Singletrack Magazine Issue 125 | The Art Of The Possible

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Has your biking mojo taken a knock of late? No longer quite feeling the love? Sanny reckons you might just need a wee challenge in your life to fire you up. Like a few Scottish Munros.

Words & Photography Sanny

singletrack scottish munros

What is it that first inspired you to get into this strange and unusual sport of ours? Was it riding your BMX off-road with your mates as a kid? Was it some briefly glanced-at TV programme about this new craze from America called ‘mountain biking’? Or did you flick through an outdoor magazine and see images of impossibly tanned and good-looking Californian types on bikes with a gazillion gears, riding sun-dappled trails that appear only to exist in dreams? 

For me, it was the cover picture of a walking magazine showing a guy sans helmet pushing what would now be considered a practically Neolithic Saracen (complete with canti brakes and Bullmoose stem) on a patch of snow on the Cairngorm plateau. As inspiring images go, it was pretty low rent. Despite this, the image stuck with me long after I got my first proper mountain bike, a 15-speed Raleigh Maverick ATB. Icing on the magazine cake was a story inside about the Crane cousins taking their bikes up Kilimanjaro. Tiny – mind – blown! The years have passed, the bikes have come and gone, but the same spark continues to burn brightly. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that one picture would set me on a journey of adventure, self-discovery and personal challenge where I would set out to ride all the Munros – every Scottish mountain over 3,000ft. Currently standing at 283 in number, it’s not exactly what you would call a minor task. I’m not there yet but damn, it’s been fun so far!

Mojo backing and neutron stars.

So what’s this got to do with getting your own mojo back? 

When I lost my father-in-law to lung cancer two years ago, I was at a real low. I got on brilliantly with Jim. We shared a cheeky sense of humour and would happily sit talking nonsense about all manner of subjects, big and small. When he died, I had a small window of opportunity to go away for the day on my own in the mountains, alone with only my bike and camera for company. Upset and angry at the loss, I needed to clear my head, organise my thoughts and for want of a better phrase, press the reset button. Not being one to do things lightly, I settled on a circuit of the 4,000 footers in the Cairngorms – Braeriach, Cairn Toul, Angel’s Peak, Devil’s Point, Ben Macdui and Cairngorm in a single ride. 

On the map, from the comfort of one’s armchair on a cold winter’s night, rain lashing at the windows and the wind blowing a hoolie, it really doesn’t look that far but the reality is a 12-hour plus day out that at times feels (and is) a long way from civilisation. For good measure, I decided that the perfect bike for a multi-hour hikeabike would be my somewhat weighty fat bike, a Surly Ice Cream Truck. 

Humffing my neutron star of a machine up the western face of Braeriach for two hours as my full Scottish breakfast repeated on me doesn’t sound like fun, but with the difficulty came a clarity of thought. Each step felt brutally hard, my stomach fighting with my leg muscles for oxygenated blood. Full Scottish vs Gravity.

Giving up would have been easy but I just thought of Jim and pressed on regardless, despite feeling that I was blowing out my arse. Cresting the summit plateau, it wasn’t just the dead weight of my bike that lifted but my spirits. To stand alone at the top of the mountain soaking in your surroundings, the sights, the smells, the sounds – well, it’s food for the soul. The sound of birdsong, the trickle of a mountain stream, the gentle crunch of tyre on coarse granite sand, the warming sun on your skin… in that moment I felt intensely aware of where I was; both the enormity of it and the details that we so often overlook in our daily lives. The further I got, the better I felt. 


A jagged mass of ankle-snapping rocks to negotiate, a steep and loose switchbacked descent to Corrour Bothy far, far below, another brute of a push and carry up Sron Riach onto the shoulder of Macdui – none of it came easy, but perhaps that was the point. The physical challenge gave me focus and purpose – memories of the many happy times I spent with Jim flitted in and out of my conscious thoughts. A shared joke, a terrible pun, listening to his stories of his cycling exploits in his youth – each came and went with a wry smile for company. 

Reaching the summit cairn, day had turned to evening and the fading light had firmly settled into its golden hour. Everywhere I looked was bathed in warm and inviting light; the Northern Corries utterly resplendent in their spring coat. As I dropped down the well-worn path to the ski centre a few kilometres in the distance, I got lost in the sheer grandeur and majesty of the mountains. They were here long before us and will be here a very long time after us too. As good as the descent was, the real reward came from just being there. Right place, right time. Jim’s passing had pushed me to do it and it felt good to have him along for the ride with me in my thoughts.

What’s your challenge?

Which brings me back to my proposition that you need to have some challenge in your riding life. Do what you’ve always done, ride where you have always ridden and you end up in a fairly mundane ‘eat, sleep, ride, repeat’ cycle. It doesn’t have to be this way. Far better to take a step outside your comfort zone in order to unlock a whole world of possibilities. Let me take you back to my first-ever Munro on a bike. Way back in the ’90s, I spent a weekend away in the Cairngorms with the Glasgow Mountain Bike Club. Blessed with positively balmy bank holiday weather, we had planned a monster of a ride (well, for me at the time at least). Spanning the length of Glen Feshie, we would make our way to the base of Carn Ban Mor where we would ride our bikes up to the summit plateau some 3,000ft above before descending a corker of a track that mixed singletrack, bedrock, babyheads and heather in one irresistible cocktail. 

