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. 

video
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

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