Cracked ribs and road rash… ugh!

THERE will be no more cycling for me for a couple of weeks.

Last Friday I had a wee altercation with the bridge over the River Tromie near Kingussie, a little incident that has left me with road rash down one thigh, several cuts to my neck and shoulder and worst of all, some cracked ribs. 

It was the kind of fall that can happen anywhere, at any time. I had come a short hill and was about to take the bend that leads onto the bridge in my usual fashion when my rear wheel slid away, I lost control and smashed into the bridge parapet.

I’m not sure why my wheel slipped like it did. Unfortunately I didn’t have the sense to check it out at the time but it felt a bit like some diesel on the road. Whatever it was it was enough to throw me and hit the bridge. I managed to swerve enough so that my left thigh took the brunt of the collision, hence the road rash, but I hit the top edge of the parapet on the left side of my chest. I thought I was going to be tossed over the bridge into the river below but some steel joists, with two strands of wire running through them, prevented that happening, although they cut me up quite badly.

Things didn’t feel too bad at the time, indeed I was more concerned for my bike, but as the days wore on the pain of the cracked ribs has intensified. I’ve been swallowing painkillers like there’s no tomorrow. 

As it happens I have to go off to the south-west on a filming shoot. We’re just starting our big project for this year’s television walk, a long journey from the Mull of Galloway to Oban. It’ll be broadcast at Christmas over two hour-long programmes.

Fortunately the injuries won’t prevent me from walking or climbing hills and I don’t feel too bad unless I sneeze, cough or laugh! 

Just concerned it might be enough to make me drop out of the Loch Ness Etape at the beginning of May and the Caledonian Etape the following week. Provided I’m OK for our Ireland End to End ride later in May then I don’t mind too much. But for the next week to ten days, I don’t think I’ll be on a bike…

Bye bye Brooks Saddle – you’re not for me…

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A few weeks ago I blogged about my brand new Brooks saddle, which I hoped would replace the original saddle on my Ridgeback Panorama road touring bike.

A number of you warned me that a Brooks leather saddle wouldn’t be heaven on earth immediately but might take a fair while to break in, some suggesting between 600 and a thousand miles!

Well, I’ve given it a good 600 miles and it still feels as though I’m sitting on hard plastic. It’s not desperately uncomfortable at the start of a ride but by the end my bum feels very sore, as though it’s been bruised. What’s worse, the enjoyment and sheer pleasure I’ve had riding the Ridgeback has gone. A comfortable saddle is crucial for enjoyable riding and I’m afraid, for me at least, the Brooks saddle is not comfortable.

I’m well aware that I should use it more, break it in more, keep riding on it for at least another few hundred miles but the truth is that after each ride I swear it will be my last. The pleasure has gone, so I’ve reverted to my old saddle. I rode 53 miles on it the other day, from Newtonmore up to Inverness over the Slochd, and it was fine. The pleasure of riding a touring bike had returned so I’m going to stick with it.

When I first took the Brooks saddle from its presentation box I marvelled at the sheer beauty of the thing. I loved the craftsmanship that had created it, I rejoiced in the lovely warm leather smell from it, I looked forward to having it as a friend for many years to come.

Alas, it now sits on a shelf in my garage. It just didn’t do the trick for me. Sorry Brooks!

 

In Praise of the Southern Uplands – singing the old songs

IT took me an inordinately long time to realise the delights of the borderlands. For too long northern mountains and overseas wilderness took up my attention. It wasn’t until I mellowed into my forties that I began to appreciate there was life below three-thousand feet. Even then, curiously, it wasn’t so much the hills that drew me to the southern uplands but the songs, the border ballads.

I was, in a sense, in search of the songlines, and my introduction to the Southern Upland Way was a45 mile route between Moffat and Galashiels, taking in the excellent Bodesbeck Ridge and the historic Minch Moor, a high level route that follows the footsteps of cattle drovers, battling dukes and kings. And of course Ettrick, beloved Ettrick – a name that stirs my heartstrings, a bit like Torridon or Sutherland, and while Ettrick has virtually nothing in common with such highland areas it does have a parallel in its resonances of wildness and remoteness.

