Saturday, 8 February 2020

February Bivvy

As I departed work on the motorcycle, it was still chilly. Not the misty frosty cold of the morning but definitely colder than what had been forecast. My plan was to grab my Feb bivvy that evening ahead of the apocalyptic storm that was forecasted for Saturday evening / Sunday. As usual I was deliberating over kit choices and which bag to take, as well as where to go. The temp forecast was for 6 degrees overnight minimum making the 3 season bag the ideal choice but my usual paranoia kicked in as I was throwing stuff at the bike so the quilt went in as well.

It was 7pm, dark and as it happened, not that cold when I finally departed the house. I followed an oft used mix of back roads, cycleways, trails and tracks to enter Devilla forest just before 8. I'd scoped out a likely bivvy spot which should be far enough away from the usual dog walking routes to avoid being disturbed the following morning by someones ill-disciplined mutt. On arrival, the clear square in an area of new planting was bit tussocky so I embarked on what would hopefully not be the usual bivvy spot finding faff. I did pass a couple of likely looking spots as per but pushed on a bit further into an area of deciduous woodland and level grass which seemed nigh on perfect. The only question mark was on how sheltered it would be when the forecasted over-night wind kicked off.

Up went the tarp in reasonable time given that the last time I used it was last July. As I got in a brief sprinkle of rain passed through. This was in the forecast but for later however it was short lived so I settled in with my book, a couple of beers, food and whisky. People talk of many motivations for going out into the wilds, usually related to such nebulous concepts as finding oneself, connecting with nature, dropping out of the rat race etc. etc. My motivation is more basic:- escape from the mayhem that is my work, ride my bike, eat food and drink beer.

As I turned in the rain came back on in earnest. It was warm though and the quilt redundant. This is probably the most urban bivvy I've done. Just to the south is the former Longannet coal fired power station, now closed and in the process of being dismantled. Beyond that is the Forth  estuary and then Grangemouth oil refinery, the roar of which was an ever present sound. In comparison, the patter of rain on the tarp was most pleasant and served as an ideal substitute for my tinnitus hearing aids, resulting in an almost instant descent into the land of nod. (or maybe that was the beer)....

I woke later noting the rain was off but the wind was up. There was much noise but my abode was peace and tranquility. In a break with tradition my spot was sheltered so no need for a midnight relocation as per my trip last June. I lay awake for a while listening to the rise and fall of the wind and looking at the moon shining down on me before again nodding off, daylight being the next thing to wake me.


It was 8am and the dawn chorus was in full flow. I'd heard geese and swans on the nearby Peppermill res the previous evening but now it was a variety of small birdies, giving it their all in response to the rising sun. Joy. Its such a relaxing noise and better yet I heard a woodpecker hammering into a nearby tree. Breakfast was a leisurely affair as I was in no rush. A brief sprinkle of rain came in but as I packed up the sun was shining.



It was breezy though but in light of the (rare) sunshine I figured on a longer ride than just heading straight home. I followed more familiar trails north, eventually landing in Dollar, now home to a very welcome Stevens bakery. A steak and haggis pie plus a large cup of splosh made a fine second breakfast whilst I contemplated my next move.

Clouds were hanging around up top so a lower traverse of my favourite range of hills seemed a better bet. Of course I was on my newly single speeded Jones so this would also serve as a test of how I could deal with a loaded one gear bike over rough and steep terrain. 

Up and up I went, climbing on road steeply out of Dollar before picking up a track that loops round a block of forestry. Ride a bit, walk a bit, ride a bit, walk a lot. This is the single speed rhythm. On a whim and a desire to scope out future bivvy spots, I diverted off the main drag into a fire break. As usual, this ended in an area of clear fell through which I battled before discovering a cleared single track up the hill. This topped out at a spot I hoped to bivvy at but someone had beaten me to it. Bits of old tarp, bottles of water, a fire site, litter and spades. Obviously a trail building base camp but somewhere I would avoid on spring or summer evenings as the locals would likely be in residence.

A bit of faffing saw me follow a trail which I then lost but I managed to descend through the trees back to the fire road. Then it was across the moor to Seamab hill on a great trail which was a challenge on one (wrong) gear.

Back on track and looking down to Glen Quey res.


Seamab hill with the Lomonds in the background, home to the right.

Down then up followed by a lot of down (I mean a lot, this is a great descent with some hairy off camber bits) to Muckart. Then it was a leisurely roll back home by my usual route of trails and back roads.

My only free weekend in March is the last one so it should be lighter, warmer and drier!

Sunday, 19 January 2020

January Bivvy

I'd high hopes that this would have been a snowy one and it could have been if I'd headed north. However the prospect of making my way across the Cairngorm Plateau or any other unknown high ground in the dark didn't appeal. Maybe it was because of having just read an account of the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue team's operations over many years ('Cairngorm John, A Life in Rescue' - well worth a read), most involving winter, crap weather and darkness.

Anyway after some thought I decided to head for a spot I'd scoped out the previous weekend in the Ochills. I did a (snowy) January bivvy in Glen Quey a year ago so this seemed appropriate. I departed at 4 into the fading light and made my way by various trails and back roads to the hills. It had been frosty that morning but the sun had thawed most of it so there was a fair bit of mud in evidence. I took it easy not wanting to spray mud all over the bike only to have it freeze. Eventually as I started the long climb up to Innerdownie hill I was on firm, frozen ground.

