Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Across Scotland by Mountain Bike - The Full Story: Days 1 and 2

The Plan
Hilary and I first talked about doing a Scottish coast to coast on mountain bike a year ago.  After only making the reserve list for the TGOC this year, the idea resurfaced and plans were made which had us arriving in Montrose around the end of the Challenge.  Then, with the extended winter we moved he start to mid-June to give us longer days and less chance of hitting any snow, in particular on the Corryairack Pass.  Then we altered the route to go through Glen Roy instead of over the Corryairack as this looked a more interesting way to go, with less climbing and avoiding the difficulties of traversing the washed out sections on the eastern side.  I've since learnt that these have been repaired as part of the on-going work to build a new power line through the Pass.

June arrived and the day before we were due to leave for Scotland, I had a bit of a health wobbly, which was aggravated by sitting in a car for long periods and made us think that just getting to the start might be difficult.  As it turned out, mountain biking seemed to be the thing with fixed the problem.

We rescheduled the ride to August, the peak time for midgies and the start of the shooting/stalking season but it was either that or leave it for another year.  We'd done too much planning and preparation to postpone it again.  We'd also told a lot of people that we were doing this, so we didn't have much choice.

Getting the pieces in place
Before we could start the ride, we had to sort out some logistics.  We needed to be in Fort William with the bikes and trailers whilst the car had to be in Montrose for our arrival.  We chose Corpach as the start of the crossing because it conveniently had a campsite and car hire place close together.  We drove there on the Thursday and hired a car the next day, driving both cars to Montrose, where we left my car and returned to Corpach in the hire car.  After more than 600 miles driving in two days we were anxious to get on the bikes and get pedalling.

Day 1: Corpach to Luib-Chonnal Bothy, Glen Roy (31 miles)

So the stage was set.   Everything was in place.  No more excuses, it was time to do this thing.

The Start - Corpach

We took the road out of Corpach towards Fort William and at Banavie picked up the towpath along the Caledonian Canal, riding up the wrong side of Neptune's Staircase, a flight of eight locks built by Thomas Telford.

Neptune's Staircase - just look at those clouds!

We found out we'd ridden up the wrong side when we came across a sign which said more or less just that.  So our first 'river crossing' challenge of the trip was to get across the top lock.

Caledonian Canal
At nine in the morning, we had the towpath virtually to ourselves - just a handful of people, a few boats and a couple of kayakers.  We stopped off to look at the Loy Sluices, where excess water is drained off into  the River Lochy.

Loy Sluices
There's a big cavernous, vaulted chamber underneath where Hilary is standing, which is a place not to be when they open the taps (but it does have that seductive, dripping sound you get in a cave that tempts you to have a look inside.)


At Gairlochy, we had our first Jelly Baby stop before leaving the towpath and the Great Glen Way and following the road to Spean Bridge and the first real climb of the trip.  Shortly after being overtaken by some whippets on road bikes, who didn't seem to notice the hill, the Commando Memorial came into view and we pulled into the car park.  Immediately Hilary was mobbed by the aforementioned whippets, keen to talk about her bike, which, it soon became clear, was something of a bike nerd magnet.  (It's a custom build based on a Cotic B-Fe frame if you really want to know!)  The roadies did however offer us some coffee from a  flask and a sausage roll.  They were on their ninth day of a LEJOG and riding a hundred miles a day with a support team following in a van.  One of them suggested that we would do better with a van.  I said I was finding it hard enough just to pull the trailer and I couldn't imagine how we would manage to tow a Transit to Montrose.

Commando Memorial - Spean Bridge

Ben Nevis Range
 There was rain over on Aonach Mor and heading our way but it missed us as we sped down the hill to Spean Bridge village and the junction for Glen Spean and Roybridge.  The A82 is not a road to be cycling on for long.

Roybridge tea shop

We had called in at the Roybridge village store and tea shop the previous day for an excellent bacon roll and coffee and determined it to be deserving a second visit.  In any case, this was the end of 'civilisation' until we reached Laggan Wolftrax or maybe Netwonmore.  We'd covered about 15 fairly easy miles.  The real work was about to start.  Fortified by tea and fine pastries, we headed out into the unknown.

Glen Roy
The route up Glen Roy starts out as a road and continues like that for a few miles, rising quite steeply in places (quite a lot of places actually).

At the car park and visitor information point, which describes the origins of the 'parallel roads' along the hillsides (actually ancient shorelines), we met a couple of young lads on mountain bikes, one with panniers and the other carrying a large rucksack on his back.  They were doing a C2C from Aberdeen to Fort William in 4 days.  I'd assumed they were university students but when I was looking through the bothy visitors book that evening I found their entry, which said it was a charity ride and they were 17 and 16.  Good effort!  I 'm pretty sure that I wouldn't have had the confidence to do something like that as a teenager.

