Thursday, 11 December 2014

Chasing the (winter) sun...

Worth waking up for this one!
Where have the last two months gone?! It’s true that time flies when you’re having fun, and that’s exactly where my October and November disappeared…in a whirlwind of adventures and general busyness!

Adventures await....
After a couple of weeks back at home, enjoying catching up with family and friends after a long summer away working, reorganising myself after 6 months of living out of a bag or a van, and getting up to date with the real-world things like bills, house maintenance etc that I can ignore whilst I’m away, I decided I’d had enough of the Real-world for a while and headed off to Spain for a girls trail-shredding trip with Chloe!

Fellow shredder and partner-in-crime for the trip, Chloe! (Photo: Amy Pryse-Phillips)
We’d entered a race out there which had subsequently been cancelled, so instead took the opportunity for a guided week’s holiday. We were based in the pretty village of Bubion, high in the Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Southern Spain.

Bubion on my Roubion!!
A cute little old apartment in the centre of the village with wonderful views was ours for the week, and we were able to enjoy some fun riding with Alex, our crazy downhill-racer guide, and Amy, a Canadian chica who’d been lucky enough to spend several months of her year travelling, living and riding in Bubion. It was awesome to ride with all the girls, something that doesn’t happen very often and makes for a very different kind of trail banter! When two guys joined us in the second half of the week I think they were quite intimidated!.....nothing to do with the constant karaoke-style singing on uplifts, squeals and whoops of delight on the trail, or the fact that they couldn’t keep up with any of us!

Four fast chicas! (Photo: Alex Wohlgensinger)
It was tough, but we soon managed to adapt to the difficult routine of 10am starts, riding lots of fun trails, stopping only to eat lunch in little restaurants, riding more good trails, celebrating the day with cold beers and tapas as the sun set over the mountains, and eating delicious food for dinner, washed down with plenty of Rioja, obviously only to aid sleep of course…!

Urban riding through pretty little villages (Photo: Chloe Griggs)
Chloe nailing the first switchback of "The Hysterectomizer"
Smiles for miles! (photo: Amy Pryse-Phillips)
The trails were loose, dry and dusty, but super flowy and never very steep or technical, making for fast, fun times! The week was over far too soon, and before long I was saying goodbye to the girls before picking up a car to drive what felt like most of the way across the south of Spain to Calpe.

Loose, dusty trails with distracting views!
Here I met up with Sheffield friends and favourite sport-climbing holiday buddies, Jo, Simon, Jonny, and Team Chaos, aka Ellie and Jessie. Trips with these guys are always relaxing and fun, although I normally have to detox for several weeks after a trip with Jo and Simon due to the amount of red wine we seem to get through!  We spent a week ticking off classic routes at different crags in the area, as well as some compulsory beach chilling.

Calpe beach and the mighty Penon
Calpe is definitely not the kind of small, pretty, mountain village that I prefer to spend my climbing holidays in, but it is cheap, the weather is great, and the climbing is undeniably very good and easily accessible! Spain definitely seems to be a good place to go and boost your ego if you’re into pushing through the climbing grades too…I can’t say I’m that bothered about that anymore, but I still felt pleased with myself when I flashed a 3 star 6b+!

Jo crushing "Tai  Chi" 6b+ for Team Bird Thing!

Simon, Jonny and I went and climbed a great 3 star route on the sea cliffs on one day during the week. My reason for wanting to climb it was it that it was in an area called Pirates of the Carribean, and the route was called “Parle”…I think I was imagining Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow might be there…! There was an exciting free-hanging abseil through a hole to get to the start of the route, followed by 3 pitches of really good climbing protected by some slightly dubious bolts, thankfully we’d taken some other gear to protect the route so we didn’t have to rely on them!

Looking down the abseil....gulp!
Jonny climbing towards the belay on pitch 2 of "Parle"
The biggest day of the week was a team ascent of the Penon d’Ifach, the towering hill that juts out into the sea, rising up above Calpe, with huge cliffs on the south west face. With some ingenious rope-work on Simon’s part, an abundance of persuasion, coaxing and patience from Jo, and incredible endurance from Ellie and Jessie, Team Chaos made it up the 7 pitches to the summit shortly after Jonny and I completed the route we were doing in parallel.

