Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Bynack Beag, Bynack More and Cairn Gorm

Driving out to places to walk isn't something I've done for a while but I decided knocking the approach hike down to 4 wild kms around Cairn Gorm's flanks was infinitely preferable to 9km hiking over stony fire roads and rocky approach tracks from the Campsite (only to have to walk down on the road and repeat Wednesday's walk" home"). So we chugged upto Coire na Ciste carpark and joined 1 car and 5 vans staring into the fog.

It was the first time we've hiked together in a couple of years, racing having taken precedence over most holidays. I was in charge of now so I cheated and used the GPS to avoid any agonising back-tracking but the paths were mostly worn to the first ridge.

Just below the rim of the Choire, an older couple were stopped, discussing where to go next and we tried our best to persuade them to venture further whilst inwardly hoping they'd move on so we could steal their rock and stop for some food. They didn't.

Just over the top of the ridgeline we made use of a few stones in the heather to consume sandwiches whilst quietly watching an eagle soar by even closer than the one I saw on the flanks of Bealach Horn.

We dropped down to the river easily, the substantial bog having been dried out by the summer sun. The book said "straight up the other side to a sandy path".

Future sandy path - about 100m from the summit
• • •

We complied but it was hard going against the grain of the heather so found a faint path to follow in a zigzag. It intermittently disappeared so was still a tough climb. A gaggle of 12 ptarmigan scattered in the sun, taking to the wing like a flock of mountain pigeons then disappearing amongst the granite rocks.


 

At the top was Bynack Beag which we summitted to add to the Corbett list then hiked over to Bynack More where bizarre granite rock formations looked more like a jumble of dumped armchairs and sofas piled up alongside the path. 


 

These "Barns" continued off our first Munro of the day looking like a combination of cosy bivi shelters or stony coffins.

• • •

More Ptarmigans mooched around on the descent, convinced we couldn't see them, even though snow hasn't yet fallen. Their fluffy feet now visible, they were so close. A mountain hare saw us before we saw it and darted across the hillside, disappearing faster than the spindly path we had been following. 

I challenge you to spot them (2)
 

The book lamented "descend to the saddle where the full glory of the Cairn Gorms opens up before you".  Smug bastard.  The cloud lifted and broke enough for us to take it in "piecemeal" rather than "full glory" but Look Eounach was exposed along with its surrounding peaks and as we crossed the (not so) boggy ridgeline from where we could see many Cairngorms summits intermittently spread across the Landscape rolling around us.


 

• • •

The path up to Cairn Gorm's South shoulder was taken at a slower pace by me, still struggling with biking last week  and 2 walks this week.

It was a beautiful place to stop and eat the rest of lunch and take in some sugar though.

We left the path too early, making a bee line for the summit up sheep flanks but it was too hard going and we didn't seem to be making any progress. We must've looked desperate and lost as the mountain rescue helicopter made 2 passes to check we were OK. It didn't help that TSK's bootlace snapped so on the helicopter's second pass, I was providing shelter whilst he repaired the lace. We gave them the signal for "No thanks, we're fine, really", at 4:30 pm, and carried on. As the chopper disappeared up the Glen, I inwardly wobbled and hoped there really *was* a nice easy descent from the top.

After what seemed like a never ending trudge across a lunar landscape, the tourist path up from the carpark finally came into view. We bailed out of our rocky, mossy trudge and enjoyed the final 50m on compacted sand. 




 

The only other 2 people we saw on the mountain were well loaded backpackers about to make their descent to the loch for the night before attempting Ben Macdui tomorrow. She reassured me they had a fine selection of layers - as we all stood chatting amongst the summit snow which fell yesterday evening.

Summit selfies taken, we started the march down the tourist path, ignoring what would have been the easier option over something we perceived to be quicker.

It was our only nav error. In our rush to go the quick way down we endured a steep harsh descent on big rocks interspersed with slippery gravel and a few close-calls on my part as I skidded around on the loose stones.

The route we should have taken was glaringly obvious as a path but we'd descended too far and there was a steep gully in the way.so we sucked it up and kept going.

• • •

While there were no "tourist hoards" around to avoid (the book recommends the descent of the Coire na Ciste ridges to avoid the tourists), we did encounter a drone pilot as I weighed up the most effective way to rid myself of the electronic hornet - a small stone or the discarded orange peel 1'd picked up on the way down. The pilot took the hint, jumped in his car and left.

 

The walk to the van along the road was predictably tedious yet quiet. Interesting noseying at the out-of-season ski infrastructure.


The distant sunset developing under cover of the mountain cloud we'd been cursing turned from yellow to gold then finally, as we got to the van and ate our sandwiches, the glow emerged, casting pink light across the highlands, including through the clouds still shrouding Cairn Gorm and I experienced The Most Enchanting evening of the whole fortnight. It could only have been more perfect if we'd lingered on the mountain a little longer but still, it was a tad chilly for that and we quickly started the engine on the van and headed down to a warm pod and a hot shower.




 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The ridge behind the campsite.

After a couple of rest days, I still wasn't really ready to ride a bike and definitely not on the road or hard forest trails. It was also a really windy day, so I left TSK to go out for a ride whilst I mulled about on the campsite and considered my next move.

I seemed to be OK on foot so I decided, after lunch, to check out the ridge behind the campsite - a series of lumps - 2 or 3 of which may be Corbets. It didn't matter really-it was more about the boundary than the summits. I'd planned to start with the indeterminate link between a forest trail which ended before the forest boundary and a footpath off the hill which ended at a dry stone wall before the forest edge. However, in seeking out the start of the forest trail, I walked the wrong way around the campsite and rather than retrace my steps, decided to do the walk the other way around. It was late in the day so maybe I'd just recce it for another day.

I started my watch and noted it took me 40 minutes to reach the path that headed up to the ridge. On the climb, I met a walker in shorts and light windproof who warned me it was incredibly windy on the tops. Since I was wearing my paramo waterproof trousers and coat with all the venting undone to let out the sweat, this was excellent news.

• • •

The trudge to the ridge was tough and I merely wrote it off as "take a look over the other side then head home". 

 


It sure was windy but I could now see over the black isle and beyond the Forth of Cromarty to the wind turbines near Dingwall and beyond and I couldn't resist climbing to the peak of my first summit on the ridge - the highest at 837m.


On the top was a substantial cairn with walls to add protection from the swirling winds. I sat, tired, in its warm, sheltered embrace, admired the scenery and ate some food and marvelled at how a mountain and a little bit of shelter are amazing for making you feel amazing. It had taken me 20 minutes to Climb 1cm on my map so I calculated that it would take me two hours to get back. It was 4:00. Sunset was about 7pm. I had no head torch, emergency shelter, compass or whistle but 3 maps (2 elec­tronic) and plenty of layers and food.

I felt a little vulnerable but also unnecessarily epic but confident given the low elevation so I sent TSk a text

"Walking the ridge behind the campsite. Forgot spot - back about 6. I was also in full view of the camp- site for most of the route and whilst I didn't have a strong torch suitable for navigating, my red bike light was still in a rucsac pocket and would be visible from the valley should I get into difficulty. All of these musings were a little over the top for what was essentially a stroll in the park compared to most of the terrain in the Cairngorms. but the wind was making the chances of a fall seem highly likely and I was against the clock with the light.

Quite windy.  Having quite a lot of fun.

The first peak I'd just climbed was an outlier with a tempting draw to continue on to the Cairngorms range. Instead I retraced to the saddle before climbing back to the the first plateau on the return route at a substantial 735cm.

From here on it was more of an open moorland trudge to the two other summits so my 40 minutes per peak was a massive over-estimate.

• • •

I had a satisfying snack out of the breeze atop each one to fully appreciate the scenery and the shelter and continue my programme of refuelling after the top loop exertions of last week.

Finally, the part I had been dreading - the intermittent path down. However, my mind was put at ease by the sheer volume of mountain bike tyre tracks on the hill path and the sight below me of several possible work-around routes although my preferred direction wasn't obviously visible.

The forested area where we were camped was known as "The Queen's Forest" and as I moshed along the mountain, bike trail admiring some peoples' line choices and laughing inwardly at others' obvious failures, I said aloud, "Come on then Queenie, I can't imagine you descending off the moorland on your horse, getting branches in your hair, show me your path!"

Sure enough, the tyre tracks continued through the trees at the edge of the forest, snaking around the branches or roots of some fuller trees and boulders then morphed into a dreamy single-track that I promised I'd come back and ride (but never did) before pouring out onto the dead-ended forest trail which I suspected wasn't a dead end either.


 

I appreciated it as forest trails go. It didn't farce about with meandering up and down but set a steady descent all the way back to the campsite where I still had the pod to myself for an extra hour as TSK was still out playing with the breeze on his bike.

As mountain days ago it was no epic-a mere 4 hours-but it felt like a homecoming. It's so long since I've done a walk for the sake of doing a walk. No trophy hunting, no training stats, not even much of a view.

