Monday, 7 June 2021

Highland Trail 2021

The Start

So here we are again. I'm in Tyndrum, its coming up to 8.30, the sun is shining, although quite cool, I've got a bike full of gear and a long trail ahead. What I haven't got is much in the way of motivation. Having planned things to the nth degree, obsessed over minor kit details, bike set up, bivvy spots, endless scenarios of distance and time, food stops etc. etc; now that I was here I felt decidedly un-motivated. My pre-ride aims were to get round the route in good order and, most importantly, enjoy the route for all it was worth and not spend the whole time looking to the next bit without appreciating the bit you were in. In other words a 'mindfullness' approach - appreciating the moment and not worrying about what has gone before or what is to come. Not a bad philosophy for this route as if you spent too much time worrying about some of the sections you'd never start. So forget any lack of motivation and worries - just pedal and see what happens.

Our start group, pic taken on Mike's camera by Alan

In fact I pedaled away from my fellow starters (staggered this year to avoid large groupings of people) my one gear making its own demands. That said I also pedaled away from fellow single speeder Mike Debernardo who was on the same ratio. Buoyed by my 300k ride round the Trossachs three weeks previous I kept the pace up. Passing many people on the first long climb did ring a few alarm bells but many passed me back alongside Loch Lyon so that was alright. Pushing up the Gallabaich, I chatted a bit to Karl Booth, ignored the snow on Schiehallion to the east and pressed on into the first big wilderness section and one of my favourite trails in Scotland. Up to that point everything had gone flawlessly (50 miles done hmmm) I'd had one minor panic on the descent to Loch Rannoch when I became aware of a loud squeak every time I hit a bump. After much head scratching I realised it was coming from my mascot pink rubber rat which was getting squashed between the bar roll and bars when you hit a big bump. Thereafter I graded the roughness of all trails on the squeak-ometer.

Clouds looming over Ben Alder. By the time we got there it was sunny.

The boggy bit to Ben Alder Cottage was fine, in fact fairly dry considering the previous weeks rain. Then it was the long climb, settling into the singlespeed rhythm of pushing and riding. But now my guts were starting to bother me and my legs were cramping. None of the food I was eating seemed to have any effect so I kept going and nibbling hoping it would pass. Robbie Lyall was taking a break by the trail side so I wasn't the only one to be suffering. The fab descent and roll out along the Pattack revived me somewhat but up into Glen Shira things really didn't feel good. The first of many trailside loo stops would hopefully re-start my digestive system but no dice. On the monster climb up the Corrieairyack I felt terrible, energy levels plummeted and it was like riding (or walking) up a vertical wall. At one point a gust of wind brought me to a halt. I collapsed over the bars and a voice in my dead brain said "go back, you are wasting your time." The voice of reason won - "get over this climb, get to Fort Augustus, eat food, bivvy, see how you feel in the morning".

The summit came eventually and for a while my ills were forgotten thanks to the view. In '15, '17, and '19 we'd been in the cloud up here but today the whole panorama of the West Highlands was revealed. In particular Kintail, through which we'd hopefully be passing a few days hence. On the descent worse was to come. After increasing distress from my stomach I stopped to be sick. Nothing came up but I did feel a bit better afterwards.

On the descent captured by Beccy, kintail hills behind

Eventually I got to Fort Augustus. The time was 7pm, about how long it had taken me in '17 but that day had been a breeze. The good news was that the Mariner pizza restaurant was open and empty. I grabbed onward food at the shop and sat down with Robbie who had also made it but was feeling similarly grim. There then commenced the all comers, open championship pizza stare. There were several competitors and we all did the same: ordered a pizza and then sat looking at it for a long time. I had a soup to start and this seemed to get things going again as afterwards I was able to pick away at my pizza over the course of an hour and a half. Many stashed them in bags to eat later. I'd no plans to go much further, figuring on using one of the many good bivvy spots in the woods off the Great Glen Way. Robbie tried to find digs but everywhere was either full or closed. In the end we stopped just up the trail a mile or so at a great spot, complete with log seats and fire pit! I'd only done 95 miles but I figured the only way I was going to get round this was to throttle off until my body started working again. There was no pressure to continue, having done it twice before, but many friends and colleagues were dot watching on trackleaders so I felt honour bound to carry on for as long as possible. Sleep was instant.

Top bivvy spot.

Riding into Uncertainty

I woke at 4, made breakfast (tea and muesli) and noted Robbie also stirring. We chatted for a while but he had had a cold night and doubted his kit for the rest of the route so decided to head back down to Fort Bill. I was feeling OK so figured on further progression along the route. There were bail out options as far as Oykel Bridge so I felt no pressure and once I got there I would see how I felt. Beyond Oykel Bridge scratching isn't really an option without a big ride out, making such a move pointless unless you've broken your bike or your body. That said I had no back up plan and no way of being rescued... Robbie left and at a leisurely 5.30 I pedaled off up the route into a cool but clear morning.

Sunrise over Loch Ness.

In the event it was a good day. I passed a fair few folk on the track out of Invermoriston, including Alan Goldsmith. I also chatted with Chris Sleight whose Loch Lomond and Trossachs Loop I'd done three weeks ago. But my antisocial single gear made its demands and off I went. I even found time to have a nosy at the 'haunted house' on Lock Ma Stac. Looks like its being done up (apparently to be a bothy) so this could be a good spot in future years. Unfortunately the track after it was well boggy due to argocat use but this was where the single speed started to show its benefits. No need to worry about clogging derailleurs and cassettes up, just plough on through. I dropped off route to Cannich shop but was half an hour too early. Just as I was about to leave the door was unlocked and when the proprietor came out they saw me looking hopeful. "Might as well open early since we're here and you're here!" Great, all my previous plans were thrown out of the window. Success lay in resting and eating at every available opportunity. The public loos also provided much needed respite and spinning gently along Strathglass was a pleasure in the fine weather and steady tailwind.