Team Chaos at the start of the Penon climb
An amazing achievement considering the girls are 6 and 8! The climbing was technically challenging in places, they were out in the sun on the route for a long time, and they’d endured a tricky scramble up, and long walk down, and an epic 8 hour day full of adventure….including watching a snake slither past them on the belay ledge!

The top!! Woohoo!
Once again, the week was over before we knew it, and it was time to make a return to the UK L

Now November is my least favourite month of the year….It is the month of Gareth’s accident and the month I lost him 3 years ago, and it holds memories of the most terrifying days of my life, as well as being a reminder that the wonderful almost fairy-tale life I’d had up to that point changed forever in November. Even though I have built a new life for myself now, and am happy, albeit in a very different way from before, I miss Gareth immensely every day, in a way that is impossible to adequately describe to anyone who has not lost their partner, and I know I always will. I think of him constantly, everywhere I go, and whatever I do, remembering happy times together in our everyday lives, but when November comes around it’s hard to think of those times, and all that floods my mind are the memories of the sadness and despair I felt when he died, and a reminder of the realisation that as much as I would like it to, life will never go back to the way it was, and I will never see, hear or hold Gareth again, or feel the comfort of his arms around me at the end of a long day. We will not grow old together, have a family, face the challenges of life as they arise, and all the other things that I took for granted would be the path our lives would follow. That is still hard to accept, and November is always a time when these thoughts come to me and I find myself feeling full of sadness and grief for Gareth and for the life we shared.

An amazing day climbing the Lost Arrow Spire in Yosemite together, October 2011
 I try to always keep myself busy and plan to do things that make me happy in November, as I know Gareth would want me to do this and remember him by enjoying the things we once enjoyed together, rather than hiding away from the world and feeling down all month. There are inevitably times when this is hard but it’s a good motivator to plan adventures and things to keep me busy.

Journeys by bike
My favourite kind of trips on bike are journeys. Those that take you to a different place each night, travelling through new places, exploring areas by bike, and the rewarding feeling of covering ground by bike. For me that kind of point-to-point riding feels like more of an adventure than simply “going for a ride”. These trips aren’t always about only riding epic singletrack (although the more the better!), they’re about journeying by bike across countries, mountain ranges, you get the picture.

Ready-made adventure....just add 4 people mad enough to ride it in November!
So I fancied a journey type trip as part of my November adventures. Last April I’d done a 3 day trip with Pete, John and Tom around the Lake District, a big loop taking in some big passes, awesome descents, and epic long days. It was with this in mind, but with limited time to plan, that I decided on the idea of riding the Pennine Bridleway. A 200 mile waymarked route up the spine of Britain’s Pennine Hills. Travelling through Derbyshire, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria, I figured it’d be mostly rocky trails that would be rideable in pretty much any weather, and most importantly, I wouldn’t have to plan a route as it already existed! 

Classic Pennine Scenery...enhanced by a shiny bike :)
In actual fact the planning turned out to be a logistical nightmare! I discovered that starting and finishing in different places is way more complicated than doing a loop, and with limited affordable accommodation options along the route, not wanting to carry heavy bags, people coming from all over the place to ride, and UK public transport being generally crap when you are travelling with bikes, I spent 2 weeks trying to sort it all out! Fortunately I was on an enforced rest period, taking antibiotics to clear up a chest infection made worse by all that riding in Spanish dust, so at least it gave me something to keep me busy!

I’d persuaded Pete and Rob to join the adventure, and whilst in Spain had mentioned our plans and my late November plans to Amy, with the offer that she was welcome to come along if she wanted to fit a UK trip into her travels, before heading to SE Asia and Australia. She’d keenly agreed to come, and despite warning her that the UK weather in November is often “a bit grim”, as a Newfoundland native she hadn’t been put off!

Amy, Canadian Adventurer and Bike shredder and not afraid of a bit of good old mud!

I’m not sure she quite knew what she was letting herself in for though!