It kicked of a chain of emotions including" I should do more of this" and Ultimately led me to get the Munroes book out after dinner and head for the big hills the next day-both mind and body freed up from the shackles of uncertainty about my condition and ready to take on new challenges.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Random Screams - The Highland Trail and how Covid Ruined Everything and Nothing

I set aside part of my annual leave to recce loop 3 of the highland trail from Oykel Bridge and back. It includes Bealach Horn, the fifth highest pass on the route, the third steepest and the most Northerly points on the map. It is notoriously difficult and therefore slow going and so far I have only watched in wonder as my heroes, these worship­ped dots - slow to a walking pace as they cross what is, interchangeably, one of the most beautiful and inhospitable places in the UK. I have been toying with the idea of leaving this loop for the event as a "nice surprise" but knowing how much confidence and reassurance I get from a good recce, I decided to crack on. Only I can suss my own acceptable camp spots and understand my pace and time restraints based on what's on the ground, not what's on a map.

A few things contributed to the title of this post. In the days leading up to my departure I had cause to look up a Golden Eagle in my bird guide having seen a large raptor with feathered legs in a field near where we were staying. I am humble enough to believe that out of a choice between 440 pairs of Golden eagles and 187 rough legged Buzzards in the UK (Scotland), I saw a Golden Eagle (but not naive enough to think I might be wrong in the assessment of the fluffiness of a raptor's legs).

However when the book described the eagle call as "Random screams" it made me laugh and also think of the Internet - that other place whose calls are made up of Random Screams. One particular Twitter post this month crossed my mind as several of my cycling friends had commented on it. "The Highlands are being ruined". I generally find it's best not to get involved in Twitter any more and hoped that any "ruination" would be merely temporary (and hopefully over after the kid's school holidays which we were * definitely * avoiding).

I'm happy to say that it definitely wasn't ruined where we were staying but our holiday host seemed to have some pent-up issues on his mind, which this post does go into.

• • •

We booked accommodation about 15 km by bicycle from Amat, a little village / Lodge on the HT Route . By car it is a sensible 40 mile drive avoiding the gravel tracks (closed to vehicles).

I left our temporary "home" at 9am, quickly hit forest trail and quickly saw my first bike packers coming the other way. They'd stayed the night in the BBITW, and reminded me of its location. I thought I might stay there on the way back. What I should have done is use fresh legs to go and find it again to mark it on the map for next time, but that might be for another day now.

At the top of the climb through the forest woodland I emerged onto the moor with a deer gate / stone ruin to mark the boundary. The ruin was inspected for bivi purposes. Just beyond, a collection of 6 enorm­ous boulders blocked the route ahead to vehicles but they were awkwardly, (not easily) passed by bike.

From there,  the track led mercifully and impressively in a dead straight line for a mile. It must have been a road once upon a time as the tarmac was more than intermittent. Yet heather was now established up the middle, a deer fence continuing to my left. At the summit was a lake, the perfect swimming spot, with a sitting / bathing rock, but today was still too cool and I had places to be.

• • •


These places

As I summitted the final rise, the peaks of Coigach - Suilvan and Canisp came into view. It would be the end of my loop but I was really excited. THIS is my place! I whooped out loud a little bit (a lot - but it didn't matter as there was no-one to hear for about 2 miles).

On the downhill a hiker was pushing his beaten bike in the opposite direction. He looked a bit annoyed to be pushing this extra load up, the hill that he was so clearly intending to hike on foot. Still, my enthusiasm could not be damped. I wished him a cheery hello whilst secretly realising this would be me on the way home.

As the pastures opened out at the bottom a wooden bridge came into view, the perfect place for a snack I leant up the bike, crossed my legs and listened to nature whilst eating crisps. 5 minutes later I was in Amat, the end of my 27km commute and the start of the top loop. I deposited my rubbish in a bin, noted the turn off to the BBITW and cycled the familiar route past Croick church to the "Road" to Ullapool, no hesitations on navigation this time to reach the turning point of last year where I decided not to bother with the OBH (Oykel Bridge Hotel) but instead keep going to the school­house as part of loop 2.

Th OB in OBH

Today I descended to OBH to see what all the fuss was about. Past a water treatment works (ah, how sweet, they can't do mountain water) and onto the "carpark" by the bridges. I couldn't see the hotel from the road but the steady stream of fishermen in brushed tweed shirts had already persuaded me not to bother. I sent Andrew a text and sat down to eat my lunch, realising instantly that I had left my lunch in the fridge back at the Croft. Ah well, I had enough to see me through. I ate half the beef jerky I only really carry for emergencies and some fried beans then descended the road only to be saved... SAVED!... by the tea rooms at Invercassley being open and serving.

I ordered a tuna chiabatta and helped the owner chase an invading sparrow out of the building.

After the cafe stop I discovered the biggest challenge to attempting to "race" the highland trail - a lovely couple from Lossiemouth who wanted to chat. But I wasn't racing so we talked for a bit then I got a little fed up when the conversation moved on to where my husband was and how I could possibly be driven / brave enough to go out and do this on my own. Not so extreme, never in so many words but why is it folk need to feel reassured that somewhere at the end of the leash / chain of command there is a man waiting to come to the rescue, should things go wrong.  The old paradigm of there needs to be someone who cares because what will  you do if there's no one to care... and if there's no one to care then no-one will care... and I'm not sure that's ever a problem.

I think I might invent myself a Lesbian wife who is at home doing the dishes or maybe a dog called Lassie who will raise the alarm if he thinks I have fallen down a well. Or maybe I'll just keep telling everyone about my real life husband who is doing his own thing, thanks very much.

• • •

I made my excuses before getting embroiled in a long discussion about where we were & where to go next, excusing myself with, "I don't know, I'm just following a pink line on a map". Not entirely true-I knew exactly where I was and where I was going but I wasn't about to get involved in whether "that road there goes to Laing". They passed me in their car three times after I set off up the Glen, eventually having to stop to remove my big coat. It wouldn't go back on again until the evening.

There's a lot of very pleasant woodland riding until the final hydro scheme infrastructure and resulting slog up some switch-backs to the top of a hill.

The other side was a beautiful yet slightly frightening descent above fish farms and reservoir worker's cottages where I admired Karl Brooks imaginative yet unpicturesque bivi spot between 3 brick walls of the 1970's hydro station buildings.

There aren't many things that make me glad to have stopped last year but the unromantic reality of what it must've been like to try and sleep there in -7 degrees C (and then find out your mate has scored a hot bath down the road) is one of them. A locked gate sent me and Midnight through the eye of a needle deer-kissing gate (not sure who wants to snog a deer) that I swear added 5 minutes to our time. Highlanders went about their business of putting dogs out & playing with kids & I passed un-noticed.


• • •

It was a late Lunch when I finally turned off the road onto the track towards the most Northerly part of the route at about 4 pm.

Just like Fisherfield last year, the area around Ben Hope and Foinaven has been an imposing target since childhood. Ben Hope is the most Northerly Munro. Its neighbour is pretty inaccessible and difficult and there are many unpronounceable (for a non Gaelic speaker) neighbours that are equally inaccessible and dangerous due to their exposure and sheer Northern-ness.

Robert McFarlane, lover of all things wild, in his book "The Wild Places" did not even like Ben Hope. (insert quote if I get around to it).

Me and TSK drove over on our honeymoon to take a look at it and drove away again.

I had certainly packed an extra jumper this time. Still, the start was innoccuous. A locked gate with a sign on it saying, "The occupants of this house do not have the keys to the gate". A car parked in the gateway had a sign on it that said "the rental of this cottage is for holiday-makers" - a road bike with some geeky TT bars bolted to the roof rack. 

I snaked through the footpath access, made a mental note to book that cottage for another time, then headed over to a big rock to fuel up for the trudge across the moorland track. My waterproof socks went on in anticipation of some puddles or later bog- hopping. It's a long, long track but I have taken a look at it on Google Earth and someone has walked it with a goggle backpack-showing that much of the surrounding moorland is wet, open expanse. It was enjoyable at first, then started to get chilly around 7pm as the sun descended then,from the high rolling plateau reappeared (much to my excitement) taking on the pinkish hue of evening sunlight and I started to accelerate my pace towards it in the hope of snagging some kind of moment of sunset + one of my increasingly favourite peaks. 

Mind, I was hungry so I also had an eye out for a camp spot. A series of dug-outs from the track construction appeared. One was occupied by a couple on their way home to Carlisle from Durness. They were fully loaded with thick down coats, a full 2 man tent and already scoffing hot food from pouches. Their hidey hole seemed a little high and breezy to me but I still coveted one of my own***.

I finally found one with its back to the wind and a fine rock wall plus an animal feeder to lean my bike against.

Unfortunately it came with a feeling I was about to pitch my tent in shit.

