Friday, 20 December 2013

Scialet de la Combe de Fer

One of my old caving and climbing mates has just sent me a link to a video about a cave in France, which together we explored back in the early 80s when we were both members of Hull University Speleological Society (HUSS)

The cave, La Scialet de la Combe de Fer (or Combe d'Enfer), variously translated as 'cave of the combe of iron' or 'cave of the combe of hell' lies in the Vercors, a limestone massif to the west of Grenoble, in south east France.

Our first trip to the Vercors had been in 1980, when a group of 8 from the club drove down to Vercors in the club's British Leyland EA 350, 3.5 ton diesel  van, painted in a  tasteful brown and beige and capable of a top speed of 40mph, whilst burning a gallon of engine oil every 200-300 miles.  We'd gone for a two week caving 'holiday', near the end of which, and full of bravado the likes of which only young people can exhibit, we decided to have a crack at the Combe de Fer.  We never expected to reach the bottom - we didn't have enough tackle for that - but we reckoned we could get about two-thirds of the way down.

The cave entrance is an impressive arch, maybe 20m across and 5m high and leads 300m down a steep rubbly entrance slope to a depth of -90m, where the way on is blocked by a large, deep pit in the floor.  An airy traverse lead to the head of the first pitch, 35m deep into a 'cosy' chamber with standing room for about 3 people.  The exit from here is a body sized tube, from which you have to launch yourself head or feet first (you choose - both are equally acrobatic and scary) onto ladder or rope, down a very airy and damp, 55m pitch.

From here the cave progresses as a series of tight, awkward meanders punctuated by smaller vertical drops of between 10 m and 20m. A short, flat-out crawl with an awkward little drop, leads into a small chamber at the head of a big pitch.  We could tell it was big from the echo but how big we didn't know.  By this stage, probably 8 to 10 hours in, we had lost faith in the survey and in effect were lost ourselves.

We rigged it with 4 ladders.  Each 'electron' caving ladder was 25' long and made of two steel wires with aluminium rungs spaced every 12".  These were cheaper than the easier to climb ladders having 10" rung spacings.  Ladders could be joined end to end with 'c-links'. 

I was the first one to descend.  The climbing was relatively easy as the ladders ran against the wall.  The back wall was also quite close and apart from the uncertainty about the depth, it didn't feel especially intimidating.  Part way down the 4'th ladder - you learn to count the c-links when you're caving on ladders - I reached a ledge and found a place to rest comfortably.  I shouted up that I needed more ladders and the folk above added another 3 to the top and lowered them down to the ledge, from where I relayed them over the edge into the darkness below.  Apart from the grating of aluminium on limestone and some muffled voices above me, all I could hear was a metallic drip from far below and my own breathing.  I had a feeling that this pitch could be the 60m (190') shown on the survey into the Grandes Salles  (literally 'big rooms' and one of the roomiest parts of the entire cave system.)  I shouted up for one more ladder, to make a total of 200'.  It took some more, seemingly endless faffing but after 45 minutes to an hour from arriving on the ledge, I was able to continue the descent.  As I climbed down, the possibility that the ladder still might not reach the bottom kept creeping into my mind.  In this circumstance I would either have to re-ascend straight away or wait for another ladder to be lowered and somehow attach it to the c-links below me. 

Somewhere on the 6'th ladder, the chimney I had been descending suddenly belled out into the roof of a huge cavern.  I was now swinging in space and the little illumination provided by my carbide light was soaked up by an engulfing blackness.  Eventually, the floor came into view and I stepped off the ladder with about 10' to spare.  It seemed likely that this was in fact the Grandes Salles and the pitch that followed confirmed this.  Marked on the survey as Puits de la Boue (pitch of the mud), it lived up to its name, a 25m descent through clarty mud that stuck to the ladders, the lifeline and us.  It dropped us into the main streamway.  Up to this point, the cave had been largely dry, although in wet weather, the upper pitches can become impassable, as 3 of us found in 1986, when we spent an uncomfortable night on a ledge 300 vertical metres below the surface.

On the 1980 trip we reached a depth of around 400m, 180 vertical metres and 300m horizontally short of the terminal sump.  We'd run out of tackle and time to go any further.  We returned in 1981 and more or less laid siege to the cave, setting up a camp in the Grandes Salles with teams of 4 staying underground for 3 days at a time. We ran a telephone line from the cave entrance to the underground camp, in case of emergencies and to relay daily weather reports; we knew that the active streamway lower down the cave would flood rapidly if there was heavy rain on the surface.    The aim of the trip had been to resurvey the main route down to the sump at -580m and with a hope of finding some new passage.  We were joined by three ex-CUCC cavers, who turned out to be along for a jolly and then on return to the UK wrote a scurrilous article about the trip that was published in the CUCC journal - an act which in my opinion put nobody in a good light.

In the event, we never did reach the terminal sump, where the cave continues as flooded passage. We found the final pitch on the day we had to start detackling, at the far side of a squeeze through boulders in the corner of a dry chamber called the Salle du bazaar.  All we needed was 10m of rope to re-join the streamway and stroll to the end but the rope was 200m up and 2 hours of caving away. 

