Hit The North

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The clocks going forward marked the point where we could finally bid the crappy winter farewell. I do love winter, but wet and windy isn’t so inspiring. Epic snowfall on the summits at odds with the complete lack thereof elsewhere. I had managed a day up in snowy Braemar with the Mukluk to try it out in it’s native habitat (twas excellent). But it didn’t last long. In the few short months since that purchase – things moved on yet again on the bike front. An opportunity arose to pick up a used Jones diamond frameset at a bargain price. Coupled with the fact I now had a fat front wheel, with hub suitable for the Jones boring/unicrown fork, made for a relatively inexpensive entry into the world of Jeff Jones. No melty looking titanium though.

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That brings the current bike count to three and a half, which is quite sensible, I keep telling myself. My Cotic is currently in bits, under our bed. I could use the money, but can’t bear to part with it. I’ve not owned many bikes, but I have some pretty nice, well regarded ones. But the Jones is something else… in the short time I’ve owned it, it’s clear to me that the hype is justified, even for this ‘boring’ version. The bike is very capable, brilliantly conceived, agile, comfortable, quick, assured and a lovely red colour. People look at it funny. But honestly, if I had to own only one bike… (multiple wheel sets are allowed, right?) Any bike that has me out the saddle, pushing big gears after my second 35 mile day, must be doing something right.

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I’d slowly been purchasing various bits of bike luggage from Alpkit to make loading up the bike a bit easier, a new feedbag for quick calories and a ‘gas tank’ for the phone, lip balm, suncream, chamois cream and hydration tablets. Stuff that’s good to keep handy, as having it buried somewhere will end up with you paying the price later. Margaret’s zero megapixel compact fits nicely too, I miss RAW though.

I’d gone to the trouble of helitaping the frame to try and keep the paintwork in tiptop shape, but one ride done, the tape is looking tatty already. I think in future I’ll just duct tape the wear points and remove it again after trips. The fat front was great on all but grassy bits (draggy) and was even okay on tarmac once I’d upped the pressure. Admittedly, I did get to thinking about a Knard rather than Nate for such trips.

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Enough about the bike. I set out from Blair Atholl with the plan being: Tilt – Geldie – Feshie – Camp – Drumguish – Tromie – NCN 7 – End. I’d been picking Gari’s brain over at Racks On, Racks Off about going CW or CCW, I think CCW was a good choice. I got up and along good tracks into Tilt, good progress and the onto the singletrack after the Falls of Tarf. A couple of sketchy bits with a loaded bike and clipped in, with a drop away to the river below. I’d already passed a couple of curious walkers asking about the bike and then, I think, a couple on a pair of Surly ECRs, which didn’t quite register until I’d past them.

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I was still happy rolling along past Bynack Lodge, having forded the river a couple of times, unaware of what lay ahead at Geldie. Riding along the estate track, I pass more walkers transfixed by my massive tyre, they speak directly to it.

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Onward, things become more Geldie. Looking back at the map, I see it’s only about 6km or so. It felt longer. I’d heard it could be wet, but in truth it wasn’t too bad. On foot it’d be tolerable, but it’s no place for a bike. It’s a necessary evil in order to make this loop possible. I swore at it, at the tantalising glimpses of gritty singletrack, which crested little hillocks before revealing itself to be little more than twenty feet in length, leading directly into an unridable gully. Dismount, push up and out. Repeat. That’s Geldie folks. The falls at Eidart just about put a smile on my face. My emergence into Glen Feshie certainly did. A short, steep doubletrack climb, followed by heathery singletrack contouring around the upper glen. Past the landslips, and back onto landy track with wooded crags above. Find a flat spot and pitch up.

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I had a fine dinner. My signature dish ‘Amalgamated Slop'; Supernoodles, cup soup, oatcakes, Look What We Found Curry. Chuck it all in the same pot and enjoy the monofood goodness. My MYOG Caldera Clone is due for replacement, I’ve had several years out of it, so it owes me nothing. Up here in the glen, things have turned chilly. I could see the last light on the distant hills. It was still relatively light, but I was ready for my sleeping bag. I finish my book before nodding off.