"Its to be dry today, wet tomorrow, drier Tuesday." So said a bloke at the start of the track to Orrin Dam. As it happened all of the previous day I'd encountered various people actually cheering us on - all total strangers who seemed to know the route and what we were doing. A far cry from 2015 when it was just us and the trail and funny looks from others at this band of bedraggled, filthy, staring, hungry mountain bikers charging into shops, cafes and pubs. The weather forecast for this week had been all over the place ranging from pretty good to horrible, finally settling on cool with showers and some long spells of light rain. Take it as it comes. I was confident in my kit so this guys pronouncement meant nothing really. 

I rode / pushed the climb and splashed through the puddles, now back to their proper depths after the dryness of 2017 and '18 (to be clear there aren't 1000, it just seemed that way on a very wet day in 2014). Interestingly there were diversion trails round the worst of them as this route is now part of various bikepacking routes so now sees a lot of use. I'd not made it this far in '19 but came across Andy Jefferies who had, just after the burn that had caused so many problems that year. We chatted a bit as we both pushed up a steep slope before SS said "leave him" and off I went again. Kudos to the next guy I met (Tom Robinson) eating a Chinese takeaway at the trail side. Finally the puddles were done and it was down to Contin for more food.

More Highland Trail banter. Riders were sprawled around the grass and picnic tables in front of the shop eating and stashing food. I met Mike Toyn here who had cheered me across the line in 2015 after being the second person home. He was in my start group and also had a bad first day due to stomach troubles. Many others said the same and it's hard to fathom why so many experienced riders were suffering so.... At least my own troubles seemed to be over as I ate a lot and stashed food for the 120 miles between here and Drumbeg stores. The wind was now firmly a south easterly i.e. it would be behind us all the way to the very top of the route. This made the riding easy and allowed me to watch the scenery pass. Overall the landscape in the second 100 miles is fairly benign compared to what is to come but it's none the worse for that. Occasional glimpses of bigger peaks distracted me as I tried to place and name them. A few spots of rain came in and the clouds were building.

At the top of the climb over to Glen Einich Suilven, Canisp and Cul More were revealed, their pointy peaks poking above the moor ahead. I'd swapped places with Annie Le a few times over the day and passed her again here as we both checked out the view. She wondered how far it was to Oykel Bridge. "About three quarters of an hour" I said confidently.
"not that far then!"
"It might be further" I qualified.
In the event it wasn't even this long. I rolled into the hotel yard noting a couple of bikes there. We've had a bit of a frosty reception from the OBH in recent years so I was pleased to see they had a dedicated takeaway snack menu and after a bit of discussion they allocated 3 tables to us so we could order off the bar menu. Fabulous (in fact the staff couldn't have been more helpful.) I'd stressed about getting food here and that's why I'd packed a dried meal and stove. Instead I enjoyed fish and chips (as recommended by the bloke at the start of the Orrin dam track) and was able stash a couple of bacon rolls. Chris and a few others turned up and there was much scrutinising of weather forecasts. Someone noted that there was only 0.5mm of rain per hour forecasted all day Monday. This tied in with what I'd last seen on Friday. Chris had a different forecast talking of heavy rain, sleet and snow on high ground, strong easterly then north-easterly winds and low temps. Hmmm, guess what we are going to get...

I languished for nearly two hours debating on how far I should push on and, crucially, where I should bivvy, given this weather. Annie was convinced we should get up Glen Cassley as we'd have a tailwind but, whilst I knew there would be a few good spots up there, I was thinking that one I knew to be sheltered would be the best bet if the weather did turn nasty. Eventually I headed out, down the road to Rosehall, turn left at the hotel and up to Achness Waterfall. This had been our spot on a similarly cool and dreich evening in 2015 when a squad of us had settled in the woods and had a good night. I pitched the tarp between some trees and settled in, chomping one of my bacon rolls and contemplating my next moves.

My body seemed to be back on speaking terms with my head so a completion was on the cards, all previous lack of motivation forgotten. Sub 5 days was out of the window but I've been there and done that. Plus given the additional length of the route this year I'd need to be a lot further up the trail than I was now to achieve such a thing. It was my Mums Birthday on Saturday and I was determined to get down for it, so I would aim to finish on Thursday afternoon or evening, in order to get some good recovery time in beforehand. In 2015 we'd made it to Suileg Bothy on the Monday night but this was off limits. Everywhere else on the Ledmore Traverse would be exposed but I knew of a good bivvy spot just past Oykel Bridge. So tomorrow it was OBH or bust. I set my alarm for 3.30 and settled in.

Northern Exposure

I woke to the sound of wind and rain but under my tarp all was snug and dry. I had a cuppa, ate more muesli and then got going. 4.25 am saw me rolling up the glen, still with a tailwind but in a typical easterly heavy dreich. I had all my gear on so it was just a case of press on and hope the rivers hadn't got up yet.

I passed Chris yet again on the climb out of the Glen. He'd had a damper night, albeit in a good spot. In fact as usual, I'd passed many good bivvy sites up glen Cassley, many with people ensconced. There must have been half the field in the glen that night! On the downhill the rain became heavy and quickly drove through my jacket zip, down the neck and up the sleeves. Not a good start. By the time I'd been blown to the start of the track to Gobernuisgach lodge I was cold, wet and my earlier enthusiasm washed away. I met Tom Robinson again here shivering in the lee of the hydro electric building. "If I could scratch here I would" I grumbled.
"There is nowhere to scratch too" Tom replied "And my wife would kill me if I gave up now".

Not the most noble of reasons for carrying on but actually as good as any. And he was right. Back down the road would be into the gale and rain with no guarantee of getting on a train or into a hotel or other digs that night. My bivvy spot past the OBH was my only hope. So onward I went and upward. I quickly warmed up on the climb but annoyingly so did my digestive system. Finessing a LNT toilet stop in the wind and rain was tricky but I managed.... Thereafter I felt stronger and stronger. I didn't stop at the lodge, just turned straight up into Glen Golly.

