When was the last time you rode your mountain bike on a real mountain? Not a hill or a forest, a real mountain that towers over all that surrounds it. The realisation was that (like most riders) my mountain biking is spent pedalling around forests on purposely built trails.
It is undeniable that these cultivated challenges and manicured excitement provide an excellent fun to effort ratio but there can be a hollow feeling before dropping in to ride these bermed roller coasters. The easily earned turns lack the beauty of a mountain top and offer little prospect of magical discoveries around each corner. After all my fun on the Highland Trail 550 and spurred on with insta-piration* I was raring to get out into the wild backcountry to explore and put the mountain back in mountain biking.
It has been years since I ventured up a mountain on a bike. Living in Scotland I am very lucky, thanks to our open access laws nothing is off limits to those that wish to venture out by bike to explore the swathes of untamed mountainous terrain on offer. The mountains are not that far away either, even in my car-less situation the Cairngorm’s are a relatively painless train journey away**. With forecasts for a generous supply of vitamin B, my kit ready and an empty weekend, the mountains were calling and there were no excuses.
Just a few hours after I left my work desk I was stepping off the train in Blair Atholl, a quaint Scottish village that consists of little more than a hotel, a campsite and the train station. My gateway to adventure. The station platform was quiet, it was 8pm and everything was bathed in a warm evening light. First task was to get to my planned bivvy spot before night fall.
From some pre ride map research I had spotted a little wood by a river that looked to be a winning camp spot. To get there I would need to ride through Glen Tilt. Mostly gravel with a little technical single track climbing, it follows the River Tilt for roughly 20 miles. As I rode up the valley I past huddles of tents belonging to other weekend adventurers who were ready to make the most of what was to be a scorcher of a weekend.
The sun was getting very low by the time I reached my planned camp area. Dropping off the track and down a steep bank I found the perfect flat spot, there was even a small fire pit already. Quickly I gathered fire wood and with the glow of the fire I prepared my dinner and set up my bed.
Morning brought a low cold cloud and a hoard of savage midges. This made getting up from my semi midge proof bivvy a real struggle. I had hopes for a beautiful sunrise but instead there was just a lot of grey. I drank down my midge filled coffee and pedalled to Braemar for the opening of the shop so I could stock up for the days adventures.
By the time I had left Braemar and stashed my sleeping gear in a bush the sun had broken through the morning gloom. The clouds retreated and it was shaping up to be a stunning day. After getting a little lost in some fields I was back on route and breaking out the tree line and into the land of heather and rock.
As I climbed the trail got smaller and smaller. From landrover track to double track to walkers track. Popping out the top of Sluigan glen was a relief, the glen had trapped the heat of the morning but now I was in the open fresh air and my next challenge was in sight.
Beinn a’ Bhùird loomed over me, reminding me that I still had a lot of work to do. My plan was to do a loop, approach the North summit from the East and descend the south side. The climb was split into two parts. A gentle 30 minute cycle along some very scenic single track followed by a 2 hour hike.
The reward was well worth the effort. The shoulder between Beinn a’ Bhùird and Ben Avon is a rugged place, plant life clings in patches between the exposed granite. These rocks invite you to clamber on them and survey the powerful landscape around you. From up here everything else is appears very far away.
There is a lot to explore up here and I had to resist the temptation of going a little off route and exploring the tors of Ben Avon, especially as the returning descent looked fast, loose and a barrel of fun.
The summit of Beinn a’ Bhùird is a plateau and unless you are near the steep edges it is quite easy to forget that you are on the top of a mountain. There are no paths up here and I trundled through the crunchy dry foliage exploring the various rocky outcrops that are dotted around like natural watch towers. These were deceiving, they looked small but were actually huge and I spent over an hour going between them. Time was now getting on and I had to get going if I was to make the most of my day.
The descent was well marked on the map however finding the start amongst the sea of green was difficult. I pedalled around looking for signs of human passage and soon the little patches of trodden ground culminated in a path. This ribbon of dirt goes long into the distance before dropping into a valley and out of sight.
Eagerly I set off. Quickly the trail begins to swoop left and right, flowing beautifully between flat corners and natural ruts allowing you to get off the brakes and let gravity take control. My tyres floated over the loose surface before gently sliding through each corner. I was flat out, I whooped as I aired over little gaps and danced down the mountain side leaving clouds of dust in my wake. The trail continued with endless transcendent flow as it plunged further and further down. I tore into the woods at the bottom, overcooking a corner and tumbling off track through the heather. Picking myself up I couldn’t believe what I had just experienced.