This is a solid push but about the quickest way to my destination. After Innerdownie the trail follows a wide ridge line and passes a small plantation. I had a quick look for a plan B bivvy if my destination proved too drafty. The wind had got up substantially as I gained height and with the just below zero temps it was chilly.

I was aiming for a lone spruce tree which I'd discovered on one of my ski expeditions up here in 2018 and had become a lunch spot on the several other ski trips I made that year. I'd stopped off the previous week on the bike to shelter from a brief snow shower and noted that in amongst the branches there was space to lie down, hidden (hopefully) from the weather. I got to roughly where the tree is and headed off path to find it, conscious that I wasn't totally sure where I was going in the dark. After a couple of false starts the tree loomed suddenly in front of me.




A bit of a kit faff ensued, thanks to this being the first bivvy I've done for a while, but eventually I was settled into my bivvy bag (no tarp!) A groundsheet strung between two branches provided a bit of a wind break but it was pretty bloody chilly. I fired up the stove - a petrol soto which I've hardly used but I wanted something more controllable than my mini meths burner - and made tea. I then lay back reading and drinking the two beers I'd hauled up with me, finishing with a dram or three of whisky from the hip flask. Despite the noise of the wind I went out like a light. I woke briefly at one point to note the wind had dropped then flaked out again. Next thing I knew it was 8am and dawn was breaking.


Morning view, sleeping in the middle of a tree is a new one on me but highly recommended...

Hmm. The stove wasn't playing, I'd just about managed to bring water to the boil when I knocked the pan over. Grinding my teeth I ate a cold breakfast, packed up and got out of there.



The tree. Its self seeded from a large plantation a hundred yards downhill which Ironically has now been clear felled so its all alone.... I've never really seen a sitka on its own as they are usually in the middle of thousands of other ones. They grow much wider and the lower branches are huge.



Looking down to Glen Sherup. There was an inversion which was lifting as I departed leading to much view obscuring cloud appearing.....

In light of my stove incompetence and lack of my usual morning cuppa I headed for Whitewisp hill and an oft used descent down towards Dollar, turning off to pick up my outward route (now frozen solid) back to the house for a much needed breakfast and tea. Total distance only 30 odd miles in about 4 3/4 hours but not bad for a season opener. Hopefully I'll be in the snow next month!

Tuesday, 31 December 2019

The Plateau

The Cairngorm plateau is the biggest area of terrain above 1000m in Britain and has an accordingly grim reputation thanks to the severity of the weather it experiences. I've been up there a few times on feet and boards but I've always fancied it on the fatty. A couple of weeks before xmas I was thinking of what rides I wanted to do over the holiday. One day in particular was occupying most of my thoughts - my annual run up to my pals place in Speyside. On the way you pass through various mountain ranges and a high level fatbike ride seemed like just the thing to finish the year off. Since then the weather went all over the place - heavy snow, low temps, high temps, high winds, rain, more snow, more wind, finally with rain at all levels on the Monday 30th December. But the forecast for the Monday night was clear skies, lower temps and a clear forecast for the Tuesday. So, Glas Maol or Cairngorms......

A final check of the Mountain Weather Information Service (www.mwis.org.uk - a very useful resource if you are planning on going up high) clinched it - 90% plus chance of clear munroes all day, light winds, sub zeroes in the morning but a steady climb all day. I've twice been up Ben Macdui on shanks pony, both times in the pishing rain, high winds and zero viz. So today was the day. I cruised up the A9 in the early morning and was ready to go at 9am in the Cas car park.

My route would take me up a good path across the bottom of the northern corries and up the long ridge above Coire an Lochan. The biggest surprise was the number of walkers - literally dozens. I'm not used to such numbers on my rides so this came as a shock. Despite Aviemore being fat bike central and despite many people having ridden the plateau, I got many of the old 'check out the tyres on that' comments. In return I checked out what kit people were carrying. Many were carrying the full monty - axes, jaggy feet and plenty of gear. Others had minimal kit, jeans, cheap jackets and no sharp metal things. Given the reputation of this area, especially in winter, this seemed somewhat baffling. As usual I'd totally over thought it, with plenty of warm gear, plenty of food, a bivvy bag, GPS, phone, map and nous. I rode most of the way to the ridge on the path that was extensively upgraded a few years ago, the only cause for concern were the rime ice covered stepping stones across two burns. Eventually on the steady climb up the ridge above the coire, I ran out of leg and settled into a steady push up onto the shoulder at 1000m.


Coire an Lochan with a snow free 'Great Slab' This famous terrain feature typically gains a substantial covering of snow throughout the winter which often then avalanches spectacularly.

After this the riding was a joy - a nice easy gravel path climbing steadily. Soon after I hit my first snow patch. Thanks to the freeze / thaw cycles it was as hard as iron and thanks to the previous nights frost very grippy. I was passing walkers rapidly now and often diverting off the path to link up the snowfields for easy riding over a smooth, firm surface. On the final steep I rode most of it on another patch of snow which covered the boulder field that is the summit of Ben Macdui.




