When an afternoon MTB ride goes badly wrong

I had decided to go out on the mountain bike this week as I was getting bored of sitting in the icy winds on the road bike.  The routes we fly out of Aberdeen have us climbing and descending over the Cairngorms and I can’t help but see all of these magical tracks traversing across the mountainous National Park, I made it my mission this week to find out exactly where they were.  I kind of did it 2 ways, one of them I looked at the DME distance from the ILS at Aberdeen and used some visual references like a large Loch.  The other was just to go into the aircraft’s FMS and pluck out the LAT/LONG co-ordinates and put them into Google Earth.

When I had found the rough area I wanted to be taking the MTB out in, I realised there were more trails than I could shake a stick at and so I decided to fall back on plan B, a route someone else had done!  Coincidentally, there were quite a few “Killer Loops” in the area.  The Killer Loops were a series of MTB rides that were published in Mountain Bike Rider (MBR for short) many years ago.  In fact, one year there was a competition to complete them all and win a ridiculous amount of stuff and so myself Dave and Rich set about riding them all, but the mistake we made was we ended up doing a lot of them in the winter and so ended up making it twice as hard for ourselves.  We didn’t win the competition and on one of the rides we got caught out in a hailstorm and since then I have vowed to always ride in decent cycling gear after the start of hypothermia gave us a bit of a frightening experience when coming off some remote moorland in Lancashire.

So I found a Killer Loop that sounded like a good ride, I say it sounded, I couldn’t actually read much about it because the MBR download site was not functioning.  It mentioned a couple of beastly hills and a bit of “heather bashing” but it certainly didn’t sound like anything I couldn’t handle.  I managed to get hold of the tracklogs GPS route off someone else’s webpage and uploaded it into my tracklogs so I could then upload it into my Garmin 800.  I didn’t actually have a map on my tracklogs of the area, I must confess, I do not own a single OS map of the area but the one that is on my Garmin.  So I was looking at the route on my tiny Garmin at what it looked like, it had a big climb up a mountain called Mount Keen and then what looked like another couple of climbs with a long descent back to the start.  Tracklogs had calculated the route as taking 2.5hrs on an MTB using the Naismith model I have tweaked to my own riding speeds.  This was an acceptable time and I figured I could go after one of my long morning shifts, if I got a wriggle on I could be on the bike riding at 4pm and then heading back home and maybe go for a swim before having dinner, job done.  So I charged up my Garmin, packed my camelbak and took plenty of food and also had my lunch packed up to eat on the way.


I arrived at the village of Tarfside for the start of the ride at bang on 4pm.  There was a car park and a phone booth and a public toilet, that was about it really, no public houses and no phone signal for about the last 30mins of driving.  I had let my housemate Alex know where I was going and that if it got really late, around 10pm, then he should call the mountain rescue, the last thing I wanted was to be on TV as a missing person out in the Scottish mountains because I’d had a mechanical or fallen off the side of one of the trails.

Looking back down the start of the climb

I headed out on the road route which was about 3 miles of gradual climbing before turning off onto the path that lead to Mount Keen.  It wasn’t really a path, more of a trail that had a load of rocks dumped on it to help reduce erosion, the progress was not as smooth as I had hoped and the initial climb up to Mount Keen was quite tough and was a climb that went from 200ft right up to the top of Mount Keen at a height of just shy 3100ft.  My Garmin was reading between 290-310W pretty much all the way up to the first summit before the trail suddenly became a hard gravel pathway for about 20mins but was full of huge water drainage points requiring a large wheelie over every one to stop me grinding into the ground and stacking it. 

Halfway up Mount Keen

The last part of the climb was a bike-over-the-shoulder job over a load of precarious rocks, with hindsight, I wish I had known about the trail that skirted right around the top because it was absolutely freezing on the top.  I sent a quick message to my wife and my housemate and didn’t really notice the time, I then started on my descent off Mount Keen so that I could crank out some serious speed on the way back to the car.

