Saturday, 10 June 2023

Highland Holiday

It's 3 am. I've just been woken up by the sound of a bike passing my bivvy, the noise of tyre on gravel intruding on my dreams of pedaling, walking, pushing, struggling. I lie awake debating on whether to sleep more or.... get going. Get going. Get this done.

This was Thursday. First person back, Angus Young, was probably dead to world. I was 100k from the finish. That said, from my perspective I was in a good place. At this point in 2015 I was in the Strathcarron hotel, 150 miles to go. '17 I was swearing my way up the ski centre climb and in '21 I was dead to the world on the towpath just out of Fort August. But I was smiling. I was smiling because I knew I was nearly done for completion number 4 on the Highland Trail. I wasn't counting un-hatched chickens as I'm too old and not wise enough to do such a thing. But the potential obstacles in my way to a successful ride were into single figures. Unlike at the start line...

As usual my build up was somewhat problematical due to back and knee injury yet again. A knee flare up days before the start didn't help but by this time I figured it was too late to back out so I'd turn up, but take it easy. Key to this decision was the weather forecast, which was looking nigh on perfect for the week. As usual it had been all over the place in the run up, much like the weather itself this year. Then lo and behold, high pressure systems were being mooted for the whole of the UK. The North West still looked like it may be a bit damp but by Friday evening the only dampness was forecast for the Saturday morning. No excuses, we are doing this route!

As I was assembling my gear at Tyndrum I noticed Pete Crawforth getting himself organised two cars down. Me and Mike had bumped into Pete last time in Poolewe after he'd had an epic pushing through the night on the northern loop followed by a very wet bivvy near Ullapool. We reminisced about all of that and he noted the frustration of seemingly riding very fast, not sleeping much but still encountering me and Mike in a cafe or shop having had 5 hours plus sleep. His plan for this year was to adopt a similar tactic to what had worked for us, in the hope of a faster time and the chance of seeing more scenery in the daylight...

My plan was basic. Go very slowly on the first day and then see what transpires. 

I chatted to Bob and Cath at the cafe as well as Mike Toyn who was here for another go despite also vowing never to do it again. After a group photo it was up to the start, now ominously by the cemetery. There was a cast of famous people up front and a few other familiar faces. I noted Annie Le's SS timberjack and was a bit shocked when she mentioned seeing me ride mine last time was part of her inspiration. In fact it was going to be SS-tastic this year with 6 of us not needing to worry about derailleurs and gear shifts..

The trail seems to be only slightly wider than my tyres. Ahead the trail ramps up again but this short, fast descent occupies my whole mind. Every so often a narrow stone lined channel crosses my path. Some require a mere unweighting of the bike, some require me to hop, some allow me to fly across at full speed thanks to a kicker on the nearside stone. All my attention is focused on this and the next 500 miles are nowhere in my thoughts.

Saturday - Ride slowly, eat food, enjoy

So said a note I'd taped to my bar roll way back in 2015 - my mantra for that year and this also. At the precise stroke of 8.30, Alan said 'Go' and we went. Rob Waller caught me after a bit - we'd ridden together a fair bit on the 2015 edition but I'd missed him two years back so we had a quick chat before he sped off, making snidy remarks about single speeds. I waved him on and stuck to my guns. In fact quite a lot of people sped off past me as I twiddled up the Auch Glen. There still seemed to be a group behind but it was clear I was in the back third. I didn't care as I knew exactly what my pace would lead me to and when; so cruised easily along Glen Lyon, chatting firstly to Steve Wikeley and then then Tom Hall. Both were first timers but seemed well aware of what was coming and well prepared for it. I resisted the temptation to offer sage advice (it wasn't needed but I can't help trying to be helpful!) and instead we chatted about the route and weather prospects and the battle majeure that would likely unfold up front. They both out geared me on the road but I got a wave from Steve who had ensconced himself in the Bridge of Balgie cafe for brunch - sensible chap!

From then on I largely had the trail to myself. I'd no real feel that I was going fast or slow, just making miles without burning out, unlike the last time. I figured my pace was as per my highly successful BB300 campaign so I was in no way inclined to try to catch up with anyone. Within a few miles I'd sank into that blissful state of not thinking about much more than what was happening around me. This was the first week off from my mayhemic work this year plus I was in the middle of applying for another job which I wasn't wholly convinced would be a good move. All this hassle and grief was left behind at home and as I progressed along the route it was without a care in the world. Many others were seeking to beat records, challenge themselves, go beyond their comfort zones and experience something still quite unique in this modern world. Me? I was on holiday! 

Food was eaten without issue, the views north were opening up, despite the odd patch of fine drizzle, and the trails were dry. Ben Alder delivered as per with an easy push and ride up and yet another passage of the fun descent. I took it a bit easier than of late, given the circumstances, but I knew this would be the start of some very good riding as the week progressed.

As I picked my way along the still rather boggy track to the River Pattack bridge I wondered again how long it was for the world as it seems to have gotten much more rickety in recent years. Imagine my surprise to find a huge shiny new bridge and the poor old one a pile of rotted timber! Looks like more of the hydro electric scheme as I can't imagine the estate ponying up for such an elaborate structure. Good news for the HT route though. Now if only they would do up the track to it...  

The roll up the road to the start of the Corrieairyack was somewhat arduous. The wind had remained fresh all day and was more west than south west so we were straight into it. I took it as steady as my gear allowed but for the first time started to feel the miles. At the start of the track I noted a van parked up with an awning pitched on its open rear. Two blokes sat inside suddenly jumped up and started applauding me, much to my bemusement. Richie and Donnie were in fact following the race for the weekend in order to see riders through and give them some encouragement. I chatted for a bit about my ride so far and commented on how in 2015, no-one knew what we were doing except us, now bikepacking is a spectator sport! They kindly offered me a dram which I declined in view of the large and breezy climb ahead.