1309m, Britains second highest peak.

I stood a while checking out the views which were stunning with pretty much all of the Highlands visible. Redemption! I could even see my own hills (The Ochills) far to the south.


After photos and a snack I retraced my route but picked up further snow fields and was able to really let rip down some of the slopes, hitting 30 plus mph at one point. Large areas of hard water ice were of concern but it was still sub zero so these could be ridden with care. Turning off my outward route to head for Cairngorm, I finally left the crowds behind and was able to link several large patches of snow en-route.



Looking back to Ben Macdui, I noted many more snow patches which could have amused me for a couple of hours. I was on a bit of a deadline however as I wanted to get back in time to do some shopping and head to my pals place in plenty of time for the evenings drinking....


Following the route along the rim of the northern corries was the most demanding bit of the ride as its one big boulder field. Much riding of beach rock fields helped me here and I rode most of it to the summit cone of Cairngorm itself. Again, a bit of nosing around could have missed this section out and picked up some more snow. Next time..... One hard push got me to the top (more crowds) and then I faced over 600m of vertical descent.


Summit of Cairngorm and the (broken) weather station

I avoided the main drag up and instead descended by the Marquis Well route, bagging some more snow time before hitting the top of the ski area. I was able to stay mostly on snow to the ptarmigan and down the M2 piste until I had to pick up the path for the final section. This is a bit steppy but highly entertaining for all that. Total distance only 12 miles but with 1000m of climbing and some top class riding. I guess doing the circuit backwards would probably be better although the climb up would be hard work.....


As a year end route this ranks as one of my best of 2019. Hopefully next time I'm up here I'll be on the skis....

Monday, 16 December 2019

Scottish Winter Bivvy

Given my somewhat lame bivvy performance this year, it seemed inevitable when my motivation to leave the house for this years winter bivvy dissolved in the heavy rain beating off the window. The venue was Dryfehead bothy in Eskdalemuir forest. I was keen to go (before the rain started) as its not one I've been to before and had heard good things about it. Bridget, aka Borderer on the bear bones forum, had suggested it after a trip she and her son had made there earlier in the year. I'd originally hoped to start at Peebles but the weather (and forecast) made this less than appealing. The Edinburgh city bypass would also be a drag on the drive down.

So after a certain amount of grumbling I got my gear together, threw it all in the back of the car and headed down the road to Moffat. The rain was torrential as far as Glasgow but lo and behold, it stopped as I headed south and the skies cleared. At Moffat I grabbed a snack and eventually hit the trail at about 3.45, pedalling off into the gloaming, heading for the Southern Upland Way.

My route was short - follow the SUW east to the Wamphray water and then the Romans and Reivers route up a fearsomely steep climb before descending a good track to the bothy. As usual I left my lights off as long as I could. On a good track with the last vestiges of light in the sky you can do this way beyond the point that you can see anything clearly but its become something of a ritual for me on a bivvy trip. I was grinning from ear to ear as its been far too long since I did an overnighter and I'd forgotten that feeling of freedom heading into the wilds in the dark. Not only that but it was dry!

The track finally ran out at Garrogill - a ruined house that would make for a good bivvy spot - and I contemplated the climb ahead. I'd gained the impression from others tales that it was a schlep though a fire break with not much a path on the ground. In the event it was a nice made trail, albeit pretty steep. Of course the dark always makes hills look (and feel) steeper and 4 cans of ale, a pint of milk and a fire log; on top of my usual load out; didn't help. I kept expecting it to get worse but in the event its pretty straightforward and with the right combination of leg and gearing, you'd actually be able to ride a fair bit of it.


On the big push....

I eventually topped out onto a dark moor covered in a thin dusting of frozen snow. I turned my lights off and contemplated the night as a few flakes of snow swirled around me. On dropping down to the track I figured I would ride up it a ways to see if there was any sign of the others. Tyre tracks were revealed in the snow but looking down to Eskdale didn't reveal any lights so I did an about face and bombed back down the hill, bothywards.

The first building I saw was the recently installed loo. The bothy itself looked dark and there was no immediate signs of life. Lights shone out at me however and I went in to meet Jimmy, Dave and Jamie. A convivial evening followed round a bit of a reluctant fire which livened up with the fire log, justifying its extra weight dragging me back down the big climb.


Jamie watching the bothy TV

It didn't look like anyone else was coming which was a shame given how the weather had turned out, but suddenly at about 9.30 or so, a light appeared outside and in came Bridget. Not only that she was carrying a bag of coal, something that should merit some kind of civic award, and made my earlier moans about carrying a mere fire log somewhat lame. Soon enough the fire was blazing and more chat and drink was partaken of. I was slightly alarmed when I realised that I'd drank everything I'd dragged up with me. Oh well less weight to take home.....

We eventually turned in at 1am (!) and I was instantly asleep, only waking briefly a few times to turn over. Finally I became aware of grey daylight filtering through the window so staggered outside to a misty but dry morning, my head feeling somewhat fuzzy in retribution for drinking too much whisky. Bridget was still out for the count so the rest of us sat in the main room eating breakfast, clearing up and contemplating our routes home. 