After all meeting at friend’s Tom and Amy’s house near the start of the route on Thursday evening, we set off early the following morning in the absolutely pouring rain.

At the start!
Wetter than an Otter's pocket in Cheedale
 The air temperature wasn’t cold, but as we were completely saturated from riding on trails that were more like rivers than paths, as soon as we stopped for any reason we were all freezing. Amy has Raynauds Syndrome, a condition where her hands and feet get critically cold, and combined with a dodgy stomach following a trip to Morrocco, she was really suffering. Fortunately the sun did come out,  and we enjoyed lots of great riding across the Peak District with some really fun bits of descending.

Small puddle.....(photo: Pete Dodd)
Rob enjoying the rocky descent to Hayfield
It was a long tough day though, 9 and a half hours, 85km and over 2000m of climbing, meaning we finished in Stalybridge in the dark having watched the first (and definitely not the last) sunset of our trip. Poor Amy looked completely broken, but it’s amazing what effect a warm shower, homemade cake and several cups of tea can have! Perhaps November in the UK is not the best time to do trips like this given the short days and sometimes inclement weather, but as I work all through the summer season it’s the only time I can do these things, and as I tried to remind the others, it really could have been a lot worse!

50km of muddy, wet riding and a pork pie never tasted so good!
My original plan on day two had been for us to ride round the west side of the Mary Townley loop, but we soon realised this wasn’t going to happen at the speed the group was moving at, so we went for the shorter route to the east. John was joining us for the day and it was depressing to see someone with fresh legs tackle the climbs! 

John enjoying a fast grassy descent somewhere on a Lancashire moor!
Pete looking pro on a fun descent on the way towards Hebden Bridge
Typical day 2 conditions and trails.....we were fed up of old cobbled paths by the end!
There were some good bits of trail, but also looooots of climbing, 2600m of it in fact! Once again we watched the sun set and the darkness fall, and finished in the mist after another 9 hours of riding, this time at a 17th Century barn near Burnley where Rob and I had been and dumped a whole load of food, wood for the fire and dry kit in the week before the trip. We kept the fire stoked all night to dry our once again soaking kit, ate our body weight in chilli con carne, and slept the sleep of a group of people who’ve thoroughly exhausted themselves!

Home for the night....Rustic but cosy!
Day 3 saw us riding from Lancashire into Yorkshire, to the town of Settle. The weather was finally a bit sunnier and warmer, but unfortunately the trails and scenery were less than inspiring compared to the previous couple of days. There seemed to be endless slogging across boggy fields, or miles along fairly dull wide tracks, but at least it was an easier day and we were finished for the first time in the daylight!
Old packhorse bridge

Rob on the trail on day 3...."I'm pretty sure it's this way!"
Our final day was totally the opposite. Beautiful scenery, enhanced by amazing light, no incredible singletrack but good trails through stunning surroundings as we travelled through Yorkshire and into Cumbria. 

Stormy skies and wild Pennine scenery

Yorkshire dales classic limestone scenery

It might look beautiful but a sky that colour can only mean one thing....
I was feeling great, like my legs were finally getting going….just a shame it was the last day! We watched the sun go down as we climbed our final hill before Kirkby Stephen, and finished with a fast doubletrack descent with our lights on. It was a bit of an anticlimax to find that instead of a sign congratulating us on our achievement, there was nothing at the end of the trail except the road to Kirkby Stephen….oh well, we knew what we’d done, my legs certainly did!

Pete and Rob admiring the view 
Dark skies approaching!

Pennine Bridleway traffic jam
We celebrated with fish and chips and the luxury of being driven back home by my mum and dad. And that was it…..4 intense and tough days were at an end, and like always when I complete these kind of things, it felt a bit weird. Like you’ve just got into a lovely simple routine of riding, eating and sleeping, spending all day out on your bike in the hills, and then it finishes and life goes back to the way it was.  It was definitely an adventure, with moments of type 2 fun, and some long tough days, but a great sense of having travelled a long way from start to finish under our own steam, passing through daily changing scenery and some good riding, as well as some bits of boring slog.