I actually wanted the zig-zags to start as these would be a straight push rather than the grind of the track into the corrie, pushing a bit then pedaling a bit at max effort... Like all such sections, continued forward motion, however slow; got the job done and the lengthy descent provided respite and sunshine.

I checked the time approaching Fort Augustus and was a bit shocked to see it was 7.20pm, making this my slowest time to FA since 2015 (on a fat bike and via a longer / harder route!) Worse, the shop was due to shut at 7.30 so I hared off as I needed food for the next morning. In the event there was a huge queue and plenty other people in the shop. Other riders were filling baskets for a long stint but I was only needing stuff to get me to Contin. I'd a quick catch up with Annie and Martyn (SS crew) before heading pizza shop-wards. Alan, Mike and Pete were there so I joined them and relaxed. Also present was Isla Rowntree, another one gear rider, and founder of Isla bikes. I was envious of her 28/22 gear given what we'd just done and once again wondered if I should have gone lower myself. Too late to change now....

Pete noted that the pizzas weren't actually that great - he must have better tastes than me, or I was more hungry!

People came and went. Pete Aylward arrived, a fellow BB'er, and told me he was out. He'd properly smashed himself up in a crash a few weeks earlier and headed up here in the hope all would be well, but taken the wise decision not to proceed given lots of shoulder pain hoisting his bike up stuff - something that there would be an awful lot of in the coming days. It's gutting having to do this (having done it here twice!) and wise decisions matter hee haw when you are looking at trackleaders afterwards and thinking of what might have been. For me it was so far so good, so on we go. After munching my way through soup and pizza, I grabbed a can of Irn Bru and headed out into the evening. 

I passed my spot of last year thinking I'd go for an hour or so and stop. In the event, at 9.30 I spied a level spot between the trees just off the trail. Should be midge free given the tree cover and not too cold given the altitude. It was....

I'm riding along an easy track, a vast landscape around me and my brain in neutral with thoughts going neither in or out. My facial expression probably resembles a sheep chewing the cud but my shades hide this. I'm in that perfect nirvana that can only be achieved by doing a long distance bike ride.

Sunday - North by Northwest

4.30 heralded my alarm call and after a fairly leisurely pack up and eat of food in the chill morning air I was off. 5am.

Mike had reckoned the new bit from Invermoriston to Loch ma Stack would add and hour or so. I passed a few others on the climb, either striking camp or just setting off. Much pleasant single then double track followed before the inevitable windfarm motorway to the old route, with a few ups and downs and twists and turns. The loch was super low so I was able to ride nearly all of the shore line. The boggy track of '21 wasn't but work on the old house didn't seem to have progressed since then.

New bit number two revealed smoke lifting from the woods to the west. I couldn't figure this at first, thinking it was rising mist (odd as it had been a dry night) but an oncoming fire engine on the track descent was an intimation of an extensive forest fire that would develop over the next couple of days. The early start had been balanced by the extra time on the new section (an hour right enough) so I could have gone to the Cannich shop but after using the loo in the community centre I figured Contin would be an easy hop given the dryness; so span off down Strath glass.

As expected it was a track of a few puddles rather than 1000. The wind hindered me a bit, as usual much stronger than predicted. The wall to wall sunshine was also conspicuous by its absence and I'd had a few spots of rain. But north looked brighter so it was onwards into the wilderness, on my own once more.

One of a few...

Contin shop is usually a gathering point for many riders but only Pete, Tom and Lorah were there, the others having departed some time before. Lots of food down the hatch and hopefully enough in the bag to last me until Drumbeg stores, in addition to hopefully scoring a sit down meal at Oykle Bridge or Achness.

Of more concern on the ride north was a distinct pain under my left knee cap. This was annoying as it didn't seem to relate to the issues I've had all year. These had been around the previous day but had faded into the background as the miles progressed. This seemed a more typical cyclist knee type pain and unlike my normal issues didn't fade when I got off to walk or stood up to pedal. I kept on, various plan b's running through my mind. I kept catching Pete up along here but then I would stop to adjust the seat height, take a pain killer (thank goodness for paracetamol) or stop to eat. I also passed another of the SS gang up here - Katie from Arizona, but she seemed absorbed in her ride so we just exchanged hi's. I did catch Pete eventually but he outpaced me on the fast descent to Oykle Bridge.

Donnie and Richie were parked by the road end so I stopped to chat and did accept their dram this time. As feared the Oykle Bridge hotel was residents only but it looked like the Achness Hotel, down the road, was going to see us right.

And they did. I got in as Pete was starting his main course and I tucked into soup and pasta bolognese, relieved to be able to have a sit down meal for the second night in a row. And cheap too! It's a shame about the Oykle Bridge hotel as they have done us proud in the past, particularly in 2021. But looks like this place will make a fine replacement. Pete was gone by the time I'd finished up, the track up to Gobernuisgach lodge his destination. Tom and Lorah appeared as I was leaving so we exchanged bivvy spot notes and I left them too it.

So now what. It was only 8 so my spot in the trees of last time seemed a bit lame. Instead I pedaled easily up the glen into a breeze that kept me cool in the evening sun, and took stock. Pete's sage advice to drink a lot to help flush out any toxins from my knee, along with anti-inflammatories, seemed to have worked, for now anyway. I'd hit the northern section tomorrow and if all went well, I'd crack on. If it didn't, I'd cruise out to Lairg or somewhere south and try to train it to Pitlochry and ride back to Tyndrum from there. But it was hard to ignore the prospect of a totally dry passage of the route, pain or no. My pacing had been nigh on perfect, with no energy or leg issues and plenty of food going in and...err..other stuff coming out. I was ahead of my '21 ride somewhat and that seemed fine. So onwards and upwards we go, take it all as it comes.

