Tom: “Mountain Time”

by
March 30, 2015

You can wax lyrical all you like about your doorstep riding, but sometimes only the mountains will do. Tom sets his sights north…

"Rhino deer!"
“Rhino deer!”

Despite living no more than three miles from the centre of the United Kingdom’s second largest metropolitan district, I am blessed with fantastic riding from my doorstep.

I don’t just mean scratching slender pickings while trying to avoid stinging nettles and dog shit, I mean primo woodland singletrack, buff natural berms, technical rocky descents and brutal short climbs. There are times I can stand in the middle of a clearing in the woods, look around and feel completely displaced from the land of concrete, tarmac, brick and metal less than a few hundred metres from my corner of solitude.

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Even here though, views can deceive. I can hear (not so) distant traffic, children shouting and the roar of jet planes on their final landing approach to Leeds Bradford. This is not wilderness, it is merely a temporary escape.

I will never, ever take what I have for granted, but there are times I want, I need more. I want the manmade/natural ratio to be reversed. I want to stand on a 1:25,000 map square with no identifiable features other than orange contour lines (preferably lots, please), maybe some rocks and the track that I am standing on. I don’t want to hide from the world, I want to be in the big, wide open spaces of nature. I want epic views, not tight tree-cropped lines of sight.

I want true solitude – days out where bumping into someone else is enough of a novelty that it adds to the experience and feeds an almost primal need to share our emotions, share how flipping brilliant being outdoors is… and then returning to the entirely selfish desire for solitude, thank you.

Not your average doorstep trail.
Not your average doorstep trail.

Most importantly, I want mountains. Not hills, not fells, not moors. I want to be on, to be among, hulking bodybuilders of landscape. And it is much more than just wanting. I have a yearning to be there.

Exposed bedrock becomes a natural take-off ramp, storm run-off carved gullies act as berms

I’m not the first person to articulate a desire or a longing for the mountains in general, and plenty have done it in far more detail and more profoundly than I could ever manage, so I’m not going to try, other than to reiterate ‘wot they sed’, and offer you a single quote from Robert Macfarlane’s book, “Mountains of the Mind”:

“…mountains, like all wilderness, challenge our complacent conviction – so easy to lapse into – that the world has been made by humans for humans… One forgets that there are environments which do not respond to a flick of a switch or a twist of a dial, and which have their own rhythms and orders of existence.

A few hundred words in, and I’ve barely mentioned biking. Time for a confession. I love being in the mountains, full stop. I don’t necessarily care whether I am walking, running, climbing or simply sitting in them. The act of passing through and feeling a small part of, such a beautiful, wild landscape is humbling and awe inspiring for me, no matter how many times I do it, or what my choice of transport is.

However, there is something so very special about riding a bike in, up, over and down mountains. It brings an interplay, a sense of interaction with the landscape that is unique. To pick up on Mr Macfarlane’s description, while the mountains have not been made by us (even if we have shaped them for our purposes as long as human history), there are so often serendipitous moments that allow me to create my own mental playground.

Remoteness? Check. Height? Check. Isolation? Check. High penalty for failure? CHECK.
Remoteness? Check. Height? Check. Isolation? Check. High penalty for failure? Check…

I use the landscape that has been formed over millions of years for my own enjoyment. Exposed bedrock becomes a natural take-off ramp, storm run-off carved gullies act as berms, an old drover’s trod is repurposed as thrilling singletrack. A sense of discovery abounds.

Everything that I crave – remoteness, height, isolation – brings risk

There is a depth to my play though. Everything that I crave – remoteness, height, isolation – brings risk; not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of consequence of failure. Riding trails that were never designed for the passage of bicycles, and may (or may not) require skill levels beyond my meagre ability (or even those of Chris Akrigg), again brings great focus. This heightened sense of risk more often than not brings calmness, focus and commitment.

Perversely it also removes my internal desire to ride out everything. Getting down the mountain in one piece is always the number one priority. I’ve never needed to call upon our wonderful mountain rescue service (to date – touch wood). I’m not looking for easy or guarantees though, and anyway I probably end up riding ‘better’ in the mountains. Seemingly endless descents let me find a flow and natural momentum over technical features; long climbs allow me to settle into a rhythm.

The irony of guiding a modern mountain bike, resplendent in carbon and bouncy bits and pieces – the very definition of manmade and part of the world that I am trying to leave behind – isn’t lost on me, but hey… short of naked rambling, there will always be a degree of this, however we choose to enjoy the mountains. And no one wants to see me naked.

Bothy Culture.
Bothy Culture.

The magnificence of the bike is that it will transport me into the mountains quickly and efficiently, allowing me to cover more ground than I can realistically hope to by foot. I can forgive it for becoming an encumbrance on proper climbs. The weight across my shoulders as I carry it is worth bearing for the payback that I will receive on the way back down the other side, adrenaline-fuelled goosebumps and all.

My legs ache as much from the pushing as they do the distance

I love the way a day (or even two, with a cheeky bivvy or bothy stay thrown in between) leaves me feeling worn. Tired, yes, but in a different way to an all-day ride elsewhere. I’ve put in extra mental exertion, navigating, assessing risk, processing my surroundings. My shoulders ache under the weight of a pack with additional supplies, and that spot at the top of my back where the bike rests during portage is tender. My legs ache as much from the pushing as they do the distance and my upper body feels beaten. It is the best kind of pain; the subtle reminders of an adventure earned.

My longing for a dose of mountain adventure has reached tipping point. The reality of living on a small, highly populated isle is there are few places left that offer the feel of true wilderness, even in my beloved Lake District and Wales. Once more then, I will be pointing the van north and driving a long way (and then even further than that). I will seek out mountains, both familiar and new. I will explore, play and reset. I will seek escape, but I will find home.