Top of Mount Keen

Unfortunately the descent off Mount Keen was no quicker than the climb I had just done, erosion is not even close, it was like someone had taken dynamite to the entire path all the way to the bottom.  It was like riding down a trail known as “boulder alley” off the top of Peel Tower near Chorley, but about 10x as long.  By the time I got to the bottom my calves were aching as were my hands, I definitely needed a full suspension bike with hindsight.  As the trail levelled off I started to crank out the pedals again but noticed that something was grinding badly, I looked down and my outer chainring was totally bent “oh shit” went through my head, this was terminal and I had just come off the top.  I stopped the bike next to a bridge and quickly assessed the damage.  What had actually happened was that the bolts had vibrated loose on the outer chainring leaving me with only one bolt left.  I whipped out my multi-tool and set about dismantling the middle chainring as well so that I could force the outer chainring off the XTR crankset, I didn’t think I would be using it much anyway after the last descent I had made.  While I was doing this though, the dreaded midges decided that they liked the sweat on my forehead and started to really annoy me; I knew it was because I was right next to the river and I needed to get moving ASAP.  Removal of the crank bolts and re-installing them went something like:  quickly remove bolt 1, wave hands about in air to swat midges, quickly remove bolt 2, wave hands in air to swat midges, remove bolt 3, remove helmet and rub hair with hands….  it was not pleasant at all.

Looking back at mount Keen, track I came down is to the right before the double river crossing

Eventually I got moving again, but only by about 1km before I had to make a crossing over the deep powerful River Tanar of which all the rocks were covered in green slime.  This was not a good combination at all and was going to end only one way – getting wet – it was just a case of how wet I was going to get, the best thing was to get as far across as possible and hopefully only dab one foot on one of the rocks protruding from the river.  This is pretty much what happened, except for the protruding rock, and my foot instead plunged straight into the icy water and went straight over the top of my waterproof overshoes.  My foot was royally soaked, damn, I hate wet cycling shoes, but at least I had overshoes on to keep my feet warm.  NB I have since found out that there was a new bridge going over this water about another 1km down the track but was not marked (and the track on the other side is impossible to climb on a MTB).

I started on the next slow climb up Red Craig and Black Craig, from what I could see on the Garmin I would have a nice fast descent and then some skirting around a peak followed by a nice long descent back to the car.  The climb was rutted but was quickly over and shortly I was on a fast gradual descent in the largest gear I had left, however then I was slightly surprised that I had to make a sharp right turn and drop further down into a valley of which I could see a monster climb heading back out that was getting steeper and steeper as it went up, this was not good at all and just was not visible on the small Garmin. 

All pictures taken after this point were borrowed from geograph.co.uk because I had my head down, foot on the gas, and it was going dark and starting to rain.

the shallow part of the long climb to Cock Cairn

I was beginning to regret not having had a 1:25k map before I left to have a real good scan of the terrain.  There was a small river crossing at the bottom of the valley which I whizzed across before making the long slog up Cock Cairn (where do these names come from?); it just seemed to go on and on, there was no way I was going to sit at 300W up this one and instead just tapped out a comfortable pace which had me turning over 260W in 3rd gear.

The trail zig-zagged this way and that way with lots of false summits and after 10mins of climbing the ground went back to the horrid loose rock again and I was back to a first-gear slog for what was probably another 15minutes.  I was starting to get a little bit concerned about the light levels now because lots of big dark clouds came thundering in and suddenly the ride went from “probably be back home by dusk” to “will I get back to the car before its pitch black”.  There was nothing I could do, no amount of riding faster was going to get me back in the light and so I just kept tapping out the relentless pace up the never-ending Cock-bloody-Cairn as the rain started to piss it down on me.

Eventually I came to the highest point of the trail and it skirted around the edge of the summit.  I was pretty certain that this was going to be the long descent back into the village and was trying to see where the village might be, but there were no lights to be seen anywhere, nothing but mountain after mountain as far as I could see.  It was then that my Garmin bleeped at me and told me to take a right turn, back up another wretched climb called Hill of Cat that was zig-zagging again and decided now was the best time to take my emergency Torq Caffeine Gel that was for my last reserves if I got in trouble, the last thing I wanted to happen was to hit the wall in a place like this, with pissing down rain and losing light by the minute.  I turned a large hairpin and then my Garmin bleeped at me “off course”.  The Garmin is accurate to +/-5ft and so if it says I am off course then I am off course.  However, the problem with stopping to have a look is that it defaults to face North when no movement is detected, and it then requires further movement to tell you which direction you are travelling.  The map was telling me to turn off the trail but there was nothing there, absolutely diddly squat, just a load of rough heather going down a gulley. 

top of gulleylooking into the wretched piss wet pot hole gulley

The above pics were taken from geograph, by the time I was coming down the gulley it was well and truly dusk.