Having bivvied here on my trip of July '21 I knew it would offer a good compromise of shelter and breeze. In view of gloomy clouds I'd thrown the tarp up. It's a bit like sheltering under a large crisp packet so a bit noisy in the breeze, but I got a good 5 hours sleep and woke at 4, getting away before 5.

Top spot this. There were a lot less people bivvied in Glen Cassley this year than in '21 - an indicator of the general increase in pace of the field, plus less concern of where people bivvied given the dry weather.

I line up a step-up in front of me, a straight blaster - weight back and a good bit of speed in, up with the front then shift weight forward and elevate the rear wheel with my feet and we're up. The next one is more tricky - a double step up - pick the front up high onto the second step, simultaneously the back wheel hits the first step and I jump up to let it bounce high. The bike nearly stops as the back wheel hits the second step hard and I'm thrown forward. Pause, weight back, a kick of the pedals and up we go. I've been doing this on and off for the last hour. I'm breathing hard, my pulse is screaming and sweat runs down my back. Ahead the trail disappears into a mass of rocks. You're only riding this if your name is Danny or Hans. I step neatly off and walk...

Monday - And this is where the trail really starts

As feared a bit of knee pain accompanied the steep tarmac climb out of Glen Cassley as I settled into that oh so familiar single speed rhythm of ride a bit, walk a bit. But the views made it all worthwhile. 

Sunrise over Ben Loyal. I passed my bivvy spot of 2017 at the same time I'd left then - 5am. Then I came across this...

A welfare unit next to some works on the sub-station. I noted the key in the lock and the toilet facility was open. I don't like taking liberties with such things but figured the users would be fine with my use, 
(plus I'm paying for it via my utility bills!) as long as I left it as I found it, which I did. I couldn't get the kettle to work but enjoyed a cup of cold coffee out of the cool morning air.

Rob Waller was just finishing his morning ablutions on the start of the track out of Loch Merkland. He was somewhat resigned to me leaving him on this long climb (I made a snidy remark about bikes with gears) and subsequent hard trail. A few others were also passed, including Pete who'd bivvied further up. Of more interest was the fact that Alan wasn't far ahead, and I'd thought him long gone. 

So in 2021 I'd had a tail wind all the way round this bit, therefore a headwind today was fair do's. The grey cloud was lifting though and I knew we would be in for some stunning views. Lorah seemed quite cheerful on the first of the steep climbs. We exchanged injury notes - not perfect, but not enough to put either of us off entering this beguiling landscape. knee pain eased away to nothing by the time I'd hit the old stalkers path on what is now one of the routes most feared, and famous sections.

This view always amuses me as the trail goes right up to the top of the bump ahead - no cop out traversing round its flanks!

I wouldn't say I know the trail well, but I've enough nous to work out roughly what comes where. The headwind prevented too much trail magic but I got up, and across, a few tricky sections. This saves little time and is knackering but it's fun, and fun is what this is all about, right?

The peat hags were drying rapidly in the sun and breeze, plus I know a good way down so it all went easily enough, including stepping across the burn dry.

So up again and past the northern most bit of the route. In spite of a stiff breeze on the bealach horn I couldn't resist a pause to take in the views of Arkle and Foinaven; as well as glimpses of the north Atlantic, twinkling in the morning sun.

At the bottom of the descent, sheltering from the breeze in the Lone cowshed, was Alan having a snack. I chatted for a bit before heading off, starting the 'back' GPX track. 

I've never really appreciated the descent to Loch Glendubh before - probably due to it always having been rather damp up here. Today views of Quinag and the massive crags at the top of Glens Dubh and Coul provided a stunning back drop to an easy descent. Alan caught me and mentioned the burger bar that had set up at the Kylesku bridge. I was fixated on Drum Beg stores to be honest, but the thought of hot coffee and a bacon roll had my mouth watering!

So much for that - it was there but shut. Neither of us could be bothered trailing down to the expensive Kylesku hotel but Alan reckoned there was a newish cafe up the hill a bit. It was OK, but as seems to be the case for many businesses that have opened on the back of the wretched NC500, somewhat disorganised and over-priced, as well as being less than welcoming.

And speaking of the NC500, I was not looking forward to the Drumbeg road, after various vehicles had gotten in my way on the last two times I'd been here. In the event, it was remarkably traffic free, and thank goodness. Maybe I hit a quiet spot but nothing held me up on the fast descents (55kph!) and I plodded up the climbs in reasonable order.

Of course Drumbeg stores are the highlight of this section, and indeed the whole route. Steve and Wendy provided their usual welcome, as well as cups of tea and a fine shop. We sat in the sun, Tom, Lorah and Pete joining us soon after we arrived.

Our next objective...

The singletrack to Lochinver was a hoot. Dry, stunning views and some ace technical bits. By the time I hit Lochinver the sun was beating down. The pie shop still had it's outside serving and seating area and this was fab. I was still full from Drumbeg so had apple and black current pie with cream here, and stashed a chicken and leek pie for later. Alan got away and I left soon after as Pete got his kit together for another of the routes monsters.

Departure time was 4.40. Thanks to the wind the northern section had taken 3hrs 40 versus 3hrs 15 in 2021 and 2017. So I'd lost time to 2021 but still had over an hour in hand! I didn't really care, particularly as I was heading for the same overnight spot, but I do like to keep track of such things....

The weather was stunning - finally! It's been damp every time I've been through here since an ill-fated attempt on the route in 1996 (which ended up with me and my mate taking our bikes to the summit of Suilven - not recommended!) I took it easy and snapped many photos of the fabulous scenery. Once past the loch the trail deteriorates but I tried to ride what I could and got up a few really tricky bits. The futility of this (in terms of timings) was writ large as I didn't make much headway on Alan, who was just ahead, but as before it was all about the challenge, the fun, and the sheer exhilaration of riding a bike along this forbidding trail, through this awe inspiring landscape. 

