Last night of the month? Check. Set out after 10pm? Check. Have work the next morning? Check. All the ingredients for my standard monthly bivy were there, with the added bonus of needing to be back home by 0630 to start getting the kids ready for school/nursery as Yvonne was also in work the next day. For these reasons, I decided on something relatively short, so I’d not be in a rush in the morning. No route planned in advance I went with an idea and a rough location in my head.
I’d decided to give the mountain bike and its plus tyres a go on some sand to see if it would be viable for a longer coastal trek in future. I also wanted to see how light I could pack for a night out in summer. As usual I was on my way after the standard Co-Op shop at about 10pm and rolling down towards the sea after throwing in some town based singletrack. I was a fair way downhill when I realised my phone was still sitting in the garage. As the true horror of being unable to post a sunrise picture on instagram/facebook or obsessively check the weather forecast every 20 minutes began to dawn on me, I briefly considered going back up to fetch it. My main concern was that I wouldn’t have an alarm to wake me up, but i figured the fact that I seem to wake up every 30 minutes when bivying would probably see me right.
I popped out of Seaton park near the bridge and turned down the first road that would give me access to the beach. After hitting a couple of dead ends where the shore line had been eroded I found my way down to the tide line and got rolling North without any sinking issues that would have required fatter tyres. It really was lovely to just pedal along on the flat without a care in the world, taking in the views of Trump’s beloved wind turbines.
I started looking for a suitable bivy spot as the light faded further – somewhere near the base of the dunes with a little elevation to make sure I wasn’t caught out at high tide in an hour. I finally identified a likely looking shelf and scrambled up to take a peek. It looked just right to fit me and the bike in together, so I pulled up the bike and unpacked my gear. My minimal sleeping gear consisted of a Klymit Ultralite V pad, a SOL Escape bivy and my old silk sleeping bag liner, adding up to less than 700g I’d guess. I had a bit of tea and a sandwich before sticking on my light down jacket and sliding my knee warmers down to cover my legs to my socks. It was a mild night, so I didn’t foresee any problems with having so little shelter, as I got myself comfy and tried to sleep.
It was one of those nights that never really gets dark and I found myself able to maintain a comfortable temperature throughout, without any condensation issues. Eventually it got light enough for me to check the time on my GPS – far too early. I dozed for a while longer and eventually struggled upright to take in the sunrise. There was a break in the cloud, allowing the sun to stream through for the perfect picture opportunity I was missing. Instead, I was forced to suffer the indignity of absorbing the view with my eyeballs and brain alone whilst sipping my tea.
My natural fear of out and back rides had me checking out the top of the dune I was camped on to see If I could go back a different way. Directly above, after some bike hefting was a faint path through the undergrowth to a working area at the back of the local golf course. I recognised it as one of the ones I had passed through on a similar bivy last year, so I knew I’d be able to follow the mix of gravel and tarmac paths through this and the next course back to where I’d joined the beach. At just after 5am, golfers were thin on the ground, so I had the courses to myself as I made my way back to the Don.
I didn’t stick to the road long, immediately diving onto a path above the riverside which eventually deposited me in Seaton Park. From there, I followed my usual mix of riverside trail and back field shortcuts to get me home before even the kids had woken up.
This was a ride I’ve had floating about my head for years and never got round to. In the past, I would have thought of this a day’s ride, but I decided to ride my mountain bike in to work on a sunny Tuesday and get cracking straight from there. The plan was simple – ride to the top of the 7 biggest hills close to Aberdeen and get a picture of my bike at each trig point. My first target was Tullos Hill, which is approximately 5 minutes from work, reached by following a steep gravelly path straight up the side of the hill to the highest cairn of several, this one topped with a trig point, giving views North over the city and the sea to the East.
From the top, it was a quick ride along the top, before dropping down behind the Shell buildings and crossing the main road to reach the entrance to Kincorth Hill nature reserve. A few minutes later, I turned off the main gravel track and followed the line of fence to take me to the hidden trig point.