Double good news - a tailwind and the track surface was still pretty firm. Plus other people! It always surprises me on these group starts when you encounter fellow riders in these places. Being totally alone seems more fitting for the environment but in the event I passed Nick Bubb, Ruth Crewe (on a gravel bike!) and just onto the old stalkers path, Jorne Bluekens looking a bit shocked by the boggy, rutted trail. I'd pushed up the first big climb OK but the weather was foul up here. Then suddenly I was enjoying myself. Despite the rain, the trail was just what I like - nadgery, rough, occasionally steep and needing a careful eye to pick out a line through the worst of the bog. Stopping wasn't an option so I pushed on hard to keep warm. I passed Emma Holgate on the descent, said howdy and kept on, finessing the peat hag step down. As per 2015 rather a lot of water was pouring into the corrie to the left of our route but fortunately the river itself was still crossable dry. I shouted to Emma to go round the right side of the big boulder but the wind carried my voice away and I last saw her fighting her way round the peat hag on its left side.

It was wet...

Then the second big climb and the route's most northerly point. Over the top I hardly had to pedal, the wind was blowing so strongly. But on the long, long descent I quickly froze. I took it steady as stopping to fix a puncture (or crashing) would have been disastrous given the cold and wet. There are a few side burns to cross down here and their levels were up, adding to the drama. Fortunately I rode them all OK, determined to keep my feet dry. Then, at last, the wood at the bottom (a good bivvy spot) and the gate through the big boulders. I'd survived!

Rolling out to loch Stack I checked my watch. The weather had done its work well as it had only taken me three and a quarter hours to do this section. Actually quicker than in 2017 (when it was bone dry), including a toilet stop. Encouraged I got straight into the next climb noting that the clouds were starting to break out to sea.

More chills on the descent but crossing the Kylesku Bridge showed more brightening skies and a hint of the rain easing off. For once I missed the over-priced hotel and pushed on, Drumbeg stores my target. Of course between me and it was the famously lumpy Drumbeg road. In the event I only pushed three times but as per 2017, the traffic was a damn nuisance - exclusively idiots doing the bloody North Coast 500. I think the problem is that previously people only drove this road if they knew it whereas many of the types who follow this wretched 'tourist phenomenon' haven't the faintest clue how to drive on such a road. Having ground may way up a monster hill I was damned if I was slowing on the descent for anything (local delivery van excepted) so probably scared the wits out of a few glaikit camper van drivers. I also overtook a motorcyclist. Him and his mate passed me on one of the pushes but a couple of bends down the following descent, there they were slowed right down to check out the view. The rear one clocked me rapidly approaching in his mirror and sped off but a couple of bends later there he was again doddering along at 20mph. Stuff that, I needed every bit of momentum I could get so went up his inside on a right hand bend and showed him the correct line to take round the next few, gaining a couple of hundred yards on him. On the next climb he shot past. Another twerp with too much horsepower between his knees.

Anyway this nonsense just served to key me up for the final climbs to Drumbeg. What a top spot (and shop). Steve Collie, the owner, was great, providing me with a free cup of lifesaving tea and a warm welcome. I bought lots of food and sat out in the now dry afternoon eating, whilst Annie changed her brake pads. I figured on running mine to the rivets before replacing them to avoid having to bin a pair of part worn pads. Eventually I left (via the public loo of course) and cruised round to Clachtoll, avoided yet another campervan Mexican stand off (this one had a car attached behind it for fucks sake) and finally departed the road for the ace single track to Lochinver.

This was pretty dry indicating that the horrible weather hadn't made it to the coast. Hopefully this would persist over at least the first bit of the Suilven path but this fabulous hill and its neighbours were shrouded in cloud. Finally I clattered into Lochinver, grabbed some stuff from the shop and went in search of pies. Food score number three. The pie shop was open and doing take-aways. Given that I was now three days in without a shower, this was probably a good thing. I headed to the sea front but saw Annie at the Spar shop. She hadn't realised the pie shop was open so rushed off to grab pies whilst I sat on the pavement eating mine.

I finished up and got going. It was 4.50pm and I was going to make last orders at the OBH come hell or high water. As I'd transited the Drumbeg road the wind had backed to the north west which seemed to be pushing the limits of our good fortune to the maximum. Sure enough the track beyond Glencanisp Lodge was pretty dry and the wind was at my back, compensation for all the earlier rain. I made good progress to its end at Loch Na Gainhimh. Then it was the now familiar progression to rough track, rough path, rock garden.

Hard work but a huge amount of fun. I've found the best way to deal with this kind of trail is let the bike find its own line. All you are doing is staying balanced between the wheels and putting in kicks of pedals to keep the momentum going. The rain never really stopped but it was fairly dry and the skies were showing signs of clearing. Finally on the high path above Lochan Fada the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow appeared.

Better still I could see the phone mast on the hill above Ledmore Junction - the end was in sight! But still a ways off. On the descent to Cam Loch the rocks were treacherous after the rain and I had a few slides and stumbles on this technical descent. Finally I made the loch shore and picked my way along until the route left it to follow the rough path to the loch end. This is the only frustrating bit as it's boggy and generally unride-able, making it a drag, even though its only a couple of k. It released me eventually and after one final bog trot emerged at the road. It was 8.06pm, so another hard section of the route had been dispensed in double quick time. I didn't hang about, just grabbed a snickers out of my bag and spun off along the road. The rain came and went but I no longer cared. I'd done two of the hardest bits of the route, I'd make the pub in time for a pint and finishing on Thursday was now well within reach. I was back in the game.

Who should be in the OBH but Mike Toyn, last seen here the previous evening. He was surprised to see me having started well back from him. For me I was glad to have someone to chat to. The kitchen had closed, as expected, but I had enough food on board so settled for a couple of packets of crisps and best of all, a pint of Orkney Gold. I asked if they had any rooms free but the bunkhouse was full and even the expensive hotel rooms were booked. Mike was looking a bit down at the prospect of camping out again in what could be another damp night but I just smiled and suggested he may wish to follow me down the trail a ways. The pint was the best one I'd ever drunk.