The gulley was on my Garmin and seemed to show a stream running at the bottom of it before eventually joining another track, in all, it looked about 800m-1km of off-piste action.  This must be the heather bashing that was spoken of in the useless description on MBRs website.  I tried to ride across some of it but it was hopeless, it was so rutted that my front wheel stopped dead at least twice and threw me over the handlebars.  I was going to have to leg it with my bike at my side down this gulley.  I have to say, this was definitely the low point of the whole ride, the light was really fading badly now and this gully was just dangerous, its the only way I can describe it.  It had a stream running down it but was hidden by over-grown bracken and heather and I found myself falling over numerous times with my foot going straight down and dangling in the space while I was sat on my arse with only my bike and my other foot stopping my plunging into the rocky stream.  As I got further down I had to cross this rocky stream about 20 times because the sides of the gulley were so steep and often left no room to walk along the base of the gulley.  All the time the bottom of the gulley was sodden as well, so even though I managed to stay out of the stream, I was absolutely piss wet because the ground was so soaking.  I kept checking the Garmin again and again if I was going the right way and it assured me this was the correct route to get onto the trail below.  All that kept going through my head was “which dickhead put this in a magazine”.    This was definitely the low point of the ride, I found myself having to start to dig deep to keep hauling the bike with me jumping the stream and holding onto it when I slipped into yet another deep hole or narrowly avoiding snapping my ankle on some dodgy ground I couldn’t see.  I think if I hadn’t done events such as the Bullock Smithy or so much 24hr MTB racing in my life then I would not have known that it becomes almost a purely psychological battle to keep yourself going when everything is going totally against you.

It wouldn’t be the first outing either that I have completed from a magazine that should not have been published; my mind drifted back 17years ago when myself and two of my scouting friends went on a 3 day expedition across Drygarn-Fawr in the winter and ended up having to pitch camp on the moor because the terrain was so awful, we were very fit and able Scouts as well and could walk 40miles a day no problem but the route in this magazine for this particular day was utterly ridiculous and left us in a desperate situation.

Eventually the god-forsaken gully ended and I managed to get onto a new trail, it was like the major battle had been won, surely this trail would be like the nice hard-packed sandy trails I had seen hours ago and have me hurtling back to the village?  No, far from it, the first thing I had was another wretched climb up loose rock. 

bridge in the darkwater of tarf track

It was like the whole experience was never going to end, up down up down for another half hour and by now it really was dark, I was relying totally on being able to only distinguish the shade differences – light was the trail, dark was the heather/drop off to the side of me or the narrow bridges I had to cross.  Just when I thought it would end I suddenly ended up on a wide sandy trail – at long last!  The terrain I thought I would be on at the bottom of Mount Keen had finally come!!  The problem now was that it was really dark and again all I had was light=trail, dark=not trail and so I descended down the steep trails.  If it had been daylight then I imagine these would have been really fun, or if I had packed my exposure lights then they would have been fun, anything but riding in the dark using only night-vision.

I thought I would quickly be near the village because I could see some light way down below – civilization!!  I couldn’t believe there was actually a house nearby and people were in it, I thought about knocking on it and trying to beg a lift back to the village but I must have been really close if there was a house up here.  Then suddenly the house disappeared, it must have been behind another hill or something.  The trail seemed to go on for ages and by now I really could see next to nothing and every time my Garmin wanted me to turn it lit up like a Christmas tree and totally ruined my night vision; I found myself adopting some strange position where my head was really far forward to keep the Garmin light out of my eyes.  I was praying there were no ruts otherwise I would be straight over the bars and landing on my face.

