Responsible Mountain Adventuring
Heading off to the trail centre, we often don’t consciously think about the differences between riding on groomed trails, and riding on similar terrain elsewhere but there are a few considerations that are well worth bearing in mind before and during the ride.
I’ll not dwell on access particularly, other than to note that obviously there are different laws in Scotland than there are elsewhere in the UK, but choice of trail aside (and its relative legality) we should all ride responsively. In fact people can lose sight of the fact that the Scottish Access Laws provide a right of responsible access, so by definition if you don't access responsibly, you forfeit your right of access, and this extends to all mountain goers.
DMBS (Developing Mountain Biking in Scotland) have a great little interactive quiz that you can do at www.dmbins.com/riders/do-the-ride-thing that makes the point very well regarding appropriate riding techniques wherever you are riding. It may be easier to think on these issues as categorised under either:
- The environment
- Other users
Beauty, but beauty shared with others, and they don't just walk on two legs
So then; the environment. Hmm, well; what do you believe about the environment? Does it involve some kind of responsibility for the landscape we all enjoy so much? Leaving the trails for others to enjoy? Leaving the countryside as you found it for all other users? Maybe something even deeper? I’m not going to explore the roots of environmentalism or stewardship here; you’ll have to work through that for yourself, but I am going to take the following point of view:
If we truly love to ride through amazing landscapes, or pristine singletrack, then we should do what we can to ensure that they stay that way for us to enjoy again, and for others to enjoy and appreciate too.
Different people get different things from biking, and therefore where they ride, and what they ride on mean different things to them. For some it is about escape, or the challenge, ticking a list, grasping ‘the flow’, riding the gnarliest trail, proving something, adventure, the mental challenge, the physical challenge etc. With these differing points of view comes arange of attitudes to the environment. Is it a thing to be used and discarded, or something to be savoured for instance?
How many dig days have we all been on compared to riding days? Recently there have been a lot of Facebook posts from Glen Tress regarding rubbish, but have a think: how many used gel pack wrappers or powerade bottles have you seen at your local trail centre? How many bust inner tubes were adorning trailside trees? These are issues within controlled environments, how much worse can it be in the uncontrolled hills and mountains to find a used inner tube for instance?
So we have to create, engender an attitude of caring about the environment we ride through, and then this feeling of responsibility will perhaps guide us all to make sound judgements on our environmental impact when we ride.
PEOPLE & OTHER ANIMALS
One element of the environment not often considered is those that inhabit it. I recently watched a you-tube film of a descent of Ben Nevis, out of morbid curiosity. It was starkly noticeable how many walkers had to step out of the way to let the riders past. We might sympathise with the riders for the lack of flow this meant for them, but do we take a moment to think about the poor walkers about to summit the UK’s largest mountain, possibly their only mountain ascent, after 4 hours of toiling up unforgiving (sometimes positively hostile) conditions underfoot as well as atmospheric, 200 metres from their conquering experience then being nearly run down by a party of nutters on bikes?
Riding on week days out of the summer season, early mornings (The Snowdon Agreement for example) evenings for instance are ways of reducing our impact on other mountain-goers. There will always be the odd determined “bar humbug, bikes on mountains, grumble grumble” who will need to be steered round with respect and care, but on the whole folks (especially in Scotland) are pretty accepting, and downright supportive of bikers that don’t run them down.
who said pushing was fun?
I’ve often found that ascending by the descent route gives you the opportunity both to check out the route, but also to engage in a bit of banter on the way up with folks who will then cheer you through on the way down. Ben Lomond is one mountain I have ridden several times, and it never ceases to be a day full of banter, cheering, and friendly interaction between fellow mountain-goers. But away from the land of the responsible right to roam, I’ve experienced great craic on Hellvellyn on several occasions, being called a Nutter as I ascend from Greenside mine by competitors on the local mountain marathon (people running up and down Hellvellyn calling me a Nutter??!), and even being genuinely thanked by a walking group struggling to find their way off the summit of Hellvellyn in the mist on another occasion (that would have been a curious sight: me on bike being followed by a party of walkers).
So as ambassadors for the sport, as well as lovers of banter, and of course being well up for a cheer as we whiz past, being a responsible biker can be a rewarding thing. Adopting the same attitude to the wildlife too is of course really the only way to be a responsible mountain-goer, although of course cows and sheep don’t answer back, although cows and horses do appreciate a kind word as you trickle past respectfully.
WHEN AND HOW WE RIDE
One area we’re often criticised for is erosion, usually unfounded it is however an area to remain aware of when out on the hills. One of my local hills has a great ride off the summit, which used to be a tough genuine walkers path. Successive years of bikers finding it (and being slap bang in the middle of the most populated part of Scotland) has meant that it is now slowly through passage of wheels becoming recognisably a bike track. This is unavoidable in the honey pots, but as individual riders we can help.
Bells and Whistles.
After quite a bit of experimentation, it's been found that the good old fashioned bike bell is by far and away the best way of alerting walkers and other path users to your presence. Rung from a good distance (not just behind so they jump out of their socks) a bell seems to be completely acceptable, whereas a shout from a distance, no matter how nice your words is usually translated to "GET OUT OF MY WAY COMING THROUGH" when heard by your average hillwalker.
