Escape – An emergency day off.

Lockdown is rubbish eh? I live in Edinburgh, Scotland where we’ve been bound by law to stay within our council boundary since November. Before that, it was asked of us to do so and we did. As someone who likes to run and ride long and to visit places, it’s been a bit claustrophobic. I can’t complain too much as my local area, the city of Edinburgh is surrounded by green spaces and the Pentland hills and I’ve used them lots. My average run length has reduced, my rides are not as long and my step count is bordering on sedentary. This needed to change.

I longed for the feeling of happy exhaustion. When your body is hot from a day’s exertion. The feeling that I usually get after going at it for hours under my own steam. I saw others having this and I was jealous. I needed that endorphin shot that would get me that feeling.

I woke up Thursday before my alarm. The snow had fallen for a few days and checking the weather app (as I usually do) the forecast was for Sun, no cloud, wind <5mph. I made a snap decision to take the day off, an emergency of sorts, that I just needed to get out. Thankfully no important meetings were scheduled, and the rest cancelled / rearranged. A quick note to my boss and also to Andy who had been woken up by my awakedness and I was quickly out of bed.

In about 1min of thinking I hatched a plan to head on my mountain bike to the Borestane and maybe North Esk Reservoir. I knew a farm track might allow me to get up into the foothills on bike and from there I’d run/ walk. I had no idea what the ground conditions would be but I was determined to find out.

Winter gear packed. Warm layers for cycling put on. Lunch and snacks made. And an extra slice of toast to start my fuelling and I was off.

I hadn’t ridden my mountain bike on snow before and right from my front door the going was tough riding through a foot of untouched snow. My tyre tread was probably (definitely) not deep enough. I reached the estate road and followed car tyre tracks downhill. The temperature was -12°C but due to warm to -5°C by late morning. Brain freeze ensued on my face as I travelled downhill unable to work up a sweat yet I persevered. The main road was clear, and I had good riding on relatively quiet roads. You can gain quite a lot of height by main road to get to the start of the Pentland Hills Regional Park and by the time I reached the farm roads I was warmish. It’s only 15km but it had taken me about an hour. Partly due to a closed road and cycling through snow slowing me down. But also, mainly, because I was in no rush. I was out for the day and that’s all I needed to do.

The farm roads were surprisingly clear save for some slush in the middle. Kind drivers allowed me to ride to safe spots as we came face to face in these single track roads. I reached the farm track.

Snow had been ploughed and squashed into the ground. This perfect white lane stretched on gently rising though a plantation. The snow either side deep and fresh. I kept to the tyre tracks, if I went too fast I got worried, too slow and the tyre would start to press through the hard packed snow. It was a balance but also quite exciting. It took the mind off the numb fingers and toes.

The plantation ended and the track meandered across a field. A farmer approached on his quad bike, wrapped up, red face underneath his farmers cap, a roll up cigarette half smoked, unlit, held in his lips. “Where ya off tae? He asked, I said up the hill as that’s the only place this path leads, “good luck” he replied with an expression of wtf. It dawned on me that he thought I’d be taking the bike with me so I quickly replied “I’ll be leaving this thing down the hill tho” and with that he seemed more at ease and told me to enjoy myself. I like to think he was checking up on me making sure that I knew what I was letting myself in for. I didn’t, but I had an inkling.

The track bent off to the farm and the path points directly up the hill. A gate to keep the sheep in, closed, and half buried in snow, was between me and the open hill. I chucked the bike over and attached it to a post leaving the helmet there too. I took the gloves off but kept the long trousers on, this was not shorts running weather, if even running was possible. I was standing in snow powder up to my knees. It was going to be tough going.