The bothy

At a decadent 10.45 we went our separate ways leaving Bridget to have a leisurely breakfast. I backtracked up the hill with a vague idea to head down to Eskdalemuir, over the road climb to Ettrick and then follow the SUW back to Moffat. However on reaching the turn off for the R&R route I couldn't resist the descent so abandoned the original plan and tore off down the trail noting that it was indeed not as steep as the previous nights push had made it feel. Pedalling along the Wamphray glen revealed many snow covered hills above me. On a whim I turned up the Southern Upland Way trail with a vague notion to pedal up it for a bit and then bomb back down. This is a nice section as its on a good trail which climbs steadily up by the burn. 

The last time I was here was on my ill-fated attempt on the Borders 350 in July 2017. That evening I was in a back pain induced foul mood so didn't really appreciate this fine route. The landscape hereabouts is interesting as well with many narrow glens all joining up and splitting off over various watersheds. At one such confluence, the SUW leaps up a steep slope to avoid a substantial ravine and this was as far as I would be going. 

Looking east on the SUW

Then I noticed a sign indicating a high level route of the SUW back along the way I came. This would rejoin the main track shortly before it leaves the forest hopefully via some nice singletrack. After a bit of map appraisal I thought to myself "how bad could it be?" and started another long push up a big hill. 

This takes you up to the summit of Croft Head at 642m and the path isn't marked on any maps. Odd as it is actually substantial, carved into the hillside in a serious of switchbacks. Soon enough I was into the snow line and the depth steadily increased until it topped out at about 6" as I crested the ridge with evidence of some drifting. The path became quite narrow and the mist came in again hiding the 'best views on the Southern Upland Way' that the sign board at the bottom had promised. Hey ho, it was winter and I was in winter conditions so I wasn't complaining.

Eventually I summited and jumped on the bike, picking my way along a narrow snow filled slot with a substantial slope to my left falling steeply down to my outward route. 



A few ups and downs along a bare ridge surrounded by forestry then led into a fun descent on a grassy trail with plenty of twists and turns. Just out of the snow line it dumped me on a new looking fire road. "That was good" thinks I, only to see another sign off this track down another singletrack. Off and down again, more twisty-turnies, duck down through some trees and out onto another fire road. This then came to a dead end and yet another section of single track followed, descending steadily along the opposite bank of the river to my outward route of the previous evening. Eventually I rejoined this track well pleased that I'd discovered and bagged such a great trail. Then it was an easy roll out back to the road and an easy pedal back to Moffat and a much more pleasant drive home.

Friday, 15 November 2019

No Bike, No Problem

I've been struggling with my knees this year. Ostensibly the usual cycling problem of muscle imbalance, tight IT bands, tight hamstrings, weak gluteus medius, longevity of use (aka old age) but annoyingly persistent even after addressing all of the above issues. Anyway eventually the physio advised / ordered a break from the bike to give things a chance to settle down.

"Can I walk instead?"
"Yes of course, it will help to strengthen glutes and reduce muscle imbalance"
Right then.

I did a lot of hill walking as a youth and as it happens a couple of walks with work colleagues over the last couple of years have re-awoken an urge to head for the hills sans bike in order to go to the places a bike can't reach. So this seemed the perfect opportunity to pound the hills and see places I don't usually get to.

And, as it turns out, its great fun, who knew! Well legions of hill walkers and munro baggers obviously but after having ridden bikes for countless years the simplicity of chucking stuff in a bag and wandering into the wilderness has a massive appeal.



That said its been a learning curve leading to the following observations:-

You can't go very far - a long day = 13miles. After years of mountainbike route planning its easy to totally overestimate how far you can walk comfortably in a notional day out. This has lead to a few epic hikes...

Downhills are rubbish as there is no freewheeling, its a much effort going down as up. Its done me a power of good however as the leg control when descending is just what I've needed to improve overall lower body stability.

No more death marches. Hillwalking types will complain about difficult terrain, bogs, tussocks, bracken etc. etc. but the thing is, your not having to carry 15kgs of unwieldy bicycle whilst crossing such terrain so its actually dead easy.

You can stop for lunch. And eat proper sandwiches, drink tea or coffee out of a flask and generally have a fine time eating whilst checking out the views. After years of bump induced pulverised food, this is a revelation.

Hillwalkers are a strange bunch. I attributed the reticence hillwalkers have to talking to you down to their disdain for mountainbikers. They don't talk to you when your walking either....

Standing on top of a large terrain feature (aka mountain, hill, bump, munro, corbett, graham, marilyn) is great. Suddenly your looking across at stuff rather than up it. On a clear day you can see for miles!



Forget munro bagging, long distance walks, guides, the internet, just start at a likely spot and go, no paths needed.

Walking is good exercise. There is no freewheeling so your on it constantly. Get a bit of a pace on and your right in the fat burning zone from the minute you start to the minute you finish.

You don't have to worry about cold feet. Walking exercises these appendages constantly so they stay warm.

After an intensive programme of hill walking, pushing a bike up a hill is much easier.

I'm now back on the bike albeit with still a few outstanding knee issues to deal with but I'm going to keep the walking up and probably do a few multi-day trips as well. Now that I'm well versed in packing light, this is no-longer the weight lifting schlep it used to be. Just think about wandering around the high tops of the Cairngorms for a few days, no plan, no route and no worries about trail conditions, whether a path goes or if its even there. More reports to come!