Two hills down in short order, but I had to cover a bit of distance to reach the next. I flew down to the end of the hill, then crossed the River Dee and climbed up to the Deeside Railway Line, which I followed for a few miles to get me within range of hill number three. I turned off and started climbing up back roads and farm tracks, reaching a field entrance which my aerial reconnaissance told me contained a trig point at the top corner. I pushed my bike up the verge so as not to disturb the freshly sown soil, got to the top of the wall and started looking for the Contlaw Hill trig point.
This was the only summit I wasn’t sure about finding, so I rolled back down the field edge to take the handy farm track that linked across towards Countesswells and start another very familiar climb up to the top of Kingshill Wood. The trig here is tucked away in the trees behind the small water reservoir.
Now, I wanted to try a new way off the hill that would deposit me right by Kingswells. I stopped in the warm sun and ate a packet of crisps from the vending machine in work and drank some tea from my insulated mug. There was a sneaky wee trail off the main path here that weaved through some young pines before a steep downhill to a field boundary, which could be hopped over before riding down a grassy field to rejoin a track to the main road. Next, I headed across to Kingswells and used its extensive network of off road paths to make my way through to the far end of the town and onto my chosen route up Brimmond Hill. There was a spanking new bridge over the AWPR before I turned off into the trees for narrow rooty singletrack riding, eventually emerging onto to the steeper hill paths. The last time I had been this side of the hill was about 14 years ago and the gorse had been above head height with no gaps between, so I had forced my way down from the top and come out well and truly perforated. Nowadays, the paths are much more well looked after, so I could concentrate on the challenge of riding up the hill!
The light up top was amazing – even the unsightly communications towers couldn’t take away from it. I dwelled for a wee while and took a few photos, but I needed to keep moving so that I didn’t miss the last of the light for the next two hills. Off I shot, down the tarmac service road and through the gate at the bottom, crossing the road and nipping through a gap in the treeline.
The path here followed the edge of the golf course, taking me down to a burn crossing, where I swung left after the bridge and contoured around Elrick Hill on a rooty, rocky path. I humphed my way up the last steep stretch to the top of the hill and emerged into a clearing with several rustic picnic benches, which looked to have been pillaged for firewood by ne’er do wells. This was the only hill without a trig point, so I had to rely on a bench for my summit shot.
There was a nice rocky singletrack descent through the heather off the top of the hill, where it was hard not to stop and enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately, I had places to be, so I took a couple of pictures before moving on.
Before long, I was down at the Tyrebagger carpark and rejoined the road to cross the A90 at a sprint before any cars bore down on me at the Kirkhill turn off. I rumbled along the firm forestry tracks on my old regular running route and after a couple of brisk climbs took the final trail up to the Tappie Tower for my seventh summit shots.
A long-held mission accomplished, I bumped my way down off the hill and whizzed round on the forestry tracks to yet another new AWPR crossing. This deposited me on farm tracks above Dyce and I dropped down to the airport road, before nipping through the agricultural college on a new route for me. I added a couple more layers, as the temperature had plummeted and then cruised along a mix of more farm and park tracks to get me back home for dinner.
Jon was about to get the most thoughtful of 40th birthday presents – a free weekend in close proximity to a sweaty Scouser in the mountains. After receiving a text from his lovely wife that we were to organise something for him as a treat, a plan was finally made during the balmy week in February, henceforth referred to as Fools’ Spring. We were going to meet up in Blair Atholl on a Friday night in March, kip in the car and head out on a weekend ride of one of the Cairngorms Loops, depending on progress and weather conditions.
Needless to say, once the plan was formed, the mercury began to plummet and lots of chat about kit ensued – Jon loves a good bikepacking gear geek-out. When the weekend arrived, snow had returned to the mountains in earnest, so we were going to head out and see how conditions on the ground were before committing to anything too ambitious. I headed out in the late evening on Friday, after getting the kids to bed and made a dash for Blair Atholl, as Jon was already on the train up there from Edinburgh. The roads were quiet and I made good time, leaving us a bit of time for a drink and chat in the Atholl Arms before popping over to the car park in the forest to get our heads down.