Winching my way up the steep and loose Land Rover track, I groaned as I saw it snake its way ever upwards before doglegging to the right and going out of sight. It looked like it was bloody miles away. I was committed to doing the ride. There was no going back but I had serious doubts about being able to break the back of the climb before it broke me. 

‘What do you mean that isn’t the bloody top?’

Settling into my most twiddly of gears, I got on with the task at hand. Each turn of the cranks brought me that little bit closer to the top. Every now and again I would snatch an upward glance and slowly, inexorably, I came closer to my goal. When I finally reached the top, I had this sudden dawning realisation that the impossible was anything but. I was atop a very big mountain having ridden all the way up there. The world seemed just that little bit smaller while my confidence had taken a massive leap forward. My mind and heart raced as I cashed in the gravity points for the descent back down. 

Being the ’90s, by the end of the descent, I felt like I had been well and truly battered. I seemed to have hit every rock, bump, dip and square edge on the way down, my Kung Fu death-grip on the canti brakes giving me ‘the claw’ while my legs quivered like jelly. It was mentally exhausting, but utterly exhilarating. My mind raced. If I could do this then what else could I do? A door had opened into a whole new world of adventure. You know when they played the Bullseye theme tune in a minor key and Jim Bowen showed Jeff and Tracey from Macclesfield what they could have won? It was like that, except I wasn’t Jeff and Tracey. I was the guy who’d won the Mini Metro, the caravan and the speedboat in one go. My legs ached on the ride back up the glen but I wasn’t for caring. I had moved from the familiar into uncharted territory and I was hooked. 

New places, new experiences.

From that one ride, many adventures have been born. They’ve not all been epics, but they all are lodged firmly in the file marked ‘happy place’. Rides such as a bank holiday assault on Ben Lomond from Loch Ard on a path that did not exist and which ultimately destroyed my Turner 5 Spot (it snapped clean through the seat tube as I navigated my way back to civilisation along the West Highland Way). I should have been gutted but I had a strange philosophical calmness that recognised it as the inevitable consequence of taking a bike up and down some fairly meaty mountain tracks. Or the first day of British Summer Time when friends Donald and the Captain joined me for a traverse of the Ben Lawers massif. As much a walk with our bikes as a ride, for many it would be an exercise in frustration. We loved it. The riding, when it came was brilliant, it being as much a case of the setting we were in and the company we were keeping as it was of the trails themselves. And then, of course, there is the time we rode the five Munros of Lochnagar for my friend Shearer’s 50th birthday celebration; early on we broke Mark who retired with a broken hand, while by the end of the ride, we had broken Steve Deas who had gone out on the ride as a man but was apparently returning as a husk. Stob Binnein, Macdui, Na Gruagaichean, Vorlich, Sgor Gaoith – just examples of the many unpronounceable peaks I have ridden, dragged, carried and shoved a bike up, over, along and down. Each memorable in their own uniquely wonderful way.

Yin and Yang.

Of course, it’s not always plain sailing. Just when you think you have a handle on them, the mountains have a habit of giving you a sharp prod and reminding you that they are in charge. On a summit ride along the positively sublime ridge of Buachaille Etive Mor, Donald and I spotted Buachaille Etive Beag across the valley. It looked enticing. From the back, a gently dropping ridge to the saddle looked like it would make for a classic ride. My suspicions were confirmed a few weeks later when I dragged Mark of this parish up it from the west side. It was a brutally hard carry – the mix of high temperatures and yon bastarding clegs [Horseflies – Ed] made for some industrially strong language at times.

Hitting the summit, we were, as promised, treated to a most enjoyable ridge ride. What I hadn’t appreciated was the stone pitched staircase from hell that followed that dropped hundreds of feet to the valley far below. We had hoped for a technical descent. What we got was a leg-numbing swine of a descent that saw us having to carry our bikes downhill. It felt like the ultimate indignity. I don’t think Mark has properly forgiven me yet.

Why you are doing this again?

There are only a couple of times when I have properly stopped to reflect on the sanity (or lack thereof) of my personal challenge. The first was on a steep carry up from Glen Einich onto the southern shoulder of Braeriach. I think it was just at the point when I grabbed onto a clod of loose grass on the near-vertical slope as I tried to outflank a deep bank of Spring snow and watch, slack-jawed, as I caused it to rapidly tumble a couple of hundred metres below me that I thought I was perhaps in deep doo-doo. Cue a stern talking to myself that I wasn’t going to allow myself to become crag-fast despite feeling scarily out of my depth. 

