Wednesday, October 14, 2015


It's been an ambition of mine to complete the 100miles of The West Highland Way in a day by mountain bike for some years now and with two failed attempts under my belt and approaching 63 years of age I felt that one final try was in order before I could throw in the towel in and not feel too bad about it
My two previous attempts, one north to south and the other in the more usual south to north direction had both ground to a halt about 19 miles short. Both had been done on a relatively heavy Full Suspension bike which made the carrying or 'Hikeabike' sections very tiring, especially as the day wore on. So the strategy on this occasion was to use a much lighter Hardtail bike which,while sacrificing a degree of comfort would undoubtedly make the carrying sections much easier and thus, so my theory went, provide the extra energy to enable me to complete the job.
There is a well recognised key section of 'The Way' which is generally accepted as being the toughest for walkers and even more so for bikers and that is the seven mile stretch along the south shore of Loch Lomond between Inversnaid Hotel and Beinn Ghlas farm. The path is so rough here that it is fair to say that there is little more than half a mile of biking in the whole thing
I left Milngavie, the south terminus of 'TheWay' at 8.00am and was enjoying the ride in good weather. The first big obstacle of the route, the ascent of Conic Hill had gone easily enough and as I approached Inversnaid I was feeling good and was well on schedule. I would have to admit though that the thought of taking the hotel ferry over the loch and rejoining the route again at Beinn Ghlas, thus surpassing the difficulties was very appealing. However on inspecting the timetable I found that this would entail a wait of over two hours and so I took the fateful decision to push on.

I was about 2 hours into it and was coping well with what is basically rock scrambling with the added hindrance of lugging a bike along with you. To be fair, there were some short sections that I could have ridden but I had decided to err on the side of safety, realising that being alone, a simple fall might mean a twisted ankle or the like and the project being abandoned all together.
What happened next all went very quickly and is pieced together in retrospect but I do believe it to be a fairly accurate account of events (A subsequent visit to the site on foot proved this to be the case)
I was on a very steep scrambling section of the path and was aware that there was a long drop to the rocky shore below me on my immediate left. Having said that, I couldn't see the shore as the rocky, root strewn path overhung it. In skiing and mountaineering one often hears the term ' No Fall Zone' being used to describe an area where the results of a fall at that point would be disastrous. This was a 'No Fall Zone'.
I was on foot, the bike in front of me and above to my right and I was pushing forward and up to clear this particularly tricky section. I was nearing level ground when either my back foot slipped or the edge of the rough path gave way and I was immediately airborne with no introductory slope to roll down with the hope of stopping, just straight into freefall. I recall thinking 'This is going to be bad' and I think I let out an involuntary shout. My next recollection was coming to face down on the jagged rocks of the shoreline some 20feet below my take off point.
I've no idea how long I was unconscious and only know that I was because I came to in extreme pain thinking ' Please let me go back to where I was' meaning, not the path above but to the place with no pain - unconsciousness.
Any attempt to change my facedown position was painful in the extreme but, almost instinctively, I checked for feeling in my feet, arms and legs and was somewhat relieved to find that I could register movement in all extremities. My next thought was the possibility of internal bleeding and that scared me. I have to take ant-coagulant drugs as a result of having an artificial heart valve and that makes me more prone to such bleeding than the average person. But there was nothing I could do about that. I just had to hope.
On realising that I was unable to move and was out of sight of anyone who might be on the path above I began shouting for help. After half an hour or so I was very relieved to hear voices. Shortly thereafter a man who was walking 'The Way' and as it turned out, who I had passed earlier in the afternoon,was at my side. After assessing the situation he climbed back up to the path where he was able to contact the Emergency Services by phone and get the evacuation process underway. He informed me that it was likely that I would be taken by the Loch Lomond Rescue launch to Inversnaid and thereafter by helicopter to Glasgow's Southern General Hospital. I was extremely relieved to get this information but the wait of an hour or more seemed very daunting because of the pain I was experiencing.
Sometime later and after a lot of moaning and groaning on my part I heard the rescue boat and crew manoeuvring into the small area of rock strewn shoreline where I was lying. I was glad to see them and so grateful when they placed a breathing mask over my face giving a mixture of oxygen and whatever else which immediately reduced my pain and induced an immediate calming effect.
It was a difficult evacuation for them given the limited access and a painful one for me, even with the help of the Magic Mask but their empathy and professionalism was second to none and very reassuring. I knew as we moved away from the shore and through the bumpy waters of the loch that I was in good hands
Whenever the boat landed in front of the Inversnaid Hotel I was carried ashore where medics examined me further and administered the morphine shots which made me more comfortable before I was loaded into the helicopter for the half hour trip to Glasgow. Buoyed up by the morphine I remember thinking as we flew down the loch 'It's a pity I can't see out of the Windows'.
The outcome - 1 x broken scapula 5x broken ribs 1 x punctured lung and 2 x fractured vertebrae resulting in a two week hospital stay and many sleepless nights. Now, three months on with the help of family, friends and physiotherapy and a bit of perseverance I have shed the body brace and the walking stick and am managing to do some short bike rides again. I am in no doubt that I was very very fortunate to come away from this experience with no major lasting consequences.
Once I return to full fitness it's my intention to do some fundraising for the volunteers of the Loch Lomond Rescue and Helimed - Quite what that will entail I've not yet decided but I think it is safe to say it will involve a lot of cycling - but not on the south shore of Loch Lomond!

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

                                     THE CAPITAL TRAIL - A JOURNEY

I first learned of The Capital Trail through the posts of its creator Marcus Stitz on social media. At that time, early this year, TheTrail was in fact still in embryo form and not yet a completed entity. I was immediately taken with the idea of this long distance Bikepacking route based on Scotland's capital and so I started out doing bits and pieces of it in the Pentland Hills and around East Lothian, mainly on my CX bike and was delighted to be exploring some areas and trails that were new to me.