Alan and Suilven. For the avoidance of doubt he rode quite a bit!

We rode the descent together, more or less. Alan asked why we were using the single track on the last bit rather than the beach, to which I replied "you tell me!" Others clearly had used the beach (tut tut) but we stuck firmly to the line, which this year was dry and so actually mostly rideable. Time check at Ledmore - 7.40. 3hrs is a personal best for me on this section, despite all the photo stops!

Cruising past the Altnacealgach Motel I noted they had a bar open. I wandered in and ordered a pint and an orange juice. Alan appeared soon after but seemed fixated on getting a pint in the OBH so after an orange squash he departed. I relaxed and contemplated what I'd just done, and the weather, and the scenery. My knee was back on speaking terms again so that was it, Tyndrum here we come. Unfortunately the bar manager seemed somewhat grumpy, making a deal of huffing and puffing over a bit of mud Alan had left on the carpet. I'm really struggling with this attitude, especially given the prices they charge. It seems the NC500 has turned every business owner into a grump. Wendy and Steve Colley are honourable exceptions of course (although Wendy was moaning about the terrible attitude and manners of some of the domestic tourists they had encountered in the last few years) but I really feel like asking these people what they are expecting out of passing trade.

Recovery drinks...

Whatever, I finished up and trundled steadily down the road to close off the northern loop. Sure enough, Alans bike and another one were parked outside the OBH. The signs were still up stating residents only but on wandering round to the front I spied Alan and another rider in the front bar. I went in past lots of posh looking folk, painfully aware I was now somewhat... smelly... and Joined Alan and Georgie for another pint. We had Georgie to thank for getting in as she needed to charge her GPS and powerbank so had played the person needing help card to good effect. In fact the lady behind the bar was the same who had been so helpful and friendly in 2021. Georgie had travelled over from New Zealand to do this but shockingly had her bike stolen from under her nose by a couple of neds at a pizza restaurant. It seemed hopeful it would be returned as the local cops knew the perps but in the meantime, kind people had leant Georgie a bike and kit so she could do the route.

They were for the Schoolhouse bothy but I wasn't convinced there would be space so I left for my tin shed of '21 which I knew would be a safe bet. It was early again - just after 9 but I figured I'd done enough for today. Of course this put me back to my '21 (and 17) schedule but I was quite happy with that. In fact I was very happy as I settled into my bag, an odd midge battering fruitlessly against the mesh. I'd done the northern loop, my body was more or less behaving and the Queen stage awaited. Sleep followed soon after.

Rain proof but not midge proof...

I shove the bike up a large rock ahead of me, the bars higher than my head. I jam both brakes on and step up, release the brakes and then shove the bike up again, and again, and again; trying to figure the easiest line to get the bike up through the jumble of rocks and rock. The glen below is like an aerial photo, the sun beats down. I keep moving, grinning that it's not slashing with rain and the views all around are stunning. And best of all, I'm not pushing a fatbike up this forbidding climb.... 

Tuesday - The Great Wilderness

4.30 and I woke to a grey and misty dawn. I was away by 5 to put me in Ullapool at the Tesco opening time. It was actually a bit damp and the cloud was down as I climbed up above Loch Damph. The bothy looked deserted but I didn't stop in any case. Of note was a tailwind, i.e. an easterly. This could prove annoying as it would throw a few headwinds at us on the way back, to match those on the way north....

Double score in Ullapool - the butchers by the harbour was doing rolls and coffee take way (opens at 7!) and next door to the ferry terminal was a 'bus shelter' - actually a small room with an automatic door that was heated - perfect bivvy spot anyone? So I sat in the warmth having breakfast, contemplating what was coming. A key part to a successful ride round the Highland Trail is to be at this point in good order and looking forward to the routes hardest section. I've been through the great wilderness four times, three on the HT; and I knew exactly what was coming. The walking of the previous day seemed to have settled my knee down so I was quite happy. Today there would be a lot of walking.... With that thought I wandered up to the Tesco where Alan, Pete and Georgie were stuffing food into bags for the coming miles.

Every little helps. As usual I wandered round aimlessly wondering what to buy. Top score was a chicken salad that decanted into a bag, plus a re-stock of snickers, haribo and the dreaded pepperami as well as choc chip cookies - a treat for later.

I enjoyed the new way into Fisherfield via Loch a Bhraoin in 2021 so was somewhat dubious when Alan made the '22 lot (and us) go back over the coffin road. It's one hell of a climb and the descent somewhat...rubbish... The climb was a bit of a labour but easy on a bike with single speed that has 600g's less drivetrain than a geared bike to lug up the hill. Or something. 

In the event the descent was ace - mainly because it was dry and seems somewhat more worn in than when I last did it back in '17 (in 2015 it was a complete swamp). It helped that the sun was starting to break through and the slabs of An Tealach were being revealed. I got an inkling of what was coming but it's fair to say that my wildest hopes for the next section were thoroughly exceeded.

Cloud boiling off An Tealach

The air was crystal clear and the massive crags overlooking the Strath na Sealga were sharply defined. It's a landscape that takes your breath away, vast buttresses of bare rock rising out of the lush strath. I've been to the Alps many times in winter and they are amazing but this seems to be much grander, despite the lower altitude. Maybe why many of our European cousins flock to Scotland for holidays.

And through it all I cruised. Not an easy trick on the moderately technical trail to Shenval but the bike seemed to trundle along with only minimal input from me as I took in what I knew would be a once in a lifetime experience. 

Even the horrible bit to the loch shore seemed to float by effortlessly and when the famous crossing appeared I didn't even pause, just pedaled across a couple of inches of water with stones poking out, the deep blue of the loch to my right.

It's worth noting that the shallow section is clearly defined when it's like this. To the left of the line the river channel makes the crossing much deeper and 10m or so to the right the shingle slopes into the loch. If your ever back here and it's raining, blowing a gale (and much deeper) this is your line, every time!