So what do you do when the inn is full? Bed down in a lowly cattle shed of course! Actually an old shed just used for storing junk and hay for who knows what animal given we were surrounded by forestry. There was space for the two of us, the hay added comfort and allowed me to spread my gear and tarp out to dry. Mike pitched his tent inside to air it and we crashed out. For me it had been a long, hard day - 109 miles and 16 1/2 hours. I'd actually caught up with my 2017 ride but we had a pact not to set alarms as we both needed a lie in.

The Land of the Mountain and the Flood

I woke around 5 or so (ultra racer lie in) and noted Mike had also stirred. I was in no rush and made a cuppa to accompany my muesli, without burning the place to the ground. Mike got away first but I was content to pedal off steadily into a fine morning. This section is also different from previous editions as the route goes along Loch Damph and its fine bothy rather than the Strath Mulzie / single track route. I prefer it as the track is a nice rough track but without the boggy path descent. The only minor fly in the ointment was a river crossing which was high. I faffed taking boots and socks off as I still had dry feet at this point and was determined to keep them that way. At the bothy there were a fair few people camped and I was hailed by one chap who knew a number of riders so stopped to chat. He noted that more rain was to come that day but nothing like what had been. One of the key goals for this route is to get to the start of the Fisherfield section in reasonable order so I was happy with this forecast and also happy to spend a bit more time in Ullapool. 

Mike's bike was outside the seafront cafe so I dived in, joined his table by playing the 'he's my mate' card (which avoided queueing) and ordered breakfast. Its a nice spot but the staff seem incapable of working quickly or getting orders in the right...order. Mike Sheldrake turned up (and got served before me along with another table) moaning about breaking his derailleur. He'd short-cutted to Ullapool on a singlespeed lash up but was hoping to get it fixed to allow him to ride the rest of the route. I figured on making Poolewe that evening as I'd scoped out an excellent bivvy spot there. It should be about 9 hours or so from Ullapool given that the new section would be longer than the Coffin Road / Dundonald climbs. After a pause to bin my gloves, buy some new ones and get more food in Tescos I was off. The time was 10.30.

Thanks to Beccy for capturing this ubiquitous Highland Trail shot - in a cafe with mouth full....

The new route is a corker. After an easy pedal along the track past Croftown you pick up a fine riverside path. There was one awkward bit passed a landslip then it was onwards and upwards. I was vaguely aware of a gorge opening up on my left hand side but got quite a shock when this appeared...

Most tourists go to see the nearby Corrieshellach Gorge, just up the Inverness Road, but this view is only available to the fit as its a steep old climb. One final heave got me out of the glen and then, as advertised, there was one pathless, boggy section albeit quite short. Apparently this is to get sorted at some point so making this a fine route. Then after a brief road ride your into the main event.

I'd gone this way on my tour of the Great Wilderness in Summer 2019. That day it had been blazing sunshine and the trail was ace. Today it was much wetter, the clouds were down and rain showers coming and going. Once again I passed the elusive Annie Le and noted Mike not far ahead. He was fair gobsmacked by the scenery, particularly the Sgurr Ban slabs. This is indeed an unique place.

The trail is hard. Not as bad as the Ledmore route to be sure, but its nadge central with only brief breaks between the rocks. The good news is that it's all downhill and once again we had a tailwind. As usual I let the bike find its own way through all this, keeping the speed down being mindful that fixing a puncture would be a royal PIA in these conditions. We passed 
Jorne Bluekens again along here. I'm not sure how he had gotten ahead of me as I'd last seen him on the Horn path up north and hadn't stopped much afterwards. I guess he had eschewed breakfast in Ullapool.... Eventually the trail spat us out at the end of the climb over from Dundonald and Mike and I paused for lunch. Jorne caught us up complaining that he'd turned his ankle and walking was causing him a lot of pain.
"Is there much walking from here?"
We looked at each other. "Yes, one hell of a lot including a big climb"
Jorne didn't look too happy. Afterwards I stressed a bit about this given where we were, worrying about his wellbeing on what would be the hardest section of the route. But what do you do. He said he was OK so short of frog marching him to the bottom of the track to Dundonald and telling him to ride back we could do little else. Of course we had other things on our mind, namely that crossing of that river.

My heart gave a lurch when I first viewed it. The water level was right up to the vegetation which put it at 2015 depths. Then I calmed down. On that day the westerly wind was blowing waves right across the crossing point so I'd gone in upstream somewhat which is much deeper. With the benefit of some paddling and survey work on that 2019 trip I knew to go just downstream from 'the line' and it would be at its shallowest. Then, as I removed socks and stuffed them in my jacket, Mike appeared and plunged straight in. He has 36" legs apparently but it barely went over his knees. I set off, held the bike up to avoid drowning the bottom bracket and was soon on the far bank. 

I sat down to remove boots, dry feet and replace socks. Except I only had one sock. There was one of those pauses when the entire world stops. Then I frantically scrabbled around in my jacket to no avail. Staring back across revealed my errant sock just past the halfway point, the easterly breeze slowly pushing it out into the loch. I didn't waste time, just plunged back in as if I didn't retrieve it I would be screwed (and down £50). Thankfully, being waterproof, it had floated but my woolly sock inside was soaked. I returned to the shore grinding my teeth, but thankful my tracker was on the bike rather than on me otherwise folk would be wondering what the hell was going on. Then it was just a case of squeezing as much water out of the sock as possible and deciding which foot was going to get wet.

Me on the crossing. Pic taken by Mike, probably just before my sock went for a swim...

Mike was gone by the time I'd effected all of this but I was content to make my way solo to the forbidding climb up Glen Muice Beg.

This is a killer but at least I wasn't dragging a fatbike up it. Of course my single speed drivetrain should make this easy, being 600g's lighter. I didn't notice. Mike was up ahead and I saw a couple of other riders further up but it is bloody hard going. I made the top of the steep bit just as a rider (Ian McNab) effected a neat postie mount - place left foot on pedal, step forward and swing right leg over seat onto right pedal. I'd been doing these on day one but now didn't have the energy. This place is now quite familiar having been across it three times before today. The trail across the top is ace and it wasn't slashing it down, unlike in 2017. In fact, as Mike had predicted, the showers had cleared and a fine afternoon was in the offing. Perfect timing given what was to come.