I put my dinner on to "cook".  Now bear in mind that I forgot to bring stove fuel so I left my stove behind. Still, (small mercy) the water had been carried in my camel back so was body temperature (30C at least). I sealed the pack & put it in the kangaroo pouch of my coat to "cook" while I fussed around pitching up my tent. First the pegs wouldn't hold as the thin layer of shit just covered rock and more rock. Weighing the guys down with rocks wasn't going to hold against the wind which had moved, ever so slightly, to gust around the edge of my mini quarry instead of over the top of it.

For the first time in my bivi life I deemed my spot "a shit idea', packed everything away again and moved on, my dinner still sloshing around in my coat.

About as close as the sunset got
• • •

I knew that at the bottom of the track was a Lodge so I needed to stop before it to remain out of sight, following the wild camping code and generally not being disturbed by barking dogs.

The Google Camera had mercifully stopped at the lodge so I did not know what was beyond except for satellite images.

I had it in my head that after the lodge, things would get soggy under foot, further driving my desire to stop before it, not after. However, as I checked on my Garmin screen to see how far away I was, I noticed a pin on the map that I had placed during one of my sofa recces. Oh, a reassuring strike of genius. I flew past the lodge, on a new mission and after giving my food a proper dose of heat from climbing three steeps wearing *all* the layers, I reached my spot on the map. 

I briefly assessed the safety of the situation, deemed it absolutely acceptable then set up camp, snuggled into down and gorged myself on lukewarm pasta. I lay down at 9.30 pm. An early night for me. I only had one day of (relatively easy) riding done and so I found it difficult to sleep. 

I'd dropped my earplugs outside so was hearing every noise but I didn't want to go out into the cold to look for them. At midnight I woke up for the third time, this time needing a pee so I braved the cold, instantly found the earplugs nestled in my bike's rear triangle and peed under the MOST impressive stars I have seen for a LONG time.

I'm not kidding myself. This will not be an option in May.


Back in my tent I sat up for a while staring at the stars, watching satellites drift by, catching shooting stars in the corner of my eye and watching really hard just in case there was any sign that I might eventually get to see the Northern lights.

Morning audience

I thought of various people who have put me off this recce, telling me "it's just something you have to get done". "Might as well leave it for race day". How wrong they were (sorry). First, it was good to see the terrain for myself - how much road, how good / bad the track is.

Second, here I was, having a great time.

Breakfast should have been Sunday night's pizza leftovers but they were still in the fridge. Instead I ate the honey / coconut mix I'd carried without the porridge to put it in, a cereal bar and a packet of crisps. The pack-up was less romantic, fuelled by getting away from midges. 



Paddling

To go with that, the track became intermittently boggy then really hard and jarring. It was actually a relief to turn off onto the Beallach Horn track and begin riding across heather in between short boggy walks. Instead of being bothered by the wind I was pleased to be away from midges and it cooled my midge bites. I stopped still for a good 5 minutes to watch an eagle soar and swoop over the peak at the other side of the valley. I was terrified I'd scare her away but after I'd had my fill of birdwatching I set off riding again & she came to take a look at me, gliding past around 20 m away from me. I could see the shape of her head, she watched me watching her before drifting over to perch on the crags at the head of Meall Horn. her Random Screams fitting in amongst the grey crags and cloudy skies.

• • •

The Peat bogs up there were something to behold. I balanced Midnight precariously on a few walls whilst I jumped down then lifted her down from above.


I found a glacial boulder with a rock ledge to perch on out of the wind whilst I demolished more beef jerky and peas and washed it down with M&Ms.

I was pretty tired already and although I'd enjoyed myself, the old question still remains, how on earth will this feel when I am 3 or4 days in and the weather is shite (as it inevitably seems to be when I race my bike)? Then I thought of people currently battling cancer and thought, as struggles go, mine is paltry, at least vaguely enjoyable and after all, voluntary.

• • •

Still, it was time for the big hike up the Horn! Again, I found myself asking, how will this feel on day 4 or day 5? and quickly telling myself that I'd be carrying fewer bloody jumpers for a start.

From other peoples' write-ups of their experiences, Beallach Horn wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting (not un­common) but also I had fresh legs and wasn't trying to race it either. I picked up Midnight, for a short steep section but the rest of the way relied on the step-step-shove-recover method.

The lift was interesting. Considering I'm still only squatting lightweights (12.5kg) in the gym, I suddenly needed to lift my awkward bike at around 22 kgs. It almost wouldn't go but the thought of struggling to push it one more metre was too much to bear so a mighty heave got us upright and far enough up the track that it was safe and comfortable to put her down and start walking again. 

This time I managed to extract myself (more) gracefully from the handlebars which was a relief as I stood up to find my red face had an audience of 2. A couple walking the Cape Wrath trail in stages of one week were on their Last pitch. We compared bivi notes. They had camped the night at loch Stack bothy (still dosed due to Covid). We chatted until her knees got goose- bumps.


 

The descent to the Loch was dreamy, fuelled partly by a pang of sadness to be leaving such beauty or remoteness, a sense of achievement at having not just survived, but enjoyed, one of the most wild places in the Uk and a hopeful return to civilisation.* .




 

The descent pops into trees. After hours of exposure to the elements, trees are so precious. This boulder is at the end of the path. It gives the last opportunity to waste some time photographing stuff before reaching civilisation.

• • •

* There's nothing public at Achfary. No services. For some reason it has a black telephone box that people come to look at and photograph. It has some fishing lodges. Now the phone box has been repainted with a white trim and its telephone sign replaced by the inevitable "Defibrilator" sign. What it does have is people - people who could (and probably would) help if you were really in difficulty.

I wasn't in difficulty, although I did fancy some more savoury food. A few camper-vanners said hi.


I continued on my way. Next destination: Kylesku and the Kylesku hotel where I was looking forward to a fine, indulgent non-race holiday slap up dinner, four courses my good man.

First though, I had a hill to climb and I was set to become dinner.

The path at the back of Achfary passes the WTW and a fancy shed housing the estate's backup generator before reaching diagonally up the edge of the forest. In contrast to the wild exposure I'd left it was the height of the sun's day, sheltered due to the trees and so humid it showered, momentarily. 

 

Despite the heat I had to keep on my long sleeves and wear a head net to stop the persistent attacks of some rather annoying fly / ant species that was highly motivated by ears, noses, mouths and eyes. I can usually ignore creepy crawlies but these bastards were persistent in trying to crawl into orifices and were almost impossible to shift without resorting to killing them which consisted of very carefully pinching them (and a handful of skin) and purposefully pulling them away. I blew on them. they flattened down and held on. I flicked them and they latched on again 5mm away, held firm then recommenced their determined scramble for the nearest nostril or ear canal. 

To stop them I had to stop progress so off came the helmet and on went my headnet and the buff to close off all access routes.

Then came the difficult task of identifying a crawling insect from the rivulets of sweat pouring off me. My midge bites from the morning were long forgiven & forgotten. 

 

Fun fact: As a child, I was stuck in a traffic jam on a family holiday whilst the Army carried out a bomb sweep of the newly constructed Kylesku Bridge prior to the Queen visiting to open it.  I have never seen it from this angle.  Also: yes, I am that old.  The day's finale was my mum explaining to some French tourists, through the medium of mime, what a Bomb(ber) was,.

The descent to Kylesku was a little early for dinner but that didn't matter. I was excited to have finished this stage and be getting some food. I pulled up with other bikers & had a chat before heading up to the till to greet the waitress or ask for a table. 

• • •

"theres a one way system, can you use the other entrance?"

Me, confused, "The one that says residents only?".

Her, "well, there's a walkway isn't there?".

Is there? (I'm all for the right measures in place but clear signage is a good start). I re-traced my steps. Fuck the walkway (40in round trip) and went up the stairs where I heard the couple in front of me being turned away. "Sheer number of people blah de blah". * "The higlands are being ruined" rang in my ears.

In retrospect I'm not sure any Scottish accents were involved in this exchange.

I went back to my bike. Before leaving I decided to use the public facilities The toilets were clean so I filled my water bottle then gave the hotel one last try with my best solo desperate female face on. I like to think there was a glimmer of compassion there but the answer was still no so I snaffled a paper take-away cup so that I could make up a re-hydration tablet without getting my camelbak sticky or messy.

I'd almost considered paying through the nose for a room so I could get a meal but as I sat on the grass watching the harbour, listening to the people at the room behind me with their balcony window open and TV blaring. I realised that after 30 years of passing this hotel which is "only for the rich people" I now have a salary that allows me to stay here but a spirit that does not.

A little face bobbed up or down in the water, inspecting the shore from afar, then dived down, it's sleek body cresting the water before it disappeared from sight. Did anyone else notice that? I doubt it.

Time to try for Drumbeg Stores. Maybe the hotel there would have a table.

I've read about the climbs heading to Drumbeg. They made Ian cry. My parents, absolute dedicated visitors to the Northwest highlands rarely came here on our family holidays - probably because those roads made me or the dog sick.

