I finally feel like I have been mountain biking. I haven’t been racing, but hiking in the mountains with my bike. Munros are mountains in Scotland over 3000 feet high and over the August bank holiday, had our sights on six. We slept on one, reached the summit of four, were thwarted from completing our final two but at all times completely embraced the beauty and tranquillity the Scottish mountains have to offer. Maybe picking fresh lines down wild mountain sides isn’t conducive to ‘tranquillity’ but there is something tranquil in the simplicity of it. No internet, no mobile reception, no TV, no connection with the outside world, just us, the mountains and the weather.
(Picture ‘Beinn Ghlas’)
We had our sights on Ben Lawers and Beinn Ghlas, and the Glen Lyon four. Our only doubts were the midges. Our only limitations would be the weather. We arrived at Ben Lawers tourist car park on Saturday at 10.30pm, armed with smidge, skin so soft and head nets. It was pitch black, a few stars twinkled through the clouds and there was a perfect breeze. The conversation during the drive up had been one of uncertainty due to the ever changing weather forecast. Rain was predicted around dawn and possible low cloud.
We looked at each other, “What do you think?”, “Mmm what do you think?” “Let’s do it” came the unison reply. We packed up, attached lights to our bikes but just as we were pulling our packs on, the heavens opened. Sitting in the van for a nervous and very noisy five minutes seemed to take much longer. Suddenly, the van roof fell silent. Looking out we saw stars. After a quick discussion about soggy bivy bags and whether we were crazy or being perfectly rational, we set off into the night.
Ben Lawers is the 10th highest munro and part of a National Nature Reserve which encompasses nine mountains, seven of which are munros. The reserve is home to rare and endangered arctic-alpine flora and the first 700 feet of trail up Ben Lawers is fenced off to protect it from the hungry deer. Even riding up in the pitch black, I could tell this was a special place due to the beautiful wild flowers dancing in my bike light. We hiked for about 40 minutes, out of the deer fence into the open hillside. After faffing with a bivy location, mostly because of an unusually large number of spiders running around a rock, we agreed on soft dry grass. Perfect.
The sun rose around 6.30am to give our first view of Loch Tay below, still hazy with fog. The cloud was low but shifting constantly, allowing glimpses of our summit and the ridge to climb it. We knew we didn’t have long before the midges found our CO2, so we packed up quickly, put our bikes on our backs and carried on climbing.
(Picture ‘setting off from bivy site’)
One of the reasons for bivvying out on the hill was to avoid the heavy bank holiday traffic on the popular Ben Lawers. We were rewarded for the effort as that morning. We had the hill to ourselves. The clouds came in and out with the sun starting to peek through. It was hard going for the first 10 minutes as my body went from sleep to hike, but after this it was fairly easy going.
(Picture ‘shoulder on Beinn Ghlas)
The ascent followed a ridge, part of a shoulder we rode, followed by a few scrambly sections. We reached the summit of Beinn Ghlas in time for breakfast and a parting of the clouds for a dramatic view of the corrie below and a peek at our single track down.
From the summit we headed down north east, which turned out to be a fabulous singletrack ridge descent to the col in between Beinn Ghlas and Ben Lawers. We left our bikes at the col for the final ascent to Ben Lawers. The trail is steep, very technical and would take time to study before committing to lines.
(Picture ‘Descent from Beinn Ghlas’)
There are two descents possible from Beinn Ghlas, we decided on the ‘back country’ option traversing underneath Beinn Ghlas to avoid the traffic. From the col our singletrack descended over 2000 feet all the way to the van with just the deer fence to break it up.
The first section was a little stop start due to boulders blocking the trail and being quite exposed on the right side. However, from the next col where it joins the Burn of Edramucky, the trail flowed all the way to meet the main tourist track just above the deer fence. Technical in a few places and a few wide drainage channels, but hugely rewarding for the effort and without meeting another person. Through the fence, the only thing to slow us down was the beauty of the glen and by now, quite a few hikers. But every hiker we passed met us with a smile. The descent was awesome and definitely worth the hike up.