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I never sleep especially well when camping, but this was not too bad. I wake a couple of times, but it was a calm cool night, so no flapping in the wind to annoy me. I get up to pee and make breakfast. I see the rising sun kiss the top of the crags. As I pack up, it slowly crawls across the face of Creag na Caillich, eventually reaching the floor of the glen and the river. Another blue sky day.

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I clip in and ride up to the final landslip, then down around the Feshie dogleg and out past the bothy, I wave and smile to the folk milling around outside. I never smile this early in the morning. My legs are feeling good and the new path along Feshie makes for swift progress, through the wood and then out into the new growth, along the new path through the heather to Strontroper. Over the river to meet asphalt, hang a left to Baileguish, from there to Drumguish, down Glen Tromie on lumpy estate roads, passing questionable architecture on the way. Is that a care home? A prison?

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My right knee starts acting up. ‘You’re supposed to be the good knee’. It dawned on me that my saddle must be too low after adjusting it to facilitate pitching the TrailStar. Raise it up, pop some ibuprofen just in case and kept my cadence up. From Bhran Cottage, I eyeball the distant track climbing alongside Loch an t-Seilich. The wind has picked up, making progress a little slower then usual. The climb up to Gaick Lodge came and went, it looks worse from distance.

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A couple of bikers come the other way, they find me mid tyre pressure adjustment. My last adjustment had missed the sweet spot and handling had gone a bit mushy. We talk bikes. They warn of flying insects by the loch ahead. The trail is due to turn more technical, more narrow singletrack with a drop away to the left. I put faith in the front tyre and the big chainring. More bikers coming the other way, pushing a tricky bit. I’m in the zone, my tongue may be sticking out in concentration, I have a fully loaded bike and dodgy front brake and I’m clipped in. One asks a question as I pass, ‘thank you’ I say, fixated on the trail ahead. I hope they’ll forgive me, this momentum was hard earned.

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I reach the end of the loch a pick up the old estate road. A spot of lunch and a short rest. Legs feel good, knee feels good. I crack on, progress must be made. I hear the A9 before I see it, a short pull up and a fun, final descent to the roadside, across to the old A9, now NCN 7, and spin my way back to Blair Atholl. I ride no handed to stretch my back, neck and shoulders, but in truth I feel pretty good – most unusual for me after so long in the saddle. This bike looks after you. I return the favour by oiling the chain.

Cuillin

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Cuilce

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Bla Bheinn

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Skye

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Buckhaven

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Up The Sneck

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I don’t remember the last time I was up and out of bed at 0530, months certainly, years probably. I don’t do mornings, which is a shame as the few times I am up early, I can’t help but agree early mornings really are the best time of day. I met David at Not Quite the Park and Ride, nearly a year on from our first trip north together. Given the weather forecast, we’d discussed staying local and just going for a cycle somewhere, but I was keen to go for a walk, having not done a great deal of it recently.

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Given the previous debacle, where my feet gave up before we’d even reached our destination, I was wary of doing big miles, but in the end prevailing wind and avalanche forecasts ensured that’s exactly what we’d be doing. I’d taped up my feet in preparation and a had a new pair of boots to break in.

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We arrived in Braemar shortly after 0800, I was surprised at how quickly the darkness had given way to early morning light, like somebody had flipped a switch. The transition from warm car/cold bodies wasn’t as bad as I expected, it was quite mild in the trees. Winter still hasn’t really got going yet. We ended up ditching jackets fairly quickly. Dave had set off at a pace that I hoped would drop, either that or my legs/lungs would need to up their game.

