Two ladies take to the wilderness with their E-MTBs, finding peace, misadventure, and the discovery that weather can be a cruel mistress.
I’m sitting on a rock in a river, and the fast-flowing water is up to my waist. Again I try and get a proper foothold, but the strength of the current claws at my legs, pulling them downstream. The riverbank isn’t far above me, but there’s only grass to grab ahold of and I don’t trust it to take my weight. Just downstream, the water plunges into a whirlpool where it looks like someone has pulled the plug out of a chocolate fountain – but with added rocks and imminent peril. I am stuck… how have things have escalated so quickly?
It had all started a day earlier. As I woke to the alarm, the radio bleated, “Today’s going to be the hottest day of the year so far, with highs of 32o in London, 28o in Cardiff, and 24o in Edinburgh.” It was the perfect day for a Scottish E-MTB adventure. A few phone calls later, my good friend and I were heading North, the van loaded with charged bikes and our excitement levels high. Our destination was Braemar, a beautiful village in Royal Deeside, iconic for dramatic gorges, royal castles, and idyllic vistas. Royal Deeside is the sort of place that Americans who claim Scottish ancestry hope they’re from; the romance of the place gurgles amidst the ramparts and down the glens.
Parking the van, we lifted out the bikes and began to stuff the Ortlieb bike-packing bags with all the essentials we would need, promising to travel light with minimal faff. It would only be one night on the hottest day of the year, so we could jettison anything that would weigh us down unnecessarily. Bags packed, we took off down the easy ‘Landrover track.’ After a quick ‘Turbo’ (or as I like to call it, ‘Full Hooligan’) burst of high-octane thrills, we saw sense and wound it back to the more sensible ‘Tour’ mode.
As we wound into the wilderness, we forded streams, basking in the sun as we gently climbed Glen Derry, chipping along in ‘Eco’ mode with an occasional power boost through mud and up short steep sections. Rocks and roots kept the speed low, with the engine helping us tick our laden bikes along towards our refuge. After a last and somewhat precarious bridge crossing, we got our first views of the Hutchison Memorial bothy, tucked away in a hanging valley left over from Scotland’s ancient glaciation. Scotland’s network of bothies (mountain huts) are free to stay in, only asking that you take out what you brought in and leave it how you expect to find it. Some are remote and tiny, while others are grand hunting lodges, welcoming waves of people through their doors. Sometimes you will have them to yourselves, and other times you might have to sleep outside with a stag party raging inside – not knowing who you’ll be sharing the floor with is part of the excitement.
If the old estate agent’s phrase “Location, location, location” is true, the Hutchison Memorial bothy must be worth a fortune! We can picture the advertisement now: “Two room stone-built accommodation offers astounding views over unspoilt Scottish wilderness – no running water, toilet, cooking facilities, or furnishings available – viewing essential.”
With complete confidence in the absence of potential thieves, we propped the E-MTBs against the bothy wall and dropped our heavy packs. The map showed a loch just a short (but very steep) walk from the bothy, and it looked ideal for a swim on the hottest day of the year. Putting on our ‘packable’ shoes, we pranced like mountain goats (honest) up the dusty path alongside the cascading stream, jumping over the occasional frog hiding in the shade of a rock. At 927 m above sea level, Loch Etchachan is the highest body of water of its size in the UK, and snow still clung to its precipitous rim. The water is as cold as you would expect. Fifty percent of the intrepid cycling expedition chickened out on going any further than ankle depth – shame, shame on me!
With the last of the sunshine on our faces, we returned to the bothy, set up the stove and cooked our provisions, poured ourselves a little gin and tonic (well, it’s an essential, right?), and fell into harmony with the peace of the Highlands. During the night, however, everything changed. The weather forecast had predicted rain at 3:30 AM, and at 3:30 AM it came. Having lived in Scotland for several years, I know what heavy rain looks like, and this wasn’t it – this was biblical rain. The perfect storm had descended, and we were right in the middle of it!
No sooner had the storm reached its crescendo than it stopped. We settled down to sleep, hoping it would not be too wet in the morning. Small windows and no set alarms meant we rose much later than planned. We were greeted by a patchwork sky, the blue that flashed behind the laden clouds filling us with false promise about the day to come. A freshly brewed coffee from a fellow bothy-dweller clawed us from our sleep, and a vat of porridge filled us with energy needed for the ride back down the hill. With plenty of battery power left and packs slightly lighter, we felt confident enough to pre-plan a lunch stop in Braemar and I was dreaming of a cafe latte and a scone.
The descent from the bothy was interrupted frequently by drainage channels crisscrossing the trail, but we found flow and used the battery power to get through mud and over rocks, whooping and smiling we returned to the main valley and turned to follow the Lui water as it tumbled towards the River Dee. The joy turned to concern as we realised something was wrong. In the sunshine of the previous day we had crossed a nameless stream as it gently meandered towards the main channel; it had been a tricky crossing with bikes, but we had managed it with dry feet. It was now a different beast. The night’s rain had rushed down the steep sides of the glen, creating the raging torrent that lay before us. E-bikers, you shall not pass! Initial attempts to cross soon taught us that we could stand in the waist deep water, but only if gripping rocks with both hands, our feet jammed into rocky gaps in the river bed. Removing hands to carry a heavily laden E-MTB was not just impossible, it also would have been downright dangerous. A friendly stream had become an impassable barrier, and we were trapped in the wilderness.
After significant time pondering the problem and a number of comedic, and slightly dangerous, attempts, we decided to backtrack and find somewhere on the main river to cross. Although wider, the width meant that it might offer shallower sections. Lo and behold, we found a spot only knee-deep with less current that we could cross if we kept the bike pointing upstream. With edging steps, one bike a time, we shuffled across the river. Already soaked from head to toe, the new mission was to get bikes and kit across the river without having to watch any of it pinball down the current.
Success! We were over, but we were now in the wrong place. Hours later, we pulled back into Braemar to buy enough cake to feed a peloton and rest our weary shoulders and legs. Our E-MTBs had seen a little more action than we had expected, but they’d done well and we’d done well – after one night in the wild, it was good to be back.
Words & Photos: Cathrine Smith