I didn't cry. I did push my bike quite a bit and I zigzagged a lot and I sat down in lay bys, supplemented my calorie intake with skittles & kept going to Drumbeg aside from the occasional interlude to allow a car to pass.

• • •

A lot of time passed-about 1.5 hrs and Drumbeg stores was closed at 5. 30 anyway. The hotel had a large sign outside advising "Residents only due to Covid". I decided to aim for Clachtol so at least use the campsite or - more aspirationally, Lochinvar where there might be someone at the petrol station or another hotel. 

I did still have a stash of sweet calories and more re-hydratable pasta, even desert, but a packet of crisps or a bowl of chips was high on my list of desirables. As time passed on after Drumbeg I started to notice the sheer volume of vans parked up. Campsites were all full (or still closed), lay bys were full. Passing places were occupied until there was only one spot remaining to use for passing vehicles. "No overnight camping" signs were blatantly being ignored by scores of vehicles. 

At least 3 cars passed me repeatedly, first one way and then the other or they'd stop at a campsite as I rode past, only to find it full and move onto the next. 'The Highlands are being ruined! I was glad I can still park anywhere and it's why I've stopped tweeting my exploits hoping that my personal little corner of the blogger net will continue to fail to attract any attention whatsoever.


A short time after Drumbeg at the bottom of yet another descent was a grand house with 5-10 acres of green pasture around it.

The fence line was intermittently signed "No camping" with a picture of a little stick- man asleep in a tent inside a red prohibition circle.

• • •

He looked so warm and peaceful and I immediately started to look out for a more welcoming spot with just the right amount of breeze to keep the midges away. Partway up the climb out of that dip, I just CBA'd to climb any more and a flat spot next to a very old gateway appeared. In any normal year it might have been boggy but it was dry underfoot so I pitched with a view of Beinn Mhor Coigach on one side of a hillock and the sea and the summer isles on the other side. 


There had been no sunset to speak of, cloud cover meant a gradual greying of the sky whilst I set up my cold boil rehydrated food to" cook" and pitched my tent. When each of the two or three motor vehicles passed, I killed my light and hid by my tent just in case they were a grumpy farmer but most would (should) have been concentrating too much on the snaking single-track road to care.

I snuggled into bed, actually enjoyed cold spagbol (I pretended it was goulash soup) and ate some fudge as desert.

I sent some dramatic text messages about how the next day would be dependent on me getting resupply and received one from my mum (who loves to send the daily forecasts) warning it would be cold overnight. I had enough data to check the forecast but was relieved to find nothing dramatic and continuing low wind speeds.

• • •

The tent flapped a little in the night but this time I had been more careful with my earplugs and no passing motorists woke me either.

Brightening skies and an empty belly woke me up. It was cold re hydrated apple and banana crumble for breakfast which looked like soggy baby rusk in a bag but actually tasted ok. I ate more sweets and packed up quickly, hitting the road at 8:15am.

It wasn't too far to Clachtol and I was beginning to wonder if I'd missed something navigationally as the off-road sections here seemed a little thin on the ground.

Calchtol tea shop was an unexpected pleasure. The weather was having a little coastal Scotland moment and showering slightly so I was just contemplating putting my coat on when something the shape of a beach hut appeared by the roadside and a jolly voice inside confirmed they were open for business.

I felt kinda guilty ordering a Scotch Pie for my breakfast at 9am but then a local stopped by and ordered a bottle of grouse, 4 pack of Tenants and would have had rum too if they'd had any in stock. She had to ask him to come back later and pay at a legal time.

When I'd eaten my camp breakfast that day I noticed my dynamo charging cable was snapped so I set about stripping cable with a penknife

Just at the right moment John Waugh. and his wife Andrea pulled up and joined me for about an hour discussing routes.

Soon after Clachtol, the off-road routes appeared and I enjoyed every moment - occasionally dropping the seat and having a chat with a few more walkers.

Life was pretty normal in Lochinvar and surprisingly my legs felt pretty normal. I really fancied riding on after today and whether I decided to go home to "our" Croft or carry on over to Ullapool and Fisherfield to recie the new route there, I was probably going to need dinner for the night as neither the Alt Hotel or Oykel Bridge were serving non-residents. 

I locked up the bike, hit the shop and secured pot noodles, a pasty and replenished the savoury snack supplies for 2 days ahead. I wasn't sure how pot noodle would fare on cold water but I was willing to find out if I needed to. I wasn't particularly enjoying cold re hydrated food but I was enjoying finding out that it is an Ok (feasible) option. I also found out that there's only 25% of the energy in a pot noodle compared to outdoor shops boil in the bag type meals. So I bought 2.

• • •

I secured tea from the cafe opposite my bike and had a laugh with some bikers who witnessed me trying to blow a wasp away while still wearing my mask. They had failed to secure a "slot" to get a cup of coffee from the Lochinvar stores (having spent 30 minutes downloading the app to do so) and were heading across the road to an alternative source. They watched me cram 2 pot noodles into a food packet I was carrying and passed on dinner at my place.

After the usual comments about how brave I was, they asked where I was headed next.

I've got this. I was on home (holiday) territory. So instead of the usual,"I dunno, I'm just following a pink line on a map," I was able to respond. "Well, it sounds like you know the area" he said. Boom!

After a third breakfast of yoghurt it was time to tackle Glen Canisp.


After the first climb I had to stop and remove baggy shorts and knee warmers and change out of my thick waterproof socks.

A steady stream of pink sweaty men heading the other way reminded me to apply sun cream against the Scottish sun in a clear end-of-summer sky. I sat and ate my pasty over­looking the loch then after I witnessed a group climbing into a river pool in their underwear I started scouting for my own swim spot. 

The path passed close enough to the lake for me to take what I thought was a secluded dip in just my tee-shirt, although I knew my mate Stu might've been up on Suilven somewhere so I hoped he wasn't laughing at my white pasty bum.

In the end I couldn't bring myself to swim in the cold water as my core wasn't ready for that kind of shock so I settled for a sit down wash -carefully so as not to waste the sun cream I'd applied. It was nice to give my bits a wash. Of course, just around the next bend were a couple sat eating their lunch so I apologised for ruining their view.


 

At the other end of the lake I met a climber named Andreas (two in one day!) who was fishing for information about the trail ahead to decide how to get over to Leadmore. Unfortunately I couldn't help. 

In retrospect I should have told him that Lee Craigie did not enjoy it but thus far I thought it was ok so that meant the worst was yet to come. I was to find out soon that there was great mobile reception at the beallach so I could have quite easily taken his number and texted him my findings when I reached the end of the track. Those findings would have been "don't bother mate!" Not that I didn't enjoy it but it's not for everyone and Andreas's tent was not lightweight.

After a mash through dry bogs to reach the Beallach I sat down for more food and checked my phone. Despite being in the middle of nowhere I had clear sight to a transmitter across the valley. Sure enough I texted TSK to let him know I wanted to stay out, not get a pick up and to book more days at our accommodation for me to finish what I was doing.

• • •

I also let my mum know things were great and despite her weather report, my sleeping bag was warm enough. My day one legs were back and I felt ready to take on Fisherfield.

I had not envisioned the next 8 miles. The track down was definitely single and littered with limestone boulders that went on and on... for hours. It wasn't completely unrideable but anywhere that was rideable soon became unrideable due to slippery loose rocks, bog or more rock or short sharp inclines.

I walked most of it. Completely and utterly enjoyed it but still, I walked it and it took time but it didn't matter. I didn't *have* to be anywhere. This is what holidays are for.

Last gratuitous picture of the same mountain

 

I consider­ed stopping at the end of the trail but what to do for 4 hours before dark? So I kept going, promising myself a night at the Schoolhouse bothy. It would be locked up still (I presume) but nice enough. Or I could head "home". The insects were waking up. No midges but the clingy flies that had dogged me at Achfary were back and now they were starting burrow into my hair and bite. Time to move.

Some of the single track along the lake was rideable - some of it was really sketchy but after so much walking I was prepared to give anything ago. Midnight rolled out of most things that I threw her into, making me giggle with delight or shake my head in horror at our near misses.

I checked my phone again when I saw that transmitter station on the hillside. I was tired now and TSK had only managed to extend our stay 2 more nights so I had 1 day before needing to help move all our stuff and unpack it at the next venue. My day 1 legs were starting to crack and I decided I'd quite like to quit while I was ahead, call this an enjoyable outing and leave me wanting for more on race" day". I arranged for him to leave the front door unlocked for me to get in the croft whenever but also to expect me to camp out but somewhere less bitey if I needed to. I did the last bit of proper off-road and being honest, the rollout to Leadmore was the most linked section of riding I'd done in the last 8 miles.

• • •

The breeze was now keeping the flies away and was mostly at my back so I can't complain that it was a little cool. The very gradual climb from Leadmore junction kept me warm though until I started my descent towards OBH. Then the inevitable seat by the roadside to reapply baggy shorts, knee warmers + windproof coat. There was a short pang of accomplishment as I reached the OBH along with resentment and distaste towards the podgy rich fishing parties, their exclusive use of this facility edged with a modicum of "what's all the fuss about?" The place has the look of a 1970's scout hut about it. Maybe I didn't see past the facade. 