In my head, I thought we’d be up and riding about 6-ish, to give us a good chance to hit the top of the route before the wind turned to a Northerly. In reality, we woke about half an hour after that and then spent 2 hours fannying about with our kit in the steadily increasing snowfall.
With the thought of wading through snow at some point during the ride, I’d brought along the Giro gaiters that match my Alpineduro boots, to see if they would squeeze over the Adidas Goretex mid boots I was cycling in. They looked just the ticket, so that was a boost, as the snow felt pretty wet anyway. Jon however, had been so excited about wearing his new Terrex flat shoes, that he had declined my advice to wear boots for this trip, thinking I was winding him up! He went for some wool socks with SealSkinz over them and hoped for the best.
Finally, we were up and running along the A9 cycle path, following the treads of a solitary digger that had hit the road before us. The snow was very soft and added little resistance, so we could just enjoy the muted crunch of it beneath our tyres.
It wasn’t long before we reached the turn off at Dalnacardoch, where an easy climb would hopefully get the blood pumping enough to warm the extremities, as John’s feet were already beginning to feel the cold. We stopped under the trees for a while to allow him to hop about and get some blood into them.
The scene ahead looked both forbidding and inviting. The snow was extremely slippy, so any attempts to switch ruts along the estate track led to an instant dismount, which was funnier to watch than experience!
As we passed Sronphadruig Lodge, I guided Jon onto the first track up to the watershed, promising him a decent walk to get his feet working again. The usual bog- hopping took us across to start of the elevated path along the side of Loch an Duin, which I’d been planning to walk today regardless in these conditions.
We slipped and slithered along, enjoying the absurdity of the situation as feeling slowly returned to Jon’s feet and the wind swung around to start blowing the snow across our faces, rather than the tailwind we’d enjoyed thus far.
As the path levelled out near the far end of the loch, I got to put the 29+ tyres to work rolling through whatever was hidden under the snow and made a beeline for the crossing point of the Allt Loch an Duin. In the past, I’ve taken off my shoes to keep them dry for this crossing, but I figured I’d manage alright today. Jon was not so lucky however and his newly warmed feet were instantly chilled again.
The going is normally really quick on this side of the pass, but as the speed increased, so did the wind chill. Jon’s suffering increased and we were forced to use any steep climb as a chance for him to walk and allow his feet to thaw out a little. Once he started mentioning the numbness spreading above his foot, I called it a day in my head and started planning alternative possibilities. Or, as I put it to Jon: “No fucking way am I ending up with your feet in my armpits!”.
First priority was to get Jon warmed up, so we continued on our way down Glen Tromie in the same fashion, hammering the flats and downhills and using the uphills to give Jon’s feet some movement when walking. This worked for the most part and when we Reached Tromie Bridge I diverted us onto the National Cycle Route that would take us straight to Loch Insh on the back road. After bit of speedy road riding that tested Jon’s foot pain threshold to the limit, we exploded into the restaurant in a flurry of disrobed layers and steaming socks. Jon got himself propped up against the radiator whilst our gloves and headwear slowly dried and attempted to coax life back into his feet. There was no rush now, as one of the proper loops was out of the question and I had time to fill Jon with hot tea and healthy snacks to take his mind off the defrosting limb pain.
After an hour of being well looked after by the nice staff, we started formulating plans. My initial option of bivying in the forest nearby and then riding back down the A9 cycle path to Blair Atholl was sensible but a bit of a letdown compared to what we were here for. I put a more interesting option to Jon, that we could ride down Glen Feshie to Ruigh Aiteachain bothy for an easier night’s sleep and possible warming fire. The next morning, if all was well, we could do part of the Inner Loop backwards by continuing on to Glen Geldie and then back via Glen Tilt to the car. He was well up for this, so we had another hour’s drying time, switched Jon to dry warm socks and made our way over the hill in the deepening snow towards Tovah.