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Ben Alder bike rides

If you look at a large scale OS road map of Northern Scotland your eye maybe drawn to a large area of wilderness bounded by the A9, A86, A82 A85 and A827 with only a couple of C roads and the B road alongside Loch Rannoch intruding into the southern area. This is one of the biggest areas of wilderness in the British Isles and only loses out to the Cairngorms due to it being bisected by the West Highland Rail line and a few remote lodges. For the adventurous there are a number of biking opportunities in this area and some truly classic through routes. One of my favourite bits is in the north eastern corner centred around Ben Alder, an 1148m hill with a few fellow munroes around it. As well as great scenery there are some fabulous trails offering the full range of riding experiences. This post is meant as a guide to this area by way of describing some of the rides I've done there in the last few years.


Ben Alder from Loch Pattack

I'm not about to bang on about safety or navigation or kit choice as per normal guides because as far as I'm concerned its up to you to sort this out. My only comment is that you pass the magic 500m mark a few times on the routes described here. The reason I say magic relates to my skiing expeditions. Above 500m seems to be the point that you go from wet slushy crappy snow to full on mountain winter conditions. In 2014 most people thought we had a mild and snow free winter. Below 500m we did. Above was the most snow recorded in a generation but only a skier or mountaineer would have realised this. Away from winter (which runs from October to May!) this altitude seems to mark the point where temps can still drop alarmingly, the wind increases dramatically and you generally get the impression you've just changed seasons... So be warned and take the right kit. Nav is generally easy as you are mainly on well defined trails or following burns, rivers, glens and other generally noticeable features. For that reason I'm not going to try to post up maps or detailed route finding notes. If you look at an OS 1:50k map of the area you'll figure it all out easy enough. All the trails are on Open Street maps too. So that's all for lecturing, onto the riding!

My first close encounter with these hills was in 2003 when me and two pals rode from Fort William to Newtonmore in one (for those days) long day. We rode out of Corrour estate and along Lochan Earba, the Ben Alder hills to our right. The plan had been to ride over Bealach Leamhain to Loch Pattack, then out to Dalwhinnie, thence to Newtonmore by NCN 7. As it was we were too knackered to contemplate a big climb over a trail of unknown provenance so rode out to Ardvericke and followed the road to Newtonmore instead. It was not until November 2014 that I finally did this trail, as part of a circuit from Dalwhinnie. 

This small village makes for a good starting point as its easy to drive to and can be reached by train. You ride down by Loch Ericht on a motorway standard track, up past the posh lodge and over a low moor to Loch Pattack. You are now in the middle of the area and able to contemplate all of the views around you. The track shown on the map that runs along the south shore of the Loch actually goes into it on several occasions. If its been very wet, don't bother as the levels will be too high. 2014 had been dry all the way through Autumn so this day it was fine. At one point there is a highly dubious looking suspension bridge which takes you over the Allt Chaoil Rheide (more of this river later)

The worst bit of the track is just after this, thereafter it climbs away from the loch and over to the Allt Cam. You can miss this bit out by way of the single track to Culra Bothy and the track back from this. The next challenge was to cross the Allt Cam which was a shoes and socks off job. Its then a case of fighting your way up the bank on any likely looking line. Eventually the path coalesces out of the tussocks and climbs steeply up towards loch Leamhain. Before this you have to cross a small burn which this day was more iffy than the Allt Cam:-


From here the gradient eases although its rough going. Theoretically you can avoid this burn crossing and stick to the north side of the loch but this is a very rough and little used path, so will likely be a push. The main path keeps climbing until it passes below a crag at its high point of just over 750m. 

Looking down the trail to Lagan.


And looking back the way you've just come

The descent down Coire Pitridh is a corker on a good stony trail. In terms of rideability you'd maybe be better doing this the other way round as you can get up this good trail and the rough descent is all rideable. Just be sure of your river levels though!

The trail dumps you on the main Lochan Earba track. Follow this to the Loch end but bear right when the track starts to descend in earnest. Watch your turns along here as there is now a new hydro scheme access track not on the map. Bear right again heading for the Coille Doir-ath. Keep on until you join the main river Pattack track and head south up by the river.



This dodgy looking bridge is actually OK. Its days are numbered however and goodness knows who will replace it when it eventually goes..... Beyond this the track deteriorates somewhat and about 1k of it is rather boggy. The hot tip is to stick to the middle as although this looks the worst, there is a firm base under the gloop whereas either side its bottomless. When you pass back into Ben Alder Estate the surface improves dramatically and then its an easy pedal back out to Dalwhinnie.

If the above looks a bit drastic but you want to explore the area, then just ride up the various bits of double track and back again. The views are fab and there is plenty of scope for bivvies. Culra Bothy is technically closed after the MBA discovered asbestos in the roof space but I've stayed in it twice since then and the main room seems (to me) to be fine. 

For a bit more adventure there are two trails that are effectively dead ends (unless you are feeling really adventurous!) but really are worth a look as there and back again rides. First up is the path shown on the OS that goes up the Allt Cam. Follow the above route but instead of descending to the river to cross, keep along the excellent path. This is one of several that the estate did up in about 1999, entirely at their own expense. They also get annual maintenance! Anyway following the path is well worth it and it makes for a very nice easy descent on the way back. The last 2k as shown on the map is a lot rougher and not really worth it unless you want to push right through the missing bit to link up with a track that takes you round to the Lochan Earba track.