One pair of footprints led the way, the path’s trajectory visible as a flat bit of snow, bounded by mounds of grass on either side. I followed the tracks and wondered if I’d meet this person. The sun shone directly ahead, low in the blue sky, the white covered hills reflecting back a shimmering wave of wind disturbed powder. I could have been in Canada, Sweden anywhere but Scotland. Especially not in Edinburgh, but I was. The going was tough, my run was a wade and slow. My usual gait was altered to higher legs putting strain on my hamstrings and lower back. I stopped frequently to rest and look at the view.

The footprints eventually tailed off toward the busy Eastern reaches of the Pentland Hills of Harlaw, Bravelaw and the Red Road. I was heading South to the Eastern flank of East Cairn Hill to a place called the Borestane. A dip, bealach of sorts, that takes you over toward the North Esk Reservoir where water drains into the Esk rather than the Water of Leith from where I stood now. The Borestane is also home to a small copse of half a dozen trees. Stunted probably due to their position on a windy ridge. This copse can be seen for miles as they’re the only trees on the surrounding hills.

The Borestane Copse

I’d made the decision that the Borestane would be my destination and I wouldn’t be going further. I thought I could make it and get back but going further might be a step too far in these conditions and I didn’t want to take any risks. Making fresh tracks I waded slowly. Following the line of the path which was fairly obvious at this point. The cool wind was stronger higher up. Drifts of snow can be seen around the higher clumps of grass. I’m sure there’s a better term than clump but I don’t know it.

Looking back the hills roll gently down, in the distance the line of Ochills over in Fife / Sterling shone bright. Toward the North East, Edinburgh showing as a darker area surrounded by the sea of white. I could make out the hill on where I live, topped by dark trees that had lost the snow. The lines of white roofs showing the street directions. The castle could just be seen on a dark backdrop. Beyond, the Firth of Forth looking mighty cold.

Wrapped up warm

The further up the hill I went the deeper the snow became. The line of the path was gone, all I knew was that I wasn’t on it. With every footstep a gamble was took, I braced for a deep section on each stride. Sometimes I’d be able to glide along about a foot in depth then suddenly I’d step down up to my mid thigh. I took my time as I couldn’t afford any mistakes and definitely didn’t want to risk injury. Thankfully this technical section was over with quickly as I B-lined for the gate. The wind had blown the snow off and the track was easy to walk on. I walked over to the copse in order to escape the wind that now blew in my face. Sheltered, I sat on a tree branch that was low to the ground, like the tree fell over but continued to grow. Scots Pine, I think. I ate my snack and drank lukewarm coffee from the flask looking out over the route I came. It was a real pleasure to be there alone. I thought about how lucky I was and also how adventure could still be had close to home.

My Lunch spot

Getting cold, I headed back down. Following my footsteps that had almost been refilled with fresh powder snow. I used my tracks as a guide and it made it easier to descend.

Snow filling my footsteps

Back to the bike I ate a half a sandwich and geared back up to ride out. I had no plan at this point, but I knew I didn’t want to go directly home. I’d been out for 4 hours and still had some day to go. I headed east toward the busy reservoirs of Harlaw and Thriepmuir. I didn’t know if I’d be able to ride on the snow there but I was willing to push if not.

The snow being blown and light catching those mid flight

Thankfully the busy footfall had tread a hard packed line and I rode tentatively across. Slow and steady I rode whilst taking in the icy views of frozen reservoir and hills.

I parked my bike up against a tree and sat on the side, feet dangling over the edge, the sun warming me in the shelter from the wind. It felt good to be out and good to escape from the confines of my home and the small radius that I usually allow myself to walk around.

It was also good to get to the hills without the car, to access greens (white) spaces under your own steam from your front door feels somewhat better than when You’ve driven there. Time often doesn’t allow but when it does, I will be riding here more often. The first lockdown in April I didn’t drive at all to exercise, I took the bike and it allowed me to be in the Pentlands in 35min. Not bad when the car journey can be 20/25min.

The days adventure was over and I’ve notched this down as a good day off, revitalised by the outdoors with that warm feeling of exertion and exhaustion.

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