Around the corner I plonked my ass on the ground again, ate some crisps and loaded my return route onto the Garmin to make sure I was going to go the right way in the dark. It took me several tries to realise my route home started at Amat, not OBH so I lost a bit of time here. Lets say I was basking in the glory of a successful mission and not really paying attention.

I reloaded "HT out" to get me back on course and waited while the Garmin crashed a few times. Thankfully I had a nice long fire road to climb to get out of there interspersed with deer suddenly bouncing out of the trees once I'd got onto open moorland.

My last task having left Oykel bridge behind, was to find clean water. I rejected the first stream on cloudiness but eventually decided to rely on water taken from near the upper bothy where a bottom-feeder fish gazed lovingly into my head-torch right up until I plunged the camelbak bladder into her pool and she was gone.

Hunger finally got the better of me once I reached enough breeze to even consider stopping. I even considered a camp - my spot was so flat and comfy but I was also considering the BBITW.

I put on layers, sheltered my legs behind my laid down bike and tucked into Oatcakes and cheese that I had forgotten at lunchtime.

In the near-distance a stag bellowed into the darkness. He sounded pretty pissed off to the extent that I was considering if it was safe to carry on. I extinguished all my lights and he seemed to calm down.

Through the next deer gate and the whole herd seemed to be in the field, scattering across my path as I rode through. Thankfully no sign of the big fella though.

I descended to Amat after passing Croick church. I'd momentar­ily considered a sleep here but little red and white blinking lights put me off.

Trying to weave through Amat Lodge back the way I'd come was much less intuitive than in daylight-especially when an Audi driver blinded me with his headlights then got frustrated when I took a wrong turn. 

When I nearly fell down the cattle grid shutting the last gate I knew I was getting tired now. I had bypassed the BBITW because I still didn't know exactly where it was and decided it was probably closed despite my Friends on day 1 having told me they'd actually stopped in it that night.

For what seemed like an eternity I trudged onward, trees to the left, river to the right. After the bellowing stag, my nerves were on edge so when Random Screams came from the forest, my adrenaline was peaked again but at least I knew what they were this time. My thoughts turned to my friend Ella with whom I discussed many random noises in the night during a November 200k audax. Now she has a baby she has her own collective interpretation for things that squeal in the night.

Unfortunately the wind was making the green open pastures too cool to pitch my tent on and anyway, they were all slightly sloped. All I had to do was get over the S-bends where I had seen the hiker on day 1 and then the climbing was all rideable and the descent took me all the way home.

I was navigating by bridges although somehow I missed the one that marked the start of the S-bends. What I did notice was a single wooden pedestrian bridge off to the side. I was still wearing all of my layers from my oatcake stop and had built up quite a lot of body heat. The timing was perfect for a nap - 10:30pm, past my bed time.

• • •

I propped my bike up, hid my dynamo light away to glow discretely inside my nose bag and lay down with my helmet as a pillow. My legs ached so I folded them up and leant them against eachother. The dry wood of the bridge felt like the perfect mattress and I drifted in and out of sleep between staring at the stars above me, framed by the latticework of the bridge's handrails and some overhanging branches. I pretty much avoided the flies as gentle tickles on my neck transpired to be the breeze blowing through hairs that had gone astray from my ponytail.

When I woke up I decided to get going before my body temperature got too low. Some more pushing and a bit of riding and suddenly the lake above the Croft came into view-on my Garmin screen. Somehow the S-bends had passed without me noticing and I was into the beautiful stretch of deciduous woodland that I'd noticed on the way out. Next was the lake and then it was all down hill, down the mile-long straight descent along the deer fence where an owl bobbed along with me for 200m before peeling off into the forest.

Heather in the middle.  Extra jeopardy at the edge.

Even the boulder barrier was easier on the way down and with nothing but the forest descent to go, the stone ruin lost its bivi appeal.

For a moment I considered a sleep in the Sumer house at the Castle (the highlands is *not* ruined) but the pull of hot fresh pasta back at the croft at 1am was too much to turn my back on.

I wheeled my bike down the steps to the door which was difficult because my brakes were squealing and I was trying not to wake the farm dogs.

Minutes of panic ensued as the door was locked & I had to try to wake TSK without waking every canine in the valley. Thankfully the croft has a floor to ceiling cathedral window so my downstairs tapping and strobing Exposure light both woke him and illuminated his way downstairs to let me in.


I put the bike away whilst he boiled pasta for my late dinner then despite my best intentions I slept in a clean sleeping bag for the first time instead of the one that matched my filthy body. With no hot running water at the croft, a hair wash in the kitchen sink and stand-up wash over a concrete floor and a bowl of kettle-heated water would have to wait until tomorrow.

The most precious outcome by far was the next day I actually managed to move. Not just a little bit but we went and got in the sea and walked along the coast and did stuff. 

 


I'd even go so far as to declare I would have gone for a ride. Sure, I slept fucking HARD but I wasn't dog tired-just regular tired. Unlike my previous recces.

If you're wondering if the highlands is really ruined? Yes it is, don't go there you wouldn't like it.

• • •

I hope you find my review useful.

What's less important is: I'm not ruined.


 

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

2020 Welsh Ride Thing - The Apocolypse

WRT 2020 Bear Bones W RT 2020 was a shadow of its usual self. Titled "The Apocalypse" I decided to make it a true Zombie get-away in the best way I know how. I used up the last of my accrued Covid leave to take bank holiday Thursday and Friday out, as well as Tuesday so I could ride to + from the event. What started out lightweight grew with the addition of a stove and coffee, one sachet of dried food and 2 stashes of porridge for a range of off grid opportunities.

With a new warhorse to ride (the Cotic Solaris Max) I gave my gear a weigh-in. I was really pleased with 19. 4kg on the kitchen scales lighter than my carbon fibre bike! I must have packed light!

But then realised I'd taken off the front roll containing Tent, extra fleece, pillow. Sod it, I didn't want to know. By the time I'd packed it was 9:30pm Wednes­day night so I was too tired. I enjoyed a night at home and vowed to leave early. I set out my clothes, got everything ready and set the alarm for 3:45am and 6 as a backup.

Astonishingly 1 made it out of bed and onto the road by 5am. My course had studiously ignored the toughest trails near home and I ignored it back, throwing myself through the rock garden instead. At least the hike a bike would be good practice. Nothing fell off me or the bike.

Something's coming, something good

Lesson learned, I crossed the rest of West Sheffield on easier roads before starting on Houndkirk Road.

Desperate for a wee, I thought I'd go before Joe Public got out of bed. The pause was what I needed to look up and see the sunrise over the city before the sun faded away for the rest of the day. I had one shot at the full sun before it departed behind a never ending succession of cloud banks. 


It's loss was countered by a herd of deer who initially scrambled away then stopped to watch me pass.

 


 As I bounced over Froggatt traffic started to build in the form of a couple of elderly hikers and a man and woman who looked suspiciously like the morning after the night before.

I haven't got the hang of Froggatt yet and had my traditional off, leaving one bar end in a bog. At the end of Curbar edge my sacrifice was rewarded with a view of the temperature inversion in the Chatsworth Valley.


I'm embarrassed to say I got lost around the Chatsworth estate. The main road was hitting rush hour status and drivers have little patience to wait their turn on that road in particular so I was distracted by a small Lane that drew me out to Hassop Station (still to early) and the Monsal Trail to Bakewell.

I navigated Bakewell quickly as it was still too early for cake, continuing to Youlegreave where I sourced a 09:03 scone to eat on the lovely bench in the church yard and invested ahead in cakes to take with me.  It took off-roading again to get properly cow shitty on the descent to the manifold valley. I was hoping I'd make it into Wales before getting so cruddy... but new bridleway time was calling ☺.

At the Manifold valley, at least the cafe was open. At 10am it felt like lunchtime. I stocked up on a fresh Sandwich and more cake and ordered a sausage roll + coffee.  Sitting outside watching kids going out for rides with their grandparents was great.

• • •

The manifold trail was short-lived. It runs N-S and my general E- W direction meant I had to leave its tempting tunnels and head over the cliff onto new (to me) bridleways. This was a common theme but most railways do go north / south I suppose and canals through the Peak seem to be mostly rare or decommissioned.  


 

The first gate was irreparably inoperable (without an angle grinder) so I swore for my grass-wet feet and rode across the extremely private cattle grid instead, muttering under my breath. All was redeemed by the next gate which opened smoothly, leading to a gravelled drop to a paving slab bridge over a stream. The edged gravel exit flowed seamlessly onto the green slope ahead. Over the top I slithered down to a Peak National Park work group building a similar structure at the next stream. We had a chat about where I was off to, about camping gear and conservation works.  They warned me about the sketchy bridleway ahead and I reminded them I had plenty of those to go in Wales.