We were both pleased that we had decided to take this route rather than going over the Corryairack.  Glen Roy is a splendid valley.  It just gets better the further you go along it.

Upper Glen Roy

Annat in upper Glen Roy. 
Note the 'parallel roads' carved into the hillside

Falls of Roy

Looking back down Glen Roy

The plan had been to camp around or beyond Falls of Roy but we both felt like pushing on to the bothy.  In any case, the tents were wet from Corpach, which made them an unattractive option compared with a dry bothy.   I was saving the GPS batteries and the map was in my rucksack - there was only one track, so we were hardly likely to get lost - so I was a unsure to within a mile or two  how far we were from the bothy.  I kept saying it wasn't far but I sensed increasing doubt in the ranks.  When at last it came into view, our elation was dampened somewhat to see that it was being defended by a herd of cows, not all of which had udders and of those that didn't, a couple looked decidedly excitable.  Anyway we faced them out - well, Hilary faced them out - and we reached the bothy door without incident.

Luib-Chonnal Bothy, Glen Roy
No sooner had we moved our gear inside, away from the increasingly inquisitive bovine menace, than a group of mountain bikers arrived from the Melgarve direction.  They had come over the Corryairack from Ft Augustus and were heading to Spean Bridge where they had left a car.  They thought that the section between the Luib-Chonnal and Shesgnan bothies would be hard going with the trailers and we had watched them take about 10 minutes to cross the 100yds of ground from the deer fence to the bothy.
Upstairs in Luib-Chonnal Bothy

They didn't stay long and after some hot food, Hilary lit the stove and we sat round the table enjoying a stream chilled Chardonnay, some very sweaty cheddar and a chocolate biscuit (we know how to live).  I flicked through the pages of the bothy's visitors book and found a number of familiar names had passed through on this year's Challenge (you know who you are.)  By now it was raining outside, so pressing on to this point, rather than camp back at Falls of Roy, had been a good decision.
Downstairs in Luib-Chonnal Bothy

Menacing cow outside window

White Falls - opposite Luib-Chonnal bothy, Glen Roy
Day 2: Glen Roy to Newtonmore (27 miles)

By the next morning, the rain had stopped but the sky was overcast.  The farmer arrived on a quad bike as we were packing up to leave and asked if we'd seen any cows.   I mentioned they'd been outside the bothy when we arrived and that the bull had been especially frisky.  It made him smile.  He said that the section beyond the fence was horrible and that he really ought to get the JCB on it and dig out some drainage channels.  I asked if he could maybe do it now and, with a wry smile, he said he would add it to his list of jobs.  Then he drove off to find his cows.  What a pleasant chap.

Tne bothy is sited on the west sode of the Allt Chonnal and the day started with a paddle across this wee burn.  From pictures I'd seen on a few challenge blogs from May, I had some fears that crossing the Allt Chonnal might be a problem.  As it turned out, the waters levels were quite low.  To make things easier, we wheeled the bikes and trailers across without the bags.

Crossing the Allt Chonnal
and then went back and carried the bags across on our backs.

Crossing the Allt Chonnal

We'd given quite a bit of thought to stream crossings and portage over boggy sections.  Fords can often be ridden but it depends on the size of the boulders and how slimy they are as well as the depth of water and the strength of the current.  More than a foot of water and the bag sets up a bow wave as well as causing the trailer to be pushed sideways by the current.  The BoB bag has two large handles and these allow you to carry it on your back.  This wouldn't be comfortable for long distances but is fine for short periods.  Without the bag, the bike and trailer are much easier to navigate over rough terrain.  For those occasions when we might need to portage them separately, we'd experimented with different arrangements of webbing straps, to allow the trailers to be carried on our backs, and we'd fitted some pipe wrap round the frame for added comfort.  In fact I didn't use this method at all and Hilary only  once transported her BoB this way.  We'd also taken walking poles with us and these proved useful.  Most of the time, we just dragged or pushed the rigs through rivers, up rock steps and over rough ground without dismantling them.

Once across the Allt Chonnal, another 20 minutes of faffing followed to get everything over the 100yds of boggy, uneven ground to the deer fence and then across the stile, which inconveniently has a fence wire strung across it just to make things a bit more difficult.

Rainbow, deer fence and stile beyond Allt Chonnal
In all it took us 30-40 minutes to get from the bothy to the far side of the deer fence.  There followed another couple of hundred yards of bogginess before we picked up a decent section of single track, which ran up to and over the bealach.  It rained on and off but the riding was good.  It was great to be mountain biking in the mountains. I felt we were 'living the dream'. 
We crossed the col and Loch Spey (which is just a wee lochan) came into view.  After fording the River Shesgnan, there was another short section of bogginess which led into a pasture with a vague but firm track.  From here, it's not exactly a direct route to Shesgnan bothy - more like following two sides of a square instead of the diagonal.  If you were on foot, you might just make a bee-line for the bothy but we kept to the track (well, more of a flattening of the grass really) as it looked easier going on a bike.  The bothy seemed to stay far away to our left forever and I was thinking we'd miss the Land Rover track if we didn't turn soon.  My nerve was just about to break when the track turned through what felt like a right angle (although the line recorded by the GPS shows something else) to point directly at the building - and another herd of cows.  We rode through a few small streams and aimed off the cows (a well recognised navigational technique)  to pick up the LRT to Melgarve.  This has all been much easier than we had expected.

