Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Wet Highland Way

It's always good to have a little adventure now and again especially somewhere new. Of course with having traipsed through the fells and hills of the UK for over forty years there aren't that many places that are both reasonable to get to for a weekend and that are "new". The advantage of a new sport though is that areas you know well in effect become new as the sport uses a different part of the landscape.

So it is with biking, particularly mountain biking. I'd thought about doing the West Highland Way by bike but tales of the section along the upper part of Loch Lomond being serious hike-a-bike (think carrying your bike up 20ft high steps) made me consider just doing the northern half from Crianlarich to Fort William.

Due to its popularity you have to book bikes on to the train on the West Highland Line so that immediately commits you to a schedule. The plan was thus: drive up to Crianlarich on the Friday night; ride to just past Kinlochleven on the Saturday and then finish off the WHW on the Sunday morning; get the 1140 train back to Crianlarich and drive home.

Of course there's a catch. In this case it was the weather with a deep low passing through the area on Saturday with both strong winds, gusts to 45mph, and heavy rain showers. All that you can do is hope that you miss the worst of it all.

Friday night saw us find a small hidden road where we could doss out for the night - all accommodation in Crianlarich being taken. About 2am it began to rain. 

In the morning we headed in to the Crianlarich Hotel for breakfast, as we were paying I asked if there was anywhere we could leave the car overnight. "Our carpark if you want, just leave details and when you expect to be back." Sorted!

Joining the WHW from Crianlarich is a bit of a climb, in fact the biggest climb until we got to the Devil's Staircase leaving Glencoe, at least we were in the trees and out of the wind. Once on the WHW it was a rolling track until the final drop down to cross the main road, it was fortunate that there were bridges across the burns as they were all in spate. The next few Km were in the open and quite hard work heading in to the wind but once back across the main road again we were rewarded with some nice riding along the crest of some moraine which brought us in to Tyndrum.

This was likely to be the last opportunity for a cafe stop so we headed in to The Real Food Cafe - one of those establishments who just seem to have got things right. Sat at the "breakfast bar" we had a chat with a solo cyclist doing the Land's End to John o' Groats and a bloke who was heading out to the islands to spend time studying dolphins.

Then it was back out in to the rain and onwards along to Bridge of Orchy. To a large extent it didn't matter if it was raining or not as the track was covered in an inch or two of water so you were going to get wet whatever. Bridge of Orchy came and went, we decided to take the road round to Victoria Bridge rather than go over the small hill that the main WHW takes.

Leaving Victoria Bridge takes you on to Rannoch Moor. The main road is further east and most simply blast over getting to something more interesting beyond the moor. We were on the old military road which winds its way round the foot of the Blackmount which is generally good going with long gentle ascents and descents. We stopped at Ba Bridge to grab a bit of food - a walker was there trying to warm his hands - everyone seemed to be suffering with the weather.

The descent in to Glencoe was freezing and we decided to head in to the Kingshouse for something to eat. Despite the unseasonable weather outside there was no heating in the bar! We ordered a couple of soups and I nearly dropped one of them on the floor as I was so cold. We still hadn't got enough food inside us so ordered a main meal each as well.

Then it was decision time: the WHW goes up over the Devil's Staircase and drops to Kinlochleven and is the most direct route but with the high winds we were unsure if it was safe or not. The alternative was to ride down the main road to Glen Coe village then follow the old road round to Kinlochleven. We headed along the main road for the first part and by the time we got to the point where the Devil's Staircase began my mind was made up. I'd had enough of gusty winds and traffic trying to squeeze past so whatever the conditions were like up top they were preferable to mixing it with idiot bullies on the road.

As we began the ascent (which is basically a push) three mountain bikers  were blasting down. A bit of a chat "It's OK up there" and "The descent is 95% ridable" and we continued on our way. Cath was getting tired and I was pretty soaked through despite having a winter jacket and two waterproof jackets over the top of that.

The descent was mostly ridable, I probably did 90% of it with the missing 5% being down to the wind blowing me about. We were both glad to get to the landrover track that marks the end of the technical part, it was also in the trees so not as windy. This was just as well as we were both on the edge regarding safety so we thought about getting a room for the night in Kinlochleven.

Unfortunately there was no room at the village as the World Cup downhill was on in Fort William and pretty well all the accommodation in the area was taken. So it was press on and bivvy out. 

The climb out of Kinlochleven is a push and about halfway up I found a flat spot in the trees that would have to do so began setting the tarp up. By the time Cath arrived things were ready and we just had to try and dry ourselves a bit and get in to our sleeping bags. I'd spare clothing inside a dry bag but the rain and wind had been so bad that even this was wet. With some food and a couple of shots of whiskey inside us we settled down for the night.

This was Cath's first night sleeping under a tarp and apart from the completely knackered state we both were in she didn't find it too bad though she said she took several hours for her feet to warm up and there were mutterings of "I want a divorce"! at various times :-)

In the morning we just wanted to get going - so there was the procedure of putting all our wet cycling clothes back on - not pleasant. At least it wasn't raining and we had the rest of the climb to help us warm up.

The track over the Lairig Mor was one I'd not been along before, it's steady going but with a few ups and downs. Even with no rain there was still a lot of water on the track. As the track becomes tarmac the WHW cuts off to the right, another decision time: 7.5 miles on the WHW or 4.5 miles on tarmac. With Cath being so tired we took the tarmac option. Even this wasn't as easy as it might have been, even the downhills in Scotland have climbs!

Finally we were at the top of the last descent, no more ups, and we rolled in to Fort William with an hour and a bit to spare. A supermarket raid and we sat in the station stuffing ourselves before the train from Mallaig arrived and we could relax as we trundled our way back to Crianlarich.

Here's a short video.

Wet West Highland Way from Bob Wightman on Vimeo.

I'd intended the trip to be a steady introduction to bikepacking for Cath, in the event it turned out to be anything but - the Saturday was one of the hardest and grimmest days in the hills I can remember. We were both close to the line dividing being safe and being in trouble.

1 comment:

  1. Good adventure, well done both. I've fancied doing something similar so thanks for the recon :)