“Sanny. The snow is shrinking faster than the Rolf Harris fan club. If we are going, we need to go now!” read the text from by friend Rob Blackhall, Mountain Leader extraordinaire and partner in Backcountrybiking.co.uk.
A recent trip to Aviemore had seen us poring over maps and concocting an excuse for an overnight biking adventure in the snow and ice of the Cairngorms in winter. Fat bikes were a given. Our kit was ready. All we needed was a weather window and boy, did we get a weather window! With high pressure forecast, I soon found myself high tailing it up the A9, Scotland’s road to fun, pedal to the metal – or not. A combination of road works and Miss Daisy driving herself in front of me made for a somewhat tedious journey. Still, the scenery was breath-taking as usual and as the cloud cleared north of Pitlochry to reveal bluebird skies, I was practically high fiving myself – not easy when you are driving and there is only one of you!
I love it when a plan comes together
Rendezvousing at Backcountrybiking.co.uk HQ, Rob and I loaded up his Land Rover (waaaaaaant!) and were ready to rock. Pulling into the car park down an epically gorgeous Glen Feshie, our target soared up in front of us, Sgorr Gaoith ( or Scar Gooey as it’s pronounced – yup, I don’t see it either !), a snow capped, pyramid topped, hulking bulk of a mountain that saves it’s very best for the last few pedal strokes to the summit.
It is a classic Scottish peak. Mature pine forest on the lower slopes morphs into heather clad moorland, wind scarred glacial rock interspersed with the hardiest of mosses and grasses before topping out with a generous topping of snow and ice. What it lacks in Matterhorn-esque chocolate box grandeur, it makes up with a largely rideable ascent and spectacular 360 degree summit views with promise of adventures to come. Our plan was simple. Ride up the stone pitched trail normally ridden down as part of the classic Scottish Carn Ban Mor loop, dig a snow hole, camp out overnight and finish with an epic descent in the morning. Simples.
It didn’t look so steep from down there
With a Spring in our step and the sun on our backs, I couldn’t help but smile as we set off up the trail. Dry, almost dusty trails beckoned while the scent of pine resin and heather filled our nostrils. Despite our loaded bikes weighing somewhere north of 40 pounds, we felt pretty confident as we spun up the initial incline through the trees.
I had remembered this trail from previous rides as being one of loose baby heads and energy sapping step ups. To my surprise, the trail fairies had been plying their trade in the interim. The loose, rocky descent that was a bit of a classic for mountain bikers cutting their baby teeth in big mountain riding was no more. In its place was a sanitised trail centre-esque path, albeit one with water bars every few yards.
The first fifty or so were fine but a combination of a 1 x 11 drivetrain and a reducing desire to pop the front wheel and thrutch my laden bike up an over several hundred more lent the trail a level of tedious monotony. Clearly, mountain bikers didn’t figure into the trail builders efforts. The riding decreased and the walking and pushing increased as we made our way up the lower slopes.
Thankfully, with nary a breathe of wind to be had, the sun beating down on us and a vista of snow topped peaks opening up all around us, the Divine Geologist knew how to keep our minds off the task in hand. I can think of many worse places to take my bike for a walk.
Progress was steady with plenty of breaks had to admire the view, their frequency increasing as the trails got ever steeper. “Is this one of those mountains where the higher you get, the further you feel from the top?” I asked Rob as we skittered up through the snow field. It was like some kind of…………………………………….
Topping out on the plateau, we were ready to ride our bikes again. What could possibly go wrong? Well, snow for a start, the wrong kind. Like some kind of British Rail comedy of errors, we hadn’t figured on the sun creating Spring snow in what was still winter. We had come expecting hard packed snow and ice, snow shovels and flexible crampons were packed. What we got was deep snow that was just soft enough to be a pain in the arse to ride unless it was pointing down. Arrrrgh! That wasn’t in the brochure!
Pushing continued as we made our way to our intended overnight stop just beneath the summit of Sgorr Gaoith, we met three snow- shoers coming in our direction. Pleasantries were exchanged as I looked somewhat enviously at their footwear. It appeared that we had brought pen knives to a gun fight.
Thankfully, a small descent restored our inner chimps to grinning state as we fishtailed our way down towards our home for the night. All plans for snow-holing had been long since abandoned. The thought of waking up in a collapsed snow hole due to the unseasonably warm conditions didn’t appeal to either of us. Instead we shovelled snow to create a level base and pitched our tent. With nothing on Nature’s TV but a fiery setting sun and unfettered views in every direction, we were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. La Vita Bella.
“Are you f*cking kidding me?”
If it can go wrong, it will go wrong. Murphy’s Law. If it can go wrong, it will go wrong and always at the furthest point from home and when it is below freezing. Sannys Law.
Exhibit 1. The strawberry tart incident. As befits a micro adventure, Rob and I had bought artery clogging strawberry tarts for our overnight camp. Unfortunately, in my haste to get up the hill, I had left them on the bonnet of the Land Rover. Idiot!
Exhibit 2. Stovegate. Hungry after our ride and push up, I was positively salivating at the thought of my bacon and pasta dinner. Sparking up my trusty MSR stove, I placed it on the ground where I had cleared the snow away and waited. And waited. And waited some more. Less Pocket Rocket and more pocket protector, the pitiful flame that came out had all the power of a tea light. It didn’t so much thaw the snow in the pan but appeared to be waiting for summer to arrive to do the job for it. Glacial comes to mind. Heating up the gas canister by hand or the slightly more risky dunking it into a pan of hot water were the obvious answer. Obvious, that is, until I realised that it was frozen to the ground below. Bollox! Cue a meal of lukewarm pasta in a cold bacon sauce.