We found the bridge and switched to the other side of the river, climbing up onto the path that would take us to the bothy. A bit of scrambling down the down and up the big landslip at the mouth of the Allt Garblach and we were on some lovely tracks through the forest. Jon was feeling much better with dry socks and fun riding, so we were at the bothy in no time – I was interested to see what the renovations had done to the place. On arrival, we said hi to the other two inhabitants and had a look around. The work had been done brilliantly – upstairs was clad completely and looked pretty posh. The young couple downstairs had cut some of the damp firewood from outside and were trying to coax it into a decent burn in the stove with the door open. Strangely, they had also put their tent up in the middle of the room, so we went back into the first room and got ourselves set up on the bench there – even without a fire, we should be warm enough overnight, with the added benefit of minimising smoke inhalation! We got ourselves out of any remaining wet kit and arranged it around the stove next door, before cooking up some food and heading back through for a warm and a chat.
We didn’t stress about being up too early the next day, as there wasn’t a lot of distance to cover, so we roused ourselves at 7ish and got breakfast on. I went outside to brush my teeth, whilst Jon used up my toilet paper in a weight-shedding exercise at the fancy toilet block. We could actually see the sky, so were keen to get up and running whilst the weather was inviting.
We cleared up and got rolling on the freakishly snow free path from the bothy, before we started heading for the edge of the river where things got much narrower. All the trees were loaded with wet snow, which was deposited all over us as we passed. The undergrowth was doing the same to our drivetrains, with the snow compacting into balls of ice on the jockey wheels, causing an annoying tick followed by random mis-shifts until it was cleared.
We soon reached the turn off for the raised singletrack that everyone seems to miss in favour of the land rover track below. This was as overgrown as ever, giving us a thorough soaking as we pushed through to the last landslip.
The constant soaking had started to mess with Jon’s feet again, but this time I had a master plan – we would soon be walking, a lot! There was still a bit of uphill riding to do however and we were soon high up the glen, looking down on my bivy spot from the full Cairngorms Loop a couple of years back.
The wide track would start to deteriorate soon, so I kept an eye out for trace of the narrow path that parallels the vehicle track. It was hard to spot in the snow, but is a much better bet, as it has a firm base, unlike the alternative which is full of bottomless mud traps! As we pressed on, you could feel the consistency of the snow changing to a firmer feel due to the cold, which made it more of an effort to ride through.
As we approached the watershed, the snow started to come down again in earnest. We now had a push through the heather to reach the Eidart bridge while the wind drove the snow across us as we made a guess as to where the best path was.
The bit after the bridge is always very vague, so I just headed for wherever the pushing looked easiest whilst the blizzard really kicked in, battering us from the front right. I threw on my snow goggles, which made the whole thing much more bearable, whilst Jon went for putting up his hood. After a bit of tough pushing through the now much deeper snow, the snow eased off so we could take stock of our surroundings.
Were were on the path properly now, so just needed to read the terrain ahead of us to keep on it and enjoy the slightly easier going. It was still a world better than my passage in this direction many years back on a January night in pitch dark with no head torch. I had frozen snow banks to climb up and ended up following the path by the feel of the ground underneath my feet!
We also had the wind at our tails now, so our trudge through the snow was pretty enjoyable if hard work, with the odd comedy disappearance in a waist deep drift or hidden burn
Eventually, the terrain started to flatten out and we could see Geldie Lodge ahead on the far side of the river, meaning the tough bit was nearly over. Once we were level with the lodge we joined a proper estate track, had a bit of lunch and progress increased rapidly.
As we got nearer the Geldie crossing, we started to see the first footprints we’d seen all weekend and discussing what time we’d finish the ride. Jon had a couple of options for trains, but it would be handy for him to make the 6pm one back to Edinburgh. It seemed doable, but we wouldn’t really know until we saw the conditions along Glen Tilt. First of all, Jon had to get his nice warm feet wet on the river crossing!
Once we were past the follow up crossings and the boggy bit after Bynack Lodge, Jon switched to his only slightly damp socks in order to avoid a repeat of yesterday and we started to enjoy a slidey ride along the Glen Tilt singletrack. Some bits are great, some are dodgy and some have rocks that are determined to tip you over the side and into the torrent below.
There was much less snow along this glen, so no big dramas – just a regular donning and disrobing of jackets as the regular blizzards blew over from behind.
