Sunday, 5 April 2015

Better late than never (or how new innovations allow the fulfillment of old ambitions).

I remember (twenty odd) years ago looking at the map and wondering whether it would be feasible to complete a mountain biking circuit from Ardgarten, over the Rest and be thankful pass, up Glen Kinglas and then riding and carrying the bike along the edge of Loch Sloy (where there's no path at all) before riding up Coiregrogain into Glen Loin and back to Ardgarten. I never quite plucked up the courage to try it due to the section along the banks of Loch Sloy as I knew it would be really rough going.
Having recently treated myself to a packraft I started to look at this circuit again. Using this I would potentially be able to paddle Loch Sloy instead of braving the rough shoreline and although I hadn't yet attempted carrying my bike on the raft I knew from reading others accounts that it was definitely possible.With the Easter weekend at my disposal and a fair forecast I decided to give it a go incorporating an overnight camp part way round the circuit. In terms of mileage it wasn't too far at around 21 miles but I knew it'd be potentially tough going carrying the extra weight of camping gear and a packraft and with the amount of ascent the route involved.
I set off from Ardgarten just after lunchtime on Easter Saturday accompanied on the first part of the ride by Rambo (who had to return that evening). There was no warm up, it was straight into a steep climb that I feared would have me off the bike and walking but I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to ride it.
I must have been complaining a lot though as Rambo evicted me from my bike and made me ride his unladen steed on the next section! We gradually ground our way up the Rest passing the picnic area where I camped while walking last year. 
Sooner than I expected we popped out onto the road at the summit of the Rest where we headed down the far side towards Butterbridge. It was quite nice to have the tarmac buzzing away under my fat bike tyres but we were quickly at the junction with the track which leads up Glen Kinglas. I'd cycled up here years ago out of curiosity but had to do it as an out and back ride then, hopefully this time would be different. 
It was a couple of miles steady riding along a good track before I spotted the landmarks that I'd memorised from the map indicating that it was time to strike off piste across the open hillside towards Loch Sloy. Instead of doing this straight away though I decided it was a good spot to camp for the night and after a quick cup of tea Rambo had to head for home as well leaving me all alone. 
Once I had my camp set up I decided to scout the route ahead to Loch Sloy. I'd feared that this section would be unrideable but was pleasantly surprised to find that not only could my fat bike deal with the boggy terrain, it was actually really good fun picking a route through the bogs and tussocks.
In this picture you can just make out my tent on the edge of the forest. The route ahead dropped down past a series of waterfalls with some really fun riding but I had to keep reminding myself to take it easy as I was all alone in the middle of nowhere and couldn't afford a crash. Quite quickly I reached Loch Sloy and was surprised at how low the water level was, it looked somewhat forbidding with the low cloud hanging over it.

I met some walkers here who had negotiated the very shoreline that I'd contemplated biking all those years ago, they confirmed that it was hard enough just to walk never mind pushing and carrying a bike! Satisfied with my reconnaissance I rode and pushed back up the hill to my campsite. By the time I got back I was ready for some food so got the stove on and cooked up my noodle delight (which as always seemed to taste better eaten in the great outdoors). 
There was nothing else to do but get in my tent and watch the murky clouds turn a little pink as the sun set. 
During the night the low cloud reasserted itself and everything was soaked with heavy dew in the morning (including my sleeping bag in places where it'd touched the wet tent). I'd hoped to get away early but I decided to wait for the sun to get up in the hope of drying my sleeping bag before leaving (I was loathed to pack my expensive down bag away wet as I knew it could damage it). In the meantime I had breakfast in bed while waiting for the sun to come up over the hills. Once the sun did make an appearance it turned into a stunning morning with the mist lingering in the glens. 

 As I'd hoped the sun dried out my sleeping bag and I was able to set off just after nine. I wasn't sure if I'd be able to ride my laden bike on the sections I'd managed successfully the night before with no kit on it but in the event I managed to ride the vast majority of the way down to Loch Sloy.
Fatty tracks on the sand.  
The loch looked a lot more inviting than it had the night before so I wasted no time in unloading the packraft and inflating it. I'd been a bit worried about lashing the bike on the front but in the event it proved very straightforward and before long I was ready to set off.
Once on the water the raft felt fine despite the extra weight relatively high up. I paddled unhurriedly down the loch, enjoying the sunshine, the views and the novelty of my situation. 

Gradually the dam at the far end of the loch drew closer and I passed an artificial waterfall on the bank created by part of the hydro electric system where the water emerged miraculously from a hole in the hillside.

I searched for a decent spot to land in the shadow of the dam wall, it all looked steep and rocky but I had no choice but to go for it anyway. I pulled the raft up the stones and then bit by bit shuttled everything up to a level terrace above where I reassembled Fatty and deflated the raft. 

The bank above looked a nightmare of jumbled boulders but I picked my way through it pushing and carrying the bike until I reached an access road for the dam. While I was there I decided to have a look around. 

The route down from the dam involved riding through a tunnel, another first on my fat bike!

The access road down to the base of the dam was steep with a series of hairpins, great fun. 

I was now onto familiar ground (albeit riding in the opposite direction to usual) as I climbed up Coiregrogain. The familiar mountains of Bein Ime, Ben Vane and A Chrois looked fantastic with sunshine glinting off the snow filled gullies. 
I stopped for a breather at the little reservoir at the top of Coiregrogain, the water looked very inviting in the warm sunshine but I knew it'd be freezing cold.
Then it was the plunge down the forest road towards Glen Loin and Arrochar. 

I pedalled along the forest road above Succoth and the old torpedo range before turning off towards Ardgarten. An unexpected bonus was that the final section was a new (to me) winding singletrack with some fun, steep switchbacks. 
It seemed strange to be back amongst the bank holiday crowds as I rode back to the car park but it didn't matter to me as I had the satisfaction of having achieved a twenty odd year old ambition. 

Here's the video footage from the trip.