Lower section of the trail. Where the glen widens out there is a good camp / bivvy spot.

If you do decide to push through, its around 4k of difficult going. Not all of this is a walk, especially if your on a fat bike, so its worth it if things are reasonably dry. Watch your nav through the missing bit, I followed my nose from the end of the marked path and this seems to be where most people are going as when you join a wee side burn there is a path of sorts. From here its fairly good going down to the start of the onward route.


Near the end of the marked path looking back the way you've come


At the start of the continuation of the marked path. I crossed the river about half a mile back from here.


This path is a bit rough at first but has been extensively upgraded after only a k. Follow this until it joins the Lochan Earba track and return to Dalwhinnie as per above (or back over the Bealach Leamhain if you want more fun!)

Creag Meghaid


Looking north east through the strath carrying Lochan Earba. This defile sits around 100m higher than Loch Lagan - more glaciation. The old HT550 route went through here and its a pity it doesn't any more as its all very nice....


There is a wee patch of woodland alongside the second of the lochs which is a good stopping point. It would also make  a good camp spot although annoyingly there is a fire site here.

Another good there and back again ride is the trail alongside Loch Ericht beyond Ben Alder Lodge. This is a bit harder than the Allt Cam path but its well worth it for the views alone. As above there is a through route option if you are willing to risk a rather drastic hike-a-bike section. Getting onto the Lochside trail involves a diversion away from the Lodge. This may seem a bit of an embuggerance but actually it follows a great bit of single track. Head up on the Loch Pattack track and look for a left turn (signed to Loch Ericht) about 100 metres past the lodge. Follow the obvious singletrack through the woods above the lodge, its sundry buildings and the underground heli pad (I kid you not!) 

You then pop out on a big track which is an easy pedal to a bridge over a small burn. The trick here is to ignore this as the old path it leads too is no longer used. Instead, go downstream a bit and look for the track on the far bank, not shown on the map. You could use the bridge if the burn was up and then walk down stream to pick up this track (which follows the line of the path shown on 1:25k maps) with dry feet. This (roughish) track goes for about 2k before it climbs up into the hills. Keep straight on what is now a nice made single track. This is a bit overgrown in places so keep an eye on your GPS as I managed to lose it at one point and stumbled around for a bit to find it again. Other than that its a peach.


There are a couple of bits that have washed into the loch and have been re-aligned but a couple of bits haven't. They are short though. As the slope you are crossing steepens things get more interesting but its all rideable with a modest amount of technical skill. If you are doing it as a there and back again stop just before the burn when you can see the kissing gate into the dodgy section. 

If you are determined to push through then be warned the next two hundred metres are tricky. Steep rock slabs, big steps and two annoying kissing gates are the challenge. If you are up for it its well worth it as you then pick up another nice trail to Ben Alder Cottage and get to ride the best trail in the area - see below..... Of course if you are into bike rafting then this would make this route much easier.

This is the first iffy bit. It gets worse....

....In the trees ahead. No margin for error!




The main event

Ask anyone about Ben Alder and bike riding and they will exude much enthusiasm about the single track from Ben Alder Cottage to Culra Bothy. This is one of the best trails in Scotland (I reckon!) and should be on anyones Scottish mountain biking to do list. That said incorporating it into a circuit is tricky. You've either got to do the above, do the equally hard Ben Alder tour or include it in one of two epic circuits (more later!) However doing it as a there and back again would be an excellent use of about 3 - 4 hours or so.

I first did this trail as part of a lengthy tour which actually included the Western Isles. I was heading through this area on the way back to where I'd left my car from Aviemore. I got to Culra Bothy around 7 and it was raining torrentially, hence me ignoring the closed signs and spending the night in the main room. At this point I'd not much idea what I'd be in for other than what a mate had said i.e. the trail was a good one. The following morning the rain had gone and the sun was looking like making an appearance. The trail starts right at the bothy and its immediately good - a narrow gravel path winding up alongside the Allt Chaoil Rheide. (this bit is my favourite section on the descent) Its one of those trails that you expect to peter out round every bend but just keeps going.


Typical trail shot looking back towards Culra. I've not actually got many pics of this route, simply because I'm usually enjoying myself too much to take photos!

Despite the rain the previous evening (and a generally wet summer) it was dry and stony. Technical challenges come in the form of various burn crossings and assorted random rock features. Its all rideable until the last bit of the climb where the gradient will likely defeat you unless your running a 20/50 granny gear. 

The summit, looking down to Loch Ossian (This was taken on a trip I did in May 2016). If you look on the map you'll note a path shown a couple of k down the glen. This is worth a miss as its not really on the ground and the terrain is rough boulder strewn peat hags. And why would you go that way when the main trail is such a joy. You descend a bit on a super narrow line then climb again for a short section to the Bealach Cumhann. Then your into the main descent, contouring down the southern flank of Ben Alder. Its a quick descent but not steep. Its all pretty easy excepting the crossing of the Alllt Chamhlain. This used to be rideable (I rode it on this day blind) but Storm Desmond in 2016 wrecked it. It should still be possible, but so far has defeated me! The bottom section steepens somewhat with a few pitched sections but it all goes right to the Bothy. 