Eventually, the snow petered out completely, which was surprising considering the amount that had been on the ground when we left Blair Atholl. Still, it kept the progress swift and it was looking more likely we would make Jon’s earlier train.
Taking the turn off to Fealar Lodge wasn’t going to happen today, but I pointed it out to Jon and explained how upset he was going to be for the real thing, if my experience was anything to go by! As usual, The Falls of Tarf marked the start of the really quick part of the glen and we cranked up the speed despite being unsure if we could make it.
The extra effort was worth it, as we screamed into the car park with about 20 minutes until Jon’s train arrived. I sent him ahead to the train station whilst I packed my bike into the car and drove round with his spare gear. He had a leisurely 5 minutes to throw his stuff into his bag before he hopped onto the train and away home. I wasn’t too bothered not to have completed our original routes as we’d had a great ride regardless. Jon’s dodgy footwear choice had probably been a blessing in disguise, as it had let us chill out chat for a good bit rather than the usual non-stop late night finish my escapades have a habit of descending into!
Down to the wire for another month, I headed out just before 10 and stocked up on food in the Co-Op for a luxurious Friday night out. I’d decided to knock off a couple of VeloViewer Explorer squares out past Echt that had been bugging me and was going to find a spot for my hammock in Midmar Forest to kill two birds with one stone. I’d loaded up the Amazon and stuck on some chunky tyres for the offroad bits, but was taking the direct tarmac route out there. I arrived at my turn off without any drama, thanks to the quiet roads.
I needed to climb up into the trees and then get far enough along the main track to have acquired the grid square I was after. The gradient never got too steep for my gearing as I made my way up, scanning the track side for decent hammock hanging areas. There were loads of possibilities so I carried on to my turn around point, before making a u-turn and rolling back down to get myself set up for the night. It was pretty late by now, so I didn’t take too long to ponder it and settled on a clearing slightly away from the path that was in a dip to give some shelter from the wind.
In my never-ending quest for a lightweight way of insulating the underside of the hammock, I was trying out some reflective foil bubble wrap normally used for building purposes that I had rolled up between the hammock layers when packing. No need for a tarp , judging by the forecast, so was still on only one bivy requiring a tarp for the entire year!
The thermal wrap idea was mostly successful, but the lack of flexibility was noticeable and I could still feel a bit of the cold through the hammock material. One day I might actually get round to purchasing an underquilt. Dawn came and I eventually roused myself to drink some tea and get packed up.
I was going to ride all the way through the forest to the far end, as I’d never been the whole way before. The paths stayed good for the most part, except for a sticky patch in the middle.
Eventually, I reached the far end of the forest and was on tracks familiar from running and cycling up the Hill of Fare. I took my usual exit route, popping out on the Echt road, before turning off onto quiet back roads to take me home. All done in time for the kids’ swimming lessons!
October saw me in my favourite part of the world with the family in a cottage in Nethy Bridge. I had a week to try and sneak in a bivy, which meant I could wait for a decent weather window in the fickle half-term weather. I was also looking forward to trying out my new 29+ WTB Ranger tyres on the Commando, which I’d hurriedly tubelessed up before leaving.
Tuesday night looked windy and slightly wet, but was still a better bet than the rest of the week. After the usual rigmarole of getting the kids to bed, I threw my gear together and rolled straight into Abernethy Forest, practically from the back door. Rather than head straight to my planned spot, I did a bit of exploring the trails nearby on my way.
I took a side track I hadn’t used before to reach Forest Lodge and headed on up towards Ryvoan. I was aiming for the edge of the forest, where I could set up the hammock with some kind of view of the Cairngorms for the morning. After an easy gradual ascent I emerged into the howling wind, thinking maybe I should have stopped lower down! Never mind, I bashed through a bit of heather to find a suitable spot with slightly less wind and got set up.
Due to the inclement nature of the forecast, I decided to set up the tarp for the first time this year, which either says a lot about this year’s weather or more my tendency to wuss out of the rain! I drank a cuppa from my flask, had a snack and got my head down.