Of course a huge steep climb with a rocky finish is hard whatever the weather. I was now making a real effort to keep on top of my thirst given the heat. There had been plenty of water around so far but I nearly got caught out on this climb as the water bladder went dry and suddenly every burn I crossed was barely a trickle. I'd a folding cup with me so I could use this to fill up from these trickles until I eventually crossed a burn flowing enough for a proper refill. Despite this I sprang up the climb in fine style, not a soul to be seen in front or behind. 

Back to the Strath. It's clear I had this landscape in mind when I chose my framebag colour. A few dots appeared below - Georgie, Alan and Pete plus Mike Dennison, who had joined our loose posse on the Coffin road.

A large group of DoE students was passed near the top. They seemed to be making a lot of noise - not sure if they were cheering me on or engaged in some group activity, but I cared not, given what was coming.

It would be rude not to take this photo, and take in the view.

The descent, of course, was divine and the undulating roll out to Poolewe a blast. Not quite the joy of '21 as I was on my own but it was a good feeling knowing this section was behind me, tempered by a tinge of sadness that I couldn't pause in this unique landscape for longer. One day I will have to return with backpack and tent and make more of it. It'll have to be sunny though!

Chris Simpson and Andy Dod were crashed out on the grass outside the shop drying tents and airing tired feet. I grabbed a cold coke and an ice cream and joined them. Ice cream! on the Highland Trail! Who'd have thought such a thing...

They departed soon after but I was after good food so wandered along to the Poolewe hotel who had hosted us the last time. I was tucking into a large meal when Pete, Alan, Georgie and Mike turned up. We sat out in the sun idly chatting about the next sections and where we would all stop. Midges were my biggest concern as we were on the edge of the midge epicenter of Scotland. There was a stiff breeze blowing so the trick would be to get pitched up before it dropped overnight.

With that I was off up the dreaded Tollie Path.

CLANG! went my crank on a rock for the nth time. It whipped round and the pedal thumped into the back of my leg. I gritted my teeth and staggered on, thankful for sturdy boots on the boulder strewn trail.

First of many steppy bits on the descent. This looks straightforward in this pic. It didn't when I was actually here!

Now in previous years I've scorned people moaning about the Tollie path as I've always made a good job of riding the ultra techy descent. I'd taken one look at the first section and could not work out how I'd got down it before. Maybe it's been horribly washed out since the last time? I grumbled and stumbled my way down the remainder, then along the long roll out to Slatterdale which at least didn't feature the flooded sections of before. I still managed to get plenty of gunge on the bike though. Finally I fought my way out, noting our bivvy spot of '21 was midge central. The good news was lots of 'no overnight parking' signs and a locked barrier so anyone planning to stop here would at least have peace and quiet.

So onwards we go. Cruising along the empty main road I noted the breeze on the loch. Opposite was Slioch and the Postie path just visible. Many still seem to think this is much worse than the Tollie path - it's not...

As the road re-joined the lochside I switched on the bivvy radar to full. Dense heather, bracken or moss were to be avoided at all costs. But after a while, and not far from the informal campsite (midge hell) I spied a strip of pines between the road and the loch and plenty of space to lay my weary body between them; as well as a nice breeze.

Soft focus view as I'm behind both the bivvy bag mesh and my super light mozzy mesh tent. Get through that you little buggers! Three others rode past me but I was dead to the world as soon as my head hit the pillow.

This is super steep. My seat is down as much as possible and my backside is nearly on the mudguard. My knees are clamped around the front of the seat and my eyes are nailed to the trail in front of me, trying to discern the line. I'm moving steadily but carefully, sometimes diverting across the rock slabs just for the sake of it, not because they are the best way down. Every so often the trail narrows and my line is decided for me. Sometimes I'm riding on faith that the long, low and stable frame plus monster wheels will carry me through. A fall here would be bad news. I could stop and walk but where is the fun in that? The trail drops into a steep, steppy chute with a marginal exit. The line is clear before me.... but I stop. Foot down, off bike, walk. Get on, carry on. It's 7.30am so no-one notices my wimp out. I can ride all this stuff, I just choose not to. After all I'm riding a single speed rigid bike, I've done 450 miles and I'm 52...

Wednesday - South by Southeast 

My bladder woke me at 4 and the midges were hovering. So I shuffled into clothes, donned waterproofs and head net, then draped the mozzy tent over me like a ghostly robe, threw everything on the bike and got out of there. Salvation came in the form of the Kinlochewe public toilet. I piled in with everything then spent a chilled 30 minutes having breakfast, having a bit of a clean up and adjusting the bikes chain.


Well you can't have everything. I wandered up to the bottom of the Torridon climb and noted low cloud on the tops. In fact by the time I'd summited the pass it was all around me so no stunning views this morning. I took it steady on the descent as breaking something now would be a major bummer. At this point you know you are over the worst and it's just a case of keep plugging away at the last 150 miles without doing anything too horrible (like riding through the night) to get you to the end in reasonable order.

Near the bottom of the really steep stuff I spied Pete who was planked on the side of the trail with his bike upside down. Oh oh, this doesn't look good. Sure enough he'd clattered a particularly nasty water bar which led to the characteristic whoosh and spray of sealant of a rim puncture. The number of plugs he was cramming into the hole seemed a bit optimistic but he was happy for me to carry on. This is always tricky for me as I don't like abandoning people to their fate but Pete was confident he could sort things without needing a DQ through assistance by another rider.

So I left him too it, wussing even more of the descent. Worse, Pete had casually informed me he'd ridden most of the Tollie path descent. I'll have to blame old age for my stumble fest last night then...

