“Adam, you still haven’t told me about that weekend in the Cairngorms.”
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, when I got my bike back, both tyre walls were ripped and there was a crack in one pedal.”
“Oh my goodness, I had no idea.”
“You know I don’t mind your friends borrowing my stuff. But the next time it’s Patrick who wants something I’m afraid the answer’s going to be no.”
Patrick Olden has an unfavourable record with my father’s equipment. One winter trip he managed to put a big hole in his climbing boots. The incident remains poorly characterised. A stray stamp with a crampon spike? An errant poke with an ice axe? Who can say?
Patrick had agreed to join a two-day mountain biking journey into the Cairngorms but had no kit. Bike hire was proving an expensive deal-breaker. I suggested a fix: if I could source him a mountain bike to use, he’d come up from London.
I left a message for my Dad at work: Patrick Olden wants to borrow your bike.
When I awoke from my daytime sleep between night shifts in Kirkwall, Orkney I had an answer:
“That’s fine. Please be careful with it.”
Patrick’s opening statement in Aviemore was characteristically bombastic:“I’ve got a portable rug shop on my back. Just tell me what you want!”
He’d come directly from London wearing his work clothes and with almost none of the relevant material to survive a weekend in the mountains. Such possessions he had brought with him captured something of the more florid and territorial aspects of his character.
A heavy-duty carabiner (“It’s rated to something unbelievable. You can hang a bus off it”) and an enormous Melton Mowbray pork pie (“It’s my pie. I’ll dish it out when I want.”)
We had no particular plans to abseil but it was likely that the pie would be nourishing and tasty so I smiled and nodded, lest I be deprived of a slice later on.
After a night camped in the carpark beside Loch Morlich we got to it. The guidebook advertised a 4-day, 200km ‘Tour of the Cairngorms’ beginning and ending in Blair Atholl. Our timescale would not permit that however, so I cooked up a hybrid route featuring a part of the suggested journey from Aviemore to Tomintoul then a freestyle section up Glen Avon and back to Aviemore via a series of what looked like winding paths through the Cairngorm plateau. Should make for two good days, I thought to myself as we rode off into the woods.
Crossing a series of small fords, I chuckled at a memory of the last time I’d spent a weekend in the Highlands with Patrick. We mounted an unsuccessful attempt to climb Stob Binnein after agreeing, while huddled in between rocks about half way up, that although the summit was reachable it was not worth causing further misery to our recently married friends Andrew and Juliana, who had joined for the weekend.
In particular I feared for the intactness of my relationship with Juliana if I forced her to press on through any more outdoor hardship, so we abandoned the expedition and made for our accommodation on the other side of the water. We stayed in an odd place called the 'Mother Teat’. To prospective visitors I would advise that the Teat resembles a child's drawing of a house and is as functional. You may expect to find it cold, angular and with damp bedding. Expect to pay extra for wood and electricity. Expect to find the accommodation overpriced - especially once you add a zero to the end of your bill in order to repair the inevitable damage to your vehicle you will incur on attempting to reach the property along the terrible access road to the south of Loch Voil. Expect to find extensive ‘Yes’ campaign propaganda inside the building. Expect to find this weird. Expect that, in a beautiful setting, the Mother Teat will suck you dry.
I proposed this description for our Airbnb review. Andrew, being the more sensible and considerate of the pair of us and also the one whose Airbnb rating was on the line, softened it considerably before posting. Part of the original sense was retained though and I chalk this up as a small victory.
We reached Tomintoul and ate scampi in a small pub. The day was hot and dry and we pressed on in the direction of the Faindouran Lodge, a bothy at which we would spend the night. On the way we found the Linn of Ann.
Soryū wrote that “as we turn every corner of the Narrow Road to the Deep North, we sometimes stand up unawares to applaud.” This was one of these moments:
Inside the mountain is cold.
When you tread in water near its source, the chill bites at your feet.
Somehow on this day the Linn of Avon was
For miles above the tumble of the cascade
The River Avon is broad and shallow,
The day-long directness of sun baked the rounded stones
All along the riverbed and warmed them.
Oozing over the tidy, heated rocks
Subtly warmed in its passage.
When it constricts and spills over the lip
Of the Glen it forms a broiling effervescence in the light -
Swimming there you are air thrashed in with water,
You feel the tug of current,
See the unfolding sky,
The imperturbable mass of plateau,
The light striding between the trees.
You straighten your back, draw breath,
Thirst slaked, burnt lips smile.