In 1986, three of us drove down to the Vercors at the start of May with 500m of SRT rope, borrowed from the Untamed River Expedition and destined to go to the northern Candian Rockies that August plus a pile of other gear, with the intention of doing a fast, alpine like descent of the cave to the sump.  Things went well to begin with and we got to the top of the pitch into The Grandes Salles on the first day.  On the way out we heard a lot of water and walking round the corner found that the lower of the three large pitches back to the surface had become impassable.  We knew that similar amounts of water would be crashing down the other shafts out to the surface. We spent the night down the cave, huddled in survival blankets on a ledge out of the worst of the draft and high enough up to not get washed away, should the water levels start to rise.  We made it out the next morning and spent the next 5 days on the surface waiting for it to stop raining.  On the day before we had to drive home, the weather cleared enough for two of us to go back down and pull out as much gear as we could, while one remained at the entrance to call out the French cave rescue, if the worst happened.  To save time, we left some of the smaller pitches rigged but recovered the bulk of the gear without incident.  By the time we got back to Sheffield,  we had made it into the local paper (twice) with headlines of "Cavers trapped in underground flood" and "Cavers second trip to danger".  By 'eck, those were the days!

I always said I'd get to the bottom of the Combe de Fer before I reached 40 but by the time I got to 40 I had been to Borneo, decided I'd had enough of caving and become a dad.

At 580m deep, the Combe de Fer is by current world records not an especially deep cave.  Nevertheless, it remains an unremittingly strenuous one, with alternating deep pitches (vertical drops) and tight meanders and dropping into a flood prone streamway before reaching the terminal sump.  It's also navigationally challenging with 3 main routes down, weaving in and out of each other.  The Combe de Fer is certainly one of the harder caves I've ever been down and I have no intention of going back unless other than possibly to take a stroll down the entrance slope for old time's sake.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Do you think I'm over-reacting?

So I've just taken delivery of this ground anchor, chain and padlock from Pragmasis, to bolt the replacement bike, when I get it, to the floor.

Torc ground anchor, chain and lock

The reviews of most bike locks make depressing reading, so I've gone for the biggest thing I can find.  Just to get this in perspective, the keys are longer than a normal front door latch key.  Yes, that's right, the anchor, chain and lock are huge - and very heavy (over 6kgs).  This thing gets a 5 star rating in the review on

If the buggers want to nick my next bike, they'll have to take the house as well.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Review: Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee base layer

Back in the day, and I'm talking 35 years ago, there was but one base layer and it was Damart.  Oh and we referred to stuff made from Damart as thermals since nobody had thought to coin the term base layer yet.  Damart was great.  Well no, it wasn't actually.  It was heavy and it didn't wick very well, but unless you were careless enough to put it in a hot wash or dry it in front of a fire, it was virtually indestructible.  Indeed, I still use a Damart T-shirt I bought in the 70s under my caving suit, on the rare occasions I go underground.

Then in the late 70s or maybe it was the early 80s, Helly Hansen came along.   Hellys were to Damart what GoreTex was to Gaberdine.  They weighed virtually nothing and  wicked away perspiration.   Like Damart, they never seem to wear out and I still use my HH long johns in cold weather.  You may be getting the idea that I have trouble throwing stuff out but that's maybe because 50% of my genes are from Yorkshire stock.

The downside of Hellys and the base layers made of man-made fibres which followed them, is that unless you are lucky enough to have a body which doesn't perspire, they start to smell quite quickly.

Two solutions came along for this problem.  One was that someone rediscovered wool, which can be itchy when worn against the skin but in its merino form, isn't (as much).  The other is that a different someone (I assume) had the wacky idea of mixing the man-made fibres with silver threads, silver ions or silver salts to kill the bacteria which make the smells.  Chemists are brilliant people but sometimes just a bit weird.

I bought a merino top about 5 years ago and it will go for a few days without washing before it gets too whiffy.  If it rains, it does tend to smell like a wet sheep.  Until recently, I'd never tried a silver based odour control garment, which brings me a step closer to the subject of this review.

Go Outdoors contacted me in September asking if I would like to review something from their online catalogue.  The only criterion was that it had to be under £50 before discount.  I've spent a lot of money with Go Outdoors over the years, even with the discount card, so this seemed a reasonable quid pro quo.  Also, as it happened, I was thinking about getting a new base layer to cycle in this winter, so the choice of what to review was easy to make.  I decided that the spec should be a long sleeved shirt with a collar and zip and some form of odour control, which would allow me to live with it after a few days of continuous use.

The Go Outdoors website lists about 50 different base layer products and I long-listed about 8 of these, which came down to a short-list of 2.  The Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee and the Berghaus LS Thermal Zip Neck Top both costing £45 before discount.  The Rab was billed as having a Polygiene (R) Stay Fresh odour control treatment whilst the Berghaus claimed to be odour resistant.

The decision was almost made by the toss of a coin but I've never had a bad product from Rab and its Sheffield origins were enough to sway the choice in favour of the Rab.