It was the ancient hunting forest of Ettrick that sheltered the patriot William Wallace, and the Bruce, and the Black Douglas and later, the Marquis of Montrose and all those who haunted this same lofty fastness when they too were being hunted like wild animals. An ancient verse suggests,

The Ettrick Foreste is a feir firests

In it grows mony a semelie tree

There’s hart and hinde, and dae and rae

And a’ wild beasts in grete plentie

In this respect, especially when walking a route where the historical aspects are almost tangible, areas like Ettrick and Minch Moor make you feel you have been transported back several centuries to when this part of Scotland was truly wild, rugged and remote. It was this “spirit of place”, so neatly put by the words of Ronnie Browne’s song;

 “I walk alone where two hawks fly,

Where once we heard the bairnie’s cry”

that I had wanted to examine on this three-day journey. I was also keen to explore another curious phenomenon.

The late Bruce Chatwin once wrote about the physical world that Australian Aborigines live in and a parallel world from which they believe their physical world is derived. This other world is their “dreamtime”, and for them it is as real as the physical world in which they live. What I find fascinating is that the Aborigine’s believe their ancestors created the natural world by singing it into existence!

The songs the ancestors sang created the land and the animals and the birds and the plants, and modern Aborigines still go walk-about to experience these “songlines”, what they refer to as following the Footsteps of the Ancestors. By singing the old songs they believe they can play a vital part in the continuing creation.

It’s a lovely concept, and it’s not that far removed from traditional Christian thinking. An old story relates to Caedmon, who died in 680 and who is remembered in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey as the first known poet of Anglo-Saxon England. One night he had a dream in which he was commanded to sing. When he asked what he should sing he was told to sing of those things he knew instinctively – the glories of creation.

I wonder how many songs and ballads from the borderlands have been influenced by the natural magnificence of those areas, or by some historic event – a battle, a jilted lover perhaps?

I wanted to experience the songlines of the Borders for myself, and in experiencing the songlines I discovered the hills, and the cleuchs, and those little byways that make up so much of what we now know as the Southern Upland Way.

My experience of that 45-mile section of the Southern Upland Way thrilled me – even today I recall with fondness the delights of the route – Ettrick and Scabcleuch, Riskinhope and Blake Muir, and the high level traverse, in the footsteps of kings and drovers, over Minch Moor. I learned of the attraction of Dumfries and Galloway and the Scottish Borders and why so many people, throughout the ages, would want to write songs about it. I left with a song in my heart, a newfound song of the borderlands, the rolling hills, the woodlands, the history and the incomparable fusion of time, song and story.

Bruce Chatwin had a vision of the Songlines stretching across the continents and ages, that wherever men have trodden they have left a trail of song, of which we may, now and then, catch an echo. Man has left a wonderful trail of song from coast to coast, from Portpatrick to Cockburnspath, and its echoes still ring out through the ages to those who will listen.

Out ower yon moss,

Out ower yon bonnie bush o’ heather,

O a’ ye lads whae’er ye be,

Show me the way to Gala Water,

Braw, braw bonnie lads o’…

The Southern Upland Way, in perfect symphony, awaits you…

 

Glen Etive, one of Scotland’s finest glens

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Ben Starav

IT’S one of Scotland’s finest glens, the gateway to some of the best hills in the Central Highlands and a place that was close to the heart of a Celtic princess.

Glen Etive is forever the storied land of Deirdre of the Sorrows, a first century Pictish princess who was betrothed to the High King of Ulster before fleeing to Scotland and Etive-side with her lover, Naoise, one of the Three Sons of Uisneach. Celtic tales tell of her love of these hills, and of her heartbreak at having to leave them behind to eventually return to Ulster and her fate.