Exhibit 3. Poogate. I won’t go into the finer details but when you have to go for an open air poo in the dark and dig a small hole for it, don’t make the mistake of running after your toilet paper which the wind has whipped out of your hand and then returning to the “scene of the crime” only to suffer the indignity of the silent footstep. Hard packed snow and ice do not good poo removers make!
Restoring balance to the Force
Fortunately, I have come to appreciate the benefits of mindfulness of late. Sometimes all that is required is to just relax, take a deep breath and allow yourself to soak up your surroundings. With a can of Gin and Tonic in hand, Rob and I reflected upon our situation. How often does one find oneself up a mountain in the comfort of a tent with incredible views of the stars above with barely a breath of wind in the middle of winter after a bluebird day?
We could have been anywhere in the world but I kept coming back to the thought that one man’s exotic foreign land is another man’s home. Could it get any better? Well, actually, it could! As if on cue, the Big Guy upstairs was clearly smiling upon us as he sparked up the Divine Projector and treated us to a display of the Northern Lights. I have to admit that I turned in for the night with the warm glow that you get from being in the right place at the right time.
Oh Ambassador, you are spoiling us!
So how do you follow a textbook winter overnight camp? Simples! You wake up to a bluebird day where above you there is nothing but blue and below you, a picture postcard temperature inversion stretching as far as the eye can see. Add in glorious sunshine where the thermometer tops out at 19 degrees later in the day and you are off to a very good start to the day.
As befits Ruffty Tuffty explorer types, we opted for a breakfast that would do Ray Mears proud. Fresh apple pie, Birds custard and half a can of perfectly chilled Gin and Tonic which I had left over from the night before. Truly, it was a breakfast of champions.
Time to ride
Breaking camp, with the snow melting beneath our tyres, we revised our original ride plans of exploring the plateau and opted to ride the ridge along the edge of Glen Eanaich back towards Aviemore. Cresting each rise, we were treated to a heady mix of big sky views and technical riding.
Snow fields were crossed with almost indecent speed, brakes being effective more in an advisory capacity while the interspersed sections of narrow, rocky singletrack made for good sport. We may have been loaded up but the temptation to ride fast and hard was irresistible. While our bikepacking gear bounced about, our fat tyres found traction on even the sketchiest sections of trail which made for a rewarding ride experience. We could not help but grin like idiots.
Cresting the final rise, we reached the Argyll Stone, a pronounced granite outcrop that afforded us the opportunity to just sit and soak up our surroundings. From there, the theme for the rest of the ride was Dive! Dive! Dive!
Any line was fair game as we ploughed our way through the heather and summit grass to the site of a weather station. What followed was probably one of the finest descents I have ridden in a very long time. Starting as a barely legible indentation in the grass, the trail very quickly developed into a full blown Alpine style descent.
Loose, rocky trail, tight switchbacks, the smell of heather and grass filling our nostrils and reminding us of trips to Verbier conspired to make for trail perfection. The more we descended, the more the trail gave of itself.
Narrow, sunken path and in bloom heather made for a trail where a times we were riding more by intuition than by line of sight, our substantial tyres being almost totally obscured by Nature all around us. Drops, twisties, hops – the trail was a connoisseur’s delight.
Heading into the tree line, the sun shone between the pines giving us an ever changing canvas of light and dark. When finally we reached the valley floor denoted by a narrow footbridge crossing an icy cold stream, we were elated and spent in equal measure. Sweat dripped from our brows. It was t shirt and short weather while we could both feel the tightness of skin that marks too much sun and not enough sun tan lotion. Scotland in the winter. Who knew eh?
Spinning back along the singletrack road down Glen Feshie, the Big Guy had one more treat lined up for us as a red squirrel ran across the road in front of us. Adding to the song of the skylarks and the ptarmigan we had seen earlier in the ride, we had filled our David Bellamy Young Wildlife Spotters dance card for the trip. I’m sure if we had wanted to; we would have probably seen a Capercaillie and a Wildcat too! Turning into the car park, I wondered whether our Strawberry Tarts were still there or whether they had succumbed to their inevitable demise. To my astonishment, they were still on the bonnet of the Land Rover. A little worse for wear perhaps but faster than you could say Salmonella, I was happily devouring mine and remained mostly puke free. Sometimes the best things do indeed come to those who wait.
The important bit
Heading up into the mountains with a bike at any time can be a hazardous affair but in winter, even more so. It’s not an undertaking to be done lightly but as Sanny and Rob proved, pick your days and you will have some truly special memories to savour. Each was equipped with full winter gear including an avalanche shovel, flexible crampons and the willingness to change their plans should the conditions have deteriorated. Bikepacking gear used was supplied by Revelate Designs courtesy of Backcountrybiking.co.uk.
Sanny was riding his long term test Cannondale Fat Caad 1 while Rob was on a Surly Moonlander with a custom 1 x 9 set up – 20 tooth ring at the front with an 11-36 at the back. As the mountains steepened, Sanny became increasingly envious of Rob’s gearing selection but soon realised that the ground was too hard frozen to bury a body.