The product details, taken from the Go Outdoors website, are:

Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee - a midweight long sleeved zip neck tee, made with a soft feel polyester single jersey knit fabric.  
  • Revised fabric, Polyester single jersey knit
  • Polygiene® STAY FRESH odour control treatment
  • Flatlock low bulk seams
  • YKK zipped neck, chin guard
  • Thumb-loops
  • Fit: Regular
  • Weight: 260g / 9oz (size large)

Size, Style and colour

Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee

I ordered a large.  It's a bit big on me. I probably should have looked at the size guide more closely.  However, I generally prefer to wear something that is looser fitting, even if that does go against all the principles of wicking.  

Thumb loop

The sleeves are long and have thumb loops, which I never used on the merino base layer.  I personally don't find thumb loops very useful.  When I'm cycling I more likely to push the sleeves up my arms to control temperature.

 On my kitchen scales it weighs in at 260g, which agrees with the weight shown on the label for the large size.

The men's version comes in a mid-blue body with charcoal grey sleeves.  There is an equivalent women's product in a more pastel shade of blue.  It's worth saying that I know at least two women who are fed up with gear manufacturers assuming that women only want to be seen in 'girly' pastel shades. 

Fit and comfort

The first thing I noticed was how soft the fabric felt compared to polyester base layers I've had before.

Rab describe it as mid-weight and the fabric thickness compares with that of base layers I've used for skiing.  We've had a fairly mild autumn and one reason for delaying this review was to wait for some cold weather.  Through October and early November, I've been cycling in this with a thin wind shell.  A couple of weeks ago, the temperature dropped below zero and I cycled to the office in the Aeon, a mid-layer and a hard shell - and that felt just about right

It's well constructed, the stitching is good with no loose threads and the seams are flat and comfortable. 

The zip is a YKK and as might be expected, is excellent.  With the zip fully closed, the collar provides good protection to the neck.  The zip extends halfway down the front of the shirt and allows for good ventilation when you want it.

There is some reflective trim on the back of the neck and the bottom of the sleeves.  I'm sceptical about how effective this detailing is in making you more visible, especially since on a base layer, it is likely to be covered up.

Reflective trim detail on rear of shirt

Reflective trim detail on sleeve
 Warmth,  wicking and odour control

I've already alluded to its warmth.  This isn't really a garment for the summer months, although its probably ideal for walking across Scotland in May.  For winter walking, running, cycling or skiing, it's pretty much ideal, I would say.  It seems to wick well and dries pretty quickly at home.  I haven't taken it camping yet or tried to dry it in humid conditions.

I was keen to know how well the silver salt based odour control would work.  In fact it seems to be pretty effective.  I made a point of not throwing it in the washing machine with the rest of the gear when I got back from a ride but just leaving it in a corner to 'fester' between uses.  By its 4'th use without washing, it was starting to get a bit 'fresh', which is to say, smelly.  But that's probably not unreasonable.  I could imagine wearing it for a few days without washing it and not feel too much embarrassment on returning to civilisation.

Value for money

So would I buy one?  Well £45 (or £40.50 after discount) seems quite a lot of money.  If I'd just seen it in the shop, and without knowing anything about it, I might have thought twice about spending that amount on a base layer.  But over the years, I've learnt that it's all too easy to opt for the cheaper product and find that it just doesn't perform out on the hill.  Good kit is worth paying a premium for and the Rab Aeon Plus Zip Tee is a good product: functional, attractive and well made.  I'm expecting this to last me at least 5 seasons and probably more, given that I am unlikely to wear it in the summer. 

Summing up

I think this is a good bit of gear and it pretty much met my original set of requirements.  My main criticism is that it's warmth probably limits its use to colder weather.  It will be getting a lot of use this winter.  As long as it remains serviceable for at least 5 years, I would consider it to be excellent value for the money.

Now, perhaps I could review the Berghaus LS for comparison?

Friday, 22 November 2013

Mountain Bikes Stolen

Our mountain bikes were stolen from my garage in Sheffield 10 between 7 and 9.30 this evening (Friday 22 November)

Stolen Cotic B-Fe

Stolen Santa Cruz Nickel
Clicking on the pictures will enlarge them.
The bikes are are:

Black Santa Cruz Nickel with white DT Swiss 130 forks, Synchros  DS28 rims and Maxxis High Roller on front and Advantage on rear, Deore XT cranks and gears, Avid Elixir brakes, Thompson seatpost, WTB saddle, Easton EA70 monkey bar, Peaty grip and silver DMR Vault flat pedals.
Green Cotic B-Fe with black X-Fusion Velvet forks, Mavic Cross Ride rims with Maxxis Advantage on both.  Also red Hope seat clamp and red Superstar Nanotech flat pedals.

Both are custom builds from Eighteen Bikes in Hope.

The police are aware and if anyone sees them or believes they have any information about the bikes, we would be grateful if they would phone the police on 101 and quote the crime reference number  K/110686/13
Both bikes have been registered as stolen on BikeRegister. 

Thanks to all of you who have tweeted/retweeted and posted on FaceBook about this.  We're grateful for the support of the local MTB community.  We're realistic about the chances of ever seeing our bikes again but if doing something through social networking raises the possibility of it being just a little bit harder for bike thieves to get away with it, then it feels better than doing nothing.

