Sometimes it takes the razor’s edge to sharpen the senses; if you want to test your mettle, Scotland’s precipitous singletrack is a cut above the rest
We share this story, written by Pete Scullion, in memory of Rab Wardell, who passed away in August 2022 and will be sorely missed. All at MBR send their condolences to his partner, family and friends.
If it involved bikes, there was little Rab Wardell wouldn’t throw himself into with an energy and passion that few could match. A self-confessed fanboy for the superstars of our sport despite for many, being exactly that, a dream he’d certainly begin to realise as he rapidly approached his 40s.
He’d need little convincing to join me for this ‘Into Thin Air’ piece despite us having shot one not that much earlier that turned into a twelve hour walk with a bike. Luckily our dawn raid on Ben Lomond to welcome the first sunrise of 2019 redressed the balance somewhat. Yes he was late, but then that was Rab, he knew he could make up the time on the climb.
If you needed a catalyst for an idea you weren’t quite sure of, or was particularly daunting, you just needed to run it by Rab, he’d put your mind of the right track with a wave of positivity and energy. If you weren’t sure about how to ride a steep and tricky section of a trail, Rab would have ridden it on a gravel bike, then go on to learn to backflip his XC bike. Not having the right bike was irrelevant, as Rab would continue to prove time and time again.
The Scottish riding scene, and the larger cycling family, has lost a true champion both as a winner of titles and a standard-bearer for our sport.
It’s not often I’m nervous departing the summit of a mountain. And normally I would not even countenance the thought of carrying my bike down the same track I’d just carried it up. But eventually, when you continue to push the limits, you’ll end up finding them. The question that faced me at the top of this blustery summit – so precarious and exposed it lacked anything as civilised as a trig point – was, had I gone too far? Was I about to exceed the scope of my skills?
I gazed around as I mulled this over in my head. We could almost see the whole of Scotland, and such was the vantage point, that we got a completely fresh view of Arrochar’s infamous ‘Cobbler’. To the west, the clouds raced in off the Atlantic, doing their dammed to obscure the ferociously hot sun. And even with the wind whipping its way north and east, we were batting away midgies and horseflies as the sweat trickled down our temples.
At the foot of the mountain – 900m below – our van looked like a toy. It lay immediately below us, such were the abrupt gradients involved. Green was in full effect too. The beige and dull grey of winter had gone and the vibrant green of the mountains contrasted with dark, wet rocks and broken cloud.
That the climb was a challenge to walk, didn’t exactly bode well. Craning our necks from the car park, we could barely see the upper reaches of the peak. It rises alone, unlike most of the other mountains nearby, with sheer flanks offering only a single route to the top. We were soon lumbering upward with bikes on backs, cursing the summer heat and the omnipresent flies.
As we clambered on, it soon became apparent that this was going to take some precision skills to ride back down. “We’re game for anything”, we tell each other, boldly. We gained height fast, but our legs were screaming already, so we stopped regularly to enjoy any breath of wind that presented itself. It wasn’t long before we were met by, what can only be described as, a small cliff, and we took it in turns clambering up – just in case any loose rocks were sent cascading, or someone took a tumble. Just before the trail flattened out, relatively speaking, there was an eight-foot step in the bedrock, and we had to hand our bikes up one at a time. It was another ‘move’ that gave us something to ponder on the long uphill trudge.
After another similar cliff, I’m beginning to think this could just be a two-way hike-a-bike, and a complete waste of time. Thankfully, the breeze and the panoramic view took our minds off potential failure – the height we’d climbed in such a short space of time giving us quite extraordinary views. Our efforts were finally rewarded with some buff singletrack. It was enough to buoy our spirits and gave some hope that we might be able to ride down at least a fraction of the trail.
Our legs seemed to free up as we neared the summit and we were happy to finally have our bikes carrying us, if only for a minute or two. We were even treated to a fleeting descent, shortly before the ground ramped skyward again. A perfect piece of bedrock was dispatched with abandon; we were keen to enjoy it even if it was over so quickly.
We were passed by a lone hiker, who gazed in disbelief, trying hard to work out why we were carting bikes up this particular mountain. He’s got a point. When we stop to catch our breath, and look down on where we’ve come from, we want to shake our heads as well. As the hiker climbed, he quickly vanished, and we were soon squinting to pick him out on the hill and trying to work out roughly which way the path went. With bikes on our backs again, we traversed west, still climbing steeply before the path swung back and forth, easing just slightly the ascent of this precipitous face. The path flattened once again, offering us a chance to dump the bikes and throw some coal on the fire before the final push. Which makes its way so directly to the summit, it’s actually hard to see where it goes.
