Mountain biking as a “sport”

Mountain biking has, to me, always been a form of transport – a way of getting to the end of a private road to start a walk or ski tour, a way to drag a trailer load of caving gear up to Gaping Gill, or simply a way to get somewhere. What I haven’t really done is ride a mountain bike as an end in itself. As an actual “sport”. So, apart from a bit of play-cum-training at Greenclose I’ve always gone the easiest route, rather than sought out difficulty or gratuitous excitement.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I and Sarah met up with Johnny, Dave and Ant at Hamsterley, with a view to doing “some red runs”. The day started well when I walked to the pay-and-display machine, expecting to part with a significant fraction of my (so far untouched in 2014) annual ten quid budget for parking, when a passing motorist leaving the carpark handed me his now surplus to requirements ticket. Annual budget still intact !

After some faff we were off, first to the “training loop”. Here I ignored the seesaw – no relation to a natural hazard and definitely not something I approve of. The rest of the loop seemed reasonable enough, and after a while I thought it a good idea to turn on the GoPro. Thirty seconds later we appeared to have reached the end, with nothing interesting actually recorded for posterity. Ho, hum. Off to the other end of the forest then.

Despite the twenty year old rigid framed bike, I had no trouble in keeping up, or even staying ahead of these “young, fit” folk. The fact that I use toe-clips was no doubt a great help on the uphills… These seemed to be regarded as a bit dubious by the others, but as I had no intention of doing anything that might cause me to fall off, I had no qualms whatsoever. The fact that there were a lot of knee and elbow pads in evidence was just an attempt to intimidate me, I’m sure. Sarah seemed to find that they made excellent sweat retainers !

So, once up the long hill, we set off down the first of several sections of red run, linking the main forest tracks via steeper and narrower little trails. These seem to feature lots of constructed obstacles with the sole purpose of making the run more enjoyable / scary / difficult. At “red” standard, few, if any, of these were serious problems, but I did note that cyclists in other groups seemed to be taking them at considerable speed. Having spent quite a while gaining height, I didn’t wish to find that the more fun part of the ride was over in no time flat, so I rode at a much more sedate pace – no more speed than required to remain upright and on-line. This did mostly mean that I got plenty of time to see the nature of the track ahead as it wound between trees and round bends. I guess most of those haring down at some speed had an idea of what to expect from doing the run before. Or in Ant’s case not …

At one point I came round a bend to find Sarah off her bike at the side of the track, having decided to portage this bit. It looked OK as I approached, so I headed on down without mishap. Further on came another rocky stretch, this time with a bit less warning, and it proved to be quite narrow. But, once committed, stopping and putting a foot down was always going to be a problem, so, toes in clips, off I went, staying pretty much on-line to the end, though I can see that a tiny bit more speed might have been an advantage here.

The only thing which caused any great grief was the boys’ tendency to stop to let everyone regroup. The trees always seemed just that bit too far off the edge of the trail to get a hand on, meaning that I was faced with getting a foot back into the toeclips each time we set off again. That’s not terribly easy on a narrow, non-straight, and somewhat bumpy trail and I think I’d prefer if we simply didn’t stop until on a forest track or equally easy bit. There was one bit where the only way to get my toe in was by leaning on a tree right above a steep rocky descent and I simply couldn’t get up to a safe speed from a standing start, so reluctantly portaged about ten metres here. However, we were soon at the end, and back to the carpark, with time to spare from Ant’s three hour hire period, so off we went for another lap of the training loop – this time with the GoPro running.

A return to Munro bagging ?