As usual, I slept in a bit later than intended as I didn’t fancy packing up in the dark after putting up with this windy spot in the hope of a decent view. I’d originally planned to make a big loop on my way back by going over An Slugain, but I thought I’d better get home handy to start the day’s entertainments with the wee ones.
I still couldn’t bear to completely retrace my steps, so shortly after heading back, I swung a left and climbed up to the buildings at Rynettin, for a better view South.
From Rynettin it was a fast roll to Forest Lodge, where I took a different way back towards the Loch Garten road, which I promptly left to use the local path network all the way back home.
After doing all my bivies for the year alone apart from a couple with young Kerr, September would see a change in that I would have adult company with me for once! Iarla was over on a visit from Norway and dead keen on joining me. After a nice day in Stonehaven entertaining the kids, I took Iarla back to ours to kit him out with some cycling gear for a late night dash out to Dinnet after the kids went to bed. Somehow I managed to root out some legwear that would fit over his ridiculous rower’s thighs and let him steal my favourite windproof.
Arriving at Dinnet, the heavens had opened, so I trusted the forecast that it was going to blow over and we hung out in the car for an extra 20 minutes. After our tactical pause we were greeted with slightly lighter rain, so that would have to do!
We whizzed along the road and turned off to follow the North shore of Loch Kinord. It’s a pleasant ride on a nice day, but we were just happy to see the rain ease off further. We popped out onto another road before turning off again to head South West on the land rover track to take us up the hills behind Burn o’ Vat. It was just a pretty straightforward uphill slog to where the path from the Vat emerges and then rolling down to where I thought I remembered the path up to Cnoc Dubh would get us to my planned bivy spot. Luckily my spidey sense was functioning and we mashed our way up a couple of steep bits to reach the rocky summit area without any major delay.
After a bit of wandering around, we found an ideal spot with a couple of trees for my hammock and a level enough area for Iarla to kip in my slippy bivy bag. The rain had stopped, so we got the bedding sorted and a brew on as the stars began to show.
A long night of chat ensued, which made a pleasant change from my usual loner low light photography followed by passing out. I kept faith with the weather forecast and didn’t bother putting up my tarp, whilst Iarla disappeared into the depths of the bivy. The weather held and I woke to a stunning sunrise, which had been the reason for picking this hill for the site.
After’s Iarla’s breakfast in bed, we started to pack up, slightly delayed by his refusal to leave my hammock once he found out how comfy it was!
Once the bikes were loaded, we backtracked from the summit and found the nice singletrack descent which would wind back round to the road.
Once off the hill , we crossed the road and took the track that would lead us along the South shore of Loch Kinord to complete a loop of sorts.
After watching Iarla mash his way along a couple of rocky stretches, the torture was finally over for my poor old Kona as we paused at the end of a lochan before returning to Dinnet. I hadn’t realised this was Iarla’s first ever bikepacking ride and he was a total convert. Despite being my shortest bivy ride of the year, the excellent company had made it one of the highlights for me too.
For my August bivy, I wanted to take Kerr out again before the weather started to turn against us, so when a good weather window coincided with a weekend it was all systems go to get the car packed and head out to Braemar again for a second bite at Glen Quoich. I’d sourced a replacement skewer for my old cargo trailer, so hopefully I’d be able to get it to take the load this time instead of my back!
Late as always, we stocked up in the village before continuing to the Linn of Quoich and getting on the move as quickly as Kerr’s penchant for distraction would allow us.
After passing our previous trip’s camping spot, we headed on up the glen – Kerr trying to fill the river with any rocks he happened upon en route. I had a particular spot in mind below Beinn a Bhuird which I had noted years back on a ride through to Gleann an t-Slugain. After passing the fords where inevitably Kerr got his feet soaked and then decided he needed a pee just as some walkers were approaching from the opposite direction, we pressed on along the Quoich Water, reaching my intended spot just as the temperature dropped a bit and the wind got up. Unfortunately, someone had beaten us to the site, erecting a large tarp vertically as a wind shield and sitting round a large camp fire, surviving to the max. Probably not the best summer to be starting fires, but at least there had been some rain recently, so much less chance of disaster than a few weeks previously.