Once again, thank you.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Day 7

Back to Day 6

Glen Esk  to Montrose (19 miles)

We sat under the trees eating our last remaining breakfast bars and watched strings of water droplets cascade out of the branches, glinting like pearls in the morning sun.

After packing up for the final time, we rode the short distance into Edzell for breakfast at The Tuck Inn, which on arrival, we found didn't open until midday.  A chap on a bike stopped and told us there was a café down the road that would be open.  We got chatting about bikes.  He had 14 but his mate had 18 or maybe it was 20. I really don't remember now.  My mind was on a full Scottish or at the very least a bacon butty.  The café was also a gift shop, a purveyor of expensive tat to tourists, the kind of thing your aunty would bring back from her holiday, and served up an indifferent cup of coffee and yesterday's scones.  Hilary was (and still is) outraged that they could do such a thing!

Took the B road south out of Edzell and then back lanes to Westerton of Stracathro and the most hazardous part of the entire trip, the crossing of the A90.  This is the main road to Aberdeen and at this point is a dual carriageway where motorists seem unwilling to travel at less than the national speed limit.

Waiting for a gap in the traffic (as in, no cars in sight in either direction), I walked the bike and trailer across and was completely off the road and onto the grass verge when a  motorist sped by sounding his horn in a "get of my road" kind of way.  I offered him a  cheery, one-fingered wave.  Hilary followed across and got a similar welcome from a driver going in the opposite direction - or it may have been the same one, come back for another go.

I never much like arriving in this part of Scotland.  Perhaps it is the transition from leaving the Highlands to entering the lowlands, and the signalling of the end of a trip, but it seems to me that people over here are more unfriendly than, well... just anywhere else in the country.

The Angus hills from across the A90

The very last hill (of Stracathro)

We climbed the last hill of the trip and then followed a white road on the map, running between Dun and Kirkhill.  This started as a farm track, then turned into a green lane and ended in a field of cereal crops.  We faffed around for a few minutes, trying to find a way along the side of this before back-tracking and taking the main road into Montrose past the Basin. 

Following a Sustrans sign to the coast, we ended up on the wrong side of the golf course with some large sand dunes and fence between us and the sea.  What!!! We hadn't cycled across Scotland not to get our feet wet.  We back-tracked (again) but the detour wasn't all bad.  We came across a BMX track and did a couple of laps with the trailers.

Montrose BMX track - seldom attempted with trailers

And so we rode the bikes down a section of convenient 'north shore' onto the beach and took the final picture with the North Sea behind us.

Journey's end - the beach at Montrose

The End

Well it wasn't quite the end.  Montrose was full of holiday makers in the form of hyper-active kids and stressed-out parents.  We called in the beach café and ordered some food and drinks.  The two women serving behind the counter were complaining to each other how rushed off their feet they were.  There was only one other couple in the café and somehow we got given the same number for our orders.  The plan had been to stay overnight in Montrose but this felt a poor way to end the trip.  We found the car where we had left it a week earlier, packed up and drove to Kendal for a curry before stopping with Hilary's niece for the night in Staveley.

The next day, we drove down through the Yorkshire Dales, along the A65 in torrential rain and remembered it was the first day of the Gaping Gill winch meet, up on the side of Ingleborough. Pausing only briefly to consider taking the bikes and trailers up there for the day, we carried on home to Sheffield.

And this really is the end.

The video of the trip, "Across Scotland with BoB (and Hilary)", is coming soon.  Until then, here is the official 'teaser trailer'

Teaser Trailer

Bet you never saw that one coming!

Special thanks to:
The LEJOG bike team at Spean Bridge for coffee and sausage rolls
The café at Roybridge Stores
The chap at Laggan Wolftrax tea shack for a delicious venison burger and spicy squash thing
Sue and Neil at The Newtonmore Hostel
The House of Mark for an unexpectedly fine pot of tea and Magnums
All the other lovely people we met on the way across (which specifically excludes all the motorists on the A90)

And finally to Mat, Simon and Mat at Eighteen Bikes, Hope, Derbyshire who built and maintain both bikes.

Hilary's is a Cotic B-Fe and receives a huge amount of interest from other cyclists.

Mine is a Santa Cruz Nickel and nobody gives it a second look!

Both trailers are Bob Ibex

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Day 6

Back to Day 5

Glen Tanar to Glen Esk (22 miles)

So, we were nearly there or so it was starting to feel.  Just one more big push - literally as it turned out.

It must have rained during the night as the tents were wet in the morning.  The midges were pleased to see us again.

I managed to leave my black cycling gloves on the black floor the tent but of course I didn't realise until the big yellow bag was closed up and strapped into the trailer.  I was wearing some lightweight 'anti-midge' Rabs and along with the leggings, cagoule and midge net, I quickly felt too hot as we pedalled away from the camp.   To be too hot or to get eaten?  Tough choice.  I decided to forget about it and take in the view. 

I'd been wanting to ride this track for months.  This was new ground for me, crossing from one major valley system into another major valley system.  There's something very exciting about traversing a watershed.

After a couple of miles we got our first glimpse of Mt Keen. A patch of grey cloud covered the summit crown like a badly fitting wig.