I stood at the end of the trail panting, covered in dust and laughing in pure elation at the last four miles of trail gold. I had just descended a larger vertical drop than most world cup DH tracks, surrounded by stunning scenery and other than a couple of hikers who politely stepped to the trail side I had the place to myself. I felt that I was part of an exclusive club, I had conquered this mountain and a sense of achievement washed over me that those riders who do not stray from the confines of the forest will never experience.
It was hard not to simply start retracing my tyre marks to go for another run but I knew there was more to discover. Lunch was also calling so I followed a linking trail that brought me back to Slugain Glen and past the ruins of the old hunting lodge. Back in Braemar I restocked, ate ice cream and organised the rest of my day. I had planned on scaling Lochnagar however it was now 4pm and even with the long days of summer that was now looking a bit ambitious. However when buying a spare tube the nice man in Braemar Mountain Sports told me of a path that would cut out bunch of distance and linked up with the trail I had planned to ride. Having hiked to the top of Lochnagar previously I was happy to skip it in order to fit another descent in before sunset.
Exiting the road just before it crosses the River Dee I followed a gravel track through the trees. Soon the elevation pitches upwards, leaving the trees and the man made track behind. Onwards on a walking trail that seemed to just point straight up the hill. After faffing around Carn an t-Sagairt Mor in the heather I finally got to the top of the descent and was ready to cash in the 2000ft of elevation I had gathered.
The single track to Callater was very different from Beinn a’ Bhùird. It starts steep, chunky and loose, wheels dislodging rocks as you maintain control of your speed. Then the trail turns to the right and follows the contours of the hill. This is a section will instil fear into anyone that values their rear derailleur as huge rocks encroach the trail with gaps barely big enough to fit through. To my relief I managed to negotiate this with no damage. It was now a case of making a b-line to Braemar to buy beers and dinner before returning to my camp spot.
Things were a little slow the next morning but I was soon packed up and on the move. The plan was to ride Carn Liath, a munro that I had part walked previously and knew would be a great descent. By 9am it was hot again and a dip in the pools at the Chest of Dee were hard to pass up. The water was beautifully refreshing and I was ready to start the day. Or at least I was until I returned to my bike which now had a rear flat.
I wasn’t convinced by my repair as both my tube and CO2 canister that were too small. With my soft rear tyre now a serious pinch flat risk and my legs feeling a little drained I decided not to take on another munro and risk being delayed. Missing the 5pm train would mean an awkward phone call to work and an unplanned bivvy near Blair Atholl as there are no later options on a Sunday.
My goal for weekend was to ride my first Munro which had been a success (if you consider peaking 1 of 3 planned Munro’s a success). I am now hooked, riding this remote and wild terrain has reminded me that there is more to mountain biking than slashing berms, sending jumps and counting seconds. This is mountain biking in its most honest and pure form.
On this trip I had also wanted to find the legendary Secret Howff, a clandestine shelter built in the early 50’s by members of the now-defunct Aberdeen climbing club. I had poured over maps and analysed pictures in the run up to this trip, I had a good idea where it was yet my romps around the heather in my suspected area yielded no success. It’s secret remains, for me at least. I have since done more research and have narrowed down my search area, it must have been right under my nose. The search will continue another day.
Strava links here (Glen Tilt), here (Beinn a’Bhuird and Loch Callater Loop) and here (Glen Tilt return).
**Assuming there is space on the train for your bike.
Any bike is a bikepacker if you want it to be…
For this trip I rode my Canyon Strive AL 6.0 Race. Not your classic choice of overnighter bike but with some careful packing I was able to fit everything I needed in a backpack. The Strive happily winches itself up hills thanks to its Shapeshifter adjustment and when it came to riding down the hills this bike came into its own. Dropping the Shapeshifter back into 160mm mode slackens everything out and lets you roar down the descents with confidence.
Other than a stem and saddle upgrade, the spec is standard from Canyon. I ran Maxxis Minion DHF tyre on the front and a High Roller tyre on the rear.
Kit was carried in a Deuter Futura Pro which has around 30L of capacity and I was able to pack a bivvy sleeping setup, cooking things, some spare clothes and food. I did use a 8L Alpkit dry bag strapped to the outside of the bag to allow a little extra storage and ease stashing things in bushes.