Watching the sun set on day 4
I’m really glad we did it, and even though some of the others might disagree with me, it was a good choice given the time of year…it was no way near as tough as other trips I’ve done before, some of which would have felt totally epic to try and ride in the winter! It’s not something I’d rush back to for the quality of the riding, but it was cool to look at the UK map afterwards and see how far we’d come!
Pennine Bridleway....ticked!
I felt bad for poor Amy, who I think with her unhappy stomach, cold hands, and being much less acclimatised to long, cold, wet, muddy rides after spending 3 months in Southern Spain than the rest of us, found the trip a total sufferfest…I was just praying that we got some reasonable weather in Scotland so she didn’t leave the UK with the sense that it is only ever grim and wet! Amy decided to take a couple more days resting up after the Pennine Bridleway, and so I made my way up to the Scottish Borders and the Tweed Valley to meet up with various folk, and a plan to collect her from the train at some point when she was feeling a bit more recovered.

Paul railing corners in Glentress Forest
Two awesome days of riding followed with Paul, a friend who I’d met at the Trans Provence and Andes Pacifico races. We rode most of the 2 days of the Enduro World Series route from May 2014, that having helped with the event, and pretty much a local, Paul knew like the back of his hand! It was great to have a local guide, and fab to ride some new trails that I never would have found without being shown! Conditions were fairly slippery, and some of the race trails are super steep and technical. It was brilliant riding, but I would only have wanted to race down it in drier conditions! There’s a point where when your brakes are on full, yet you are still accelerating down a tight, rooty, slippery slope towards a sharp turn and some massive trees, and your rear wheel starts to overtake the front….that it’s time to abort and jump off! Riding steep, wet, rooty trails is a definite weakness of mine, as most of my riding is done in rocky areas where there aren’t many roots. I definitely received a schooling over the few days I spent in the Borders, being put to shame by Paul on his short travel XC 29er! Despite the muddiness of the trails, the weather was ridiculously mild for late November, and it felt bizarre to be able to ride in shorts and a single long sleeve jersey without feeling cold. 

End of a muddy day's ride at Innerleithen
The Tweed valley is full of friendly folk, and I was well looked after, staying with Chris and Kate, Fi and Colin (where I’d last turned up midway through my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride looking very tired and cold!), and being treated to excellent guiding courtesy of Paul and Neil.

Amy arrived for the final day in the Borders and we spent a great day shredding the locals trails at Yair with Neil. These were great fun, less muddy and a bit more flowy and less ‘full-on’ than the EWS trails….my favourite was ‘Otter’s pocket’! 

Sublime Singletrack in Yair Forest

Mountains in the mist

From the Borders we headed up to Stirling to meet with Ben, armed with several days worth of filthy kit to wash, ready for the next week’s adventures.
An early start the next day took us up to Kinlochleven to meet with a couple of Ben’s friends, Laura and Ian, for a ride up and over the Devil’s Staircase, and along the Ciaran path. The weather was reminiscent of day 1 of our Pennine Bridleway trip. Not cold, but absolutely lashing down with rain! It looked fairly grim to say the least, and poor Amy, still not feeling 100%, made the decision to bail and spend the day in Fort William. This was the 22nd November,  the anniversary of the day Gareth died, and I was going to ride whatever, in fact, the more epic the day, the more it made it seem like the kind of adventure Gareth would have relished. 

Ian setting off on the Ciaran Path as the weather started to improve
I could picture him grinning with delight all the way through the day….ok, maybe not on the pushing sections, but the rocky descents, and the stream crossings up to our waists would have been right up his street!

Ian and Ben and some wild riding and scenery ahead
It was a great day out, a big adventure with like-minded friends in beautiful mountains on epic trails. The Ciaran path is brilliant and definitely one I will go back to ride again in the dry!

Laura wading across a very full stream
Our original plan was to ride to a bothy for the night, but given the weather conditions, we made the decision to get back to the vans, get warm and dry, and then drive to a bothy we could walk into carrying lots of firewood! With the fire stoked up, plenty of whiskey, and good company, it was a great spot to spend the night, and I slept well, knowing Gareth would have thought it was a great way to think of him and similar trips we’d shared in the past.

