Charged with having an adventure, Sanny and Kev take young Toby on his first ever big summit ride in the heart of the Cairngorms. Will he love it or will it turn into a teenage angst fest? Only one way to find out……
Words and pics by Sanny.
In association with ORTLIEB.
The doorbell rang. A package had arrived. But what could it be, I wondered? I was certain that I hadn’t ordered anything from internet giant “Things you don’t need!” and that my family’s intervention to cure me of my QVC shopping channel addiction had been entirely successful (apart from the odd relapse – comb for a baldy man, anyone?) Now I don’t know about you but there is something rather exciting when you receive an unexpected parcel in the postal area. Tearing open the box, I found a fancy new Ortlieb seat pack and a simple instruction; Go have an adventure!
Never one to be told twice, I contemplated my options. Living in Scotland as I do, there is an embarrassment of riding riches to be had and it can be hard to narrow down to just the one. However, a timely text from my friend Kev Dangerous in Pitlochry crystalized my thoughts.
It had been far too long since I had last ridden with him and even longer since I had ridden one of my favourite mountains, Carn a Chlamain. Nestling in the heart of Glen Tilt, it is a peak that receives scant attention when compared to the sexier peaks of the Cairngorms and the West Highlands. There are no jaw dropping corries to be skirted round nor tales of derring do by crusty bearded mountaineers to be heard. However, what it does have is a peach of a Land Rover track that can be ridden to just a few metres shy of the summit and a stalkers path descent that could have been designed purely for mountain bikers.
Meeting up on a clear Spring morning at Kev’s bike shop and cafe, the piping hot black pudding and egg roll and coffee that were placed under my nose as soon as I walked in the door felt like just the right start to our little adventure.
Joining Kev and I was Kev’s younger son, Toby. A bit of a chip off the old block, what he lacks in years, he more than makes up for in skills and enthusiasm. This was to be his first ever Munro summit by bike, no easy task for many an adult biker, let alone a young teenager. Would he enjoy it or was he biting off more than he could chew? Oh well, only one way to find out.
On the plus side, he had at his disposal a rocket ship on an enduro bike that he had worked hard to buy with his own money; something that neither Kev or I could have even contemplated existing at that age. Back then, both of us rode Raleigh Maverick’s; finest Nottingham steel work dressed in a heady mix of Cheng Shin tyres, Lee Chi brakes and Sachs drivetrain. Truthfully, I would probably have sold a kidney for what Toby was now riding given half the chance.
One horse town without the horse.
Rolling into the steamy fleshpot that Blair Atholl clearly isn’t (even sleepy would be stretching it a bit), we found ourselves gently climbing up a well heeled estate road that would take us to our quarry for the day. With the sun dappling through the trees, the River Tilt flitted in and out of sight far below.
Oak and chestnut abounded. Despite being part of the Cairngorms, the Glen has a very different feel to it than its northern neighbours. Instead of vast mootlands and jaw dropping cliffs, the once glaciated glen is a rich mix of verdant green pasture and soaring trees of more variety than you can shake a stick at. Variety is the name of the game here.
A brief Cairngorm bikepacking history lesson.
As we made our way along the track, passing the odd bike pedalling walker (their destination clearly being one of the big mountains set far into the glen where the long walk in discourages all but the hardiest), I reflected a bit on the history of the place. A drove road of long standing connecting Blair Atholl with Braemar, it is considered something of a classic in Scottish mountain biking. The access laws here are broad and permissive. Adhere to the general principle of “Be kind, be considerate and don’t be a dick”, something I find works well in pretty much all areas of life, and you can enjoy freedom to roam.
However, back in the 1840’s, it wasn’t so as Professor John Balfour and his young students found on a botany field trip. Having walked some 20 miles down the glen from Braemar, they were greeted by the then Duke of Atholl (in this case, the “th” would be better pronounced “s”) and his cronies who attempted to bar their way. Only after a cat and mouse chase did the group manage to reach their destination. The incident led to a famous court case and the establishing of the Scottish Rights of Way Society who still fight for improved access to this day. Proof, if ever, that the “Get orf my laaand” brigade are not just the preserve of mountain biking.
Namaste Death Cults and Chai Lattes of Doom!
Crossing the venerable stone bridge that spans the Tilt, we briefly contemplated the merits of cold water river swimming. Now while I do acknowledge that it has found its place as the next big thing in outdoor sport, the thought of jumping into a near freezing river in March in Scotland feels a bit too close to some kind of Namaste Death Cult practice than something to be done willingly. It is right up there with soya milk (yuck!), foraging (utterly pointless unless you fancy playing Russian roulette with a wild mushroom that may or may not kill you horribly) and smashed avocado (God gave us sharp knives for a reason, hipster kids!) Err, thanks but no thanks.