Mt Keen from Glen Tanar

Although the route we had to climb up was visible, I didn't take too much notice of it.  From this distance, foreshortened by perspective, it didn't look that steep.

Shortly before the Shiel of Glentanar, the road forks and we crossed the Water of Tanar for the third time that morning, onto the Mounth Road.  Tell me someone, please, how is this pronounced?  Is mownth or mownt or moonth or something else, like , oh I don't know... blancmange? 

The start of the Mounth Road
And as we moved ever closer to the foot of Mt Keen, it still didn't look like it would take the two hours that Ballater bike shop boy had advised us would be needed to reach the shoulder,

At the foot of the slope, we looked up and agreed this was going to require a lot of Jelly Babies.  So, loaded up with sugar, we set off.  I checked the time as we started the climb.  Even at this stage, I thought we could cycle some of this.

The lower, 'easy' section of the climb up Mt Keen

Indeed, mainly as an act of bravado, I did manage to crank the pedals briefly on 2 or 3 occasions before accepting the futility of it.  This was going to take a while.

After 45 minutes, I'd risen 150 metres in about 1 km, to the point where the track splits into two more or less parallel branches.  I waited for Hilary to catch up.  I had little choice - the Jelly Babies were in her bag.

The start of the upper part of the climb

Resting before the next big push

We rested here for 5 or 10 minutes, digging deeper into the bag of JBs and listening to some gun fire coming from down in valley.  There was another 150m of ascent to be done.  We discussed whether to take the left path or the right.  They both looked unpromising - equally steep and rocky (steeper and rockier than the lower section.)  We chose right, though whether that was the right choice is open to question.  It kept us away from the edge of the corrie and the most tightly packed contours drawn on the map.

It was slow going.  Pushing 14kg of bike, 7 kg of trailer and another14kg of bag up the steep, boulder strewn side of this mountain, I started to get an idea how it might have been for Scott's party, man-hauling sledges up the Beardmore Glacier.  Only it wasn't as long or cold of course.  In fact, it was anything but cold.

On the upper section of the climb up Mt Keen

Making slow progress up the next 50m, Hilary decided she would carry the bag up on her back and then go back down for her bike and trailer.  She passed me on the way up and again on the way down.  Reaching her bag another 50m higher, gave me an excuse to stop and let her catch up but as she was still going quite slowly, I dumped my stuff, got out the poles and hefting her bag onto my back, moved it up to the top of the slope.

The track gets steeper and the rocks bigger

Returning back down, I got back to pushing and with straining knees, feet slipping on loose rocks and a degree of pig-headedness, the bike and trailer inched their way upwards over increasingly bigger boulders. 

Some (barely) action shots

I passed the time considering what sort of person it is that would think it a good idea to bikepack over Mt Keen.  I haven't reached a conclusion yet.

At almost exactly two hours from the foot of the climb, I crested the shoulder and collapsed into the heather waiting for the JBs to arrive.  Looking back, the hills beyond Glen Muick and the granitic bulk of Lochnagar were silhouetted against a watery sky.

The route to the summit of Mt Keen

From the outset, I don't think we ever really had any intention of going across the top of Mt Keen.  The route from here to the summit looked at least as steep as the last 150m, although the map suggests it's even steeper.   I'm not sure it would be that much fun to ride down it either.  The track down the far side looks much easier.

This was as high as we were going

 The singletrack section round the flank of the mountain is a pleasant ride in the main, although as with other bealachs I've walked over, they seem to take longer to traverse than you would think from  the map.

Singletrack round the flank of Mt Keen

From the far (southern) side of Mt Keen, it's a screaming descent down into Glen Mark.  In this case it wasn't only me screaming.  I was in competition with the brakes which were complaining at the task of applying Newton's third law to neutralise the effects of gravity on a mass of 110 kgs.   That's a lot of those SI Newton thingies for four tiny squares of grippy stuff to apply.

One of the more gentle sections

The descent was mostly made technical by virtue of its steepness.  I stopped worrying about the trailer behind me and put all my concentration into keeping the bike going in a straight line as we bounced off boulders and over bumps and drainage channels.  At one point it seemed as if the track was about to plunge vertically straight down and we approached the 'edge' anxiously, relieved to find the gradient was eased to something reasonable by the thoughtful insertion of a couple of hairpin bends. 

On the edge of the abyss - looking down onto the ribbon of track following
the Ladder Burn to the valley floor

I arrived at the bottom on a massive endorphin high.  If it hadn't been for the walk up, I'd have done it all over again, though probably without the trailer this time.

The end of the descent

We rolled on past Glenmark farm and stopped for lunch by the river, just opposite Queen's Well, where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took refreshment from the artesian well in September 1861.  Albert died in December of the same year and looking at the water in the well today, you can't help wondering if the two events were connected.  Actually, it's now known that he died of Crohn's disease.

Queen's Well, Glen Mark

We lay back in the long grass, soaking up the warmth of the sun and I stripped down to my figure hugging, black cycling shorts.  The timing for this wasn't ideal as the Blairgowrie ladies walking group appeared out of nowhere and strolled past us.  The experience was almost too much for everyone.