Anyway, enough of all that, where are we getting breakfast? I thought I'd scored at the Loch Carron Hotel as they were advertising a café which looked to be open. Of course it wasn't (to non residents) but the chap at least made me a coffee. I chatted to the group of Americans busy tucking into full fry ups about our exploits to which they gasped out suitable amounts of amazement. I left soon enough though, concerned that Pete hadn't turned up. So Dornie or bust!

The bump between me and it was dispensed without too much issue; although I made my one nav error here - I took the first not second turning, the GPS being ignored of course as I know the route so well...

I just about caught Georgie at the top of the climb but she disappeared down the descent leaving me for dead. More grumblings about old age and the need to be sensible! But I caught her on the nadgery bit at the bottom so at least old age isn't holding me back on this stuff. In fact these days slow noodley nadgery trails are a favourite...

After a brief pause at Dornie public loos I was off to the shop, only to find it was shut and in fact shut down. Hells bells that's a blow. It's been used by many on all editions of the Highland Trail and was always well stocked. No idea what the story was there but I'd no choice but to crack on over the road climb to Inverinate garage. Georgie had joined me by this time - she was needing to charge her GPS so paused at the garage after I'd fed my face (a lot of food - by this stage I'll eat anything put in front of me) 

I negotiated passage of Highland Council re-surfacing the junction of the Morvich road, which was technically shut. Then up we go into Kintail, the clouds suddenly receding and the sun shining down.

Mike Dennison was grumbling about the hot weather and the climb but I was quite happy as this was a mere bump compared to many we'd done and once you are up it, you really are on the home straight. I actually soaked my shirt in a side burn and put it on wet to cool me off. By the time I marched (staggered) up the climb and negotiated the ace single track to the bothy it had completely dried. Better yet the easterly of earlier was back to the west so after all those headwinds on the way up north, it was nice to get a helping hand. That said a breeze in the face would have been quite nice....

I paused a way past the bothy for lunch as a walker was sat outside and I was getting fed up of telling people about our undertaking. Then off along the rough track, ploughing through the burns and puddles to keep legs and feet cool. 

About 15 years ago, me and Mum and Dad walked up to here from the Glen Affric car park - about as much as my Dad could manage then and sadly much more than he could do now. It was a glorious day in March and the hills were plastered in snow. I always stop here for a quick reminisce. 

On the low climb over to Tommich I spoke to Andy who was cooling off in the shade. His wrist was giving him gyp due to the pounding of the trail so he'd had to ease off on the rough ground. I got to Tommich and headed for the hotel in the hope of a food score. Unfortunately they weren't serving until 6 and it was only just after 5 so I grabbed a pint of juice and sat out in the blazing sun. Andy joined me soon after plus a chap (who knew Rob Waller) doing the Great North Trail. I noted he had a couple of spare tyres - he'd had tyre problems and bought these as a back up. I thought of Pete's problems but there was no way I could communicate this potential solution to his tyre woes without breaking the none assist rule. I'd seen he was moving again after finally checking the tracker so hopefully he was either sorted, or would bump into this chap himself and do a deal.

So third biggest climb on the route approaching. Up I went, careful to take it steady in the heat. The wind had veered back east again so more tailwinds followed; plus would give me a shove down the Great Glen to boot! My target was Fort Augustus pizza shop before 9. A bit tight but I'd get something in the pub if all else failed, or else fall back on cold couscous. Andy blazed past me and stayed ahead up the old military road and down to Fort Augustus - cue more grumblings about youth and old age... 

Gravel-tastic on the pylon climb. Ahead is the Military Road climb and beyond the Corrieairyack, Creag Meagaidh just visible on the horizon centre pic. Better yet, the Ben was clearly visible down the bottom of the Great Glen, despite an earlier assertion I'd be unlikely to see it thus on the Highland Trail again. Earlier I'd already glimpsed the wind farm near Loch Ma Stack on the climb over to Tommich. It had only been three days ago since we passed these on the way north but it seemed like weeks ago. I'd had doubts if I would see it from this perspective (again!) but here I was, again...

I didn't muck around in FA, just blazed round to the pizza place which was serving and quiet - happy days. It looked like Andy headed for the Chinese but I felt this would be risky given my tendency to react violently to spicy food on a long bike ride.

Nope, more soup and pizza for me, two saved slices wrapped up and stashed with another can of Irn bru for breakfast. I'd plenty of snacks to get me to Fort Bill so with that I was off into a blessedly cool evening on the easy miles down the canal tow path, tailwind right enough. 

I knew the flat section by loch Oich was shut due to forestry work (none of which was evident) and I was a bit grumbly about the extra climbing the Great Glen Way follows but it is a nicer route to be fair and more in keeping with the Highland Trail, I suppose.... I passed a similar welfare unit to what I had used on Monday morning which was also open but it was only 9pm and I wanted to get as far down this route as I could tonight. The midges were out in force though, clouds of them hovering in the cool evening air, awaiting the passage of a smelly bikepacker, i.e. me! There was a breeze though so all I needed was a level area in it.

Finally on the climb above Loch Lochy (a further diversion to avoid a micro hydro scheme) the forest track segued into a brand new smooth gravel path and at a viewing area I stopped and got my bivvy gear out. The surface was small but sharp stone chips so in the interests of bivvy bag preservation I stripped off all my stinking kit, spread it and waterproofs on the ground then laid the bivvy bag on top, dived in and crashed out. Two bikes went past after a bit but sleep followed soon after as the moon shone down on my spot and the loch.

I used to crave an audience when I was riding a tricky descent but that was when I was in my twenties. Now all I want is a clear run at this steep and loose trail and definitely no spectators. I have to choose my lines carefully to avoid oncoming pedestrians and be able to stop to allow them to pass (and have a chat). It's the last such descent so I'm being extra careful. I once did this in the dark at 2am and walked the lot. Today its 10am, the sun is blazing and I'm nearly done

Thursday - Sun and dry trails

So whose passing bike woke me then? Georgie or Pete? It could be either and Pete would be keen to make up lost time after his puncture. I lay awake for a while as the grey light of dawn crept over me. There was still a bit of a breeze and no evident midges so my best bet would be to move. Out of bivvy into clothes (after brushing dust and stone chips off them) shivering in the cool morning air, stuff on bike, go.