Kerr had been quite excited at reaching my secret camp spot, so began to have a meltdown when he realised it been taken already. I quickly introduced the concept of the super secret camping spot which was just up the path. Unfortunately the path starts to seriously narrow from here, making lugging a trailer and abandoned bike a serious effort. After getting a bit of distance from the rufty-tufty survivalists I started scanning for a new spot, eventually wading through some heather to reach an ideal sheltered hollow beneath a tree.
After a feast of cheesy pasta and empire biscuits, we settled in for the night, Kerr passing out practically in mid-sentence. The late night had no effect on his ability to wake early the next morning, keen to go down to the river and fetch water.
The wind had died completely over night, so as I got the bacon cooking the midges descended. The smoke off my wee stove was a marginal help, but Kerr made the sensible choice and went back into the tent to await his breakfast in bed.
After packing up, we headed back the way we came, checking out my original choice of location. It appeared that the leave no trace ethic was not one embraced by our expert survival neighbours.
With no real time pressure on getting back, I let Kerr mess about as much as he liked along the way. This involved performing rock throwing and dam building at every river crossing we made.
After a loooong time, we finally flew along the last downhill stretch to the road and back along to the car, where we ditched the trailer and went to hang out on the bridge to nowhere, which always fascinates him. Then it was a peaceful drive home with a brief stop for cake and juice at Cambus o’ May.
So, did I enjoy it? Yes, without a doubt. As is the way, the longer ago you did something tough and amazing, the more amazing it seems, whilst the toughness subsides to mild discomfort. Immediately after the finish however, I was more interested in filling my face with fizzy drinks from the hotel vending machine and getting as far away from my festering cycling gear as possible. I’d had a brief chat on my way in with Steve, another rider from Aberdeen who’d finished a good day before me and was slightly the worse for wear from the night in the pub I’d missed. He said there was a plan to meet for breakfast in the morning, so I made sure I’d set an alarm to be up and checked out, so I could go and meet my fellow sufferers.
There followed a great morning of good food and excellent company in the Real Food Cafe. Almost everyone I’d chatted to along the way was there, so there were plenty of tales from the ride to hear and tell. Mick and Rich had finished a good six hours before me and had been hoping to catch me in the pub if I’d got in earlier – never mind! During the chat I asked if anyone knew who Le Shadow was, as they would have seen the trackers come in, but no-one had seen one arrive before me or knew who I was talking about. My imaginary friend hypothesis seemed to be coming true, which was worrying! A few days later, I saw a photo on Alan’s Twitter feed with Le Shadow on it and found his real name was Pascal. After going back through Trackleaders, I saw his SPOT had messed up on the last night, meaning he was invisible when I tried to see where he was on the final day. I cancelled all my psychiatric appointments and was able to get on with my life – especially after getting a Facebook friend request from him shortly afterwards!
As well as eating, drinking tea and socialising, I received a commemorative bottle of Stout from Alan, which I am unable to bring myself to drink, as I feel like it needs a special occasion to enjoy. A part of me doesn’t want it all to be over, which is almost represented by drinking the beer in my head. It’s a big ask to disappear off for a week when you have two young kids, so it may be a while before I can justify doing it again, especially now with school holidays to cover with my limited time off.
Berten, my sleepy Belgian friend, had napped his way through to the finish a few hours after me, but looked pretty fresh for it. Pascal, aka Le Shadow had finished a couple in front with his well timed final day push. Personally, I was just happy to be able to tell people I’d finished in 5 days rather than the 7 I’d been half-expecting! I also heard tales of the various ways people had scratched, ranging from the mundane to the ridiculous. I’d checked up on Bob’s location on the first night in Fort Augustus and had seen he was at Corrour Station after what would have been a fair hike-a-bike. I hadn’t realised he’d tried to go on after a break, but had been scuppered by several tire/tube failures before bailing to Corrour and landing himself some free food and accommodation for the night! Other scratches were Huw Oliver, who had been up at the pointy end of the race before coming down with a serious case of heatstroke/food poisoning and ended up in Inverness hospital after being helped out by a selfless fellow rider. I’d been sad to hear this, as despite not knowing Huw, I’ve enjoyed reading his blog over the last few years and had been rooting for him.
