Saturday, 23 September 2017

A River Runs Through It

Questions, oh so many questions.

A few years ago when I was just thinking about bikepacking (or whatever it was called then) a couple of friends rode one of the early editions of The Cairngorms Loop. My interest was piqued and I'd many questions for them: what did you carry? How? Did you take cooking equipment? And so on and so forth.

I didn't get round to actually asking the questions, instead I went on a learning curve.

I put my name down for the group start for May 2016 but that was cancelled due to heavy snowfall in the week preceding the event. This year's May start was a bit hampered by being close to the JennRide and not too far ahead from the HT550, we ended up reccying the Northern Loop of the HT550. Steve Wilkinson the organiser had obviously got a little fed up with the weather gods messing him about in May so had announced a September group start as well.

For a while the start list looked very meagre but on the day around twenty appeared at the car park at Old Bridge of Tilt.

At the start in Blair Atholl. Steve Wilkinson, the organiser, is in the blue top.
At ten o'clock Steve announces "Go!" but it seems as if we are as reticent at actually riding as at signing up for the event and it's a minute or so before the first of us puts foot to pedal and sets off.

As usual a group blasts off at the front. Let them go, I'll ride my own pace. I catch a couple up at Bruar as they strip off outer layers. It's all tarmac until the crossing of the A9 (easy peasy, there was nothing on either carriage way) and then fine estate track leading to the first of the river crossings just before Sronphadruig Lodge. No way were you going to complete this ride with dry feet!

Some moorland bog led to the first bit of singletrack along the edge of Loch an Dùin. I really liked this section, not too technical but still required thought. I caught one of the tail end of the lead group but Ian Fitz passed me about halfway along it.

More easy track (with one very deep burn to cross) then road and some nice singletrack to Feshie Bridge before diving into Rothiemurchus Forest. Easy to get lost in such places so just follow the line on the GPS. After Loch an Eilein I got in among riders on an "adventure triathalon", quite what they thought of me blasting past them on a laden bike I've no idea.

Early evening light in Ryvoan Pass

Cafe stop at GlenMore where I temporarily caught up with another of the front group then through the rather nice Ryvoan Pass and a question: straight on to join up with the outer loop or right for the inner loop?

Right it is!

The Nethy was looking angry at the footbridge which might not augur too well for what was to come but first there was Bynack Mor to deal with. This is the biggest climb on the route, chatting to Philip Addyman in the pub on Friday night he'd commented on the water bars and cuts - some just too wide to contemplate riding. Unweight, hop, push, ride. I was doing fine until "Bang!" My rear wheel clattered against a particularly sharp looking rock on the upper edge of one water cut. The tyre held but later inspection showed a very new and prominent mark on the wheel rim. I was walking and pushing from about here anyway.

A sharp shower causes the rider I'd temporarily caught earlier to stop and put on a waterproof. More plodding and pushing. Once on the top the route is more rideable though still with a few water cuts that require dismounting. A pair of walkers comment on a rider ahead:

"She just waded straight into the burn and waded across. It was up to her waist!"

That'd be Jenny Graham then. We reckon there are three riders ahead of us: Philip, Jenny and one other who we are unable to name.

Soon enough we get to the burn, Craig notes that he's never seen this burn so high before. Doesn't bode well for the crux of the route, The Fords of Avon, a couple of Km ahead. The route ahead might as well be a burn, it's that wet that we are rarely riding out of water. The burn before we reach the refuge at the Fords is also high. This is one of the remotest places you can be on the British mainland.


I've never been too comfortable around water, too much capricious power for my liking, so when we finally arrived at the Fords of Avon I was none too happy at what lay before us. The A'an was at least 30cm higher than in shots I'd seen of people crossing and the prominent island in the middle was partly submerged and looked like being lost for good in the maelstrom with most of the "stepping stones" merely hinted at by their addition to the foam and eddie.

We pace up and down the bank looking for chinks in the armour, I'm for heading down to Faindouran bothy but that means recrossing the burn we've just struggled across and perhaps unknown ones to deal with. Craig decides to go for it, I'll wait on the bank as "safety" though quite how I could be of much use without a line I'm not sure, maybe recording his last words for posterity: "Whoops! Aaagh! phht! Glug!"

Craig on the first section of the crossing. I crossed from mid right to the head of the island then took a line above Craig's head to the far bank.