We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto!
Over the bridge, the landscape changed perceptibly. The trees started to thin, affording us clear views of the river to our left while up ahead, the mountains loomed large on the horizon. While the map would suggest that it is a remote glen, the presence of small cottages and shielings tell a story of land that has been well worked over the years and has been home to farmers and estate workers alike. It has a feeling of welcoming benevolence. That said, the looming hulk of the Beinn a Ghlo massif, dressed in its alluvial fan finery (No, I had no idea what they were either until my friend Sarah with a 7th Dan in Geology told me!), serves as an ever present reminder that the mountains round here are a serious proposition in winter and should not be travelled lightly. Our eyes dawn ever forward by the deep V channel at the head of the Glen that separates the mountains, I spotted our access track that would be our companion for the next couple of hours. The only way was up and it was about to be for quite a long time indeed.
Initially reversing our direction of travel, we all realised that our easy progress thus far had been somewhat wind assisted. It was now time to pay the piper as we ground, groaned and willed ourselves up the first steep section of track. I have to admit that I cast somewhat envious glances at Kev’s choice of ride for the day; a rather natty electric number although I did laugh out loud as he powered up one particularly steep section and discovered that power is nothing without traction, landing in heap in front of a giggling Toby.
Pressing on, the track got even steeper and harder, rather like a Flandrian Berg, albeit without the bone shaking cobbles or the hordes of drunk Belgian cycling fans. However, with a bit of effort, we all made it to the turn without entirely blowing out our backsides.
With the sun in the sky, we retired to a small hollow in the ground which afforded us shelter from the wind and the opportunity to break out the snacks. While Kev and Toby went for the energy bar option, I went full charge with the remnants of the previous night’s pizza. Ignoring the eminently sensible advice that pizza that has been out for more than two hours should not be eaten, I threw caution to the wind as I munched my way through a particularly tasty pepperoni number. That I am able to write this is proof that the 2 hour advice is more of a guideline although the “wind assisted” effect it had on my insides a short while later would perhaps suggest otherwise. No matter, it tasted great and I was happy.
Saddling up, we pressed on, the wind to our backs (some more than others) and spun our way up the track. Despite being built for Land Rover’s (other more reliable and capable 4x4s are available), the looseness and steepness of the track in places with the odd section of singletrack to the side makes for a real climbing challenge. I have to admit to being more than a little bit pleased with my bike choice at this point. A 5 inch tyred mountain bike may not win in a point to point speed race but nothing comes close when it comes to delivering traction.
As I powered on, Toby and Kev followed close behind. Despite being hamstrung with gears that weren’t quite low enough, Toby acquitted himself admirably on the climb, earning himself the nickname of “The Tobynator”. With a smile as wide as the Clyde, he was clearly loving it.
Distant Cairngorms and the promise of future bikepacking adventures.
To our left, we could see the peak draw inexorably closer while to our right, the views up the glen grew increasingly impressive, the more height we gained. Distant peaks loomed large – Carn an Righ, Glas Tulaichean and Beinn Iutharn Mhor all vied for our attention, their tops dusted in a covering of snow. I have ridden them all but never in the winter. Perhaps future adventures beckon?
Almost on cue, we happened upon a large bank of snow that had filled in the track in front meaning that progress slowed just a little. My smug self satisfaction of having brought my fat bike was short lived as the soft spring snow conditions meant that I sank as deep into the snow as easily as Kev and Toby did.
No matter, the reduced pace meant that we could look across the valley to the bowls of Beinn a Ghlo and spot lines for future split board and ski touring adventures. With the right amount of snow, the possibilities could be endless.
Knocking the b*stard off, as Edmund Hilary put it so succinctly.
Back on terra firma, our pace quickened again as we crested one final, rocky steep section of track and the rounded summit plateau revealed itself to us. All that stood between us and the top was an increasingly testing side wind and large banks of snow. We had well and truly cracked it.
A mixture of pushing and shouldering our bikes saw us reach the rocky coned summit in jig time. We had done it and young Toby had earned the summit of his first Munro by bike in good style. Chapeau! What’s more, he had clearly relished every minute of it thus far. I could not help but reflect that this would not be his last big mountain peak.
On y va!