I thanked them for their efforts. A few bridleways and lanes later, the belly rumbled again. Checking the map there was a picnic area at a church. The bells struck 12 as I rolled through so I accepted the invite and sat at a bench nodding to passing, retired hikers.

On the trail: "what kind of creature is this?".  Back at home: "Ah, a horny one!"

After lunch the ride got distinctly less bridleway-ish and more lanesy.  My lazy route plotting had left it to Garmin and Sustrans. There was less "grass-up-the-middle" and more just, "lack-of-tarmac-up-the-middle" riding. TSK had warned me to be on the lookout for flood waters and it was a sound reminder. 

I did take on fords nervously, used bridges where available and did some puddle dodging, though from the smell, partic­ular puddles, I suspect, contained cadavers, possibly human, I wasn't hanging around to find out. At 2:30 the rains finally came and, man, did they come good: just as I was ready for another snack. 

 


 

A bus shelter was on hand for the purpose. As I pulled on full waterproofs and delved into the M & Ms I checked the forecast for the route. The weather was locked in till 2am. No dry spells up for grabs. If I stayed out I'd be arriving at the event Piss wet thru so I burned some data to book a Travelodge. £94 for a room! Then realised I was booking for 2. £70 was bearable so I booked and embarked on a journey to Telford. 

When plotting the route, I decided that thrashing across 50% of the country on completely unknown bridleways wasn't really a good use of my energy resources. So I'd used Sustrans or Garmin to find me the best options. In all they did a good job. The occasional foray into overgrown nettley nightmarish footpaths could often be replaced by another diversion to a pleasant bridleway to cut across to the same road. And so we continued through the midlands to the secret pleasantries of the Stone Canal which diverted me away from Stoke on Trent.

I stopped in yet another Church vestibule to eat more sweeties and to plan my final miles into Telford. Becoming quite the religious experience this ride - in many senses of the word (biblical).

Another loss of direction led me to an off road trail through birding reserves and "The national stud" where tiny horses are grown in test tubes whilst big ones tread the bridleways making them chossy and a bit shit for mountain bikers.

Getting closer...

I had one main road on my route which was circumnavigated by a rather charming old road bike lane that ran alongside but just far enough away not to see the traffic, even though I could hear its presence.

My new re-route took me to the North of Telford to a suburb called Wellington that has an army base. Whilst the re-route was easy to latch onto, like all army bases, the houses are predictably brick and gaudy filled with kids toys and nappies on the line whilst on the other side of the fence, overpaid tweens without responsibility or mortgages bezz around the roads in oversize American V8 SUVs laughing at anyone that engages in outdoor pursuits for fun instead of work necessity.

After 5 minutes of horror I realised Wellington and Telford are well endowed with an underground network of Greenway style bike lanes away from the roads and once you've found a way onto it you can never leave-unless you have a good GPS.

At this point I realised that despite tracking my position, the GPS was not recording my route. Shame because it was both innovative and not.  I had cycled towards the Leek road then, realising I needed to avoid it in fear of my life, I cycled out of my way to Cheadle, Staffs which has road works and is shite so I did three laps of that trying to escape onto the closed major road back to my route.

Oh well, I captured the final run in, emerging onto a bike lane along a busy dual carriageway which led, predictably to the Travelodge.

Had I asked at the time what food was on offer, the Toby Carvery would have put me off but now I didn't care.

I pulled to one side, out of sight and wiped the cow shit off my bike with my glove. It was the least I could do.

I put a clean hat on over my helmet hair, wiped my face and removed my wet coat then put on a face buff and strode into reception to sanitise my shitty hands.

"Can I help you?" said the dubious receptionist. All smiles returned though as she recognised my name from the bookings list. At 8:30pm I must've been the last arrival and she seemed dubious she might need to turn me away but in the end she checked me in to the family sized room 1 hadn't booked - I could have brought TSK and the cat, Landslide, his wife and the boys along!

I set my Garmin to recharge off the TV USB and put it on mute whilst I went out to obtain an overly dry roast dinner with as few questions on the side as possible. Coke? Refillable? Only pepsi unless you want a bottle. Then it's not refillable. I DONT DRINK THE SHIT I DO NOT CARE! 

 

At least they had icecream

I cheered up with the food and fell into bed at 9:30 with the phone on charge. At midnight I woke up to turn the TV off.

The alarm in the morning led me to pop them back on for the weather. "WHAT DO YOU MEAN 5°C overnight??!!" I slowly packed, enjoyed petrol station breakfast while watching the rain through the window. 

Eventually the Greenways called again, up to the Wreakin trail centre where I could have spent a decent bivi night in the right conditions. My first encounter with a steep drop helped identify the issue that the brand new dropper post had succumbed to yesterday's wet and muddy conditions.

At first I put this down to the outer cable shaking loose and hauled out the internal cable routing and post merely to find out it was fine. A few free-hand taps on a hardy tree-trunk and everything was functioning fine. Still, a frayed cable, lost ferrule meant I now had no ferrule,we'd have to hope for the best. Still, Tom Hardy passed with his son to check I was OK (I'm convinced, you can have your opinions). 

At least an hour lost. I couldn't face the second hill after the abs and arms workout I'd just had so I skirted around instead.  I then regretted it as I rode past. Still, this weekend was part of something bigger and  there was no point wrecking myself on the Wreakin. 

 More crappy puddles followed and the rain gradually flowed back. As Dorrington approached, I started to think about lunch. On the incline to the village I pulled up alongside a runner and through the pouring rain she directed a thankful me to the shop. The shop looked fine but the pub looked finer. 

A tentative look proved it to be open. As the rain intensified 1 could think of no better way to wait out the storm. I made myself moderately presentable and was positioned in the window with a view over my bike enjoying it's oak tree shelter. I dispensed with a posh Sausage sandwich, chips and as many hot drinks as I could muster before braving the conditions again and continuing towards Wales.

On my route there was no particular fanfare to Wales, just the appearance of Montgomery and some extra Consonants in road signs. The first thing I recognised at about 4pm was the A 470 followed by the realisation that I did not now want to follow the route to Carmo, but instead take the canal path to Newport, avoiding the constant stream of campers, caravans and overloaded estate cars heading for Barmouth and beyond, and get myself some dinner. There was no point in arriving in Carmo and at BB Towers too early.

I'd only ever ridden this path in the dark at last year's WRT after messing up my start to the route. Someone else had already nabbed the best bivi spot so I'd had to press on. This time I was too early. I debated coming back to it after dinner.  I absolutely love this canal though.  It was great in the dark and beautiful in the daylight.  Considering it is the alternative to an arterial A road it is so peachy.



I got directions to the Chinese from a dog walker.  I was relieved when the people at the takeaway did not ask me to follow the rules and ring through the order whilst standing at the window. I found a breeze-free town centre bench and went into full hobo mode. I put on my least attractive warm clothes and hat. Shoes and socks off to dry on the paving slabs, still hot from the day's high sun - well, warmer than my feet anyway. 

One lady talked to me on her way home from work. Most people hurried by, busied by their phones or keys - and I can't say I blame them. The sky grew increasingly dark - both the evening drawing in and the arrival of clouds. I prepared to make a dash for the cover of the porch at the bank but, appart from a sprinkle of a shower there was no dramatic outburst of rain that the skies were hinting at.

I adopted a slightly new route toward Carmo but still one that went up a sharp hill. Still, I could manage it, stopping only to put on my rear light, then my dynamo light too. This glowed dimly for a while but because I couldn't muster any speed but there was no traffic so I really didn't mind. A few Land Rovers  rumbled down to Newtown. Valley boys heading into town for a pint or three. It made me start to believe it was later than it really was and, after all, I was tired. 

After I dried my socks out. I didn't want to be caught in any evening showers so I started keeping an eye out for a spot but the road was relentless in its pursuit of the sky.

Eventually I found my route taking a turn onto a wind turbine bridleway.

One look at it in the darkness and I knew I was NOT in the mood for getting wet and crappy any more. This is not good news when you've just arrived in Wales.

Fortunately I'd just passed a small woodland without any fences around it. It wasn't far from the road but the nearest houses seemed too far away to notice me. On closer inspection it was thinned out enough for me, the bike (Midnight) and the tent.

Half way through pitching, a van came up the track. I lay low. Nothing happened. Then dogs started barking. I got ready to pack away quick but they didn't get nearer. No sooner had I got in my tent than the Mrs came home. She started barking at the dogs which made the whole thing worse. Fearing more for my sleep sanity than my safety around canines, I considered moving on but fatigue got the better of me. 

I lay down to think about it and before I knew it I was snuggled in my bag drifting in and out of sleep. whilst listening for packs of hounds. At 2am I awoke to the sound of wild boar grunting and lay awake terrified until I dropped off and realised it had been my own allergic snoring that woke me up, not, in fact, a wild boar. The munching and farting of cattle in the next field definitely didn't help either.