A couple of hundred metres along two guys were sleeping in a seating area on a bend - Andy and Chris, sans tents which was brave. That said there was no mist this morning and the sky largely clear. After a fast descent I was back on the loch shore track checking out a cloud free Ben Nevis.

Still some big bits of snow on the north face but much less than in 2021 after the monster winter that year. More easy pedaling followed and I was extremely happy. Many moan about this bit as it's so flat, often highlighting any injuries which previous trails would have distracted you from. But I really was happy, checking out the views, reflecting on my fabulous ride through so much sunny scenery, knowing that I'd just done something that was unlikely to ever happen again and enjoying moving quickly with little effort or hindrance, a stiff breeze helping me along. 

At Lagan locks I tried the loos but they were both locked. Someone had chiseled the wood away from the lock on one though so I managed to spring it with my leatherman pliers. More luxury WC facilities! I left it as I found it, the 24hr garage in Fort Bill my destination. I faffed a bit finding the route to this but soon enough was sat on the forecourt drinking coffee and eating pies and cake, looking up at the Ben's west ridge.

Then onto the last bit. I got up the climb before the heat of the day and without much trouble, even on the steppy singletrack. A couple on the military road asked me if I was riding the whole WHW - I tried to explain what we were doing but I could see they didn't really comprehend it. WHW rush hour followed across the top and into the descent but there seemed many less than the last time and they were all really polite - mainly young Europeans. So I picked my way down carefully, stopping to let climbers pass but in good style otherwise. I caught a glimpse of a bike leaving the Co-op as I went into the loo but didn't see who it was. I thought I'd seen a couple of bike tracks earlier and figured Andy and Chris had gotten going and got ahead when I was having breakfast but there was no-one at the Co-op so I grabbed food and juice and had a brief pause in the sun ahead of the routes biggest climb. 

Much walking and some fine riding to get to the top, but I got there eventually with many walkers coming towards me. After about the tenth person asked me if I was doing the WHW and I tried to explain what we were doing I just started smiling and saying yes. I passed Georgie (it had been her who'd woken me earlier) on the descent making extensive use of the F word with regard to water bars, loose gravel and a monster climb she hadn't anticipated. One last pause at the loos by the Kinghouse hotel and then I was on the last miles, pushing on up the steady climb and hammering the descent as fast as the walkers would allow. The trail cleared for the last blast and then it it was into the bonus climb up onto Mam Carraigh, a pause for the view and remembering being up here with Mike Toyn two years ago.

Last view back across Rannoch Moor and the Mamores just visible from where I'd just ridden.

I cruised along the last track, the realisation that I'd done it again building, along with a massive grin on my face. I was fair chuffed needless to say, my problematic build up and knee issues having made my presence here a bit marginal to say the least. I passed one last rider at Auch farm - Adam Archibald who'd smacked his pedal off a waterbar on the last descent and cracked his crank, necessitating him to push on any bit of a climb to stop it from breaking right off! He waved me on and so I busted a gut up the last climb, then the last push and the final roll out to the finish.

No-one was there to greet me so I hit the OK button on the tracker and headed for the Real Food Cafe for my free meal. Just then Alice Lemkes appeared, first women to finish, for a belated cheer. I felt chuffed of course and pleased that she'd made the effort to come and see a back marker in. Soon enough I was in amongst a gang of other finishers, reflecting on our experiences of the last few days and how fab it had all been. Fellow SS'er Martyn was there having had a blistering run round the route finishing at midnight the previous day so we exchanged SS notes and both agreed it's the only way to ride a bike. I booked a room in the hotel so I could stay the night and see others finish and then we all retired to the pub for many beers and food. 

Georgie was there having finished not long after me, as well as Ian and Chris who cursed me for finding the first level spot on the trail above Loch Lochy in the breeze but being delighted to find another one just a bit along. We went up to see Alan in, to much cheering. Myself, Annie, Martyn and Andrew had the singlespeed conversation - basically it's the absolute best and everyone should ride SS as it's much cooler, easier and just generally better. Like all SS'ers I occasionally think I should bung the gears back on but this re-affirmed my resolve to keep the chainline straight. 

Then Pete arrived and we shook hands for a job well done. His puncture had not sealed so he'd had to fit a tube, then another tube when it punctured and then when it let go he actually managed to get the patched tyre up tubeless again but had to get a new tyre in Fort William. The dude with the spare tyres at Tomich Hotel was nowhere to be seen when he passed though...

More beers followed before I crashed out for 10 hours of sleep. Then more chit chat at breakfast in the cafe. I felt a bit out of place amongst all these young super fast types, including first person back Angus Young, but it was all very friendly - a consequence of the shared experience of the route and the fabulous weather. There was a fair bit of chat about bikepacking, ITT's and all the stuff that's being talked about these days. Paul Caldwell summed it up though - "this thing is totally amazing and whatever happens, stuff like this has to keep going, no matter what!" Amen.

Kit Chat

Bike:- Jones LWB size medium 29+ single speed 32/21. Much bashed about middleburn cranks, much scratched light bicycle placcy rims, placcy loop bars and some other stuff. Mudhugger rear guard and mucknutz front - despite the dry weather these were invaluable as there was still plenty of clag about. Bonty XR2 tyres which seem singularly well suited to this route, wet or dry. The Jones excelled itself once more with nothing needed but a few chain lubes and one chain adjustment. It ended up as filthy as it did in the much wetter 2021 edition, but I think that was because the rain and rivers kept the bike cleaner that year!