Shesgnan and cows from the LRT

Melgarve from the bothy

We stopped at Melgarve bothy, brewed up some soup and had a brief snooze on what someone had described in the visitor's book as a 'shabby chic' settee.  I think it was here that I lost my sit mat (aka rapid deployment little bit of luxury aka RDLBL or just LBL.)

It had taken most of the morning to cover just 5 miles but now we had mostly road, interspersed with a few sections or good track.  We picked up the pace and were at Garva Bridge in no time, catching sight of a couple of very large birds (but probably not big enough to be eagles) and some much larger pylons being erected over the Corryairack Pass.  You've got to get all that wind generated electricity across the country somehow.  I'd camped here on the 2009 Challenge with Steve Gough, before walking over the tops to Newtonmore.  This time we'd be taking the road.  Obviously, to drag the bikes and trailers across the Mon..., Monad.., Monadhl... - you know the ones I mean - would be mad.

After Garva Bridge, we rode passed Garvamore and Sherramore and Sherrabeg and in between found an interesting looking LRT that went across to Kinloch Laggan.  And then we came to a screeching halt at the bridge over the Spey, when I realised we were meant to turn off the road at the TOP of the hill, not the bottom.  It was only a little extra climb after all and I was forgiven when we reached the MTB trail centre at Laggan Wolftrax because there was a man there with a mobile tea shack who served us hot coffee and a delicious venison burger and a spicy sweet potato thing.  Now the really weird thing about this is that his mobile café had popped itself up precisely where a very permanent looking wooden structure housing the old café had been sited the previous year.  Enquiries about this elicited that there had been a 'falling out' (I paraphrase) and the owners of the previous establishment had left, taking the building with them.  Apparently by this time next year, a new purpose built centre will replace the remaining 'temporary' buildings which have serviced the place for the last 9 years.  When we had called in last year, we came away with the impression that Wolftrax was a bit underdeveloped.  It's within reasonably easy reach of both Fort William and Aviemore but on this Sunday afternoon, there were a dozen people there, at most.  Hopefully the new centre will help to pull in some more mountain bikers.

We took the easy, green trail in an easterly fashion, which kept us off a couple of miles of road and then along the A889 for a couple of miles to Catlodge.  Here a 'yellow road' goes up and up and up a bit more, to a memorial at the Mains of Glentruim.

Glentruim memorial.

Touch not the cat but a glove is the motto of the Macpherson clan and means don't touch the cat when it is without a glove.  The soft underside of the paw is known as the glove and when the paw is displayed it is spread, or ungloved, to  reveal the claws.  The motto is meant as a warning to others not to mess with the Macphersons.  The monument is made up of stones from all parts of the globe where Macphersons have settled.

A short  plunge down to the R Truim was followed by just one more little up before meeting route 7 of the National Cycle Network, at this point, the old A9, which we followed through intermittently heavy showers into Netwonmore and the hostel at Craigellachie House.

Forward to Day 3


Andrew W said...

I do like this as an idea.

Jolly fine write up too.

Where did you source the bike trailers for the rucksacks?

Louise said...

Every time I plot a Challenge route, (I have quite a large stash now...) Glen Roy gets in there, then I do a different route, but I really am going to have to do it! Looks lovely and I like that bothy. Now, where are those maps...

Tony Bennett said...

Hi Andrew

Yes, it beats walking - until you reach Mt Keen that is (spoiler alert!)

Google for Bob Ibex. I got mine from It was about £300. That includes the big yellow bag. Hilary founds hers quite a bit cheaper but I think she was just lucky!

The bag is very robust (although I have managed to poke a small hole in it through careless packing) and is about the same weight as an 'average' backpacking rucksack. It easily holds everything you would carry on a TGOC plus bike spares and tools. It has a decent roll top but I still stow things I don't want to get wet in dry bags.

I recently found another trailer the Monkii T2 from Free Parable, which is a similar idea but lighter.

The BoBs took a huge amount of punishment down Glen Feshie and across to Glen Mark and performed brilliantly. It would be interesting to know if the Monkii could match them. Their video suggests it might although I think we went over rougher terrain than in the vid.

Tony Bennett said...

Hi Louise

Oh yes, you have to do it! I think Glen Roy was my favourite bit of the whole trip (although Glen Mark was lovely - oops, another spoiler alert).

And yes, it is a very fine bothy.

Pauline said...

Loving this story ... what a great ride. Can't wait for the next episode. Pauline