The second was on Ben Chonzie. Regarded as a bit dull by the Munro aficionados, that feeling dissipates in 80-mile-an-hour gale-force winds and snow when you try to retrace your steps from the summit and realise that your way is blocked. A horrible realisation struck me that we were going to have to break trail through an unstable snow slope and take a detour that could see us being out long after dark with no lights. By the time my friend Mark and I got back to the car many hours later, our feet were like blocks of ice and our snotters were frozen on our faces. Frankly we were like burst balloons. 

Highs, lows and the bits in-between.

And yet for all that, despite the occasional lows, the highs more than compensate, such that when the lows come, it is usually possible just to shrug the shoulders and get on with the task in hand. Don’t get me wrong, I much prefer it when things go 100% right but with experience comes an ability and confidence to roll with the punches a little bit more easily and to regard such incidents more as a problem to be worked on than a show-stopping disaster that will require the boys and girls in the whirly-bladed flying machine to pay you a trail visit. 

On a recent winter weekend trip to ride the five summits of Lochnagar, disaster struck at the top of the first climb, when my freehub stripped clean through leaving me with a bicycle-shaped scooter. A 150-mile road trip was in danger of being a failure before it had even properly started. Unfazed, I beat a hasty retreat to the van where I changed into walking gear and promptly headed for the summit on two feet. As I crested the Glas Allt Shiel waterfall track (an absolute peach of a descent for those in the know), I struggled to contain my smugness as I was treated to a picture-perfect temperature inversion. That was right up to the moment I realised that in my haste to repack my bag, I had left my lunch back at the van! That’ll teach me, though quite what I’m still not 100% sure.

Just flippin’ do it!

My point still stands though. Doing something, anything, that pushes you out of your comfort zone is often no bad thing. Every time you try something new, you open yourself up to a whole new world of possibilities. Had it not been for that first image spotted in a magazine, I might never have got into mountain biking. I might never have ridden up a mountain. Now, I have both the confidence and the desire to travel the world with my bike on adventures. Whether trips to the Alps or Canada or bikepacking in the Dolomites, all have become possible because I decided to try something new. The key is not so much what the challenge is, but what it represents. It could be that you are just starting out. A loop of the red at Glentress could be a big achievement for you. It doesn’t have to be as grandiose as my challenge. What is important is that it matters to you and you take ownership of it. Make it yours. Embrace it, then see where the journey takes you. Who knows, we might bump into each other on some remote summit in the pissing rain. Actually, scratch that. Any fool can be cold and wet. Be like me and save your adventure days for when the sun is shining and the sky is blue. There is good reason why most of my photos make me look like I only ride when the weather is nice.

Inspired? Here is how you can get your mountain mojo working.

The Munros are a curious collection of mountains. The subject of multiple guidebooks, it can actually be quite challenging to determine whether a track will go or not without actually riding there for yourself. The best guides I have found are written by Ralph Storer in his ‘Ultimate Munros’ series of books. Covering everywhere save the Northern Highlands and Islands, they feature multiple route options and pin-sharp descriptions of trail conditions that other guidebooks seem to gloss over. If you want to know what to expect in a path, Ralph is your man.

This being the age of the internet and self-publishing, is another fine resource. Featuring route descriptions and trail reports by multiple authors, a bit of research over long winter evenings can yield trail gold. The chances are that someone will have walked or ridden the route you are planning and taken multiple photos for good measure.

Last, but by no means least, is a thread on the Bike Forum I started several years ago called ‘Biking the Munros: Putting the mountains back into mountain biking’. Drawing upon the hive mind of the Forum, it’s a terrific resource for both inspiration and information. 

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The Munros are mountains and need to be treated with respect. Build up to them, don’t just launch into trying to ride several in a day. You’ll need a basic level of fitness to start with which you can then build upon. Get a bit of mountain craft behind you, pack safety gear like a bothy shelter, learn to map-read and pack warm and waterproof clothes in case the weather turns. You will make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them so that you can explore and enjoy the mountains for many years to come.

By day, Sanny plies his trade as a Chartered Accountant and Non-Executive Director. By night, however, give him a map and the merest whisper of a trail "that might go" and he'll be off faster than a rat up a drainpipe on some damn fool mission to discover new places to ride. Rarely without his trusty Nikon D5600, he likes nothing better than being in the big mountains, an inappropriately heavy bike on his back, taking pics and soaking up the scenery. He also likes to ride his bike there too although rumours that he is currently working on his next book, "Walks with my bike", are untrue (mostly). Fat biking, gravel riding, bikepacking, road biking, e biking, big mountain adventures - as long as two wheels are involved, you'll find him with a grin on his face as he dives off the side of a mountain, down a narrow lane or into deep undergrowth in search of hidden trails and new adventures. His favourite food is ham and mushroom pizza and he is on a mission to ride all of the Munros, mostly as it allows him to indulge in eating more pizza. He has no five year plan, is a big fan of the writing of Charlie Connelly and reckons that Kermode and Mayo's Film Review Podcast is quite possibly the finest bit of broadcasting around.

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  • Singletrack Magazine Issue 125 | The Art Of The Possible
  • nidderdalenath
    Full Member

    Great read, inspiring stuff!

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