As we pushed over the top of the final climb, we were just glad to be able to take a seat, get out of the now fierce gale and enjoy some lunch. The road looked like a piece of string running along the valley, and if we were to fall here, we’d likely not hit anything before the floor of the glen, so steep were its flanks. Even if the route down proved terrifying, the view afforded from the summit was worth the effort. The deep and sheer-sided glacial valleys gave our hill’s modest height an impressive vantage point. In all directions, Scotland opened out, with the sea to the south and west, the Arrochar Alps to our immediate north and east, with the Highlands proper lying beyond them.
My companion, Dirt School coach Rab Wardell, and I wore our best poker faces, but inside I was sh!tting bricks. Hopefully he was too. The faint trail from the summit cairn dropped straight into pure madness, and it wouldn’t abate until we were back at the van. A few metres in and we’d be onto singletrack that hugged the steep face of a ridge, narrowing as it dropped down the northern face of the mountain.
Those first few feet were arguably the worst. There was no easy warm up to boost our confidence – it was just straight into the madness. I did my best to avoid fixating on Rab’s wheel and just look after myself as we hit a couple of drops that I wouldn’t give a thought to anywhere else. Up there, though, a clipped pedal would leave us in a world of hurt.
Against the odds, though, we began to have fun. Both Rab and I were mindful of the exposure, but keen to see how much of that skinny ribbon of singletrack we could master. I knew a lot would require reaching deep into my musette of skills, so I took a cautious, conservative approach. The hill wasn’t going anywhere, after all.
A hard left dropped us into a deep rut, chiselled out by feet and the elements, that would hold us until out the final plateau. Bars and pedals hovered inches away from the walls of the rut as tyres scrabbled for grip in the dirt. I’m sure neither of our back wheels rotated a single degree during this hectic few minutes. With the back wheel locked, I tried to keep the front end aimed straight, using my hips to swing the back wheel around turns that were becoming steadily more acute.
Rab’s choice of flats made a lot of sense up there, as I spent what felt like several minutes foolishly trying to keep up with an unsecured left foot. Clattering out onto the small plateau, we swung our heads around to marvel at what we’d just ridden. We’d dropped like stones with our hearts in our mouths for what had seemed like an age.
Our early commitment was rewarded with some much appreciated fast, smooth, and relatively easy singletrack. It was a world apart from what we’d just tackled and a good opportunity to crank up the pace and boost our confidence for more wild, exposed singletrack. Both Rab and I relished the opportunity to let the bikes run, however briefly. But soon enough, the ruts deepened once more and potential punishment for any errors increased tenfold. With the trail swinging straight down the hill, any fumble would have seen us tomahawking for the best part of a kilometre.
After the cat and mouse game of the upper plateau, we slowed it up once more, focusing on just getting over, down and around the numerous holes, axle-deep ruts and loose boulders. It was not long before we were perched on a mere six inches of dirt, hugging a near-vertical face with a cliff above and below so steep it felt like an abyss. Whatever happened, we had to fall right… into the hill.
There’s no handy caption to tell you that the fine ribbon of singletrack that you can see from a satellite image is actually rideable
It was here that things start getting a bit wild. I was happy to give Rab plenty of room, to let him focus on the job in hand, but I also needed to keep my wheels rolling to maintain my balance. Wheel stopper rocks and switchback turns, less than a bike length apart, proved too much, so we were soon hopping down, trying to find the next sensible place to get going and thinking how it was actually sketchier on foot. Getting started again was no mean feat. By then, my upper body – and certainly my head – were starting to tire. I survived mostly by holding on for dear life as my back wheel made repeated bids for freedom.
At the cliff face that we encountered on the way up, we had to dismount and pass the bikes down one by one. It was distinctly awkward, with back wheels getting caught on slope and tipping our weight forward towards the edge. We took our time – no point falling when we were so close to home. With the final cliff section behind us, the path vanished into big rain ruts and foot-flattened tussocks, making forward progress hard going for the first time of the day. With both of us knackered from the full commitment of the hill above, it was once again time to surrender to the hill and walk our bikes again.
At this point it became quite clear that no amount of map reading will prepare you for what’s on the ground. Contours never look as close as they are in reality, and there’s no handy caption to tell you that the fine ribbon of singletrack that you can see from a satellite image is actually rideable. Therein lies the magic though; of every five big gambles, one or two will usually be keepers.
This was a ride that definitely took its toll; I think we both aged 10 years between the summit and the van. There were moments of sublime singletrack gold, but they were few, and interspersed with utter madness. While I relish a technical and physical challenge, there are limits, and the consequences in this case were just too high to make it truly enjoyable. Having said that, I’m glad we did it.
There’s something particularly satisfying in knowing you were probably the first person to ride that trail. Would I do it again? That’s the tougher question to answer. But while I mull over the pros and cons of this particular peak, I’ve already started seeking out the next. Sometimes you just have to delve a little deeper.