We could quite easily have just stayed there for the rest of the afternoon but the plan had us camping at Tarfside that evening.  Somewhat reluctantly, we got back on the bikes (oh, yes, I put my clothes back on first) and rode down the valley scattering Blairgowrie ladies hither and yon in our wake.  (We didn't really.)

At the end of the track is a house and a gate.  As Hilary was shutting the gate, she commented that what would be really good now was a sign advertising teas.  I thought she was joking to start with because right behind her, on the gate post, was a sign advertising teas (and ice cream.)  And so we discovered the House of Mark and sat in the back garden with a large pot of tea and a couple of Magnums.  You should call in if you go that way.  They get a lot of walkers and mountain bikers coming through -  and they make a damned fine pot of tea. 

We had one more hill to climb for the day, to cross the col between Cairn Robie and the Hill of Rowan, with its conical monument known as The Maule Monument or Maule's Cairn.  The only details I can find about this on the web, say that the monument was constructed in 1866 by Lord Panmure in the memory of seven members of his family.  The story we were told was (I think) that it commemorates the death of a group of people who decided to go over the hill as a shortcut to church one Sunday and got caught out in a blizzard.

Monument on the Hill of Rowan

Dropping down the LRT  towards Tarfside, we came across a dozen or so LandRovers blocking the entire track, requiring us to drag the bikes and trailers up onto the bank to get past them.  It was only then that I noticed 30 or 40 people carrying shotguns, walking off the hillside towards us.  There was nothing where we joined the track to indicate there might be a shooting party further ahead.  Anyway, we didn't wait to chat.  I didn't want to spoil their shooting and I didn't especially want them to do anything which might spoil our day.   The final descent into Tarfside was rapid.

And here the day and to a  certain extent the rest of the trip, went off plan a tiny bit.  I'd not been to Tarfside before but I knew there was a recognised place where people camped.  In all of my meticulous planning for this trip, I had forgotten to find out exactly where this was.  I suppose I'd assumed that if it wasn't obvious, we would see someone to ask but when we got there, the place was deserted.  They were probably all out shooting things. 

Added to this, we were enticed by a sign advertising hot meals until 6pm, two miles down the road at The Retreat.  It was a bit gone 4pm.  We reasoned we could pop down the road, have something to eat, find out where the camping was and then pop back up to Tarfside again. 

The first problem with this plan was that, when we got there, at about a quarter to five, they had already stopped serving.  Apparently, they only serve until 6pm on Saturdays.  They didn't advertise this on the sign because it would have needed more paint!  And I thought Yorkshiremen were supposed to be tight.

The next problem was that contrary to what the Ordnance Survey might suggest with their fine cartography, there had been quite a loss of height between Tarfside and where we now found ourselves and neither of us felt like doing any more uphill that day.

And then there was this business with the guns.  We had one more off road section to do in the morning.  It was about 3.5 miles, starting from Tarfside and passing by Cowie Hill and the Clash of Wirran down into Glen Lethnot.  What we didn't especially fancy was a long slog up onto the hills only to find a shooting party letting rip on the other side.

The people at The Retreat told us that there was a campsite further down the valley and so after a brief conflab, that is where we headed.  It turned out to be a long 7 miles down the valley and we got caught by a black rain cloud that had been closing in on us since Glen Mark.  The campsite had the feel it was about to close for the season but it had hot showers and we found a comfortable place under the trees to pitch the tents, although this wasn't actually in the campers area.

Glenesk campsite

A bit of me still feels that we missed off the end of the ride but I think the fact that we had met one shooting party that day was a good reason to keep off the hills for the final day.  It didn't seem worth the risk, just for the sake of three and half miles of off-road cycling.

I can't remember if I plugged into Babylon Circus or not but here is another track anyway. 

Tomorrow we would reach the sea.  It actually looked like we might be going to finish this.

On to Day 7

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Day 5

Day 5: Braemar to Glen Tanar (33 miles)

We were now over half way with all the major obstacles behind us other than Mt Keen, tomorrow.  OK, the contours looked a bit close together but we weren't planning to go to the top, so how hard could it be?

The sun was shining and there no midges and we sat on the grass to eat breakfast. Well, we ate a breakfast bar, so I suppose you could say that we flirted with the concept of breakfast.  Hilary shared hers with one of the many ducks which seem to own the site.


Today's route to Ballater would largely stick to the valley, through forests and minor roads.  Rather than take the road out of Braemar to Invercauld Bridge, there was a track shown on the map which runs under something a feature known as the Lion's Face.  Seasoned Challengers will  be familiar with this but I'd not been that way before.  We asked the camp site lady if she knew what it was like.  Yes, she said, she sometimes went running that way but it was a bit steep and rocky and she preferred the road.  She thought it would be too rough to cycle.  It didn't look that steep on the map and if you could run it, we reasoned, it was unlikely be that rocky.  So we ignored her advice and turned right out of the camp site to pick up the cycle track across the road.  It was a bit of a steep pull to begin with but it quickly settled down into a reasonable gradient, on a mostly grassy track sprinkled with the occasional tree root or rock for added interest.

Lion's Face track

A level section through sun dappled woods gives way, on the corner, to views west along the River Dee and north over to Braemar Castle.