When I had the misfortune to live in Cambridge, it seemed no trouble at all to drive 500 miles north two or three weekends a month during the Scottish “season” (October 21st to about the end of May), but when I moved two hundred miles nearer, the need for escape sort of withered a bit. Maybe marriage and kids had something to do with it… but it seems I’ve only ticked four Munros in the last nineteen years. I was up to 186 out of the 277 in the tables that were current when I started, but the dastardly Scots have messed things about a bit since then, with the total going up to 284, and some of the ones I’d bagged being demoted to mere “tops”. Mind you, some of the tops have been elevated to Munro status, too, but I was never obsessive about recording which tops I’d visited…

September 2014 however (yes, I know, it’s not in the season) has seen the start of a resumption of effort. Since both Mary and I had managed to succumb to minor injuries sufficient to deter us from paddling the Moriston on Wet West, but already being committed as part of the grand transport plan to get Michael back from Fort Bill on the Sunday, we decided we’d better give the dog some exercise and hence found ourselves booking beds in Drumnadrochit on Loch Ness (Fort William and environs seemed to be “full”). This gave us relatively easy access to a couple of outstanding targets in the north.

Ben Wyvis from the easy path up

Ben Wyvis was one I’d tended to ignore, saving it as an easy ski peak, but rarely driving this far north when conditions would have been good enough. So we kicked off with this on Friday, finding the car park moderately busy (we reckoned it would be best to avoid the weekend for this relatively popular peak). The day was a little warm from the start, but got a lot hotter as we found ourselves above a thermal inversion with clearing skies above. The south facing slope soon warmed up, and anabatic wind was drawing the cloud up from below, at one stage faster than we were gaining height ourselves. But the sun and a minimal breeze were enough to burn off the top of the cloud, and we stayed in the sunshine . The cloud had burned off completely before our descent. The walk was 14.7 km with 900m of ascent, but five hours (almost all on good paths) was not terribly quick – we must be out of practice !

Little Wyvis (a Corbett) above the valley cloud from the way up

Seeing as how it was very dry, it also seemed a good time to tick off the last of the Fannaichs – Fionn Bheinn, which has something of a reputation for being boggy. This, too, had been on my list of peaks to save for a ski ascent in the depths of winter, but being so nearby, it seemed churlish not to finish a section of the tables with this last hill in the group. Guidebook descriptions manage to make it sound difficult to find the route out of Achnasheen, but clearly, enough people have been lost and wandered through private gardens that the place is now vastly over-provided with signposts to the “official” route up the hill. It was indeed a trifle squishy underfoot at times, but not bad by Scottish standards. I can imagine, however, that a full drysuit might be advisable in wetter weather, and full snow cover (and skis) would perhaps be the best approach.

It looked a long way along the ridge, but that’s just the poor visibility –
it was under half a mile and we were at the top in no time!

The weather looked much hazier, and it soon proved to be less valley fog and more thin hill fog. The splendid views to be expected from such an isolated summit did not really materialise – a pity as we were really quite close to a lot of rather fine and remote peaks I’d climbed previously (Fisherfield forest is a few klicks to the west). From the summit itself, we could not even see the huge Loch Fannaich which lies just below the peak to the north, and a cool breeze meant we did not linger at the top, seeking shelter lower down for our lunch. Though the sun came out and the sky cleared, this was not until after we had descended via the east ridge and an excellent stalkers’ path back to the road. At 12.25 km and 800m of ascent, four and threequarter hours again looks a bit slow, but this time it was almost all pathless so we didn’t feel so bad.

On our return, I decided that a bit of tick-list restructuring was needed and a review of past ascents to ascertain as much as possible about which tops I had taken in (in case more were elevated as Munros). This proved easier than expected, especially with the wealth of data now available on the net. I had always decided that I ought to climb any hill which was a requirement for completion in former days, as well as whatever was in the current tables, so this was an opportunity to establish a definitive list. I was a little perturbed to find that there are 321 summits that are now or have formerly been Munros, and that I had only climbed 201 of these, leaving me 120 to do, instead of the 89 indicated by my 1984 tables. I was at least gratified to find that only one of the now-elevated tops I’d omitted to climb previously would require me to reascend any of the duller hills I’ve endured, but there are indeed a few hills to revisit, most of them rather good ones. I’ll put my list on the website when I have it in a more comprehensible format. Right now it is littered with redundant data that was used for transmogrifying my own ascent log to use the numbering system from the new list…