(Picture ‘Descending through the nature reserve on Ben Lawers’)
Keen for more we found a unique cottage to rent in Invervar, Glen Lyon. It is run by Tim and Judy who have made their pocket of paradise into an Air b n b gem. The next morning was full of promise, blue sky and no wind, our eyes firmly set on the Glen Lyon four. We excitedly scrambled our kit together, buzzing for the adventure to come. Carn Gorm, Meall Garbh, Carn Mairg and Meall na Aighean with what promised to be an awesome ridge descent of around 2600 feet down from the final summit.
However, as we set off down the drive Dan’s rear brake, which had been working perfectly the day before, decided to seize. Sticky lever seals being the cause of the issue, common fault with his type of brake apparently. Despite this Dan tried a bleed and a few tricks to free up the lever whilst I clung with my ever optimist faith that he would fix it, refusing to even take my gloves off. Forty minutes later we had to say it out loud, the pistons in the lever were screwed, he wasn’t going to be able to fix them. I slowly took my helmet off in defeat. It just wasn’t our day.
The next day however, it was. Despite threats of rain, low cloud and high winds, we woke to blue sky and only moderate wind. We decided to go for it, it was calm enough in the Glen. We started from our b n b, the trail starting next to the house. It headed initially through a forest, though when we reached the edge we found the forest had been flattened, the trail nowhere in sight. We couldn’t go round due to high fences, so we made our way though. I have to admit to being nervous carrying my bike across the felled trees, each step threatened to twist an ankle from a snag on fallen branch or shifting logs. Not to mention the spiders. We finally made it through and found the fire road on the other side.
(Picture ‘The fallen forest’)
This took us to a very old bridge, which wobbled, a lot, and had a hole in. It made me wonder whether it was safer to cross the bridge or attempt the bubbling river below!
Safely across, the hike began. From here we hiked 2000 feet with our bikes on our back to the summit of Carn Gorm. If you ever hike this be warned, there are three false summits to this hill! Once at the summit cairn the views were stunning. We could see all the way up Glen Lyon, the longest Glen in Scotland reaching up towards Rannoch Moor. Across to Loch Rannoch, Schiehallion and the Ben Lawers group. Perfect to catch our breath and reflect on the beauty.
(Picture ‘Summit of Carn Gorm’)
The first descent followed the ridge down 600 feet to the col dividing Carn Corm and Meall Garbh. It was an awesome descent, rocky in parts, muddy in others. The hike from the col to the summit of Meal Garbh was surprisingly easy after the massive hike to get to the previous summit. It was also helped by the ever increasing wind, at this stage behind us. But it was getting stronger and stronger, with gusts threatening to blow me over. At one stage it was necessary to carry our bikes over a boulder field, we had to angle them down so they weren’t ripped from us.
At the summit the wind was sideways and changing direction. There was a fairly ugly bonfire type structure made from rusty old fence posts, but it provided some shelter. The wind at the summit was so strong we could barely stand. We located 4G and scoured the latest weather reports. The wind was due to increase steadily throughout the day and was about 60mph at the moment. I wanted to carry on, feeling like there was some curse preventing us from completing the four, but I knew we couldn’t. To do so would have been too risky with the bikes. There is always a line in the mountains, to cross it you invite trouble. No matter how hard the decision is, to put yourself at risk, is to put others at risk when you expect them to come out and rescue you.
For me, it was a super hard decision. I had been looking forward to the trip for ages, I wanted to bag the four in a day, I wanted to be able to ride the final ridge descent, I wanted to write a blog about it. But ultimately responsibility and safety come first. We decided to head down.
Stumbling off the summit, the skin of our faces getting blown around in the wind, I had to stop to put glasses on to stop my contact lenses being blown out! Despite our reservations we were lucky and found a fantastic descent. We initially followed a sheep trail down, then cut fresh tracks through the heather and grass. The hillside was steep enough to allow us to ride it right down 1000 feet to the relative calm of the valley below. For the first time I had free rode down a mountain. I loved it. Still high up we stopped to eat and straighten everything out. The second half of the decent wasn’t the best, a muddy stalkers path right back down to the dodgy bridge. But we were safe. To avoid the fallen tree disaster we scaled a huge fence to ride back to main road on a fire road.
It was an awesome few days, the biking was wild, raw and fresh. The time was simple. We were there to ride our bikes. Scotland never fails to provide. Yes the weather can be against you, but you take it for what it is. A stunningly beautiful, wild land, offering adventure and escape from our otherwise hectic busy world.