Braemar Castle

From here the track descends below the rocky outcrop of the Lion's Face (hard to see the likeness from close quarters) before plunging more steeply downhill over an increasingly rocky, rooty, loose surface out to the road.  We couldn't imagine why anyone would prefer the road to this little gem of a route.

The next 2 miles of road to Invercauld Bridge (aka the old Brig of Deeeee) were quiet.  The coach parties would have still been tucking into their full Scottish breakfasts but we set all thoughts of bacon, sausages, mushrooms, fried tomatoes, fried bread (oh, just stop it) to one side and carried on pedalling.

The Brig of Dee

I could sound knowledgeable and write about the history of the bridge but I'd only be plagiarising Historic Scotland's info panel.  So here it is.  It's fascinating stuff.

We passed through the deer gate into Ballochbuie Forest.  The last time I came this way, I was hungover from a 'wild night' at Mar Lodge. 

Deer gate into Ballochbuie Forest

No hangover today and we cruised along easy forest trails

Ballochbuie Forest
 past the bridge with no name

The bridge with no name

offering fine views up and down the Dee.

River Dee from the bridge with no name

We rode past Connachat Cottage and after more forest trails the track turned to a road leading up to the gates into the grounds of Balmoral Castle.  Hilary was adamant that we were booked in for morning tea with you know who (I would have just settled for a tea shop.)  As it was, the gates were locked and we had an unexpected Norbert to cycle over to Easter Balmoral (passing between various points on the map indicating cairns named after Queen Victoria's children.)  No sign of the Easter Bunny so we continued along the B976, which was dull and after a few miles of dullness, we turned into some woods, circumnavigating a small hill called The Knock (355m - told you it was small.)  I wasn't sure about bothering with this - it seemed like 2km of off-road just for the sake of it but it was actually quite a pleasant little track, which followed the river and then back out to the road. 

We rode over the bridge into Ballater, thorough throngs of people, who I assumed had heard about our trip and had come out to cheer us on our way.  (I say, can you cheer a bit louder?  Anyone?)

We cruised the main drag eyeing up possible tea shops and then the other main drag and found one opposite the green with two empty tables outside and purveying pies from inside.  The tables were a bit wobbly and close to the road, so we decamped to the green and ate under a tree.  Sloth took hold and, after clearing aside the dog-ends dozed in the sun for a while.

It was early afternoon and Ballater was full of tourists and we didn't take to it, so we agreed to head for Glen Tanar.  The Halfway Hut was another 12 miles but there were no steep gradients.  We called in at the Cycle Highlands bike shop.  It always good to have a mooch around and see what's on offer but we also wanted to find out if we should phone any estate offices to check up on possible deer stalking or grouse shooting that might be happening over the next two days.  The young lad behind the counter thought any stalking would be in one of the neighbouring valleys but suggested we call in at the tourist office at Millfield, where we would be able to get more accurate advice.  We mentioned we were going over the Mounth Road tomorrow, across the shoulder of Mt Keen and he said we would be looking at a two hour push.  I thought he was just saying that because we looked old and left the shop feeling slightly insulted!

We stopped for a final brew in another tea shop near the old station.  I went in to order a pot for two while Hilary sat at a table outside, guarding the bikes.  I came out to find some old bloke chatting to her about bikes!

We took the Deeside Way out of Ballater, which is the track bed of the old Deeside Railway,  opened in 1853, the investment for it coming largely as a result of Price Albert bought Balmoral Castle a few years earlier.  When the royal train went through, the level crossing gates were locked and the stations closed.

On The Deeside Way

The Deeside Way makes for pleasant, fast but otherwise unexciting riding, much like the High Peak or Monsal Trails in Derbyshire (but without the tunnels.)  There are some good views of heather moorland, solitary or small stands of Silver Birch and distant hills.  It was already starting to feel like the highlands were fading to a distant memory.

We left the Deeside Way at Dinnet and followed minor roads and farm tracks to the tourist information centre at Millfield, where we called in to ask about the likelihood of meeting men with guns.  The place seemed empty but a student volunteer appeared from upstairs.  The ranger was out and she wasn't able to give us a definitive or even convincing prediction as to our safety.  She did show some concern when we said that we would be wild camping in the glen and checked that we wouldn't be lighting any fires.  We assured here we wouldn't (if you ignore the gas stoves) and went on our way.

Further down the valley, we passed St Lesmo's Chapel

St Lesmo's Chapel
 Built by Sir William Cunliffe Brooks, "an eccentric banker and MP from Manchester", the pointing in the walls is quite unusual.

Pointing in walls of St Lesmo's Chapel

We turned south west into Glen Tanar and passed a group of teenage backpackers.  And then some more.  And then still more, all the way up to the Halfway Hut.

The Halfway Hut turned out to be a garden shed, so any ideas of another cosy night in a bothy were put to one side.

The Halfway Hut
 We rode on up the glen for another few hundred yards and shortly before the forest gave way to open moor, we found a comfortable looking spot for a wild camp, in the trees, more of less out of sight of the track and just by the river.