When the Capital trail was completed by Marcus I was faced with, what was for me, the daunting task of learning about GPS technology, not so simple in your sixties, which finally enabled me to transfer the GPX route map onto my newly acquired Garmin device. I would not go as far as saying I had mastered this because I was still experiencing some glitches, more of which later!

Marcus, on learning of my interest, invited me to take part in the inaugural event on 13th - 14th June. I told him that, after reading his description,I was very keen but at 63 I was a bit concerned about whether or not I was being realistic. At this point he kindly offered to keep a place open for me until I had done a bit more of a recce.

The next day I realised that I would be  involved at the POC Scottish Enduro Series at Glenlivet that weekend with my son and so would not be able to ride the inaugural event whatever the outcome of my further route explorations. It was that very clash of interests however, combined with a settled spell of weather, which led to me deciding to just get out of the door and give it a go.

The trail began gently enough as I rolled away from the starting point at The Tide Cafe along the promenade at Portobello 

towards Musselburgh with views out over the Firth of Forth. Then it was down to following the little arrow on my handlebars as I cut to and fro through backstreets and woodland paths to Wallyford. The first steep rutted climb of the day followed what was basically a rutted trench brought about by water flow and illicit motor cycle use however, this section has thankfully now been superseded by a pleasant riverside path along the River Esk and a pleasant loop through the grounds of Carberry Estate.

A fast singletrack descent from the village of Elphinstone leads to the Old Pencaitland Railway path associated with mining in the area (pic) but instead of following the path to its end a turn is taken into the Winton Estate and onto the banks of the Tyne. There are not too many road sections on 'The Trail' but what there are are mainly on quiet roads and lanes, many of the - grass growing in the middle - variety. After a woodland track through the grounds of Saltoun Hall one such section follows, up through the village of West Saltoun and in short course back on to a single track climb through Saltoun Big Wood after which a long fast descent on farm tracks leads by way of traffic free -apart from the odd tractor- lanes to the hamlet of Longyester.

Longyester marks a distinct change in the terrain to be traversed, an antiquated signpost gives the clue, 'Impassable for motors' warns the pointing finger.

 I've realised that if I continue to give a blow by blow account this article will a) Become a bit boring and b) I might not live long enough to finish it! - So, suffice to say that the departure from Longyester heralds the first of many up and downy bumpy bits over hillside and open moor with a couple of burn fordings thrown in for good measure. I was lucky in that I was able to choose a fairly settled spell of weather for my attempt unlike participants on the inaugural ride who will just have to take what the weather Gods provide - Let Us Pray! - The hills in the Border country, while being nowhere near as high as those in the Highlands are, nonetheless, very exposed in places.

Skirting the town of Lauder, giving the opportunity to refuel, hill tracks lead on towards Melrose and the banks of the River Tweed and so it goes rolling on, taking in parts of The Borders Abbey Way St Cuthberts Way and of course, a feature of much of the route, The Southern Upland Way.

The first Hikeabike section I encountered was a steep forest track after the Trail passes near the town of Selkirk and as darkness was beginning to fall I chose to bivi there on a very comfy bed of pine needles. That said, as most of the Capital Trail participants will probably be half my age and, having the additional benefit of the extra daylight available to them in June, most will choose to press on to the high moors past the Three Brethern leading by The Southern Upland Way and the Minch Moor road to the first of the two 7 Stanes Mountain Bike loops to be encountered, this one above the town of Innerleithen. The more suitably sited, at least in terms of The Trail event, Minch Moor Bothy is to be found on the descent off these trails towards Traquair and I'm sure this will prove to be an overnighting target for many as the next section, the ascent up to Dun Rig and onwards to Peebles, involves rather more in the way of routefinding/hiking, is very exposed and would not be the most pleasant of prospects in the dark.

The second Trail Centre Loop is taken at Glentress on the outskirts of Peebles and at this stage I still had a fond notion of completing the whole route without a second bivi. However some steep climbing and an incident involving a  Carradice saddlebag (Now replaced with Apidura) a favourite Gillet and the drive side of a Hope Hub put paid to that and found me once again bedding down for the night in the lee of a stone wall on the Old Drove Road through the Meldons. I was in the open this time and although comfortable on a bed of moss rather than pine needles, even the canopy of stars did not quite make up for the drop in temperature from my previous abode. 

Onwards now by way of mostly grassy tracks with the odd bit of hiking towards West Linton. There is a remoteness to these hills that surprises given their proximity to Edinburgh and the only person I encountered was a shepherd on foot with his dogs.

A welcome coffee and Bacon rolls, taken Al fresco on the pavement outside the Deli in West Linton, revived me before the final push through and then over The Pentland Hills and on towards the finish.

Descending to the col below West Kip, it was  a welcome sight to get a glimpse of Edinburgh in the distance and finally feel able to be pretty sure I was going to complete this wonderful and challenging journey. All that remained was the gently downward trending Water of Leith and the Union Canal , a trip through the city, including a final climb round Arthur's Seat and the last singletrack descent of the Brunstane Path to take me back to my starting point at The Tide cafe.

There is much variation in the territory traversed on this memorable journey, from railway paths and canal banks, through woodland singletrack, quiet lanes and historic drove roads to the wildest of heathery hike a bike hills. In its span of 150 miles or so, for those of you dealing in old money, you will ford streams, pass or visit bothies or perhaps bivi under the stars on wooded hillsides. It is without doubt a challenging ride, where head will be just as important as legs, and one not to be undertaken lightly - I packed my Bus Pass just in case :-) - Enjoy.