Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Blair Atholl - Bikes, blizzards and Belgians

I can’t say I was looking my best at the weekend. My hair was matted like fuzzy felt under a hat under a helmet; my jaws were so frozen that I could hardly speak or eat my chocolate-coated peanuts; and the biting cold winds had given me a face like a pizza. And to top it all my Belgian lover had arrived for a spot of romancing.

A plan had already been in place with my friend to bike a circuit through the Gaick Pass and return over the Drummochter Pass. But the best laid plans aft gang agley and winter, snow and blizzards returned to Scotland to scupper this one. Not to be put off we set out biking up through Glen Tilt, today a deserted Arctic landscape where drifts of sculpted snow grew to several feet in the wind and clouds of spindrift reduced our view to just a few feet of the track ahead. 

Anybody seeing us setting out from Blair Atholl with bikes and camping kit might have thought we were a little bit crazy. And maybe we were! But sometimes you have to struggle and take on a challenge to feel good and alive and invigorated. And so we battled through the snow on our bikes, enjoying the brief moments when short sections of trail passed through the shelter and calm of the Glen Tilt woods. The only imprints in the fresh, powder snow were three bicycle tracks and the footprints of hare, deer and pheasants.

In the late afternoon we pitched our tents in a little copse of trees, sheltered from the worst of the icy blasts, where snowflakes fell gently to the forest floor and a little robin visited our campsot for crumbs of cheese. We risked life and limb, or at least a severe dunking, picking our way over snow and ice-covered rocks in the gorge of the river to collect water for cooking. But boy, did I enjoy my cup of hot tea that evening!

Next day we biked another track out onto the open wind-scoured, snow-blasted moors and pushed our bikes through deep snow before abandoning them and walking on a little further. In a brief moment of sunshine the light illuminated the slopes of Beinn Dearg ahead and we soaked up the beauty of the winter landscape before jumping back on our bikes for a fast descent to Blair Atholl. I finished the weekend off being wined and dined at a restaurant where my margherita pizza looked just like my face.

Fact file
Start/finish: Blair Atholl
Route: The track north through Glen Tilt is beautiful at any time of year and you can make a loop by going up the east side and returning on the west. In good conditions it's an easy biking route with nice picnic spots. We camped in the trees near Gilbert's Bridge. Our second route took us out on the track to Beinn Dearg with quite a bit of climbing.
Tip: If you want to give a Belgian man an authentic Scottish cultural experience, take him to the Atholl Arms Hotel in Blair Atholl, buy him a Scottish beer and sit him in front of the roaring peat fire!

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Risky business?

The sun has been shining and the daffodils are bursting into bloom. I’ve still been cycling to work in thermal underwear alongside the canal with its thin veneer of ice but it does feel like winter has passed and spring is upon us.  

I’m always sad to see the end of winter, though at least it’s been a good one this year with some sustained cold weather and decent amounts of snow, even here in the city. I won’t forget cycling home through the Grange in a blizzard one evening and passing a snow-plough on the quiet, residential streets! I love the cold and crisp weather, wrapping up in fleeces and woollen scarves, scrunching through the snow and being tucked up early in my tent on wild, dark nights. And I love the majesty of Scotland’s winter mountains.

Sadly, this winter there have been several high-profile fatalities in Scotland’s mountains. While these events are tragic they certainly don't warrant the resultant calls for access curbs, perhaps not surprisingly from people who understand nothing about the mountains and whose obese backsides spend most of the time on sofas or car seats. Even some of my friends question why anybody would risk their life in the mountains in winter. It's difficult to explain to people who have never experienced the winter hills but I think at this time of year the mountains take on a special beauty and appeal when the snow makes them appear higher, wilder and more demanding. And the enormous sense of well-being and connection with nature that I feel throughout the year in the mountains, is certainly heightened in winter when nature feels so much more in control. Climbing a hill with snow crunching under your boots and soaking up the winter wonderland around you is without parallel. There is also the extra edge that winter brings when a simple walk or a night out in the tent can become a serious struggle if difficult conditions set in. And I love a good struggle with the elements!

Of course, there are risks associated with the winter mountains but they are calculated risks and management of them is mostly down to you. Relative to the number of people enjoying the outdoors, the level of fatalities is very small, particularly when you consider there are nearly 2000 deaths on our roads each year. Many of those deaths will be of people driving for leisure who have died as a result of somebody taking a reckless risk and yet we don’t hear calls to close the roads. And remember that out in the mountains people get exercise, fresh air and a deep sense of rejuvenation. 

In the sanitised, bubble-wrapped, comfortable, concrete cocoons that so many people live in today, it’s necessary to escape to the natural elements and to take some risks just to feel alive. I head out alone into remote parts of the mounatins all year round, sometimes for a week at a time. I cycled mostly alone for over two years around the world. I don't see these things as being risky. To me the greatest risk in life is not to live it. In the words of Leo F Buscaglia …

“The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.”