Wednesday, 7 June 2017

The Highland Trail 550

Keep pushing on! We can make it! Focus is concentrated by the circles illuminated by our lights. Riding has become easy: we ride lines that aren't there; find traction where there is none; obstacles move out of the way as if by thought alone. This is easy!

Riders getting ready for the off.

My strategy for the ride was: "Let the fast riders get out of sight then ride your own pace." and that's pretty much how it played out. I'm nicely trucking along by the side of Loch Lyon and then down the road to Bridge of Balgie. There's a couple of riders around me, sometimes ahead, sometimes behind. Too early to worry about losing or gaining places at this point. Lee Craigie appears as I refill my water bottle, she'd dropped her GPS so had headed back to find it. One minute she's a hundred metres ahead then as I rise a crest she's just a dot in the distance.

I'm struggling in the heat. I feel nauseous as if I've drunk some bad water, if I try to force the pace I feel like throwing up, If I don't then I won't make Fort Augustus in time for food. Worse, my vision is blurred. The singletrack around Ben Alder is hard work when it's like this. I'm glad when the rain starts and while it's light don't put a jacket on to help cool myself down. 

Ben Alder Singletrack

No stopping at Laggan, keep moving. Cramp strikes on Corrieairyack Pass and I am forced to walk most of the ascent. The descent is longer than I thought as well. I get to the pizza cafe at 8:30pm and manage to get the last pizza! Two pints of SevenUp just about slake my thirst. Another rider catches me up on the trails through the forest to Invermoriston. It's dark now and we look for a bivy spot. Underneath a semi-trailer will do.

Keep pushing! Five days is within our grasp but the clock is ticking. Dawn light begins to give form to the land, darkness losing its grip. The bike is forced to one side by a rock and the hips imperceptibly flick it back into line, we are just floating along the rough track.

A big pull out of Invermoriston towards Loch ma Stac and I leave my companion behind. Loch ma Stac is a mixture of riding and pushing before a big downhill on a new access road. The next climb is up to the "track of a thousand puddles" though I only count 351. I pass another rider but at the turn towards the Hydro bothy he catches and passes me. The headwind makes reaching the bothy hard work and we pause there for a rest. Then it's a blast down to Contin and refuelling.

Pete McNeil and Phil Clarke in Strath Vaich

Old fighter planes in Gleann Mor

The pull up Strath Rannoch is one of those that just drags, it's not steep but just goes on more slowly than you'd like. The view into Strath Vaich is stunning but there's another drag to get over to Gleann Mor. Two riders pass me and as I'm closing a gate I hear engines, I look round to see two WW2 planes heading towards me. I get the shot below. Alladale and Croik seem to take forever as does the glen up from Croik. Eventually the northern Munro of Ben More Assynt comes into view and it's basically downhill to the Oykel Bridge Hotel.

The northern hills

There's four riders there and we debate where is best to bivy for the night. Enough talking and eating, time to press on. Glen Cassley is pretty in the evening sun but it's just as long as last time. The climb out over Moavally is just as steep. I should have put a top on for the descent as I'm freezing by the time we reach the bottom. Phil decides to camp here, I press on. I spy a woodshed, there's room for two and there's only me. 

A bit of road to start the day. I pass Pete, one of the riders from last night, who'd slept in a pipe! The track over to Gobernuisgach Lodge passes quickly enough and then it's time for Glen Golly. I make good time on this, only pushing the steeper and looser parts. All too soon I'm at the junction with the old stalker's path heading to Bealach Horn. Good lines and I ride a large part of it, avoiding all the bike sized holes. The descent to the Allt Dubh is still a bit of hike a bike though and it's still a bloody steep push up the other side. 

The descent to Lone is a blast and I'm soon at Achfary ridding my shoes of gravel. The whole of that section has taken just 3 1/2 hrs. The next climb feels like hard work though. As does the bumpy road to Drumbeg. There's two riders at the stores: Pete and Ian, we chat whilst eating, they leave just as Phil arrives.

