Friday, March 18, 2016

Muirshiel mtb epic

For ages I'd wondered about what it'd be like to take a mountain bike up the highest point in my home county.

I grew up close to Neilston Pad. As a wee boy the 261m high local landmark seemed like Everest to me. But later in life I found out that the real highest point in Renfrewshire is the Hill of Stake at a towering 522m. Nilsin Pad eat yer heart out!

Today's effort to summit Hill of Stake with a bike turned out a wee bit more serious than I intended...

Starting from Kilbarchan I was on backroads until getting to Locherwood Community Woodland up on the heights between Lochwinnoch and Kilmacolm. This bit links over to Muirshiel Park but you need your Spidey senses on max for navigating as the signposting is pretty poor. It links up various initially nice wide grassy trails until you branch off right and round the wee Ladymuir reservoir to reach a fire road that takes you up to the link to Muirshiel.
Top of Windy Hill
I'm not going to lie to you. The link bit between Locherwood and Muirshiel is very boggy and you'll be pushing the bike for most of a km until you summit Windy Hill (316m).
Fortunately, the descent off Windy Hill is brilliant. Initially very steep on sheep grazed grass, then across a boardwalk and a superb twisting wooded descent to finish at the visitors centre at Muirshiel. It's like a trail centre but watch out as these are shared paths with dogs and their owners.

The next section was a very easily rideable 4km track up to the old Baryte Mines. It was uphill but it was middle ring stuff in some places. All very tame.



Here's where it got serious (my fault).
A singletrack trail lead me out past the mines onto the high moorland. It was claggy, it was boggy. I knew I had to cover 3km of this rolling upland ground to get to a land rover track below Misty Law (510m). I'd never been over it before but expected it would be well travelled with clear walkers trails. It wasn't.
Today the visibility was about 50- 75m in the thick clag. Most of the ground was unrideable. I quickly lost signs of any trail and started pushing the bike vaguely uphill through nasty boggy, tussocky terrain for what seemed ages.

Mistake no. 1-
I was in shorts. Up there it was about 5 degrees c. I was in blowing fog/ cloud. Bad start on a chilly easterly day. Pushing a bike uphill on occasional sheep trails and through bogs I was already a bit cold and damp when I fell hip deep into a bog. Now I was properly cold and wet. I had a light shell jacket but it wasn't doing much to help.

Mistake no.2-
I had a wee section of OS 1: 50,000 map I'd printed off and laminated. But I also had my phone with an OS map app. I'd never planned to need to used the map itself- the phone would be grand (if I needed it at all). However, just when I got well out onto the moor my phone crashed.
Great timing Apple.

The route at about the point the phone crashed
Shorts, no phone, no visibility, no compass. Why the hell didn't I take a compass??? I've got 3 of them at home. I was lost.

I've done a lot of Scottish Winter climbing and some of it has involved crossing the Cairngorm Plateau in zero vis. That is serious but in those occasions you usually have a pal, you have your maps and compasses and you're kitted out in full shell clothing, bunnets & headtorches etc. I had idea where I was. Alone, in shorts in March. Brilliant.
I realised I was in the shit. I knew I had to get moving and try to get to where I needed to be asap.
I needed to get to the top of Hill of Stake and hope that there would be trails leading off from it to somewhere I could use.

I set off uphill into the swirling mist, guessing that if I kept going up I should eventually get to where I needed to be. I forced myself to really boot it pushing the bike as my feet had been numb for ages.  I could't afford to get any colder. The terrain wasn't helpful, bog after bog, faint sheep trails starting and ending metres later. It's no wonder that uphill mtb pushing isn't in the Olympics...

After slogging for ages I suddenly spotted a wee cairn on the left, looming out of the clag. Yass! Not the summit but it was a start- it turned out to be one of the many false summit cairns people build in Scotland. I passed another 3 or so of these before hitting the true summit of Hill of Stake. The view was non- existent but with my stupid lack of clothing I couldn't stop anyway. I still had to go another km to Misty Law- if I could find it.
Hill of Stake when you can see shit
The phone was still kaput so I had to make a snap judgment and head off on a trail that followed the line of a farm fence- a sign of humanity. The trail was good for a few hundred metres downhill then it petered out into the same pattern of depressing bogs and tussocks as it levelled off. Then more slogging uphill into the greyness as before.

I kept following a vague line near the fence in hope that it would lead somewhere and, in the end, I got lucky. Another false summit cairn appeared on the left. Thank God. Eventually I hit the top of Misty Law. I had been there in Summer 2015 with the bike but, in the poor conditions of today, it didn't look the same at all. The only way I knew it was the real top was the very steep terrain to one side.

I was off the top of that hill pronto again and down, aiming for a landrover track that takes you towards Lochwinnoch or Kilbirnie (depending on the fork). Again, in the shite visibility this few hundred meters took far longer than expected and it was stressful wandering around in the heather until I found my way. A twisted ankle now would be disastrous.

The descent down to Lochwinnoch was light relief after all the drama. The track was boggy as feck for sections but I didn't care. I'd made it that far and knew that as long as I stayed on the bike I'd be ok.

In the end the circuit was about 40km. It was always going to be a big effort but not quite the epic I intended. Memorable.