So your next move is to reverse this. South to north is probably marginally better as the climb is all rideable and the descent seems longer (its not, in fact Culra bothy is about 50m higher than BA cottage). Technically its harder this way but all good stuff and there are no significant challenges. Of course I'm talking from the perspective of a rider of rigid bikes. If your on a bouncer your main challenge will be not to slide out on the corners as most of it can be ridden flat out..... Note that its not a hugely popular walking route as most munro baggers go up the direct route to Ben Alder. However its a popular spot for D of E groups and trekkers so don't get too carried away.

Cross Drains and Water Bars
If your familiar with the principals of Upland path management you'll know these terms and what they mean. Being a path nerd I know more than is good for me but its always interesting to compare construction styles across Scotland. I'm not sure who did the work across the Ben Alder estate but clearly they got a different brief from what the NTS provide. Instead of the NTS standard 26" wheel swallowing cross drains, most of the ones on this trail are nice and narrow and can be ridden flat out with only the merest hint of un-weighting. Most of the rest, by accident or the design of a mountain biking upland path designer, have enough of a kick from the rocks either side of the gap to enable an easy jump over them. There are a few that have bigger gaps but my view is that as we are in the mountains, get over it and get that front (and back) wheel airborne. Best of all, waterbars (those lines of rocks across the trail to divert surface water) are few and far between, a sure sign of a designer who knew their shit.

The total length of this single track (Ben Alder Cottage to the double track above Pattack) is 16k, if you want more you have to go to Fisherfield.....



The big circuits

One of the appeals of this area is the scope for short circuits, easy ride in / ride out trips (a perfect break from the drudgery of the A9 if you are heading north) but there are also a couple of classic big day rides. 

Ben Alder and Glen Garry
As a starter for ten herewith is the basic description of a 50 miler start-able from either Dalwhinnie or the west end of Loch Rannoch.....

Do this clockwise and ideally start at Rannoch but it works fine from Dalwhinnie. I did this in October '15 starting at Rannoch and it was dryer than when I did it on the above mentioned tour in the August. This was my first time south to north of the Bealach dubh trail. 

Abandon ones conveyance at a small layby 100m east of the Rannoch power station. Head west along the road to the obvious right turn into the forestry at 507577. Follow the double track north west until you leave the forestry and climb up to nigh on 450m. This is a top view point and should be enjoyed! 
Top of the climb looking west over to Blackwater Reservoir (the furthest away one) and the Glencoe hills.
Looking north east along Loch Ericht, Ben Alder with its head in the clouds.

Carry on to Loch Ericht and along the west shore. OS maps show the end of the double track here but it continues to 494655.

The end!

You've then got 2k of bog trotting. Today it was pretty easy. In August it was very damp and I've done it since when its been nigh on bone dry. It typically takes 20 to 30 minutes from here to the bothy so don't sweat it. Top tip - keep to the right until a short plank bridge, its dryer and smoother. After the deer fence on the left stops is the boggiest bit. Keep right for maximum chance of dry feet. The descent to the bridge is a free for all, see a line, ride the line. The bridge is a significant technical challenge but the Author feels that if you can't manage this, you shouldn't be here.


Ben Alder Cottage - one of Scotlands top bothies. I've never actually stayed here but its a belter. If you are doing this circuit as an overnighter then this is an obvious choice for a stopping point as there are plenty of good camping spots nearby. 

Next up is the Bealach dubh trail, then roll out alongside Loch Ericht to Dalwhinnie. Supplies are available at Dalwhinnie from the petrol station and a small cafe that operates out of the old hotel. This is a good one so well worth a visit.

The next section is on NCN 7 - a smooth cycleway alongside the A9T. I've done it on a fat bike and its fine so relax and enjoy the views ready for the next great trail. Also remember to smirk at all the suckers driving on the A9..... At Dalnaspidal lodge turn right down a double track to Loch Garry. In front of you is one of many Scottish geological marvels - a wide strath at 400m altitude running pretty much bang on 90 degrees to the main Glen Garry / Drumochter Strath. Glaciers, we salute you. The track runs out at the end of the loch and the marked path is another vague boggy none line. Its not too bad and I did once do this on a Salsa Fargo so don't be put off as its only 1.5k. Follow your nose here as there is an argocat track to the left of the marked line which can be very wet. A rougher but dryer path is to the right. At one point the argo track crosses the marked line up a steep bank. Get on this as its the best route to the bridge.


More luxury accommodation - Duinish bothy. Its a bit run down being none MBA but makes for a good bivvy spot if you are doing this circuit in two days. Thereafter its a good doubletrack descent back to the road and your start point. It took me about six and a half hours of steady going to do this.


Ben Alder, Rannoch, Corrour and Ardvericke. 

This one is 79 miles and when I did it in a oner in 2016 took me 9 hours. In 2018 I did it as an evening / morning overnighter which was equally entertaining. If you've read (and ridden) this far you've already done all but one of the trails in this route. Its an absolute cracker of a circuit and best of all, you pass almost no civilisation (barring the odd remote house) on the whole route. Be warned, you need all your food with you. Water is, however, in plentiful supply.