Donning extra clothes for warmth, we snapped a few pictures and chomped down some welcome sustenance before making a break from the summit. On a warm day with the sun out, it is easy to tarry there for a while but the icy wind and gathering clouds told us that today was not to be that day. No matter, another time perhaps. Dropping saddles, we each charged down the snow covered slopes that enveloped the summit in an icy white hug.
Travelling altogether faster than was perhaps wise, we whopped, hollered and giggled our way down the hillside. I would like to say how much easier things were on my fat bike but the driving wind from the side made steering something of a challenge. I knew where I wanted to go and I could see where I wanted to go but actually getting there proved nigh on impossible. The big wheels kept catching the wind which meant that steering existed in more of an advisory capacity than something I could influence. I was definitely the unwitting passenger so just hung on and enjoyed the experience.
Can you do that again, please?
Regrouping at the cut off point where the Stalker’s path begins, faces ever so slightly windburnt, we were excited for more and more is what we got. Snaking this way and that in a gloriously meandering fashion, the singletrack path is an absolute corker.
Credit in the gravity bank.
Starting relatively gently, despite the odd bank of snow to cross, it draws the rider in with the promise of pleasures yet to enjoy. Despite recent snow melt, the trails were dry to the point of us wondering how this could be a March day. Under tyre conditions were pretty much perfect.
Taking turns off the front, on the final banking of snow, Kev threw caution to the wind and went for it big time. The inevitable over the bars moment that ensued was captured perfectly on camera despite me shaking with hoots of laughter. There was no coming back despite Kev’s best efforts to stay connected to his bike. Dusting the snow off, he was immediately back on and riding at warp speed.
It’s payback time.
Rounding a right hander, the hillside drops away to reveal a narrow, technical descent that at times barely hugs the ground. As if not challenging enough, the expansive views right down the glen that draw the eye conspire to make you lose concentration on the riding in hand.
While not being exposed in that scary way that some of the trails in Verbier possess (a thousand foot drop off a trail that is just 2 feet away from the edge springs to mind), it is nevertheless a proper riding challenge that demands both concentration and a decent level of technical skill.
The challenges come thick and fast – tight switchbacks, rocky step downs, step ups over streams, landslips, rutted chutes – there really is a bit of everything for the discerning mountain rider. Never having ridden with Toby before, as a Dad, I had a small concern that the riding might have been too much of a step up for him, the climb a bit too tiring. I need not have worried. He took every section of the descent in his stride and was clearly enjoying the entire experience. Colour me impressed.
These aren’t the droids you’re looking for……..
When finally we hit the copse of oak trees and track that signalled the end of the descent proper, we all stood there grinning like ejits. Carn a Chlamain had promised much and delivered even more. All that remained was for us to cash in what remained of our gravity chips for a gentle amble down the glen back to the start. Heck, even the sun decided to rejoin us.
As we approached civilization, we took the time to look around us and soak in our surroundings. “Did you know they filmed Obi Wan Kenobi here last summer?” said Kev. As something of a Star Wars fan boy, the day was complete. Personally, I cannot wait to see how the glen will feature in the new series. Hopefully, the awesome scenery will distract from Ewan McGregor’s painfully wooden acting although I’m not holding my breath. Having endured the jobbys rolled in glitter that were the prequels, I had rather hoped his take on Alec Guiness had been consigned to the circular file……
A cruel final blow softened by ice cream.
Reflecting on our ride over a well earned ice cream (Biscoff flavour – immense!), Kev did his best Jim Bowen “Bullseye” impersonation in showing me what we could have won – his brand new pizza oven that was due to start serving paying customers the very next day. I may have cried a little on the inside at that. To be shown a pizza oven but not the output from it is verily a cruel and unusual thing to do to someone. Still, to complain would be churlish. We had been treated to a spectacular day out in the mountains – great chat, great company, great trails, great scenery – what more could you want for? (Pizza? – Ed)
Glen Tilt is a truly special place and it is easy to see why it attracts so many of the outdoor fraternity – walker, cyclists, skiers, runner. Heck, we even saw a couple of folk on Bromptons pushing their bikes along trackless grass on the other side of the river. As we chewed over the ride, I pondered their motivations and reckoned they fell into one of two camps – hardcore Rough Stuff Fellowship types with a Doc Brown penchant for not needing roads or modern day Withnail and I’s who came on holiday by mistake. Either way, they seemed to be smiling from afar and that I guess encapsulates the attraction of this special place. It doesn’t matter how you get there, all that matters is you get there and you will be justly rewarded.
This article was brought to you in association with ORTLIEB.
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