It’s easy to understand Deirdre’s passion for Glen Etive. Steep-sided hills rise on either side of it, a single-track road runs from its high point on the Rannoch Moor for some 14 miles/23 k to the head of Loch Etive, a sea-loch that bites its way greedily into the jumbled landscape of Argyll, and its river is a cascading, tumbling watercourse that has been described as the finest canoeing river in Scotland. The River Etive commands cult status among Scotland’s paddlers.

Two hundred and sixty years ago the glen was considerably more inhabited than it is today, and a track made its way down the south side of Loch Etive as far as Taynuilt. From 1847 a steamer service from Oban sailed up Loch Etive to the now derelict pier where the modern road ends. It’s certainly a quieter place today but old jetty at the head of the loch is still a magnificent spot, a place to linger and consider the scene before you. Savagely steep slopes lead to the Munro of Ben Starav on one side and the Corbett of Beinn Trilleachean on the other while ahead of you rise the equally steep slopes of another Corbett, Stob Dubh. Further up the glen the classic view of the two Buachailles, the twin herdsmen of Etive, with the Lairig Gartain separating them, dominates everything else, while the big hills of the Blackmount Deer Forest spread out on your right. On the other side of the glen the Stob Coire Sgreamach edge of the Bidean nam Bian massif gives way to the long ridge of Beinn Maol Chalum and the Munros of Glen Creran, Beinn Sgulaird and Beinn Fhionnlaidh.

Few glens in Scotland offer such a phenomenal wealth of hillwalking opportunities in a hugely inspiring landscape. Deirdre’s passion is easy to understand, her love of a land that would have made her weep with longing.

While most hillwalking visitors to Glen Etive will head for the Munros of the Blackmount or Glen Coe this is one area where the lower Corbetts, Scotland’s hills between 2500ft and 2999ft are every bit as interesting, and challenging, as their higher counterparts. Stob Dubh is a good example.

This 883m hill rises from Glen Ceitlin in lower Etive and has been described as “steep, dark and intimidating” and you have to climb it virtually from sea-level. Its summit always seems to be an extraordinary long way above the glen, a phenomenon created by the steepness of its slopes, and to emphasise its reputation as a serious mountain its slopes become steeper the higher you climb.

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Beinn Trilleachean, at the head of Loch Etive

Similarly, close to the head of Loch Etive lies Beinn Trilleachan, with its sweep of granite crags, known to rock climbers as the Etive Stabs. When seen head on from Ben Starav across the loch these boiler-plate slabs hang down from the mountain like a grey curtain, and they contain some of the most surreal climbs in Scotland. Etive slab climbing is friction climbing, tiptoeing upwards through a steep ocean of granite relying on the sandpaper roughness of the rock. Not climbing for the faint-hearted.

Another Etive Corbett, Beinn Mhic Chasgaig, is also protected by steep and craggy slopes but it’s not as isolated as Stob Dubh or Beinn Trilleachan. It has the advantage of being connected to the Creise/Clach Leathad ridge of the Blackmount Deer Forest by a high-level bealach and it is easy enough to tag the Corbett on to a round of those two Munros

Indeed, for many years peak-baggers were forced to take this route and all because of a fortified gate across a bridge over the River Etive near Alltchaorunn. In pre-Land Reform Act days the gate to the bridge was well barricaded with a padlock and barbed-wire but in these more emancipated times the barricades have been removed allowing access to what is a marvellous route to the hill

One word of warning though – a sign reminds walkers that under the Land Reform Act householders can expect “reasonable privacy”, so try and avoid walking immediately past the house at Alltchaorunn. Break off the track that runs to the house at the first gate you encounter and follow the line of a deer fence uphill until you reach a stile. Cross it, and you’ll soon pick up the Allt a’ Chaorainn path again.

On another previous visit to Beinn Mhic Chasgaig I had simply tackled the hill’s western nose head on, a steep and uncompromising climb that had me twisting through crags and rock barriers until I reached the summit plateau in a lather of sweat and frayed nerves. I’ve since found an easier and lovelier route that follows the Allt a’ Chaorainn to its junction with the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan where a single plank bridge crosses the latter stream to access a footpath on the other side, a path that runs through a narrow and magnificent gorge.