At night, sleep comes fast.
In February 1990, The New Yorker ran an essay by Ian Frazier called ‘Coyote v. Acme.’ It imagines an attorney’s opening statement in a product liability suit filed by Wile E. Coyote of the Road Runner cartoons against the Acme Company:
“Mr. Coyote states that on eighty-five occasions he has purchased of the Acme Company through that company's mail-order department, certain products which did cause him bodily injury due to defects in manufacture or improper cautionary labelling.”
The piece operates on the collision between the ludicrous imagery of the Warner Brothers cartoons and the staid formalism of a legal deposition:
“Mr Coyote states that on occasions too numerous to list in this document he has suffered mishaps with explosives purchased of defendant.”
For Jonathan Franzen, the exercise is “something I would call silly…and the thing about silliness is that it’s almost definitionally incapable of malice. You can’t be silly and malicious at the same time.”
I loved Franzen’s comment and Frazier’s piece because it acknowledges the value of silliness. Though of course misapplied footling can lead to calamities at least as bad as that which befell Mr Coyote when using the The Acme Spring-Powered Shoes: “To date no explanation has been found for this product's sudden and extreme malfunction.”
I relish silliness too: in all its loose-legged, swashbuckling, riddle-some forms. But since I have never ordered from the Acme catalogue, my mishaps tend to be of my own making. The following morning our plan encountered just such a malfunction.
Our intention had been to ride into the interior of the Cairngorms as far as the Fords of Avon Refuge then sweep south down Glen Derry and ride triumphantly through the Lairig Ghru. We would cross the Cairngorm Club Footbridge and make it back to Aviemore in time for a light supper. We knew this would be a big undertaking, and so Patrick had held onto his pie “as a Sunday savoury for when we’re punching lumps out of each other.”
What in fact happened was not this at all. It became quickly and blindingly obvious that the route into the mountain was not rideable. It took us over an hour and a half of swearing and bike-pushing to reach the Refuge. The mood in the camp had soured and I knew I was culpable: I had picked this course. I fretted to myself: I’m not going to get any pie, am I?
We had to make a decision: proceed with the original route; take an indirect northerly passage along Strath Nethy; or take a crow’s flight route over the shoulder of Cairn Gorm itself. We concluded that since all three routes were unlikely to be navigable on the bikes, and that carrying the bikes would be a painful and difficult business whichever way we went, we should take the route with the shortest total distance. So - it was decided: we would proceed over the mountain.
The process was an irredeemable slog. With bike, backpack and saddle pack combined I had well over 20 kilograms of unwieldy metal, rubber and fabric to wrestle through a boulder field and up the side of a Munro. I cannot overstate the extent to which I would not recommend this.
Things were considerably worse for Patrick. He was faced with the same challenges as Peter and I but my Dad’s bike is heavier and appeared to be specially designed to ruin his day. In particular, the bike had a metal prong emanating from the rear dropout. I think it was designed for pulling a trailer, but it acted effectively as something in between a shiv and the sort of spike which you might expect to find on the axle of a Roman chariot. In any case, it seemed determined to make a kebab of Patrick’s gastrocnemius muscles.
Understandably, Patrick was driven into a blind rage. Like a bull cut again and again by the matador, he thrashed through the rocks - decrying the wretchedness of his fate. I can only imagine, during his few moments of lucidity, he may have asked himself: why am I not still in London?
As it was, he was being slowly flayed by an old Trek hardtail after his friend and longtime expeditionary companion dropped the logistical ball in spectacular fashion.
Eventually though, we popped over the side of the mountain onto the Cairngorm plateau and shared the pie. We sighed raggedly, lay down beside the path, and surveyed the igneous heights we had finally usurped. On this clearest of early summer days, it was as if the roll and surge of waves in the Pentland Firth had been fixed and turned to stone.
Later, as Patrick dabbed the blood from his shins and Peter and I nursed injuries to our shoulders and backs, we picked apart the day and put the weekend in context. There had been uproarious highs, cavernous lows, and one delicious pork pie. There were serious questions about preparation and leadership, which I acknowledged and apologised for. But in the longer arc of our wayfarings together, we agreed it would be counted as a good one.
Patrick put the matter definitively to bed:
“We were all fully signed up for it. I just think that in future we should do some more careful route consideration than picking up a 1:50,000 map, seeing a line, and thinking: we’ll do that.”
It was a fair cop.
A guest article by customer and long-time Rohan fan, Dr Adam Boggon.