle in the downward and correct direction.

They both have their charms

It is a great litmus test for fitness and as training loop for events like the Tour de Ben Nevis, the route being only slightly shorter with essentially the same climb, albeit on a faster course than the Tour De ben’s.

My course record was clockwise as 4:21:22, If I did the Tour at that pace I would be incredibly happy with my fastest Tour time being 5:33:15 in 2014. Frustrating as I knew that race could of been faster had I ran it smarter and keep my food intake up and drank more to avoid cramping, but we’re not here to talk about failed race strategy.

Here are some shots from the loop collected over a few years.

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 15Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride bridgeMount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 18Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 17

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 20 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride Hill Fog 2 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 1Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 21 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 22Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 4

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 24 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 26 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 27 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 28Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 9 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 8

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 5Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 10 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 12 Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 7

Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 11Mount Keen Stravaiging Fungle road Wild Ride 13

Mount Keen ProfileMount Keen Map

Broad Cairn

Sometimes words are an inadequate medium. Sometimes pictures are all that you need.

In John Berger’s fabulous book Ways of Seeing, a collection of seven essays, three consist solely of images. These essays are no less detailed or illuminating than the other four which use both words and pictures.

So, here we have the story of a thwarted adventure at Loch Muick, a Munro bagged, and a plan B route taken. But I didn’t need to tell you that, if the pictures do their job properly.

Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 1Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 11Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 12Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 3Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 13Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 2Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 5Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 6Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch MuickStravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 14Broad cairn and loch muick stravaigingStravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 10Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 8 Stravaiging Broadcairn Lochnager Loch Muick 9Velo Viewer Elevation Profile, Broad CairnOS Map Loch Muick to Broad Cairn

 


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Tour De Ben Nevis 2014

No Fuss’s Tour De Ben Nevis is one of those events that makes first timers question why they entered.

But this is no bucket list race that you simply tick off and move on from, it gets under your skin. Once raced and short term memory loss helps you to forget the lactic acid and oxygen debt, you are left only with the memory of a real adventure. Of a truly wild route, with some spectacular scenery and the nagging mistakes you made that you know you can improve on, next time.

Any bike is both the perfect bike and totally the wrong bike for this race. A XC whippet will get you so far (pretty far in fact), but a 140-160mm enduro weapon will get you further on some of the special stages. Your final place is based on points earned from each stage so bike choice and tactics play a big part of your day. Are you racing some stages and winching the distance, or racing the distance and losing time on the gravity stages?

Tough call.

Ready for the off Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Fort William

This was the second time I had entered the Tour, I had ramped up my training with gym work and a lot more long distance training rides on natural and rugged terrain. I was feeling fit and the bike was riding well.

The previous year it had rained for a prolonged period in the run up and it showered throughout the day. This brought on certain challenges but kept the temperature and the dust down, the wet conditions made the loose land rover tracks a good bit firmer and easier to climb on. This time the sun shone down with the mercury hovering in the low twenties, the trails were bone dry and some key climbs were loose and dusty.

Pipe band Tour De Ben NEvis 2013

The race always starts with an atmosphere that is unique to the tour, the sense of pent up tension is palpable as the racers follow a Pipe band down Fort William High street in a rolling start. Reaching the start line the race breaks with the contenders going full gas up the road climb that helps to thin the pack out. The race is self seeding, so you quickly discover how optimistic or unrealistic your performance expectations were.

You gain height fast during the first few kilometres, climbing the road out of Fort William towards the West Highland Way the pack naturally thins out. Upon reaching the end of the tarmac, the long, loose and rocky road begins, the races rhythm changes and the work truly begins.

The undulating trail is flanked by some jaw dropping scenery that helps to distract from the fact that you are still climbing. The usual bottleneck at the start of the first of the special stage gives you a nice break and a chance to refuel and taking in the view. You clock out once you get there so the queue doesn’t affect your overall time, its not far off of one third of the race route, but you would be a fool to think the rest will be straight forward, that was the easy bit!

Start of Stage 2 Tour De Ben Nevis 2014

This stage is a descent from the WHW down into Kinlochleven, it starts on open hillside and is rough, rocky and loose with the kind of water bars that would stop a small tank.

