H+I Adventures released a video about giving back to the trails they use in Scotland, so Pete sat down for a chat with their lead guide Chris Gibbs.
How often do you ride a trail without thinking about how that trail stays in the condition it’s in? Chris Gibbs, lead guide at H+I Adventures headed out to a famous trail in the Highlands of Scotland to give a little love back to a trail they use for their trips.
Pete sat down for a catch up to find out why now and what Chris’ process was.
Where did the idea for paying back to the trails come from?
It’s been something that we’ve been talking about for a while. During the main guide season I’m up in the mountains and on the trails almost constantly, and over the years I’ve seen the trails evolve and change almost week by week. Some for the better and some for the worse.
It’s obvious that being in the outdoors is becoming more and more popular, and trails are getting more traffic from walkers and bikers.
At H+I we feel really strongly about preserving the environment and the trails we use, both for all the riders we guide, but for the bigger mountain bike and mountain community as well.
As a rider and mountain lover, it’s something that’s in the front of my mind every time I start turning the pedals.
What made you want to concentrate on this trail in particular?
This was the first of many trails on my radar. It’s a very remote piece of trail that takes a lot of effort to get to, and I think that’s one of the reasons it has been neglected for a long while.
When I’m guiding there it’s right in the middle of a particularly tough day. On dry days it’s a pleasure to ride, and on wet days it’s purgatory following an big effort.
The shape of the mountains surrounding the trail funnel water down on to it, so the drainage bars are clogged with decades worth of water debris. Clearing them means water can drain off instead of channelling down the trail, eroding it to a rut and clogging more bars further down.
The video mentions drainage bars, was that the focus of your work?
For this particular stretch of trail, it certainly was. The aim is not to go into the mountains and build new trails, it’s to maintain and breathe new life into what’s already there.
There are also many sections, where because of standing water, users have widened the trail by walking or riding around the water, and over time this encroaches further and further into the surrounding environment leaving almost permanent damage.
In the areas that this has happened I’ve cleared or created drainage, so that water will run off and out of these spots. I’ve also placed rocks in some instances to create an obvious line choice to stop widening by riding off the trail.
I’ve ridden the route a few times since doing the work and it’s made a massive improvement already, but there’s always more to do.
What tools do you take with you?
There’s a limit to what you can carry into areas like this, but my go to tool is affectionately named a ‘diggy thingy’. I think its official name is an eye hoe, or digging hoe. It’s super robust and extremely effective for bench cutting and clearing.
I also take a small, reasonably light shovel. Like I said, the aim is not to build entirely new trail, but to maintain and rejuvenate what’s already there. With these simple tools and some sweat you can make a huge difference.
Where did you learn how to improve a trail instead of moving the problem elsewhere?
A long time ago I did a trail building and inspection course, and I’ve been lucky enough to be part of a group that has done a lot of trail building, albeit not always sanctioned.
More recently I’ve been part of several DMBINS workshops and discussions where we have visited sites and worked alongside the Forestry and Land Service as well as private landowners.
How do you convince other people who use these trails to pitch in?
I think it’s about getting the message out so that other users don’t just see a problem and head off trail to avoid it, instead look and see what can be done. Even simply using your heel to clear out a drainage bar can make a huge difference.
What problems does the excess of water in Scotland cause to trails?
Water is a blessing. It’s one of the reasons Scotland is so green, lush, and home to so many rare plant and animal species.
It’s also the main reason for trail erosion, as when not drained properly it causes all of the problems we’ve already discussed. However, in Scotland we are used to riding in the wet. We don’t close trails in bad conditions, so it’s up to us riders to ride responsibly, and in a way that preserves the trails when they are in a fragile state through being wet or water logged.
Time is a finite resource, how do you choose where to focus your energies?
So far it’s been through knowing the areas that need attention. Whilst we are out riding we often make notes of trails that we could spend some time on. Where will the most impact be made, what trails are getting the most traffic and how fast erosion is happening, what damage is being done etc.
All of these factors shift trails up and down the priority list, but most importantly I often think what can be done to make the trails most fun to ride whilst maintaining their natural flavour.
What are the challenges of trail repair in the Scottish Highlands?
There’s so much at play. A lot of the more mountainous trails are difficult to access, and I certainly wouldn’t be encouraging people to grab a shovel and head into the mountains without knowing what they are doing.
Communication is essential. Contact with landowners and the riding community is really important. A lot of landowners are coming round to the benefits of mountain biking, and are more openly up for discussions.
We’re talking about maintenance and not building, so it’s in everyone’s interest to repair and keep what’s already there in the best possible condition as possible, for riders, walkers and all other users.
There are trail association groups popping up in so many riding areas recently, and these give the mountain bike community a voice with landowners and governing bodies like Developing Mountain Biking Scotland. Getting involved with organised dig days is a really good way to start getting involved.
It’s amazing to be out in wild spaces, camping out to a super remote location and actively making a difference to improve something is really rewarding. Camp stove coffee in the morning, then tea as the sun goes down over the mountains is pretty hard to beat.
However, while doing this there was a real stand out moment. The weather in the morning wasn’t great, it was pretty misty and a constant drizzle. A hill walker came along the trail and obviously hadn’t seen me until reasonably close. He was extremely confused as to why there was a bike and tools, and I was working away. He’d walked through a couple of sections of trail I’d already repaired, and turns out he was a regular to the route and had noticed the difference the work had already made. He was the iconic image of an old school hillwalker, right down to the Ronhills.
He stopped and we chatted for a while, and he told me all about his strong views on mountain biking. However, as we chatted he came round to the idea of bikes in wild places. We ended with a hand shake and he thanked me for the effort and looking after the trail, and as he walked off into the mist he parted with ‘You’re not all lunatics then…’ I felt like I’d just scored a point for mountain bikers everywhere.
You know what, I love a good disaster story, but this was a pretty smooth run. Packing kit for working on trails, staying overnight, to keep yourself warm and fed and prepared for any medical or mechanical eventualities makes your pack extremely heavy, but the eBike made getting in and out achievable.
It would have taken 5 times as long on my regular bike, and whilst I like to think of myself as pretty strong, it would not have been enjoyable at all.
Honestly, this was hard graft but totally worth it, and riding away after a couple days of it it left me looking forward to doing more.