Can't help but take this pic. Looking much moodier than when I passed through in 2019.

On the descent I passed Mike and John at a steep bit shouting at them to get dropper posts. Mine only allows the seat to go down a couple of inches with the terrapin on but its enough to get your weight right back. Allied to the Jones' long frame and low BB you can roll steep stuff fairly easily. I paused on the causeway for a look around then hared off on what I knew would be a highlight of the route. And was it. To the turn off for Letterewe and a similar distance beyond it's fairly undulating and was pretty wet. But on the final climb the sky cleared and the trail dried. Mike and John had caught up and we got stuck straight into the descent to the forest. The path is an absolute gem - narrow, mainly down, but with a few short, sharp ups and plenty of twists and turns. Rock features a-plenty but all straightforward with a bit of speed. Suddenly we were hammering it, huge grins all round as we descended. It was as if 14 months of isolation had lead me to this point, riding my bike on an ace trail, with ace scenery, in the sun with two mates. A truly perfect moment. Riding through the woods we exchanged grins, lousy weather of the previous day forgotten. Better yet the infamous cow shit bog was indeed no more! 

The only thing that would make it better was a good feed. We headed for the Poolewe Hotel as I knew it should be open. Pete Crawforth was there waiting on food and drying his bivvy kit out. He'd had an epic pushing on through the northern section and had suffered this day after a rough (and wet) night. Takeaway food was available and the extremely helpful manager allowed us to eat it on the picnic benches behind the hotel. It was in the sun and out of the wind so seemed a perfect end to the day.

Or was it. It was now 8.30pm (As predicted it had taken 9 hours from Ullapool to here) so there was still about two hours of daylight left. A bit tight to do the Tollie Path but we figured it would be fine. A mantra from 2017 came back to me - what we do today we don't have to do tomorrow.... So off we went into the evening sunshine. This trail was one that caused much distress in years 2013,14 and 15. I'd enjoyed it in 15 (and back in '99 when I'd ridden it on an Orange Patriot) so figured it would be fine today. We got up the climb easily enough and beheld a view which made all of our struggles worthwhile.

Eventually we dragged ourselves away and into the descent. Its rough, eroded and super technical. A bit much after nigh on 15 hours of riding so we took it steady. The frustration comes in the lower sections - the gradients are easier but the path is knackered after 20 years of neglect and hard going. I kept the head and kept picking away at it. A full moon appeared as darkness started to fall which made the struggle seem a minor matter to get this view.

Finally it released us into Slatterdale Forest and the prospect of an easy bivvy by the Loch. A few camper vans were there and one noisy dog, so I retired to a clearing back from the road whilst John and Mike pitched up on the shore. As it happened a few midges appeared but they were fairly benign in the cool evening air so I got pitched up and in with minimal grief. Bang. Out I went like a light. Another day was done - 75 miles in 16 hours.

Happy Trails

When my alarm went at 4.30 I felt quite refreshed and very happy. I had a breakfast feast of hot fruit and custard with my last coffee then got packed up. I knew I'd cracked it, barring major mechanical or injury. All I had to do was get to within a shout of Fort Augustus today and I'd have a straightforward ride tomorrow back to Tyndrum. Plenty hard riding left but not anything like as tough as what we had done. The weather was cool and dry, despite some drizzle in the night. So a decent day looked in the offing and the gentle north westerly breeze pushed me easily along the A832. At this early hour there was only the odd car (and no NC500 muppets) so it was a leisurely pedal and a chance to review my ride so far and consider what was coming. I was also able to pick out most of the Postie Path on the opposite shore. I guess this is still my preferred option for this route, simply because its shorter and misses out the road section, as well as being a fab trail. But that descent last night had been worth the difficulties of the Tollie path and a lengthy tarmac cruise. John and Mike had both out geared me and Kinlochewe was shut so I made use of the loo and headed up the glen in anticipation of the Torridon section. In 2015 the weather on this bit had been diabolical so the fab descent was done in survival mode. In 2017 it had been at the end of an 18 hour day. Today I was feeling fit, awake and the weather fine.

I thought the teahouse climb would be a disappointment on the single speed as its a great technical challenge with a granny gear. In the event I rode a fair few nice bits and was happy to walk the rest. Then the descent, which has become famous the country over and is indeed a cracker. John was just ahead at the start but he outpaced me on terrain better suited to suspension. I was steady away and happy to get down most of it. Two bits were too much - a big steppy drop and a steep chute into a tight bend just pushing my luck too far. Soon enough I got to the track. Two more rad descents to go.

Mike and John were at the Strathcarron hotel but it was shut. We scoffed food from our bags and then the geared guys pedaled away from me. A push up the short sharp road climb was unavoidable. My legs had settled into that fatigued but working state you get after a few hard days. Likewise the climb out of Attadale took a fair bit of pushing but I was moving at the same pace as the other two in their granny gears. By this time I'd been expecting to be nursing sore knees but in the event they were both pretty much pain free barring an odd twinge from my left one dating back to the Corrieairyack climb. My bunion was the biggest source of pain! One final bog trot and nadgery trail through Glen Ling got us to Dornie - a fine place for any rider of the Highland Trail as it has toilets, a well stocked shop and fine views. We sat outside the shop chatting about what was next and agreed we'd try and get food at the Tomich Hotel. It all seemed easy. We were all veterans of this route so knew exactly what was coming. Still around a 125 miles to do but no more major challenges.

We also had a tailwind. The persistent easterlies had me dreading the haul along Glen Affric but the northwesterly promised us an easy time. I ground up the old road, (and pushed a bit) flew down to the Inverinate garage and couldn't resist one more bottle of Irn bru. Sure enough the pedal along Glen lichd was easy, the sun was shining and the scenery stunning (again!) A day rider passed us all on the climb, out to do the falls of Glomach descent which is supposed to be a cracker. For us it was east in earnest. The sun beat down on the steep bit and for the first time I was pealing off layers and sweating. I passed my exposed bivvy spot of 2019, not knowing that a similar wind switch was coming. Finally the climb topped out and once again I thoroughly enjoyed the trail to Camban where we sat out in the sun eating a late lunch. We'd passed Lars earlier who was struggling with walking as in his words "I destroyed my feet on the northern section". Fortunately there wasn't much walking left on this route....