When the alarm went off at 5am I thought it best to move on before the early morning dog walk and I set off up the track to catch the sunrise over the Montgomery hills before topping out with the wind turbines. The track was not so bad and the dog house was nowhere to be seen for miles around. 

Sunrise without a dog house

I don't remember the approach to Carno, though I should, so that I can remember to avoid it for next time. Clearly the route was was from my "make this as hard as possible" phase or more likely my, "I can't be arsed to check this" Phase. 

Can you get any more Welsh?

After some pleasant happy times rollicking around on the moors with sheep following a pink line on a map, I found myself bamboozled, staring straight down a precipitous bank of bracken with a bridleway hidden in there somewhere. I should have at least tried the obvious, unmarked path but instead I dove foot-first (or tyre first) into the handlebar high mini-forest with an" it can't be that far" and "it won't take too long" altitude (despite being able to see at least how far).

This is how it worked:

  • the bracken ached as a bike brake and just about neutralised gravity enough to keep us moving
  • I followed the occasional sheep trod but these turned out to be nothing more than alarming mini land-ships.
  • We sat under a tree for a bit to eat sweets and regain our composure.
  • I dropped the bike side-over- side a few times, entrusting the bracken to catch it, then followed behind on my bottom.
  • Despite the heat my waterproof trousers stayed on to minimise bracken-related stab injuries.
  • We managed to avoid the unfenced cliffs 
  • We both travelled the height of a mature oak tree in about 10 seconds through a combo of sliding and jumping down branches.
  • We still had to climb over a fence at the bottom.
  • We survived
  • We ate an apple. 
The homeowner sent his dustbin out but the fat Labrador did not like apple cores. The next hill took us to our first checkpoint of the trip, the Trannon Windfarm. Then it was in to Pennant for checkpoint number 2 to visit Stuart (organiser) and Dee. 
 
I recognise that valley

We styled this one out too, doing the hardest of bridleway / footpath  combo's to get over to the house. I felt like I was re-opening a pony track that hasn't been used since the mines closed, forcing open overgrown gates, forging through the nettles and climbing over fallen trees, where I drew the first blood of the trip. It was all worth the smiling faces when they realised they had another customer. Stu and Dee were pleased to see me as well as the dogs. I ate cake and drank hot drinks as much as possible and chatted until more willing volunteers arrived. 
 
Stuart was interested in my route. I waffled something about the pink line on my map. He suggested a bivi spot at the Borth visitor centre and Machynlleth for tea which, to be fair, sounded like a lovely idea but I was pretty sure it was the other way around to what I had planned.

I'd stayed a bit too long, leaving hungrier than when I arrived but I didn't want to eat more than my fair share of cake and leave others without. I climbed the other sleep way out to Dylife and carefully managed to avoid stopping at the Star Inn for any more food and long conversations. Thanks to whoever waved at me but I was on a mission.

• • •

The mines behind Dylife brought me universal mountain bike satisfaction. Steep, slippery descents, wet feet, sunny climbs out. 

Beyond, I chased the sunshine across the edge of the Hafren Forest.


 

Another rider had taken a completely different route through and yet 4 hours later we rocked up at the same place - Clewedog reservoir at 7pm. Well, ok, it was another checkpoint but we couldn't quite believe we'd arrived at the same time. 

My plan at the Checkpoint had been to turn right then head over to Ponterwyd where I had dinner in January. However by the time I'd fought my way up and down shale and rivers, the promised icy wind had arrived and I was totalled. I needed more clothes and food stat - preferably hot food. I checked the map then abandoned my route and turned left to the picnic spot. My heckles were set to "up" by the bloke powering across the reservoir in a white rib (boat) with binoculars. He was dressed in black and looked more "Ranger" than "late evening fisherman".

The slipway to the lake was rudely blocked by a camper van but I squeezed by.

If we don't say anything... she won't notice we're here.

I snuggled down in the once-upon-a-time toilet block amongst the bird shit and brewed up enough water for my emergency food supplies and some left over. While waiting for my water to boil, the actual ranger stopped by to politely remind the van owners that there's no overnight camping. Oh. Having suspected this might be the case I had not unpacked my kit, waiting to see. That does not mean I wasn't disappointed. I've been coveting this spot for years-though May or January are definitely a better bet.

• • •

I had a chat with the vanners. They were reluctantly going to look elsewhere yet all official sites were full. I also decided not to risk it. I didn't have my bivi, I had a tent that needed pitching out and the lie of the land would have meant pitching it in plain view. I needed a good night's sleep, not moving on at midnight. The extra brew water was used to brew a micro-coffee. 1/3 of my stash-into 1/4 of the water. It was enough to get me reloaded and out of the Clewedog steep road sections. Once that was done though. I couldn't face much more. The uphill legs were still empty.

I followed the ridge road getting further and further away from my route. All of the fields were full of sheep, or overlooked by farm houses

• • •

My plans disintegrated to:

  • finding + staying at the George Borrow in Ponterwyd.
  • Carrying on to Devil's Bridge bothy or the picnic site. 
  • One previous bivi spot near Old Hall ruled out by a noisy wind turbine with dodgy bearings that made the whole valley groan.
  • The Dinas reservoir boat yard.
  • Going up random Bridleways to see where they went.
  • keep riding to Landiloes to get a hotel room or sleep in a bus stop or get TSK to come and pick me up.

knew I would regret the last one. Thankfully after I got fed up with bridle­ways that made farm dogs bark then petered out into muddy puddles, I stopped to take off some layers. 

The weather had warmed up again after its brief spell of autumn and I'd lost about 300m in elevation. Whilst looking at the map for the sudden emergence of Valhallah right before my eyes, I noticed that there were no houses on the last track I just passed. 

I was getting desperate and passing out by the side of the road in a crying mess was starting to seem more inviting than pushing one more pedal stroke - even if it was towards a hotel room. One of those would mean a conversation closely followed by the expectation of standing up in a shower for longer than necessary.

The gates on the track were unlocked so I slithered my way through beyond the first field of cows then the second any vaguely flat grass appeared, I was on it.

There was space for a bike on the fence. The stream was a bit high on noise volume but I had the sense my brain would not care and also if there were any nearby animals, my rustling noises would be masked, avoiding the consequential woofing, bleating and moo-ing.

My brain switched off at 2am. My alarm switched off at 6am. I got up at 7, having missed the sunrise.

Still, it was only 5 hours since I'd gorged on something out of my food bags so I had plenty of energy to pack up and see what the wind farm had to offer. I'd missed the Hafen forest checkpoint on my valley amble but my track brought me back to a pleasant ridge-way bridlepath to the checkpoint above Dinas.  Pleasant, that is, once I'd left the dead-end of the track and ad-libbed across an open field of long grass to the bridlepath.  Note to self: I can not distinguish bridleways from contours in the dark. Thankfully the erection of the wind farm meant some awesome drainage ditches had been built and my feet were only wet-grass wet instead of bog-hopping wet.

• • •

 
I brewed the remaining coffee and porridge with a sheepy audience and wind turbines.

• • •

With my plans turned a little upside down, I realised I wasn't standing much chance of capturing all the checkpoints, riding up hill and down dale, eating tea in March or sleeping at the idyllic bird hide in Borth. I'd desperately been wanting to ride to the coast since Lockdown lifted and at this rate I wasn't going to make it so I swallowed my pride and decided to peg it down the A44 for a bit of easy riding.

It was less hellish than I imagined. I didn't get many close passes or caravans, the surface was mostly as smooth as ice. I occasionally considered the forest instead but by the time I did, I realised the track I'd picked was shown on the map as a dead end. I decided not to risk it and was right not to. My mistake would have meant a 100m hike across chossy felled wood land in front of 250 passing holiday motorists. 

I've never seen this carriage in the sunshine before

After suffering a bit of road I enjoyed the sudden submersion in the forest above the the MTB Centre Bwlch Nant Yr Arian, dropping out of the mossy muddy wetlands into a sun-baked valley sprighted by dragonflies and tiny lizards that slithered through the grasses. 

Sun's out...

I had a Skittles celebration then embarked on the short hike-a-bike across a bog, my bike held aloft over my head as I assessed the easiest way out.  I clambered along an old building wall, depositing my bike sunny-side up on the other side, as I bent double over the wire fence.  All well and good until I tried to extracate myself from the handlebars, only to find my rucsac lacing was caught and I unceremoniously unlatched myself from the rucsac like a parachutist whose first chute gets snagged.

When I righted myself a group of 6 backpacking Duk of Eds were trying (unsuccessfully) not to point and laugh.

On over to the Afon Rheidol for the crossing to the MTB centre.  Another pleasant bridleway which felt substantially under-used for its beauty.  Then in complete contrast I dropped down to the heaving moutnainbike trails, where two bears on their way out assured me there was a cafe to be had.