We awoke to a crisp and cold day and decided a spin around the trails at Laggan would be a good plan. I love the trails here, fast and flowy over granite bedrock but with some good technical interest to keep you focused. I was also really glad of an easy day as my legs were starting to feel tired from all the riding since the start of the Pennine Bridleway trip and I could feel myself getting frustrated when I ran out of power on some of the climbs!

Ian and Ben riding the Laggan berms
The weather forecast looked fantastic for the rest of the week, so we decided some big days out were in order to make the most of the unusually mild weather and the fact that the big mountains were still completely devoid of snow and in great riding condition!

Pushing up the side of Coire an Lochain (Photo: Ben Jones)

Frosty stream crossings (Photo: Ben Jones)
Heading up Ben Macdui (Photo: Ben Jones)
First up was a route I’d wanted to do for a while, riding from Aviemore to Braemar via Ben Macdui. It was truly spectacular and has to rank as one of the best big days out I think I’ve had in the UK. After a couple of hours riding and  hiking up, we were stood on the frosty summit with 360 degree views of the Cairngorm hills around, and clouds hanging in the valleys.

On the top!
 It was a little chilly when you stopped for too long, but amazing to be stood on Britain’s second highest mountain in late November wearing shorts! The descent was incredible, technically interesting without being overly challenging, and almost 100% rideable. I loved it! There’s something very special about riding in the big mountains, and to be sneaking trips like this into the UK winter made us feel very privileged!

Descending from Ben Macdui (Photo:Ben Jones)

Yes I'm having fun! (Photo: Ben Jones)
Unfortunately Amy’s hands were suffering with the cold, and despite some monster thick gloves , her frozen digits were making riding pretty tricky for her. An over-the-bars crash resulted in a dislocated and broken little finger, which she was so cold she didn’t actually notice until later on…those Canadians are tough! Fortunately she was able to keep riding and we made it to Braemar just before dark, refuelling and toasting a great day out with pizza and beer in the bunkhouse.

Riding out of the mist in Glen Feshie (Photo:Ben Jones)

Wild moorland singletrack
 It was freezing cold when we set off early the next morning, and for the first time this winter, I was wishing I had some leggings or leg warmers with me! It soon became beautiful and sunny though, and it was great that the ground was partly frozen, given that our route back to Aviemore took us over some substantial boggy singletrack! The route was much more cross-country and pedally than the day before, but still full of great riding, and another long day out. We stayed that evening in the Lazy Duck Hostel in Nethy Bridge, my favourite hostel in the UK! With only 8 beds, it’s a log cabin building with a toasty Scandinavian style woodstove that heats the building, and is a lovely comfy, cosy place to stay on cold nights in the winter when it’s too cold in the van!

Despite Amy’s broken finger, she still seemed keen to continue riding (nutter!) and with the forecast suggesting the Northwest Highlands were going to be the sunniest place in the UK for the following couple of days, it seemed rude not to head to Torridon! 

Mirror-like lake on a frosty morning

Amy still shredding despite a broken pinky!

Epic landscapes
We struck gold….clear blue skies, not a breath of wind, and crisp weather along with the amazing low light from the sun at this time of year made for two stunning days of riding amidst the spectacular Torridon mountains. The trails we rode were fantastic, wild rocky singletracks where we felt like the only people for miles around. What a trip this was turning out to be!

Another sunny day on the Ben Damph Estate
And so to our last day in Scotland, a stop in Innerleithen on the way back south for a quick blast around the Downhill trails in the woods with fellow Juliana Ambassador Aneela. We were joined by a big group of local girls and it was great fun sliding around in the mud. Aneela was in her element on her shiny new Roubion on home trails! We spent a lovely last evening at Andy and Aneela’s new house, where Aneela cooked up some Amazing curries, and we sat chatting about bikes, trails, riding destinations, and new cat, Jacob!

Aneela putting her new Roubion through its paces on the muddy Innerleithen trails
 I certainly managed to keep myself busy this November, and although there were many moments of sadness, there were more than enough fun times to make me smile and think that Gareth would have been happy that I’ve filled my month with friends, bikes, and adventures….all the ingredients for happiness J

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