water of tarf track

Eventually the trail was just too dark, it was hopeless, I was going to have to walk and this was going to literally add an hour onto my misery.  Then I remembered that my HTC Desire had a little “flashlight” app on it that I used to use when walking from the airport to FTE campus at night.  I figured it wouldn’t be much good but would be better than nothing.  I whipped it out of my bag and turned it up to maximum, I was really pleasantly surprised at how much light it was giving off and I managed to find a way to hold onto the phone with my left hand resting it on the handlebars for damping and using my right hand for the brake and steering control.  I travelled about… 200m and realised that it was suddenly so dark because I was approaching a large forest, and then I suddenly jammed on the brakes as hard as I could performing a little endo as I stopped.  There was a 4ft electric fence right the way across the trail, all I could think to myself was that if I had carried on riding without my phone torch I would have ridden straight into it and cheese-sliced my neck off.  I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.  I managed to climb my way through the electric fence and carry on down the trail through the woods.  As I poked my way out the other side of the woods the house lights became visible again and I felt a small bit of elation flood through me.  I quickly realised it wasn’t the village and in fact one of the random houses you see in the middle of absolute nowhere in the Cairngorms but at least it was lit up, and it had gates that I needed to pass through!  They felt like a luxury…

bailles glen tarf

I carried on down the steep sandy trail for another ten or so minutes and then my Garmin beeped at me with its “off course” notification, ruining my night vision once again to try and find the right bleeding trail.  I couldnt see a thing, even with my torch and felt another heather-bashing gulley experience looming, why the hell was this happening again so close to the end?!!  I decided to just walk the bike directly across to where my Garmin showed I should have been, I hadn’t seen any forks in the trail so it must have been a really subtle peel-off the train I was on.  I had another river to cross, “what is it with all this fking rivers!” I was shouting. 

the subtle junction that I missed

I had to do a running jump and just about made it, it was sort of a run, jump and hurl bike all at the same time.  I scrambled up the grassy slope with my bike and suddenly was on a rocky trail, it wasn’t the nice loamy sandy trail I had been on, but it was definitely a trail and it was going in the right direction.  So onwards I went, this trail was rutted and had obviously been used by tractors and landrovers, I decided to stay in one of the ruts as it was least likely to throw me off the bike and was easier to see the way in the pitch black.  The track went on for about 15minutes and eventually went across a stone bridge, this was starting to feel even more like civilization, and then suddenly the clatter of rocks and splash of puddles gave way to darkness and a quiet hum from the tyres – tarmac!!!  I must be really close to the village and a quick glance at the Garmin confirmed I had only 2 miles on the bit of tarmac back to the car.  I was saved!!

I rode in through the little village and towards the car in the car park, I prayed my keys hadn’t fallen out of my camelbak but I had literally been checking that I had everything zipped up properly each time I opened it because sods law said what ever fell out I would desperately need.  I peeled my clothes off and towelled myself dry and started to wrestle fresh clothes on.  I seemed to be drawing attention from a couple of houses opposite the car park – they either thought I was trying to nick the BMW that was parked there, or they wanted to see which idiot was coming back in the dark.  The time was 2100, I had been out nearly 5 hours which was twice as long as Tracklogs has said.  How could it have been so wrong?!!  I threw my coat on and went to the payphone to give my wife a quick call, there were a few text messages on my phone but I couldnt reply to them.  I got a 10p out first and then remembered it had increased to 20p, so I was a bit shocked when I read the tariff and it said 60p minimum.  I guess I hadn’t used a payphone in a long long time!  I got Allie to give Alex a call in case he was going to send the mountain rescue out after me, and then I hopped in the car and put the heaters on full-whack and started the 50mile drive home on the winding back roads of the Cairngorms.

I figured out a few days later that the reason Tracklogs had told me 2.5hrs was because it had no maps to go on, I had used it purely to get the route onto my GPS and so it had assumed that the whole entire route was flat.  Oops.

Writing this afterwards and looking back at photos during the day makes me actually realise what a pretty ride it could be, especially on a nice clear summers day.  However, I absolutely cannot recommend this ride in the Autumn starting at 4pm, not unless you have a Garmin and some decent lights (like the Exposure ones I left at home)

Riding Stats:  29miles, 7300ft climbing, 7300ft descending, 3hrs in the light, 2hrs in the dark, 45mins walking/crawling/falling/scrambling/jumping


~ by globalste on September 21, 2012.

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