It was only a matter of time before we headed north to Scotland in our quest for positive altitude…
Once you’ve got a plan there’s no going back, and our plan was a simple one:
“A simple theme was settled on: each month ride a different mountain. That simple and nothing more. A mountain a month, the rest would fall into place when the time came for each one… an adventure a month over 600 metres, to add up to a year of positive altitude. Summits are good where possible, but altitude and attitude are what really matters.”
In the North there’s an appealing destination, the Cairngorms, and suitably it’s a location that’s special to the Mountain Journal team thanks to it being the location of the notorious SimStag. So we head up the A9 and set up camp in the glorious Glenmore Lodge, a suitable base for a bit of exploration Caledonian style.
Take one at getting high is aborted thanks once more to high winds, rain and snow. A plan to head up into the Cairngorm plateau scuppered by circumstance and fickle mountain weather, instead we rely on Huw Oliver, our guide, to use local knowledge and come up with a suitable plan B.
So we head into the rain shadow of the mountains, to Ben Rinnes where we’ve a better chance of achieving our aim, it’s 840m summit beckons atop a mostly sheltered ascent that’ll keep us from the brunt of the westerly winds until we top out.
The remnants of winter seem particularly keen to hang on and merge into spring here. After a brief promise of sun and warmth we’re hunkered down in thermal layers and waterproofs again.
Wind scoured and grazed lower levels of this high moorland slowly give way to more arctic like conditions. There’s a bite to the wind that reminds us of the latitude we’re riding in as we climb the flank of the hill on a crushed granite path.
A steady climb, slowly gaining altitude, head down into the wind. A case of whittling down the ascent crank turn by crank turn as we’re buffeted by rogue gusts of wind. To the west the sky is getting heavy with dark clouds so the race is on to see if we can make the summit before the incoming front hits.
The majority of the climb is laid out before us as it climbs sinuously up the hill. There’s a clear indication of the winching that’s going to be needed to get us to the top and with the windchill that’s currently being endured the thought of a bit of muscle warmth is a welcome one.
False summits promise much but rarely deliver anything but disappointment. This one is different though as a panorama of snow capped cairngorm summits are laid out in front of us, a beautiful reminder of yesterday’s wise retreat.
There’s time, and shelter, to duck out of the wind and refuel on outdoor centre pre-packed butties. It’s a welcome moment of quiet after the continuous wind noise we’ve had so far and a chance for a bit of cheekily smuggled Banoffee pie oneupmanship, as one suddenly emerges from Sharon’s Camelbak.
There’s an inevitability to a bit of hike a bike when you’re in the mountains and sure enough our turn for a bike portage session begins. A granite stairway leads upwards and as we climb the chat turns to line choice for when we hit it on the descent. It’s a useful distraction from the waves of rain showers that have started to make themselves known.
As the rain gets heavier it’s time to retreat inside jacket hoods. A goretex inner sanctum of peace isolated from the wind and rain outside. Lost in our own thoughts as we continue upwards, the vertical metres slowly ticking away.
Talk of the arctic alpine, and associated fir clubmoss, takes over as we hit the higher slopes. A change of vegetation that has more in common with Iceland than the part of the UK we live in. It’s a subtle change of landscape dictated by the combination of altitude and latitude, though conditions today fit well with the overall feel of the place.
One final push sees us on the summit and in the full force of the wind. With the promise of a tailwind it’s an easy decision to treat this trip as an out and back rather than the loop we thought might just be possible.
A quick visit to the trig point, a quick scan of the surrounding mountains and landscape, a top up of windburn and we’re all agreed it’s time to head back down. We’ve seen the fronts of rain that are heading our way, the further deterioration of an already marginal day, and the race is on to try and beat them.
The tailwind assist doesn’t disappoint as we start to drop on the wide open path. Covering ground much faster now as we work with gravity rather than against it. Wide open is the phrase that sums up everything about this part of the descent.
Hopping waterbars in a full speed ahead train of riders. Watching walls of weather hit distant hillsides, curtains of rain passing over the landscape spread out in front of us. Summit in the bag it’s time for a bit of braaping.
As the trail gets steeper and rockier we’re reminded of the perfect traction and grip the local granite has to offer, a contrast to the slimy gritstone we’re more used to. The ability to commit with confidence knowing the front tyre will not shift from it’s intended path. Trying to remember the lines spotted on the ascent and realising we’re just going to have to make it up as we go along.
Long sections of flow allow speeds to increase though there’s a never ending selection of water bars and gulleys to spot and hop. Erosion control as ride punctuation, controlling the flow of bikes, a perfect combination to keep your wits about you as we drop away from the summit.
It’s a rhythm of riding that’s easy to slip into. Accelerate, flow, slow, hop, and repeat. Losing height slowly, maximising the fun.
All the while enjoying the perfect traction and control, the confidence to attack the descent knowing the front tyre is guaranteed to go exactly where it’s pointed.
Interspersed with more rock sections and staircases, confidence inspiring grip allowing steep lines to be picked. Commitment rewarded by cleaning the technical descents.
One last flat out push to the bottom sees us back at the van but hungry for more. It’s hard not be be stoked by the quality of riding on offer up here.
So we head out into the woods to sample that perfect forest singletrack that’s abundant in this part of the country. A natural antidote to the commercial forestry that’s usually on offer in the South. Sheltered from, and oblivious to the weather, we’re keen to ride, to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of the day.
Perfect trails in perfect riding condition are hard to refuse. We drop on singletrack through bilberry and heather below the pine. Sweet swooping trails that drop and flow through the forest around us as dusk slowly draws in.Like kids trying to cram as much as possible in before getting called in for tea, we’re happy to drag out this ride for as long as possible. Greedily riding until the light goes, debating heading up for just one more descent. If we ride it fast we can fit one more in.
Finally the dark and rain stops play. It’s time to head back satisfied with the day’s riding we’ve managed to clock up despite the weather warnings; local knowledge and flexibility winning over weather once more.
A good day on the bike, more altitude clocked up and miles in the legs. Mates in the mountains, a combination that’s hard to beat; another shared experience that can be revisited over a pint in days to come.
All Photos by Sim Mainey
Words by Dave Anderson
Thanks to Glenmore Lodge for accomodation and support
Previously on Mountain Journal…