Mike on the steep bit out of Glen Lichd

Passing the youth hostel the wind whirled around a bit before settling down into our faces - yes we finally had a headwind. And the only rain showers of the day came in. But the sky cleared somewhat as we approached the loch and the trees blocked the worst of the breeze. Plus it would be behind us up the big climbs and down to Fort Bill so we couldn't complain really. At length we got to the turn off for Tomich. We'd seen the pylons climbing over the moor - our next objective - as well as the wind farm above Loch Ma Stac that we had passed three days previously - an age ago. I recalled the view of Kintail from the top of the Corrieairyack pass and the doubts I'd get to ride through it. Well I had and the miles were counting down rapidly.

When entering Tomich look out for the bronze statue of someone's golden retriever. We were more interested in the hotel. We hit the jackpot - it was open, quiet and the chap running it very friendly. This place is well off the usual tourist haunts but thanks to the Great North Trail, An Turas More and Badger Divide it's now seeing a steady stream of bikepackers. We had three courses each (I was tempted by a pint but I knew that big hills were still to be done) and contemplated our onward moves. The Manager offered us two cheap twin rooms and John was tempted. But I had my sights fixed on the end and the desire to have an easy day tomorrow. 
"We're doing the next two hills tonight!" says I. After all what we do today we don't do tomorrow....

So after photos and fairwells we left for what is actually the route's second longest climb. It seems to be much smoother these days, probably due to not being used by heavy vehicles anymore. We went up in a loose group, me yo-yoing back and forth as I pushed and rode, as usual. Darkness was falling as we crested the final climb and the cloud was lowering. We got to the bottom before lights came on and this ended up being the only time I used them. The Military road climb and descent is a nice bit so it was a shame really but after a long and steady climb, one final, final river crossing; we hared off down the fun descent, like we were out for the day (or night), not a long multi day epic. I'd contemplated a few more miles down the towpath for a bivvy by Loch Oich but when we hit Fort Augustus at 11.30, tiredness descended. I did wonder about heading back to my Saturday night spot but Mike was adamant - no going off route, we'll bivvy on it! And we did. Just out of the town Mike pointed at a patch of grass by the towpath and said "I'm sleeping there."
I pointed at the one next door. "I'm sleeping there". Lars picked one a bit further down and John went further still but I was done. 105 miles on my longest day - nearly 18 hours.

Nice - a slug enjoys the environment of a wet, smelly boot. Proof that for all the hype, the Highland Trail is just another bikepacking trip....

The Sun Shines on the Righteous

The morning dawned grey but with that cool, still feel that indicated a fine day to come. I was away by 5.30 having breakfasted on beef stroganoff (highly recommended) and caffeine pills (less so). Mike and Lars were still packing up but they soon caught me as I pedaled easily along the flat surface. I wasn't about to start spinning like a crazed hamster in a wheel to keep pace so waved them on, enjoying the sensation of not going either up or down on a surface that provided little resistance. People tend to moan about this section due to the uninteresting riding. It's true that without the distractions of the trail, any injuries, aches and pains tend to manifest themselves but I felt pretty good overall. Sore bunion no problem and I'd attended to a rather nasty saddle sore; so I was able to review the previous days in my head, look at the scenery and check out the snow levels on the Ben; with little discomfort.

Mike had been talking of heading for the Morrisons cafe but I was just for using the Co-op. I was in no rush but Morrisons was off route and would take time. The end was calling me. So we sat out in the warm sunshine eating Co-op food idly chatting.

Then back on the West Highland Way. I seemed to have been on this a lot in the last month, for this route and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs Loop I did a few weeks ago. It was quiet on the climb and across the rough trail to the Military Road. This has been done up a bit but there are also some sections of new trail beside it, one of which I ended up on, requiring a backtrack. Not sure if this is to become the WHW or what. At least the hideous wooden steps are now long gone, replaced by an easier switch-back. On the track climb I stopped in the sun to drink a stashed can of Irn Bru and noted the first walkers coming towards me. We then had WHW rush hour. A hundred or so people came past having all started from Kinlochleven and all on the last leg. They were all cheery enough so many greetings were exchanged. 

As I'd hoped the descent was clear and for once I really enjoyed it. Mainly this was down to being able to finally do it in sunshine and daylight. I got all the way down the singletrack section clean (its been done up to be fair) and indulged in more Co-op food sat in the sun with Mike. John and Lars seemed to have disappeared (Lars was ahead, John just behind as it happened) but we knew we were all on the last section. 

I paused yet again in the loos allowing Mike to set the pace. More changes - the track climb has been re-surfaced and now super smooth. After staggering up this I was pleased to see the path beyond it has also been done up and made for a much easier push than I'd feared. Of course this is the longest climb on the route and somewhat harsh after 530 odd miles but we plodded up it in reasonable order, paused at the top for the view (looks like skiing still possible at Glencoe!) and headed down. After my stumble in the dark in 2017 it was a breeze. Near the bottom I noted three figures sat at the trail side - Huw Oliver, Liam Glen and his partner. We knew by now that Liam had smashed the opposition on his mighty Stooge and it was a real pleasure to be able to chat to him as if we were all normal folk. Annie was just in front having pulled an overnighter and once again jumped ahead of us.

Eventually we left, picked our way along the trail to the Kingshouse and went off up the ski centre climb. Mike was dreading this as a long drag but it was just within my gear so I got up it with a modicum of gurning, passing a few stragglers of the Tyndrum to Kinlochleven WHW group. The descent is one of those you don't like admitting you enjoy. Its straight, fairly fast and of no technical challenge whatsoever. But that's why its a good one as after the battles of the northwest its nice to just to let rip with your brain in neutral. I passed Annie along here (for the last time) discussing a stray sock with some walkers. They were convinced it was one of ours so Annie graciously stashed it on her bar roll for later repatriation. Then the sting in the tail.

