Monday, August 30, 2010

Rolling the dice...

I'm off work this week. Really need it. Havent had a break in ages...Of course theres quite a bit on the to-do i decided to try and get a big -ish ride in early in the week and recover sufficiently to give the Kielder 100 a proper go. Looking at the weather, sunday and monday were going to be ok pretty much country wide. I've had an urge to ride the east rim of the Lairig Ghru then drop down to Derry Cairngorm since dan suggested it to me a few weeks ago. The Vertigo was dusted off, a sensible range of clothing packed and i set off for the Cairngorm early sunday morning. The weather looked like it should be breezy up top, with strong gusts, and a chance of rain at around 1-2pm ish. I was anticipating being out 10 hours at least, so an hour or so of rain wasnt terribly worrying.

On the way up the weather came in, but it was the Drumochter pass so i didnt get too upset. 5 minutes later, things went south. There was *a lot* of motorcycle traffic: it was Thunder in the Glens - the Harley meet in the highlands. As the weather deteriorated, the mix of rubbish drivers on the A9 and lots of motorcyclists doing what motorcyclists do meant one thing. As i descended to Dalwhinnie, the traffic slowed suddenly. In the middle of the road was a car with 4 people trapped in it and the bonnet smooshed in. Another car was off to the side and a motor cycle, or what was left of it, was spread over the road. it looked like the front wheel had imploded. Off to the side the motor cyclist was lying in a heap, roughly covered with a blanket. There was no doubt in my mind he was dead. Several motocyclists were directing traffic via a slip road, and the 4 passengers in the car were all talking and moving, they just couldnt get out. There was nothing for me to do, so i drove on. Needless to say the emergency services came tearing down the road and yet again, it was a nightmare as freaked out drivers were pushed to the limit of their meagre abilities to control their cars on the road. I dunno, maybe drivers need to be assessed more regularly or something, but there was very nearly several further accidents as panic set in.

Regardless, i made it to Aviemore with a need to get out into the hills. Life needed to be lived. The rain hadnt stopped, but it wasnt heavy, so i stuck to my plan and quickly readied to get out into the hills. I aimed up the Coire Cas path but by the time i reached the ski centre i had to take shelter. The wind was battering the hillside and the rain was thick and heavy. I was well into cloud and there was no way of knowing if this was just a front, or it was time to head down and go home, tail between my legs.

Regular readers may well be aware im pretty fucked off with the weather. Its sort of pointless, as it is not something that can be controlled, but the fact remains. I stood under the eaves of the ski centre and looked at the map and waited, hoping that the weather might let up. There wasnt really any sort of viable alternative from where i was, other than to retrace my steps and go down. After 15 minutes or so, i convinced myself the weather was improving and decided to head upwards anyways. How bad could it be?

There was some riding and a lot of carrying as i ascended around 400m across the face of Cairn Lochan. All the time i was in cloud, and the gusts of wind nearly knocked me over. As i gained the shoulder of Cairn Lochan it started hailing. Hard. If i got cold enough now, i was in trouble, so i sheltered as best i could in a cleft rock. After 5 minutes, it was decision time. Mountain craft is an interesting term. I suspect really it means the mix of common sense (which, of course, isnt) and experience. I knew heading up was isolating me in big mountains in big weather in cycling shorts and a windtex jacket. But i couldnt wait any longer: there was no way i could tolerate being as cold as i was. I had to move either upwards in the hope the weather settled, or downwards and admit defeat. Upwards it was.

Part of my decision was that the combo of strong wind and hail meant facing into the weather (ie heading downwards) was going to be painful. After about another 50m or so vertical gain, i found myself on the east edge of the Lairig Ghru. the weather was being deflected by Creag An Leth-choin and though visibility was little over 5m i decided to push on. The path was great fun to ride. Rocky, lite-technical, absorbing riding. As i started to descend down to a saddle before the bulk of Ben Macdui, i realised that i needed to turn back. There was no way the weather was good enough to descend down to Derry Cairngorm, with any chance of making it back out. Therefore, i needed to turn around post haste and deal with the headwind and rain/hail.

When i Stopped for 2 minutes to cover my face in a makeshift balaclava (thank you buff) i was almost immediately cold. Shit. This was not good. Back to the edge of Coire An Lochain i coped, mainly because i didnt have to use my fingers. But the descent down to the ski hill was steep and aggressive riding. As soon as i stuck a finger on the brake lever it froze and became as useful as a stick of wood. 3 times i went over the bars on the way down that trail. But i needed to ride to drop fast. At a degree for every 100 feet or so i was in dire need of lower altitude. As i got to the Ski centre the rain upped the ante and i was soaked in seconds, but i was more sheltered and after a quick massage i began to get feeling back into at least some of my digits. My toes were gone, and my little and ring fingers were still useless.

I headed off down to Glenmore, with white noise in my head. Another bastard of a day. Then i remembered the path via the Chalamain Gap up to the top of the Lairing Ghru, which would allow me to take the Vertigo down one of the premier descents in this part of the world. A handful of skittles, peanut m&m's and honey roasted macadamias as the sun finally came out and the world didnt seem such a dark and violent place. A climb past a herd of reindeer (with an albino amongst them) got me to the bottom of the Chalamain Gap in good order. Initially rideable, the gap is primarily a scramble. The rocks are large and loose. Lots of movement under foot, so i was cautious.

No one wants to break an ankle or worse up here. The other side was very, very boggy, but afforded a beautiful view into the Lairig Ghru. A couple of bedraggled walkers were making their way out of the pass, all talking of the hideous hail they had endured. Water flowed freely down the level section of the Lairig Ghru, but as i reached the descent down to Piccaddily everything clicked for a brief 5 minutes. The Vertigo sailed the roots and ripped the corners on the singletrack high above Allt Druidh. Several times the Panaracer Rampage was outgunned by the slick roots and i whipped sideways, but the bike just dug in. It was a truly sweet descent.

It was a foreshortened day with only 6 hours in the hills but the bad weather left me happy to find the car. Yet again i found myself cursing that i wasnt handed a meteorological break. I will gladly sell this slightly used soul to whichever deity controls the Scottish weather.


Simon said...

Sounds bloody grim Jon :(

Even down here I got bloody cold out on a road ride yesterday despite jacket, 3/4s and overshoes. The climate is broken.
(although it's been gorgeous today)

Dan said...

chapeau! weather warrior ... your out there so we don't have to ;-)

If you want to try again later in the week let me know as I'm pretty keen to get up there, mwis says now is the time.

Douglas F Shearer said...

Looks like a great route, will need to put that in the pot for the planned Aviemore trip in two weeks.

You must have been pretty close to us on the A9, we passed around the accident just before 1100, pretty grim way to start the morning. From the images on the BBC news it looks like it was a head-on collision, was hard to make out when we were passing. Visibility was rubbish, and a few of the bikes were running no lights. Lots of folks missed out on the Laggan SXC as a result of the later road closure.