The coastal singletrack around Achmelvich is lovely but I'm getting fed up of "one more rise" as I want some grub. Lochinver comes into view and I head for the pie shop. Ian mentions that my SPOT tracker isn't working as apparently I've done zero distance. Try telling that to my legs! I've no phone signal so no texts to try and sort it out. While eating Salmon pie and mash I try to reset the device but no joy. Time to head on.

The next bit is one of the hard sections: The Ledmore Traverse. I ride most of the way to the end of the first loch then it's time to take the bike for a walk. An hour into the traverse it begins to rain, with the headwind it's a bit grim. Another hour and I'm back on the road heading back to Oykel Bridge. Time trial it as best I can.

In the hotel there's talk between Phil and Ian of staying there the night. I'm wet and cold and let their decision influence mine and I decide to stop in the bothy as well. A hot bath and dry clothes for the morning.

It's on! We can do this if we get down to Kinlochleven in good time. We are feeling strong and will make short work of the ascent on the other side. I point out a spot that Cath and I used as a bivy then fall over. Every time I move and try to get up I slide further under my bike due to the nylon windshirt. We are both in fits of giggles. Not good for time.

I'm up and away by 4am just riding steadily towards Ullapool. Estate tracks lead to a sublime bit of singletrack traversing a steep hillside above a curious black gorge. Then a rapid descent into Glen Achall and more easy spinning along this before a frustrating detour over the hill behind Ullapool. I'm too early for Tescos so seek out a store on the harbour front and throw my money around (literally) to get breakfast. I ring Cath and get a text about the SPOT which I now get working. Ahead lies Fisherfield.

A second breakfast at the foot of the Coffin Road which isn't as bad as has been made out. The track across the top is frustrating and I don't find any flow. I get spat out at Dundonnell. The Corrie Hallie track is loose but steady until the ford then it rears up and pushing is the order of the day.

First view of Fisherfield

The view at the top is stunning, even with low cloud. If your soul isn't lifted by it then there's no redemption. The drop into Strath na Sealga is fast but once the old house at Achneigie is passed the going becomes tougher. I spend twenty minutes in Shenavall having never been there before. Coming out of the bothy a rider approaches - Phil Fraser-Thomson. He'd been forced to wait for the shops to open in Ullapool for spares. He pushes on ahead and crosses the river in front of me. I'd been expecting Shere Khan but got Bagpuss, it's below knee height.

Crossing the Abhainn Srath na Sealga

The proportion of riding to walking changes as you head up Gleann na Muice and by the top it's just a push or carry. Bad weather hits as I reach the top, on with my heavy duty jacket. It's grim and I'm heading into the wind and rain. Soon the path turns downhill and I drop out of the cloud and begin the descent to Carnmore. No time to visit and I'm across the causeway and heading along the track towards Poolewe. Another river crossing then it's time to cut through to Letterewe House and the Postman's Path.

I'm tired and the technicalities of the track frustrate me. A French lad who catches me at the gully learns some new English phrases as I have a sense of humour failure. Eventually the path deteriorates to rubble and it's a push. A steep descent and a bridge and things become easier but it's still a long way to Kinlochewe. Eventually the track becomes tarmac. Time for food.

There's bikes outside the hotel. "Whistle stop cafe has shut for the night." I'll eat here then. Four pints of Orange and Lemonade go with the meal. I was thirsty as well as hungry.

I'm riding out of Kinlochewe wondering how far I'll get tonight when a Pine Martin runs across the road, if you can call the mustelid gait a "run". Never seen one before. Quite makes my day, well that and the fact that I've just done the Queen stage of Fisherfield. Eleven hours for just thirty kilometres of distance, hard work, amazing views, rough weather, perhaps even a sense of humour failure on the Postman's Path. One of the most amazing places on the British mainland. A plan is forming, with luck I should make it back to Tyndrum in under five days. Tiredness is taking over though and I find a bivy spot debating whether to set an alarm, I haven't used one so far so decide to forego one and just set off when I wake up.

More taking gravel out of shoes at the bottom of Kinlochleven descent. We head up the steep and loose landrover track that's the start of the climb. We are still finding traction. My legs aren't struggling and my lungs don't feel like they are going to burst, alien like, out of my chest. Can we still make it? Progress seems so slow. I've been going since 4am yesterday, I should be tired but I'm not. I've a goal, we've a goal. Five Days.