Mike finishes the Ski Centre climb.

When Alan announced the route would use the Military road / WHW section above Loch Tulla to Bridge of Orchy for the 2018 group start I was dubious as the local Ranger used to shout at you for riding this (pre land reform) and it's also one more hill. As per WHW standard the trail was wide, eroded and rocky so fair to say I was not hugely happy about this bonus climb. The sun was now blazing and I was boiling over in my clothing, chosen for comfort in single figure temps. We got up eventually but I had a close shave. I noted Mike was heading away from the main trail up to the summit cairn which seemed a bit above and beyond the call of duty. Then, on punching my GPS screen, I realised that this was in fact on route. Typical Alan, not satisfied with a big climb he had to take us to the final view point as well! We paused briefly for said view but Tyndrum was near. The descent was actually nice -  a much narrower trail and good fun. I was a mite careful over the last cross drains but the realisation was building, we'd done this. 

Me approaching the summit of the bonus climb, Ben Starav in the background. Pic taken by Mike.

Water at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, stagger up the steps under the railway and some final easy pedaling before that last push and the last descent to the finish. Me and Mike arrived side by side to cheers from Huw, Liam and partner, Mike's Wife Sarah and Beccy from Dotwatchers. It was a strange sensation at first. Suddenly it wasn't a case of saying "Right Mike we need to get going". We'd gone and it was done. I could take my boots off and not have to put them back on again. We lazed around in the sun comparing notes. I had an interesting chat with Huw about day one blow ups. I reaped some vicarious kudos for having done the route on a rigid steel single speed. John turned up having punctured on the last cross drain. Lots of handshakes and then it was time to go home. It would have been nice to stay but I wanted my own bed and some recovery time before heading down for my Mum's birthday so said my fairwells, threw the bike in the car and drove home.

Finish photo thanks to Beccy

The rat


Right up to the last moment I was highly dubious about going singlespeed for this. In the event it mostly worked well and allowed worry free ploughing through the bogs of the north. I've since learned that a few people had problems with mud knackering up derailleurs so I do feel slightly smug. It did cause me a fair bit of pain at times but probably not any more than anyone else suffered. Regarding my first day blow up I suspect it was down to a combination of things. Despite the cool temps, I seemed to be very thirsty which suggests de-hydration was partially to blame. My pace was too high and this boils down to not enough practice doing long days SS, something the lockdown prevented. I also think that nerves, sleepless nights in the run up and a bit of fear at the prospect of what we would face played a part. This wasn't an issue in 2015,17 or 19 however so maybe I'll just blame the single speed.  A mate also noted that if I could avoid stopping for so long I'd fly round. He's right but if I had then I suspect I'd have suffered a lot more and I'm done with that. In fact I'm done with the Highland Trail. I've finished three times and failed twice so I'm going to quit while I'm ahead. My main aim for this year was to enjoy it and this I achieved 100%. Its easy to forget in amongst all the talk of pain, suffering and sleep deprivation that there is some incredibly good riding and some major technical challenges on this route that you won't find anywhere else. I was happy I'd given them all a good shot and had huge fun doing so. I suppose it would be nice to do it on dry trails in the sun but the chances of that happening are remote. I may tour the lower and mid loops at some point as this takes in the best riding. It will be timed for a sunny week after a couple of weeks of dry weather so it may not happen any time soon.... 

Finally, and as ever, a huge thanks and "Chapeau!" to Alan Goldsmith. He has put a tremendous amount of effort into the route and organising the group starts over the years. This year was particularly challenging with it all being fairly last minute thanks to the uncertainties of the covid restrictions; as well as the need to organise staggered starts, car parking etc. It seems this route has become the UK's 'Premier Bikepacking Race,' a far cry from 2013 when a small group of like minded individuals did something that no-one else had ever heard of, with no ceremony, fame or fortune. I hope the people who have designated it so appreciate that its entirely the work of one person for no profit or other financial gain, only for the love of providing a challenge that is unique in this country. For me it isn't and never will be a 'race.' Racing happens on a track, not in the Highlands of Scotland. True, many people will go as fast as they can, putting their all into cutting their completion time down as much as possible and determined to get back before anyone else - fair play. Many will also try to bash through certain bits as quick as they can, just for the joy of doing so, or engage in a bit of harmless chasing down of other riders (or waking up before them) for no other reason than its a laugh. This is all well within the spirit of such an undertaking and chapeau to us all, whether we got round or not. But it ain't racing (with all of its negative connotations) and anyone who gets round is a winner.

The gear

Jones 29+ long wheelbase size medium, steel frame; single speed 32/21, middleburn cranks, surly sprocket, connex chain, XT pedals; Bonty Chupa 3" tyres (15psi front, 20 rear), light bicycle carbon fibre rims, Hope pro 4 hubs, Hope floating disks (220 / 180). SLX brakes, carbon loop bars, NC17 ergogrips, ritchey 80mm x 35 degree stem, PNW pine 110mm dropper post and loam lever, WTB Speed saddle.

The machine was flawless with no punctures, no air loss, no nothing. I adjusted the chain tension at Drumbeg stores.

Revelate Terrapin seat pack - one of the new ones I got last year. Very stable and easy to use. Revelate sweetroll on the bars which is now getting a bit worn. Revelate Gastank for tools, Revelate jerrycan for lights and batteries. Wildcat Ocelot half frame bag, Revelate fuel pod (on the front of the bar roll so it doesn't get in the way of your legs when pedaling stood up), topeak barloader (which started to fall apart on day 3)

Bike stuff:-
Topeak Mini 20 pro - has everything you need, light and robust, leatherman squirt - has pliers, saw, knife blade scissors and additional screw drivers. Standard 4mm allen key and a 4mm allen key from an old multi tool for EBB adjustments. Two spare 29x 2.4-2.8 tubes, small bottle of sealant. Lezyne HV ally pump, full tubeless repair kit - plugs, inner tube, bits of tyre, big and small patches, rubber solution and cyano glue, tub thread for sidewall repairs. Chainlinks, joining links, a few bits and bobs. Chain oil, zip ties, bolt on alloy sprocket

None of this was needed apart from adjusting the EBB once and regular chain lubing after day 1. I nearly went with just the one tube but paranoia got the better of me. Both were strapped to the frame to free up bag space then went inside when I'd eaten stuff. The bolt on sprocket was for if the freewheel failed - it bolts on in place of the rear disk giving a fixed gear. Desperate stuff but better than walking.