Kit:- A lot lighter this year - Shelter was a DCF flat tarp, borah bivvy bag, lightweight carbon pole and ally pegs - 500g's total and capable of dealing with some pretty crap weather, which of course I didn't need to. I actually used the bivvy bag only on three nights, one of which was in a tin shed. I deployed the tarp once because it might rain and once as I was worried about condensation. All in all an ace set up that I've used loads of times on many bivvys in a range of weather. I also had my Sea to Summit nano mozzy tent. This weighs a mere 60g's and can be draped over your bivvy bag (or you) for a midge free sleep. It can also be used when going to the loo!

I went with the Cumulus 150 quilt which was a bit marginal on Saturday and Sunday night but as it had been dry I was able to bung my paramo jacket on so was plenty warm. As usual I was on a full length thermorest neoair and an exped pillow - I'm getting old! Other than that all I had was a thin base layer top and 3/4 length long johns for sleeping in - more than enough in the event. I didn't use a stove this year and that was fine, given the nice weather. I had caffeine pills for an early morning wake up but was able to stash cans of irn bru a couple of times and just ate what I had to hand. I did carry a couple of 'Tent Meals' freeze dried 500kCal main courses - basically couscous, nuts, spices and a dried sauce that are really good (hot) and could be re-hydrated cold in about 30 minutes. In the event I didn't need them as I managed to get good food every day.

Bags wise I had my usual - old style Revelate sweet roll on the front (tarp, pole, pegs, overtrousers, fleece gloves, gaiters, waterproof jacket, mozzy tent) Hanging off the front of this was an Alpkit stem cell for on the go snacks. I woke up on morning two to discover a small rodent had gnawed through this and into the packet of crisps inside! Full wildcat custom frame bag into which went water, food, pump, two inner tubes, money, phone, toilet kit, sun cream (used three times!) The last time I went with a more ultra racer chic half frame bag and bottle but this meant I could only carry one liter of water and had to fumble down below to grab it. The full frame bag meant I could stash my bladder in it and carry up to two liters of water. I was actually quite careful how much I carried to avoid excess weight but a couple of times it was nice knowing I could carry a nice amount. It also had loads of room for food. 

A Revelate Gas tank held tools, puncture kit and other odds and ends as well as my specs which I need for reading the GPS and fixing things. I also had a Jerry can full of lights and batteries. Out back I had a Wildcat tiger harness with a Restrap dry bag. This was a mistake as the drybag didn't fit the harness properly. The proper dry bag had started leaking so I got this one thinking it would work. It didn't as it was too fat for the harness at the front so I could never get it strapped up properly. Should have used the Rev terrapin!

On me I wore a Bear Bones Bikepacking long sleeved jersey plus a BB gillet. A change from my usual torm merino top but I wanted something more casual and looser fitting which was nice when it got hot. Down below I wore a pair of Madison 3/4 trail shorts on top of BAM bamboo boxers. Yes no padded shorts for me this time, after my fancy Assos ones shredded my nether regions last time. Other than a bit of rubbing on my butt cheeks I had no issues and they were considerably nicer to wear than the over stuffed assos shorts, even on day 6! On my feet I had my Shimano XM90 Goretex boots, a pair of thin walking socks and thin dexshell waterproof socks. Given how dry it was I was amazed at how many people still seemed to have trench foot. I can only surmise they were deliberately getting their feet wet to keep them cool as there was never a need to do so. My feet got a bit hot at times but at other times they were starting to go numb with cold.... Finally an endura cheap lid and spesh gel gloves (for the 6th time!) I also carried a pair of fleece gloves which could be dragged on over my spesh gloves. I used these all four mornings. Oh and I wore my shades. 

All in all this worked very well. The only thing I didn't use were the gaiters as it didn't rain. My lightest HT load out to date (3kg plus food and water) and it definitely made the big pushes easier. Finally my pink, squeaky rubber rat went on the bars as a mascot in celebration of Iona's successful 2014 ride and subsequent successful fight with cancer.

Final Word

Riding for 6 days across most of the Highlands of Scotland in completely dry weather probably ranks as the most unbelievable thing I've ever done. I'm probably now due an eternity of horrible weather, especially as I also had a dry BB300 last year. But maybe this is just making up for all the horrible weather I've ridden a bike through in the last 40 years...

Two years ago I wrote something like "I'm done with the Highland Trail having done it three times and so I'm going to quit whilst I'm ahead" and yet I did it again anyway. I think this really could be it but I'm being more objective now. I've done it 4 times in a range of weather and this time seemed to crown them all. My pacing was perfect, I didn't wreck myself (dodgy knee pain free as I write this) and enjoyed it all - the riding, the scenery, the sheer joy of riding all day, grabbing food where you can, sleeping where you can and then doing it all again and especially the company - I've always fell in with one or two people whenever I've done the Highland Trail and ended up bumping into them throughout the route and having a good chat / moan / celebration of completion. This year it was Pete Crawforth who was a great trail buddy. I thought he would burn me into the ground at some point and would have, had he not had a puncture. It was great to meet you Pete, good luck with the wee'un! Also howdy to Georgie, Mike D, Tom, Lorah and Pete A, plus a few others I met and chatted to along the way and at the end, in particular Alan G himself. I'd still like to do an ITT but it will be a Highland Trail 'lite' i.e sans the northern loop and with a few other tweaks to make it a bit easier. Watch this space!

Finally, a massive thanks to Alan for organising all of this and keeping the route hard and fresh (as well as laying on fab weather). Cheers buddy and keep up the good work!


  1. Excellent read, thanks for posting, love the kit review too :-)

  2. Enjoyed the write up, Phil. Good work! See you again next year...?

  3. Cheers Adam, good to meet you too! And I enjoyed your write up - far more insightful than mine! Probably give it a miss next year - maybe the year after that?