Nav is simple - start at Dalwhinnie, head down Loch Ericht, Over to Loch Pattack, down the river and cut round west to Lochan Earba (i.e. the reverse of the first route described in this post) and then down along the lochs to their end. Keep going down to the end of Loch Laggan. Don't quite reach the road but turn left back on yourself on the smooth motorway standard track which takes you into the forest. Take either of two left turns to take you all the way up Strath Ossian to Corrour Shooting Lodge (this is all obvious on the map). When you get there look to the North East up the narrow glen. In about three hours time you'll be at the notch at the top of this glen looking back down to your present location.

On the climb into Strath Ossian, looking east. Lochan Earba is to the right of the small hill just off centre.
Looking up Strath Ossian to the Lodge

From here take the track on the east side of Loch Ossian. This is pleasantly rough after the main access track but still level and easy to the YH.  


Ossian Youth hostel - a very lonely place but accessible by train so quite popular. If your planning on doing this circuit as a 2 dayer and want to stop here, best book in advance.

At the end of the loch just opposite the YH turn left on a new (in 2017) track which climbs back eastwards away from the loch. This is the Old Road to the Isles and part of an ancient right of way from central Scotland to Fort William and beyond. Its shown on OS maps as a single track and used to be hard going in all but the driest of weather but was upgraded in 2016/17 as part of one of many micro hydro schemes that the estate has implemented hereabouts. So its now an easy surface which (yes) you can do on a gravel bike. Look out for Peters rock, I've not found it yet. This is a fabulous through route which could be used as part of a long south to north off road touring route. I scoped this out about the same time as I did this circuit so I'm pleased to see that it now forms part of the GB divide ITT off road lejog route thingy as well as the recently announced Great North Trail. If it was possible to copyright and license bike routes I'd be a rich man.....

Anyway your now on a long, long climb to Corrour old lodge. This was originally an estate lodge but then became a hospital for TB sufferers on the basis that they needed isolation and lots of fresh air. Look to your right (i.e west) and you should see the West Highland rail line crossing the desolation of Rannoch moor. Its a great train journey so whilst your up here, do it!


A fine evening in 2018 looking west to the Glencoe hills


The old lodge is also a top bivvy spot, I'm here on a tour north.


Thereafter is a similarly steady but long descent down to the Allt Eigheach. I bivvied here in 2018 doing this circuit as an overnighter. There is a small island in the river perfect for a pitch up. 


Rannoch station and Loch Laidon

The track rolls out to the road and then you turn left and head east to the start of the track described in the previous section. In other words follow the now familiar (and as used in the Highland Trail) track up and over to Loch Ericht, bog hop to Ben Alder Cottage, over the pass to Culra and then back out to Dalwhinnie. If you want food there is a good cafe at Rannoch Station as well as a Hotel. Its about 2 miles off route.


Other trails worthy of note.....

The flanks of Geal Charn
One dismal November day I'd driven up from home on the way up to see friends in Aviemore. I'd intended to do a ride around Ben Alder but the weather looked foul so instead kept going to Loch Lagan and the car park at Feagour. I'd thought about just doing a lap of the Lochan Earba / Loch Lagan double track but on reaching the bottom of the Bealach Leamhain trail decided to give it a go. 

Track at the end of Lochan Earba under water. This was the warm up for all of the horrible storms late '15 early '16

After a short while I passed through wet snow then deeper and dryer snow overlaying some seriously wet ground. This was one of those fat bike 'moments' as a normal bike would have been hopelessly bogged down through this stuff whereas the fatty rolled through the lot. Just before the pass summit I decided to turn left on a path shown on the map. I figured the Allt Cam would be epic given the rain we'd had so this seemed a better prospect. It was in that it didn't involve waist deep river crossings but it was hard going. Only do this if its been dry for a bit would be my advice. That said its a good view with the various bumps of the Creag Meagaidh group looming out of the cloud....


The descent is a bit marginal but a hoot on a fatbike in 6" of freshies. The final descent was a bit more engaging and did require an iffy river crossing but its all fairly short and soon enough your back to the Lochan Earba track.

The Ben Alder Tour 
This one has been around in various guide books for a while - it even pre-dates the path work so must have been hard going in those days. The route starts out easy - down Loch Ericht over and across to Culra, over the Bealach Dubh / Cumhain to Ben Alder Cottage. Then comes the exciting bit. Basically you carry straight up the hillside behind the cottage (there is a path marked but no single clear line on the ground) until you top out on the Bealach Breabag at 840m. The trail then improves and you descend down to loch Beithe where the trail improves again, finally descending back down to culra on another fab built path. Confession time, I've not actually done this despite several attempts all foiled by rubbish weather. If I'm going to carry my bike up to 840m I want to have a view off the top. The last time I tried it was sunny but a late fall of snow would have made it a schlep. When I do it I'll report back.....

So thats about it. As well as the above there are two through routes (well one and a half as they both start at the same point) either on the Highland Trail 550 route to Lagan or else as a means of getting into the Cairngorms via Dalwhinnie. I'll not bother describing them as the above covers all of the bits and a GPX of the HT550 is freely available.


Just get out there and ride it!