Wild camp in Glen Tanar

It had been a great day's riding.  We'd covered 33miles and were 12 miles into tomorrow's ride.  As the midges started to close in, we disappeared into our tents and I settled into another evening with Babylon Circus and thoughts of just how much pushing we might have to look forward to in the morning.

Time to stretch your vocal chords again...

Back to Day 4  /  Forward to Day 6

Monday, 16 September 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Day 4

Day 4: Glen Feshie, Geldie Burn, Linn of Dee, Braemar (19 miles)

The day didn't start especially well.  The rain had diminished to a drizzle but the midges hadn't tired of being irritating.  Encased head to foot in thick clothing, gloves and head nets and doused in Smidge, we ventured out of the tents and packed up camp.

We'd barely got going when I fluffed a gear change or thought I had, and then again and then came to a stop.  Looking down, the chain appeared to be bent double and caught in something.  It looked broken. I got off to check the damage and was relieved to find that it was just a broken spoke that had poked itself through one of the links causing the chain to twist up.  With the spoke and chain untangled, things looked much less serious. I've broken spokes on other bikes and it has always been possible to bend the wire a few times, to weaken it and then break it off at the rim.  Not this one.  The metal refused to fatigue.  I got the tool kit out of the big yellow bag and tried to cut through the spoke with a lightweight, TrekMates multi-tool.  The jaws of the multi-tool's cutters locked themselves round the spoke wire and wouldn't release.  The moral of this is don't waste your money on cheap tools.  The situation wasn't helped by the fuzzy vision I had through the midge net and trying to work in gloves.  I tried bending the spoke some more.  It still didn't break but the multi-tool let go.  Abandoning the idea of breaking it off, I just wrapped it round another spoke a couple of times. Job sorted.  I don't know why I didn't just do that in the first place.

Higher up Glen Feshie
Start of day 4, take 2.  We were back on our way.  After a night of rain, the ground was soft but we made steady progress to the Allt Eindart, our first river crossing of the day.  This was too rocky to ride so we separated the bikes and trailers and carried everything across on foot.

Crossing the Allt Eindart, Glen Feshie

I'd expected to make a bit of a loop up to the Eidart Bridge (aka Bridge of Death by some) but the Eidart's water levels were low despite the previous nights rain and we were able to push the bikes and trailers across the river at the ford.

Fording the R. Eidart
From here the route follows the River Feshie as an increasingly pleasant grassy track, which after about a km arrives at another ford.  At least it does if you want to go somewhere other than Braemar.  Switching on the GPS, something I should have done 10 minutes earlier, I confirmed our position and checked the map.  The shortest distance to where we wanted to be, was 500m along a bearing onto the summit of Cnapan Mor (893m, for those who like to know that sort of thing.)  It took about half an hour to push through a mixture of tussocky heather and long grass, skirting round the worst of the boggy stuff.

Off piste bikepacking

Any time we had saved in not going up to the Eidart Bridge had been taken back by this little navigational anomaly.  Once back on track, there followed 2.5 miles of quite difficult terrain: boggy, rocky singletrack with several small streams to cross.  If you've walked this way, you'll know what I mean.   We finally stopped going up, crossed the watershed and leaving Glen Feshie behind us, dropped down towards the Geldie Burn.

Across the watershed and the end of the single track

It was good to reach the Land Rover track.  It had taken us 4 hours to cover 5.25 miles.  We could probably have walked it faster!  The next 14 miles to Braemar were considerably easier and we rode those in 2 hours, including a lunch stop near the ford across to Bynack Lodge and another rest by the road near Inverie, to watch butterflies in a meadow.

Land Rover track alongside the Geldie Burn

There is now a sign outside here which says
"National Trust for Scotland - a place for everyone.  Do not enter"
We crossed White Bridge without stopping, passed a couple of backpackers trying to set fire to the forest and paused at the Linn of Dee to look at the water.
Linn  of Dee
River Dee after Inverey, looking west

Linn  of Quoich
Entering Braemar, we headed straight for Taste.., it being the first place offering light refreshments when approaching from the west.
displaying three magic words: coffee, cake, open
It's always an awkward moment when you come off the hill and you haven't washed for two days and you walk into a café where all the other customers are... how best to describe this?  Well, just not sweaty and mud splattered.
Hilary went off  in search of soap and water and I ordered the menu.  Let's just say we have different priorities.  By the time she got back to the table I was alternately slurping tea and juice and gnawing the edge of the table, waiting for the food to arrive.  I must have been quite an unsettling sight.
An hour later and lightly refreshed, we left Taste.. to rebuild their business and went to check into the campsite.  Tents erected, we showered, rinsed out our muddy and phew, oh so smelly gear, which we left in the drying room, and then strolled into the village to continue foraging in the cafes and pubs of Braemar.  We began at the Hungry Highlander, notable for its "curry's pizzas", where we had some disappointing samosas and excellent onion bhajis, before heading to the Fife Arms for beer and a somewhat disappointing steak pie and chips, finally finishing off with an OK ice cream from the china shop (or whatever it is - that place just down from the gear shop.)
Replete, if not a little bloated, we headed back to the tents with the prospect of an easy day to Ballater (and tea with the Queen) tomorrow.