There I joined forces with more bears working on an engineering project - a stripped deraileur being single-speeded and a front mech that wouldn't come off its cable. I obliged with pliers and cable and removal techniques before leaving dad to sort his own single speed out whilst I ate ice cream, chatted to the kids and watched the impressive display of red kites.

One pastie and lots of unhealthy snacks later I set off none the wiser as to why anyone visits a trail Centre on a Bank Holiday weekend - except for the obvious pull of a cafe.

 

Still, it was nice to turn away from them all, collect the view of Aberystwyth-on-sea, the lead-mines at Cwmerfyn, got hollered at by someone at "The Study Centre" -does anyone know what they study there? -and reach my final checkpoint of the day-the hills above Tal y Bont, looking down on the ocean and, possibly, Ireland. 




 
Time to celebrate life. In the impossibly beautiful sunlight, sat out on a rock slab in my fleece, the swallows screaming overhead, I finally finished the M & Ms and the last of the rubbish crisps from Carmo. I was too early for the sunset. I couldn't face the down and up to the actual check- point as it was going to need to be retraced but I stood and looked on, thought, "that's very nice Stu" and left again and appreciated that it didn't matter. What mattered was a pleasant evening at the pub, a decent night's sleep and having enough beans left to manage Monday.
 

I texted TSK to make a plan for pickup, accepting that if I can't face riding across a hillside, I sure as hell can't face the ride home through Shropshire.

I whooped down the hill to Tal y Bont, parked on an iron drain pipe and booked myself a table with my coat and helmet. I left my "muddy boots" on the sun-soaked concrete slope to cook dry along with my socks and disgorged insoles. Inside the grumpy proprietor was a bit fed up of this Covid Crap so we had a giggle and he was nice to me and didn't charge me tourist tax, unlike the waitress who tried to add a quid to my pot of tea order but I'd already paid my mate at the bar. I even managed a beer. The weather stayed warm enough for me to sit out until dark when I drank some more tea and spent more time indoors preparing for the night ahead. 

When I'd put on all my layers to leave, the concrete slope outside was still radiating heat so I lay there for a while, getting my dried socks on and stretching out the legs.

My new get up and go didn't last long. The shop was still open and I realised that all I had for tomorrow was some fizzy fish sweets and porridge-which required effort. I raided the stores for Popcorn, Welsh cakes and couscous. As I left I heard the proprietor say, "we've had more cyclists in this weekend than the whole of last year". There we go Stu - supporting local business... stealthily.

• • •

My route to the coast was a little disjointed by dead ends. I wonder how many times one old man has been asked for directions to the bridleway at the end of his lane.  Stealthy indeed.

On one tiny road I stopped for a wee at a bench mounted atop the 8ft high grass verge. Relaxed now. I found myself becoming wistful for my bivi bag again. The bench was the perfect length for me-including the slot in the arm where my feet could hang loose.

Moon so near


 

• • •

Aberdovey so Far

I could see but not hear the lights of Aberdovey across the water and the almost full moon made it certain that no rare passing vehicle would notice me. Still, I also liked the idea of bird watching with my eyes shut at the Visitor centre. I carried on.

Several abortive attempts at the canal path later, I just cycled up the B- road to Borth, past the seaside holiday town - shopfronts, takeaways and the mobile home parks and packed full touring sites. It's not that I couldn't have sneaked a spot and been gone before dawn but the floodlights and tarmac pitches really didn't appeal. The closest I got to stopping was a luxury bus stop complete with benches and a shady corner but I resisted and ploughed on, at the same time, acknowledging that the return journey would be shit into a headwind.

At last the visitor centre arrived. Another ranger vehicle in the car park. Nobody in sight though. I went to "take a look at the info boards". Like the proverbial solo stage audition or an interrogation scene in a movie, banks of fluoro lights switched on by motion sensors, "Bam Bam Bam Bam". Hm.., no stopping there then. I went to investigate the boardwalks. They soon ran out. I didn't fancy spending Monday grinding sand through my chain so I backtracked, checked the toilets then turned tail and rejoined my route which went up to the Estuary mouth before heading back south.

I stopped at the estuary. A number of cars were parked-I stopped to wait for a heavy vehicle to leave, assuming (for some reason) it was a council van clearing the beach. As it passed I realised it was a camper. Someone else evicted by wardens? It didn't matter, I was having a ton of that draft, I don't care why they were leaving. There's not much better for drafting than a box build camper, especially a box build camper driven by old people. He held a perfect 24 mph average right along the golf course before stopping to consult the map at my turn. Over 20 minutes riding and a lot of pain saved there, I'm sure. 

I sped across the road raised above the mudflats, not even pausing to consider stopping there, then resumed my track to Furnace.  Unlike last night I wasn't completely desperate. Sure it was late but I was warm and I had food, plus there were wooded off road sections and the Forge checkpoint to come and the checkpoint almost seemed to be on a flatter spot.

Unfortunately I forgot this path was up a virtual cliff of a lane so there was a right hike to get to it. I seemed to remember a kennels nearby but to my inane relief, the barking and smell of dog poo did not materialise.

On the path, I put on my big light. There were no overlooking houses and the time was right to get my head down soon. Before my checkpoint, before leaving the womb of the woodland, a fallen tree gave rise to a flat bit of earth JUST the right size for my tent. Just.

Branches were moved. Tyvek placed. Trial lie-down confirmed all Ok. When I say "Just", I had to drive one of the pegs into a split in the fallen trunk to get my rear guy rope tensioned. It wasn't a perfect pitch but without wind or rain it didn't matter. I bedded down, ate some couscous and slept like the log I was tethered to. The dog walkers might have had a "death to wild campers rally" outside my tent and I would not have stirred. I shamefully packed up my tent at 8:30, admired the checkpoint (a rock slab that would not have been any good for the tent anyway) and headed into March for some tea (and breakfast), so only 2.5 days later than when I previously said I would go to Mach for tea.

• • •

Mach was sunny. I grabbed a coffee and breakfast order from the park cafe and sat down to wait for my order and to see about the 2 "nearby" checkpoints I had missed and whether I could get to them before TSK arrived to pick me up.

No sooner had I made myself comfy, 2 mountain bikes approached. Thinking they might be Bears that I do or do not know, I prepared to give a non-committal "Hey" and a wave. This quickly escalated as I realised that they were two really good friends from Cheshire who I haven't seen in ages instead of the 4-or-5 times I usually see them either at races or for our Christmas get together.

They had been riding the Cambrian Way as a credit card tour and were just heading out unladen to ride the last bit to Dovey Junction.

• • •

All plans went out the window as we degenerated into more coffee / tea / cake and they debated calling the cat sitter to say they'd be late. Before I knew it TSK had arrived and my Last two tenable check- points remained unchecked. Not that I regret it. I travel alone to make new friends and keep old ones. I like my own company but I like surprises more.


Despite not getting the best out of myself on the WRT because I left a lot of it in Staffordshire, I had a great time being away from my desk and only having a sketchy plan that got binned was great stuff. I drank more alcohol than I'm normally capable of, did one of the longer cycle tours I've done on a MTB, 450km / 7900m in Elevation) and all on my new bike so great for bonding and man did we bond!

• • •

It may not have been the peak 200 or my Northern Myth route but it was a lot of hours in the saddle so I'm pretty happy I didn't suffer any of the bruises I have experienced this summer.

The wrist pain I had after 134km on day I was resolved with a bar height adjustment and a change to saddle inclination. My new Igaro charger worked a treat to keep me off grid for 4 days (2 if you count the 2 days battery I took with me) and for this trip I appreciated the training and gear ratios from the slightly higher 11- speed old setup compared to the twiddle-anywhere on the Trek. I'm excited for the possibilities though.

• • •

Am I tired? Hell yes I am mentally exhausted. I haven't had nearly enough sleep. I haven't dared to try to ride today. Just getting around the house has been a chore but of course I could ride today - just not fast.

Aside from the beautiful scenery and the pure ecstasy of being out for 4 days straight I'm pleased about the information gathering. I've done few multi-day rides recently. Especially at any effort or off road. Particular highlights were feeling like I'd repaired myself after day 2's exhaustion with just a good meal and asleep.

The recovery that happens over the next few days is one that has to be extremely kind to me. It needs to acknowledge the effort that went into making this happen. Acknowledge that the improvement to carrying on as long as I did is massive. Finishing on Monday was not "quitting" but rather accepting that I was no longer cycling with any effort, merely pushing on the pedals free wheeling the flats or walking the climbs.  I stopped not because I wasn't having fun but because I wasn't getting any real training or riding out of it.  I needed to recover for next week-both mentally and physically, come back and do it all again soon.

The knowledge collected for the HT was incredible. I now know that day 2 may be a disaster but I have experienced the comebacks that can happen whilst still keeping moving. I know what I can squeeze into a day, what extra I need to do or how I can recover better on stops.

Missing out in Wales made me a bit more comfortable about driving places to ride and made me more comfortable about putting some skinny gears on a heavy bike to last out better in the future...  I just need to wear these ones out first.