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Further on, in the trees, winding our way up a sweaty climb, then out into the breeze on open hill. Jackets back on. Not pointing any elbows, but Dave was in charge of navigation (ahem), I’d been a bit surprised by our rapid height gain and sure enough we’d missed our turning. A quick map check and we traversed the heathery slopes of Clais nan Cat over and into Slugain. My knees were screaming. Ligamentitis, not good. The little detour had cost us some time, but was pleasant enough, a nice viewpoint over to north and a pretty little stream and tree that has seen better days.

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We picked up the correct path. Thankfully my knee had recovered, clearly I’m out of practice. We took the high path as the glen turned north. Still mild. We sat atop a mound for some lunch overlooking our route up the glen into the heart of Bhuird and Avon. Onwards.

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It was my turn to give us a bum steer, questioning Dave’s choice of the correct path, we opted for a soggy trudge off piste instead. Quoich, (not Quioch) over west, looking splendid. Dave spotted the path to our right, we picked it up almost immediately began postholing our way up the glen, postholing that would continue more or less unbroken until our return the following day. Winter is definitely in full swing up high. The glen scoured by the incessant winds we’ve had recently.

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It was good to have some company in the hills, we’d picked up similar threads of conversation from the previous year. Discussed our future plans for trips north, the perils of deathtrapping pack-rafting and political discussion; best enjoyed without 140 character limitation. Eventually a gap opened up, even with Dave breaking trail I was struggling to keep up, clearly he does this a lot more than I do.

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The original plan had been to head up to the Sneck and hang a right, up onto Avon, across the plateau and down south-east to Loch Builg to camp. It became apparent fairly quickly that was looking a little bit ambitious. By the time we reached the head of the glen we were running short on daylight. We opted to pitch up and consider the options.

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Spot the TrailStar(s)

Warm food was in order. A quick nip of Whisky and long day saw me thinking about bed. It was barely evening. I shuffled off, feeling a bit bad we’d walked all this way and now I was ditching him for a warm sleeping bag. Warmth which was much enhanced by the addition of my new quilt. I’d somehow managed to win the JRB Sierra Stealth from Hendrik’s Advent Calendar. JRB had sprung into action and shipped the quilt over from the US, only for the usual hold ups and customs stuff to slow things down here in the UK. No worries, it arrived in time for the trip, so I was pleased to try it out. Down isn’t the conventional choice for top bag, but it made a noticeable difference to my comfort, as I found out once I woke up with it at my feet. I’ll get a bungee sorted to address that. Thanks to both Hendrik and Jacks ‘r’ Better!

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Temperature took a noticeable dip overnight and we woke to something approaching a walkable crust. I could hear Dave up and about. He politely mentioned I might want come ‘outside’ and bring the camera. Bit of an understatement. I gave up trying to get my frozen boots on and just started shooting, stood on my mat. Glorious.

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I don’t think these shots really do justice to that morning light. But it was a privilege to be there. We got lucky with the lightshow on our last trip too.

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This being Scotland, the calm conditions and clear skies didn’t last long. The forecast was pretty clear that the summits would be inhospitable by noon. Dave wanted a crack at Beinn A’ Bhuird, but my natural aversion to risk taking referred us back to the forecast. Surprisingly, Dave had a full mobile signal and could check the latest update online. That settled it. I felt relieved Dave had arrived at the same conclusion, nobody likes a party pooper.

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Death Throes – Prelude

We settled for a walk up to the Sneck. Crampons on and slow going. I left my camera at camp, but Dave should have some nice shots from up there, so keep an eye on his blog. I look forward to seeing his photos, there should be more variety than I have here I think. Will they be broadly similar? Or like a different place altogether? What about his White Balance? I bet it’s completely different. Which is correct? Both? Neither? What if he let his camera decide? Would that be more, or less accurate? Nevermind.

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The cloud comes in, the snow starts and wind picks up. Visibility drops and we’re in agreement that the summits would be a navigational exercise. Not to mention bloody cold. We return to our packs, and start the long, slow walk out. More chat, which continues to the car, Blairgowrie, Perth, Home. There’s still much to discuss as I leave Dave at Not Quite the Park and Ride. Best pick it up sooner rather than later…