It is a trail that will bite you hard in the tubes if ridden clumsily and requires your A game to take at race pace. Having brought my A game the previous year and still flatted hard I was determined for a clean, if not a competitively paced run.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Stage 2 Kinlochleven descent
A uncharacteristically mellower turn

Dropping through the rocks and keeping it light on the rear wheel I was passing fellow XCers with tyres around there feet as they had been bitten by the trail. A tyre change on the stage could be considered a tactical error as the clock is still counting, last year I shouldered the bike and ran the remainder of the stage, another tactical error as it was a waste of energy when the stage (and arguably your race) was already done.

On meeting the tree line the trail mellows, slightly, with a wet roots and rock adding to the mix with grippy wet loam in the damper turns with a final sprint down a shaley rut.

Dibbing out I was instantly hit with cramp in my hands and calves, this would a recurring feature of the rest of the race. The hands eased up with some ibuprofen  to keep it at bay. My legs were another story, fives minutes of crippled crouching and I was able to straighten my legs enough to get back on the bike, it was going to be a long day.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 2 Scotland

I think preferred doing it in last years rain.

The next stage was the first climbing stage of the day and one many riders will be familiar with, the long haul out of Mamore Lodge up to Loch Eilde Mor is a 3.5km thigh burner with 135m vertical gain. Easy, knuckle down and grind it out, or so you would hope. The unseasonal heat had turned the land rover track into a morass of bone dry sand and pea sized stones that robbed you of all traction and momentum,  having to keep changing your cadence so you wouldn’t dig into the trail meant the burn was pretty fierce. All under the blazing sun that still showed no sign of remembering it was the end of September, in Scotland. I think preferred doing it in last years rain.

Not far after the end of the stage was the river crossing and the fabled hike-a-bike climbing stage, at least the dry weather was on our side for the river crossing. The previous year it was thigh high this year you could ride straight across, well, almost.

The Goat track that forces you to shoulder your bike goes 250m up a narrow rutted peat bog between Meall a’ Bhuirich and Meall Mor in a mere 2.7km, before a sprawling delta of slab and rock take you down to the bothy and the second feed station. When saturated with a fortnights worth of rain the previous year it felt like a full on rout. Curtains of rain washed over muddied and broken riders who were sinking into mud and peat, this year, who know what we would find.

sportograf-54750256

The Indian summer had dried the bog all the deepest pools and was a quick scarper up the stair like ledges of turf and stone. The cramp was never far behind as the acid build up caused me the hunker down on more than one occasion. Cresting the many false peaks it was starting to look like something you could ride down rather than climb up. letting the bike run and using the trail, the decent from the saddle was a total blast of natural terrain. Line options were abundant with some sneaky dead ends to catch you out, it rewarded heads up and looking long down the trail.

Reaching the bothy, the barbeque was in full flow, quickly feeding up and changing socks it was a short spin to the 5.5km of unbroken descent on fast and rough Landrover tracks down the other side. Back into the respite of the forest after a day without shade, the relief from the heat was soon tempered by yet more cramp followed soon after by the slow, creeping, hollow feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem).

slow, creeping, hollow, feeling of being on the edge of bonking (ahem)

For cyclists that have never properly bonked, it is a feeling of near desperation and helplessness that makes you want to lie down by the side of the trail, and to wait for the woodland creatures to finish you off. Your body has run out of fuel and has nothing left to give.

Once you’ve bonked its too late, you cant get back to feeling fresh and recovering on the ride, the best you can hope for is a limp home. Eating like mad and pleading with the velo gods that I could eat enough, fast enough, to arrest the bonk and get enough steam to get me home. I tried to block out the knowledge that another special stage was at the end of the forest slog.

Crossing  the classic Puggy Line at the Nevis Range the noise and fury of the SDA downhill race roared over head as we Tour De Benners quietly made our way underneath the track.

Making the final push to the top of the stage four, it was a mix tape of brilliant trails linked together with a punishing fire road sprint. Starting With Blue crane and bomb hole then on to Nessie before dibbing out.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Stage 4 Nevis Range Race

The final push is through to Torlundy and onto Fort William, the race actually ends before you reach the main road to keep riders safe and not racing on the roads. That said the group that had built up at the end of the course couldn’t help but slowly build into a sprint to the finish.

Totally smashed and grinning from ear to ear, it was time to collect the timings and make plans for next time.

Tour De Ben Nevis 2014 Race Route Enduro