When fellow mountain biker and photographer Kiel Murphy got in touch asking if I'd be up for shooting some film, I jumped at the chance. We chose an area I'm familiar with and a route I've done before, but this time decided to take 2 days to complete the Ben Alder loop, giving us plenty of time for photo opportunities along the way. Ben Alder cottage was perfectly placed for us to lay down our sleeping bags at about the halfway point.
Alongside the bivvy and bike gear, Kiel's weapon of choice was the Ricoh FF-70, 35mm point and shoot, paired up with some Fuji Velvia 50. I couldn't let Kiel have all the fun though, so packed my digital compact camera.
Heading out from Dalwhinnie on the good tarmac trail and little photo stops, we were soon hitting the 4X4 track to take us into the hills. Kiel choosing to take the bike portraits with his phone.
We found a little rock drop with an epic backdrop to play on and get the film exposed. After a couple of test runs, Kiel set the focus and I hit the drop, knowing he had to get his timing right for the shot.
When we thought we got the shot we moved on, picking up the singletrack towards the shutdown bothy, Culra. I've spent a few nights in this great located bothy, so it's sad to see it closed due to asbestos.
Shooting film is certainly different from today's digital world, it slowed us down, made us think, imagining the composition before framing and timing that all essential shot, hoping we bagged the image. I even went to the back of the camera a few times, hoping to see a glimpse of some pixels we'd just captured, only to be embarrassed when I realised there was no screen.
Hearing the camera shutter, the motors winding on the film, brought back some childhood memories of been soaked through, posing miserably on a hill somewhere.
We carried on past the bothy on a good trail to Bealach Dubh, pushing only for the final 50 metres to the pass.
At the bealach, the views opened up towards Loch Ossian, where I took the opportunity to take a couple of photos on the digital compact I carried.
This time I didn't look silly when I checked the rear LCD to view what I captured on the memory card.
A small steep descent and we were climbing again up to Bealach Cumhann. On the drive north, I was telling Kiel about the amazing piece of flowy singletrack that takes us all the way down to the bothy without putting in a pedal stroke. I had sold it and we were both excited for what we had in store.
When we hit the bealach the wind hit us, hard. The amazing piece of flowing singletrack, turned out to be the opposite. 5 kilometers, with a drop of around 300 metres and we had to pedal the lot. Finally, at the bothy, we laid out our beds, said 'alreet' to the other occupants and headed out in search of wood to keep the cold at bay.
With the fire roaring, we passed around our hip flasks and bothy treats, sharing stories of past adventures before bed.
Next morning the wind had died down a little, but we weren't in a rush with the 500 metre hike-a-bike we had to start the day. After a couple of brews and breakfast, we reluctantly shouldered the bikes and headed out on the climb.
The view just got better the higher we climbed, giving us an excuse to put down the bikes and pick up the cameras.
Upon reaching the top, the temperature had dropped significantly from the glen bottom, making operating a camera difficult with no gloves. We managed to grab a couple of shots, before packing up and picking our way down the off piste grass to the loch 100 metres below.
We pedalled around the loch, picking up a good track once again to take us back down to Culra. With yesterdays wind now behind us, we found that flow we'd been seeking. The only things to slow us down were the scenery and water bars.
All that was left was to say goodbye to the locals, head back along the road back to the van and send the films off for processing.
Words: Andy Cole
Images: Andy Cole & Kiel Murphy