The glen of the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan is a narrow defile below the steep slopes of Aonach Mor and Mhic Chasgaig itself with the footpath contouring the slopes above a tumbling burn. A Scottish Mountaineering Club guidebook suggests it has the character, if not the scale, of the Himalayas, and with the distinct V-shape of the glen framing the pointed, snow-capped peaks of the Bidean nam Bian range, you realise such a suggestion isn’t in the least bit fanciful.

It’s possible to follow this narrow path all the way up to the head of the glen from where steep slopes climb to the Mhic Chasgaig/Creise bealach but it’s better to vary the route and cross the burn and take to the grassy slopes that climb steeply beside a wide and imposing gully. Here lies the hard work of the day – an hour or so of hard effort will give you enough height to start enjoying the views across the tops of the Blackmount hills and back down the length of Glen Etive towards Ben Starav. It won’t be long before the angle of the slope eases back onto the wide upper slopes and the rock strewn summit plateau.

The summit cairn, at 2835ft/864m, lies at the east end of this plateau and the views from this high tableland are breathtaking. Away beyond the blunt nose of Creise, the watery mattress of the Rannoch Moor spreads out towards the east, while closer at hand the squat, rocky form of the Buachaille Etive Mor looks so different from its archetypal, pyramidal shape as normally seen from the main A82 Glencoe road.

To the west and south of Glen Etive the big hills predominate – the Bidean hills, Beinn Starav, the Blackmount tops, Clach Leathad and Stob Ghabhar, all big, bright and brash. After the climb the descent, to the high bealach that links with Creise then down steep slopes to the head of the Allt Coire Ghiubhasan, is pure magic and the temptation to linger by the clear pools and falls of the upper burn are too much to resist. Deep in the cusp of the hills this is as perfect a spot as you’ll find anywhere, even in the Himalaya.

While there are definable subtleties attached to the ascent of Beinn Mhic Chasgaig there is nothing subtle about the ascent of Glen Etive’s best known Munro. The climb to the summit of Beinn Starav from the head of Loch Etive is brutal – you have to earn every inch!

There’s a definite inequality about some of our Munros. You can wander up the Cairnwell, for example, from the Cairnwell Pass at 2199ft, which doesn’t leave much of the mountain to actually climb. The Drumochter hills start from the roadside at 1500ft and even the two Buachailles of Glen Coe rise from the loftiest part of the Rannoch Moor. But wander through the Lairig Gartain between these two hills and the ground soon falls away at your feet, all the way to sea level where the tidal floods of Loch Etive lap the skirts of Ben Starav.

And from those damp skirts it’s a full 1078m/3,541 feet of climbing to the hills square-cut summit ridge. It’s a long climb, but that severity is the mountain’s saving grace. The steep slog makes you stop, at frequent intervals, and when you do the views simply take your breath away – if you’ve any breath left!

From Coiletir in the lower reaches of the glen a waterlogged track takes you to the bridge over the Allt Mheuran. Once across the stream you start climbing, and there’s very little respite on this rather relentless ridgee. It’s steep too, as it rises in grassy steps from the headwaters of Loch Etive to the upper reaches of the rocky Coire da Choimhid. On my last ascent of this hill water from the overnight storms still poured from the higher slopes like a thousand wriggling snakes as curtains of clouds sporadically hid the higher reaches of the mountain.

At the top of the corrie I had my first glimpse of the loch. By now the wind had rent great holes in the cloud cover and sunshine lit up the views. Away up Glen Etive stood the twin herdsmen of Etive, the two shepherds, Buachaille Etive Beag and Buachaille Etive Mor. To their left the Bidean nam Bian massif appeared as a steep, jagged swell of hills. Across the fjord-like sliver of Loch Etive lay Beinn Trilleachan, with its sweep of granite crags.