Sleeping stuff:-
Criterion Ultralight 350 bag - had this for a few years now and I've used it to around zero degrees in comfort. This was a better bet than my 150 quilt which would not have been warm enough. I took a thin base layer for sleeping in. Thermorest Neoair full length mat and Exped inflatable pillow. I nearly went with the 2/3rds mat but I'm too old for it now plus it hurts my knees when sleeping on my side. Borah Gear ultralight bivvy bag with mesh panel. Bag and mat were shoved in the bivvy bag and rolled up into the seat pack so I could just pull it out, unroll, inflate mat and dive in. On the Monday I forgot to close the purge valve (one of many examples of stupidity on my part) but fortunately only a bit of water leaked in and didn't get inside the bivvy bag. DD Hammocks ultralight tarp with a Bearbones carbon pole and guy lines (in bar roll). This kept me dry but did make me a bit more cautious with bivvy site choice.

Worn stuff:-
Assos non-bib shorts, Madison 3/4rs trail shorts, HH zip polo merino thick base layer, Torm merino short sleeved cycling shirt, Bearbones Bikepacking lightweight gillet, Bridgedale medium weight socks, Sealskinz medium weight knee length waterproof socks, Shimano MT91 goretex boots, specialized gel gloves, dexshell thermofit gloves. Bearbones cycling cap under an endura lid, clear specs, buff for neck and head warmth and face mask.

By and large this was just what was needed for the temps. I was only cold when it got very wet on a couple of long downhills. The Assos shorts were a disappointment as the pad rucked into a ridge under my nether regions which resulted in a saddle sore forming on day 3. Should have stuck with my old DHB shorts which worked very well in 2015 and 17. The dexshell gloves were nearly new but wetted out after an hour. They still kept my hands warm but got binned in Ullapool and I bought a pair of neoprene diving gloves (which in the event I didn't use). If I hadn't dropped a sock in the Strath Na Sealga I'd have maintained dry feet all ride. The boots were bought in 2014 and used for the '15 group start but got replaced in 2017 (despite being fine) with the updated XM9's. These have never fitted me as well (despite being the same sole) and were looking a bit worn so I used the old boots to very good effect. Everyone around me was complaining of foot issues due to using cycling specific shoes. These are no good for the rocky terrain you need to walk over. MT91's / XM 9's are heavy but provided much needed ankle support. My bunion gave me some gyp but this is an age thing, not a specific footware problem.....

Carried clothing:-
Paramo Quito Jacket, Berghaus Changste overtrousers, Montane Outflow gaiters, all in the bar roll.

I didn't take an extra layer as I knew what I was wearing plus the Quito would be more than enough. It was, just. My only issue was on the descent to Loch Shin into the wind - it drove the rain through the jacket zip, down the neck and up the sleeves leaving me somewhat damp. One of the nice things about Paramo gear is that its breathable enough for kit to dry out underneath it, which it did by the end of the day. The over trousers are a bit heavy but they kept the water out. The gaiters were ace being very light, breathable and waterproof. I wore them for all the second day and third and as well as keeping rain out of the boots, kept mud and water from puddles out too - all good for foot health. They didn't get shredded in the chainring either. I saw a few people with either just waterproof shorts or no water proof bottoms. They all noted they should have gone with full length over trousers.

After much rumination I again took my stove, a freeze dried main meal, pudding and a couple of mueslis. This all got crammed into the frame bag. I was worried about food supplies and nearly went with a lot more but figured this would see me to Ullapool at least where I could get more. In the event food wasn't an issue so all of the above got eaten for the four breakfasts I had. Waking up to a hot brew was a luxury which made it all much easier to deal with. Annoyingly I was one coffee down so had to make do with caffeine tablets on the Thursday for a wake up kick. On route I ate anything and everything but tried to focus on a reasonably balanced diet where possible. Cold tinned food at shops is something I've used before and its a good source of easy calories. I also had a few bananas and yoghurts as well as a fair quantity of Irn Bru and Lucozade.

Other stuff:-
Reading glasses for map reading and repairs, Garmin Dakota for nav, Exposure Diablo lid light, smart rear light, Petzl micro head torch, smidge, head net, nokia terrorist phone, 'Aquapix' digi camera, squeaky pink rubber rat.

The Garmin threw one wobbler which was of concern but otherwise appears to have worked. I know the route so well I hardly used it which may be why I only used 2 and a half sets of lithium batteries. The Exp Diablo has replaced my beloved joystick as being a great helmet light that gives enough light to ride singletrack (with care). Its a bit heavier but gives the same burn times. I debated humpfing the smart phone but I'd have needed a battery pack as well so the cheap nokia was a better and more reliable bet. The camera isn't great as you will have seen from the pics above but its waterproof so I could stash it in a pocket, haul it out, point and press. I wasn't after catching the subtle play of light on the mountains as the westering sun sank below the horizon, just to capture a few moments along the route. The rat was ideal for alerting other trail users to my presence as well as measuring bump magnitude. It dates from the 2015 group start when we all had to carry something pink to celebrate Iona Evans (first and only female finisher in 2014) successfully beating cancer earlier that year. Its been my mascot ever since.

1 comment:

  1. "My main aim for this year was to enjoy it and this I achieved 100%. It's easy to forget in amongst all the talk of pain, suffering and sleep deprivation that there is some incredibly good riding and some major technical challenges on this route that you won't find anywhere else."

    Well said, Phil! As a fellow HT550 repeat customer, I think these words really sum it up! Fun reading your experience. Cheers!