He reaches the island fairly easily but the next section takes some five minutes of battling the current and controlling his bike in the flow. I don't fancy the line he's taken so head upstream to where I think there's a shallower line to the island and beyond. So it proves, but it's at the limit of what I can cope with in terms of resisting the power of the water.

As I reach the far bank Ian Fitz turns up and we guide him via the route I've taken.

Ian Fitz crossing the A'an.

He seems happy enough!

Once across the doubts begin, not of myself but of Cath who'd been very nervous about the river crossings and the reports of the water levels in the week leading up to the start. I'm hoping that she's chosen to do the outer loop. This part of the 'Gorms is known for having no radio contact let alone mobile phone coverage.

The first half of the climb up to the Lairig na Laoigh is mostly rideable if somewhat tricky at times but the last Km is more pushing. The descent into Glen Derry is again enlivened by water cuts and the crossing of the Allt Glas Mor. Ian pulls away then eventually I pull away from Craig. By the time I get to the path to the car park at the Linn of Dee it's dark and time for lights.

This part of the route is used by both inner and outer loops, the track up to the point where they part is easy angled and fast. Ian's rear light flashes in the distance, I nearly catch him before the junction. Then it's over to Glen Feshie, once the vehicle track ends and the path begins it's mostly walking, in the light I could have ridden most of it but black peaty holes when on your own in the middle of the night isn't wise.

I spot wet tyre prints across stones, someone isn't too far ahead, no lights to be seen though. I'm unsure if there's one, two or three sets of tyres. No point, press on. Somewhere on here is a big burn, the Eidart, with a rickety bridge to cross it, after hearing several small burns it finally comes into earshot. The bridge isn't too bad but you really wouldn't want to fall off.

Eventually a vehicle track is joined so some riding but still with some pushing where things are too soft and I spot the path leading away from the vehicle track. This leads to the landslip and through bushes to the bothy at the head of the main glen. Time to push on.

This is another glen that just goes on and on. I take a fall trying to avoid one of the pines that is part of the estate's regeneration scheme as I remove a hand and the tree grabs my handlebars. Tarmac is joined but it's still twenty minutes of riding to Feshie Bridge and another half hour to Aviemore.

Checking my phone whilst scoffing grub at the twenty four hour garage. No text from Cath but an email from Steve stating that the Burn of Brown is impassable. Hmm. Can't do anything now, time to find a bivy spot. A field with an open gate will do.

Fuzzy shot of my bivy


Where's Cath? There's no contact by morning.

Which route to take? I don't know Abernethy Forest so finding a bypass should I come across a swollen burn won't be easy. I decide to head round to Tomintoul by road. On a bike with 3" tyres this wasn't as easy an option as it might sound especially with some climbs of 20% thrown in the mix.

I get to Tomintoul just as the village shop is opening. A quick grab of chocolate and something to drink then I notice that the cafe is open so a chance to get out of the dreich. There's no rush now that I've deviated from the route.

The ride up Glen Avon is steady especially with a tail wind. A few short steep ramps lead to Loch Builg and some techy singletrack then some bog before more estate trails. At the top of the climb up Culardoc I replace the batteries on the GPS but forget to restart the unit until I get to Braemar.

The descent into Deeside is, hmm, interesting as my front brake is almost down to the metal. Once in Braemar I find a cafe and check my phone. There's a text from Cath - "At head of Glen Feshie". Relief. I need a pair of pliers to reset the brake pistons but the bike hire place is of little use. Oh well.

Back up to the Linn of Dee and the track to the Red House. The Geldie Burn is only ankle deep and not a problem to ford. I elect to walk the singletrack at the top of Glen Tilt. Having not done the correct route to this point and with basically no front brake I decide not to head to Fealar Lodge and just freewheel down Glen Tilt back to Blair Atholl.

I'd just grabbed some grub from the village shop when I get a call from Cath: she's in Aviemore and is going to scratch. She'd got to the Fords of Avon at 2100 with a couple of other riders and decided not to cross in the dark. They crossed in the morning, the other two headed down the Tilt and she carried on to the Feshie alone. Her text was from the Geldie-Feshie watershed, basically in the middle of nowhere!

So not an outright success. Physically I was there but mentally I was at a bit of a loss. Worrying about high water levels and how Cath was doing took its toll. Still the route's there for next year.

Success doesn't force you to ask questions in the way that any sort of failure does, it's just I don't know what those questions should be.

The Strava or it didn't happen bit. The straight lines between Aviemore and Tomintoul and just north of Braemar are due to me not restarting the unit.

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