I look at my purchases spread along the wall: a bottle of Sprite; a black coffee; a tin of sardines in tomato and chilli sauce; a block of Wensleydale and Cranberry cheese and a white chocolate Magnum ice cream. Ahhh! Breakfast! Torridon pre-dawn and Glen Ling done (with a truck that had been forced off the road for good measure), Glens Licht and Affric to come. Never been to either of them. The climb to the viewpoint is taken steadily, the main road is quiet and soon I'm spinning my way up Glen Licht. 

A rider is catching me very quickly. Am I moving that slowly? It turns out he's out for a day ride and meeting his mate at the hut at the head of the glen. I leave them chatting and begin the push and carry over to Glen Affric. The two catch and pass me as they are unladen (and fresh) but ahead I see another rider. It turns out to be Jenny Graham. She'd ridden through the night to Dornie and only set off from there about half an hour before me. We chat for a while before she decides to stop at Camban bothy and I head down Glen Affric.

Glen Affric is long, very long. I hardly touch the brakes as the track improves as it heads down the glen. At the last bridge I catch up with another rider and we start to ride together. Looking good for the sub five day now, the weather's fine and the only difficulties are in and out of Kinlochleven.

"What's That?

Something slides out of my front harness. Groundsheet. Where the hell is my dry bag with all my bivy kit? No choice, I'll have to go back to look for it. This could be a long day now. I ask walkers if they've seen it but no luck. It's there by the bridge, phew! Some repacking and I'm on my way again. Only a kilometre or so back but I'm now on my own again. Glen Affric is very long.


I'm at a junction in the forestry track but the line of the route is nowhere to be seen on the GPS screen. I zoom out. I've taken the first left when I should have taken the second. Other than the expletive there's no anger, it will only use up energy. I roll back down the hill to pick up the correct line. Pizza will have to wait a little longer. There's the soothing sweet smell of broom as I pedal uphill again to find the old military road. The descent is fast and ace and I emerge onto a street with kids playing around. "Mummy! there's a funny smelling man on a bike!" For a moment I consider heading north again, keen to prolong the experience, but pizza calls.

I'm the only rider at the cafe this time. "Soup for starters please, a 12" veg pizza. Oh, and a pint of 7Up and a pot of tea". The pizza doesn't stand a chance even if it is unexpectedly laced with Jalapeno chillies. Neither does my navigation as I go the wrong way again. By the time I'm back on track there's Jenny about to set off down the Great Glen. We'll ride together to the finish.

The Great Glen is still, the waters of the canal are mirror smooth reflecting the fading light. We swing from one side of the glen to the other. Easy riding, a 50Km time trial in the middle of the ride, sit and spin and chat easily. Slowly the light dies and we turn on our lights. We are near Clunes now, not far until Fort William. It's 1AM when we raid the 24hr garage. It's not a pretty sight.

"Come on! We've 30 minutes in hand. We can do this!" Coffee drunk and food pouches restuffed we're away again.

Past the youths drunk on Buckfast and turn left into Glen Nevis. We pedal steadily upwards on fire roads until the WHW leaves them and brains have to be switched on. Dips, rises, bends, waterbars. Keep going!

We reach the top of the Devil's Staircase and our time buffer is up. In fact more than up, even riding along the road wouldn't get us back to Tyndrum before five days is done. Might as well take it easy now. 9am passes as we reach the ski centre. We just ride steadily now, avoiding the walkers heading the other way a fall on this surface would really hurt.

At the top of the Devil's Staircase

A chat with some mountain bikers just after Bridge of Orchy and then it's the last climb, really, honestly, the last climb. We both struggle to get our bikes over the gate by the railway and push up the other side. It's a roll down the other side but there's a bit more pedalling before the final gate and we head down to the finish.

We'd expected one or two to be there but there's about twenty people cheering us in.  A handshake and a beer. We've done it!

5 Days 2 hours 38 minutes

Ah, that thousand kilometre stare. Jenny and myself at The Real Food Cafe.

Just a couple of things to do:




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