I am between bells right now (the last one shot off the bars on Hellvellyn on a very rocky descent), but I have a penchant for "I love my Bike" bells
Firstly we can ride these sensitive routes sparingly. No matter how good it is, don’t let it become your ‘normal’ route. Heed the call for adventure and exploration and go to other places, and think about likely trail conditions before you go.
My local hills have some awesome routes though them, and folks have badgered me to take them on routes that I’ve waxed lyrical about, but I have held out for months before taking them. This for the simple reason that there are sections of bogs, and waterlogged bits. Riding these when soaked after a wet week can have a huge environmental effect, with wheels cutting into soft ground. If we’re responsible then we either ride through the centre of the mud which is flow and energy sapping (I actually almost lost a bike to a bog next to the Blackwater dam once: the whole thing went under!), especially if on an uphill section, or we responsibly get off and walk to minimise the damage, which is truly flow-stopping. If we wait for a dry spell we have a better ride with less damage, and everyone’s a winner. In the winter we should consider the maintained trail centres more as a destination while the natural trails are pooling with water perhaps.
The West Highland Way - a motorway in mid summer, but you get it to yourself out of season.
On then to how we ride. While locking your back wheel up may help you slide your bike around a tight turn, or hilariously shower your mates in roost, or just keep the speed up, it also has a detrimental effect on the mountain trail. From a practical point of view, it tends to pull rocks and small boulders out of the bed of the trail making the riding rougher and gnarlier for riders behind you, but from an environmental viewpoint it is accelerating erosion, which makes the experience harder for all track users (and generally less enjoyable) as well as marking the hill and mountainsides more, in turn damaging the natural beauty of a ride and the scenery, which for many will be part of the positive experience. We haven’t even touched on the impact on those who would see us restricted in access, or the land owners’ point of view.
Pulling a rock out of the base of a track by skidding can make a huge impact on a path, and will likely lead to erosion requiring repair work. It's easy to forget that although volunteers do get involved in path repair (and we should thank, not just respect them) much of upland path repair costs to provide professionals to do the work. These are also remote places and so it's not just a case of two blokes and a wheelbarrow - in a significant number of path repair works there have had to be bags of rubble transported up the mountain by helicopter, and they're really expensive. We should simply attempt to ride a day without locking up a rear wheel, and not dragging rocks out at all.
This then brings up the “it was so steep and loose, I had to lock up to retain control” argument. That of the cast of “Where the Trail Ends” - freeriders on big mountains on steep dust and gravel filled gulleys. In the UK, these conditions rarely exist naturally or are there only on old mine workings. When we’re struggling for grip on steep grass or mountainsides, we have a responsibility to not dig a groove in pristine and delicate mountain flora.
Sweet sweet single track to be found if you're prepared to go looking
As a self-taught, and poor skier, I learned about edging and traversing as a method of keeping my speed down and levels of control up. I soon realised that as a biker I can employ a similar technique on steep grassy mountainsides. Try it next time you’re on a steep open slope: rather than going straight down barely in control, try descending in a series of big zig-zags. In this way you decide how steeply you want to descend, and as long as you can ride the slightly off-camber terrain, you can now descend in control, without skidding. You now have an alternative to taking the direct descent that you might even find is more comfortable, and certainly unless you put your brain in a box at the top and go straight down with no brakes at all, the environment will thank you.
THE ENVIRONMENT BITES BACK
My first descent of Ben Lomond was in early June. A dry weekday, avoiding all the potholes listed above, so it was a quiet day on the mountain. I had just been sharing a bit of banter with some curious tourists from New Zealand, enjoying being a novelty, accepted in the group as a fellow mountain-goer, and offered cake by those around me. I said goodbye to them as they headed off and I turned to ready myself. On turning, I realised that the beautiful view in front of me was about to be obliterated by the big black cloud sneaking up on me from behind. 2 minutes later I was engulfed in a blizzard.
Mountains are serious environments, made all the more serious by the changeable and localised conditions we can find on them. Under-clothed, sudden downpours or snow showers can spoil a day by rushing you off the hill, or soaking you through and spoiling your comfort, but if you then combine these conditions with any other commonplace incident such as a puncture or mechanical, think about how much more serious things can get.
If the fact that you are in a group has perhaps meant that you’ve not bothered with a map, or a repair kit, or thought about the risks on the hill fully (people really do subconsciously believe in safety in numbers). How scary can it be to realise you’ve got a mechanical, and that everyone’s left you behind because they’re soaking wet, cold, can’t see you in the mist…? How alone and exposed might you feel then at the realisation that you’re getting very cold, losing the feeling in your hands, that you don’t know where you are, that your phone has no reception…. There is much more on this in the up-coming article on mountain (bike) safety – watch this space (and facebook for the announcement of its arrival).
RESPECT AND REALISM
Mountains are immense sources of fun, beauty, spirituality for some, but they have to be respected for what makes them that way. The fantastic view is because they are high, the valleys are because it rains in the mountains, the solitude is because you’re miles from civilisation, the singletrack is so sweet because you can only get there by foot or bike, it’s so quiet because it’s so difficult to get there. Don’t please be scared of mountains, but most certainly do treat them with respect and regard whenever you ride on them, and bear in mind both those you meet on your travels, and your responsibility as a positive ambassador for the rest of us.
And have an amazing experience.
As noted within the article, there will be a related article on mountain safety published later, which will be announced on the facebook page.