High above the corrie now and, even after at least half a dozen ascents of this mountain, I’m always taken aback by how far there is still to go. The angle of the slope certainly relents for a short distance, then the ridge narrows and becomes an easy scramble along the edge of a line of broken crags before the summit slopes rise in a confusion of boulders.

Mercifully the small summit cairn is reached suddenly, with some relief it has to be said. Cloud swirled around me but I could just discern the silver slit of Loch Etive below me. It didn’t take much imagination to see the war galleys of the Sons of Uisnach sailing down the loch, sails unfurled, into the sun below Beinn Cruachan.

From the summit a narrow crest billows out towards the east and down to a high bealachl from where you can drop down to a lower saddle that gives access to another Munro – the outlying Beinn nan Aighenan, the peak of the hinds. This is one of those peaks that is destined to be left for another day – it looks far out on its rocky limb and the temptation is to ignore it and bash on to Glas Bheinn Mhor. So many Munro-baggers build up a list of such solitary, isolated hills, all left for another day – don’t make Beinn nan Aighenan another.

From the outlying summit retrace your steps to the high col which gives access to the south-west ridge of a third Munro, Glas Bheinn Mhor. Follow the ridge over a grassy subsidiary top and climb the rocky ridge to the summit. It’s from here that Ben Starav really shows its classic form, with no fewer than five narrow ridges culminating in its blunted peak. Under snow cover it looks positively Alpine when its sweeping cornices reflect the low-lying sun.

Take care on the descent from Glas Bheinn Mhor. It’s best to drop down eastwards from the summit to a col from where you can descend fairly easily to the head of the Allt Mheuran and a footpath that takes you back to Coileitir. Tired you may be, but I have no doubt that like Deirdre your heart will have been well and truly captured by Glen Etive and it won’t be long before you are planning a return visit.

Stob Dubh, Glen Etive

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Hitting the wall – not a nice experience…

IT’s been a pretty decent winter for getting the bike miles in so I’ve no excuse for heading off to cycle Ireland end to end next month in anything other than tip-top shape.

However…

When you get to my age you realise you’re never going to be in the tip-top shape you remember from former years. It’s all a bit of a compromise and ageing process problems like sore knees, sore athritic feet, sore backs all get in the way of the push for fitness.

I’ve been fairly lucky this winter. Monthly visits to Anne Connolly, our local osteopath, has made a big difference to a thigh and knee problem that has been plaguing me for some time but last week, when cycling on the bike route between Oban and Glen Coe I stopped for a moment for a pee and for no explicable reason my lower back went into a spasm.

It’s been more of a pest than a problem and although I find it difficult to bend first thing in the morning it tends to ease up during the day and hasn’t stopped me walking or cycling. Indeed, it’s getting better each day.

But at the weekend I was reminded that it’s all very well grabbing the bike and putting the miles in, but you have to think about what you’re doing and be sensible, something I’m not always very good at. I always tend to expect my body to do more than perhaps it’s capable – I guess I just forget I’m approaching 65.

It was a nice morning, I was due a long bike ride so I thought I’d get out early. I made a bowl of porridge for my breakfast, grabbed a banana and shoved it in my rear pocket and set off on a 60 mile jaunt.

I took my Ridegback Panorama road touring bike as I’m still breaking in a Brooks saddle – even after 300-350 miles it’s still bloody uncomfortable – so I wasn’t pushing it hard. The idea was to have a long and leisurely ride on a nice spring morning.

At 30 miles I felt hungry so I ate my banana but at 40 miles I hit the wall. I felt suddenly exhausted, I was cold and a little bit dizzy. I wondered if I should phone my wife and get her to pick me up but I persisted, stopping every few miles for a breather.

When I eventually made it home, very slowly, I felt dreadful, and my wife made me some soup and sandwhiches after which I began to feel a bit better, but I have not felt like that for years. I just felt empty…

At the Scottish Bike Show at the weekend I bought a big box of High5 Energy Bars. I’m not going to be caught out like that again.