Another rider, Karl, had been attacked by a cow on the first day in what might seem an amusing way to scratch, but would have been pretty terrifying to witness first hand! The last one I heard about in the cafe was Mike, who I’d ridden with briefly on Day 1 and had ended up scratching after slicing his foot open on a rock whilst skinny-dipping!
Up front, Alex Pilkington made a well judged charge through the field in the second half of the race to come in first ahead of Lee Craigie and Javier Simon, who finished with a rear wheel held together with zip ties and plasters or something. They all finished almost 2 days faster than I did, which is hard to comprehend. I would like to try and get down to 4 days some time, but it would take a lot more tough training than I am able to fit into my free time currently. There were quite a few instances where I could have saved time. The first night, I should have just eaten my food and headed back out to give myself a good start the following day. The two nights where I was stumbling about in an indecisive daze, I could have got my head down and polished off those sections much quicker in daylight with a night’s sleep behind me. None of this adds up to the 15 hours I’d need to knock off, but it would be a start!
It looked like some of my fellow racers were planning on spending the day in the cafe, but I was wanting to make my way home to see the wife and kids, as this was the longest I’d been away since Kerr was born. I said my goodbyes and started off on what should have been a 3 hour or so journey back to Aberdeen. I got about 45 minutes down the road and could already feel my eyelids beginning to feel heavy – perhaps 6 hours’ sleep isn’t enough to feel fully refreshed after a Highland Trail? Several hours, sleep stops and a trip to Forfar McDonalds later, I returned home to comfortable chaos.
Ritchey Commando Frame – I love this bike, the frame is light for a steel one, has a lovely smooth ride quality and comfortable position for several long days in the saddle. With the hard, dry trails and my not quite plus tyres, I took a bit of a battering on my hands and had to ease back on some downhill stretches I would have charged through with a suspension fork, but the absolute reliability of such a simple setup was hard to fault.
Novatech/Stan’s Flow Wheels – These were hand built in an artisan wheel workshop in the North of Scotland (i.e. my living room), using the lightest components I could get hold of for a reasonable price. I was a bit nervous of trusting my handiwork, but didn’t really have a choice after knackering the fancy Mavic wheels of my full suspension 26er just before the ride. Despite taking a few knocks when my tyre pressures were too low, they were just as true at the finish as the start so full credit to Roger Musson’s wheelbuilding manual, which has always been my builder’s bible. There was a worrying occasional creak under power from what I think is the Novatech freehub after Day 1, but it never got worse and I think it will be sorted by a quick strip and additional grease.
Shimano SLX/Sunrace 1×11 Gearing – This is another thing that was pretty trouble free, as I’d expect from SLX level stuff – just needed to adjust a little for cable stretch on the second day as I hadn’t done enough miles beforehand. Only issue was a slight hesitance in shifting which I am not used to – I would need a full revolution of the cranks before it would shift up or down sometimes. I’ve no idea if it is the SLX components, or the shifting with a Sunrace cassette, though I have a Sunrace 11-42 on my road/cross bike which shifts just as well as a Shimano XTR on some other wheels. Wasn’t really a dealbreaker over the distances I was covering, but definitely noticeable.
SRAM NX Fat Cranks – I’ve always been 100% Shimano for chainsets on all my bikes, but they haven’t pulled their finger out and made any 100mm axle ones, so I had to leave my comfort zone. These were an absolute steal at £40 from Planet X, so I gave them a chance. I didn’t want to trust their bottom brackets however, so blinged it up with a Hope BB plus SRAM adaptor. Despite having 28 teeth and a 170mm length, they turned out to be just what I needed to keep turning the pedals when I was goosed.
RaceFace Chester Pedals – I’ve been swapping these from bike to bike for every big bikepacking ride since I got them. Light, grippy and just as tough as alloy pedals so far. Can’t really fault them in any way.
Avid BB7 Brakes – I put these on every bike I build, not much more to say than that!
Bontrager XR2 29×2.35” Tyres – These were easy to set up tubeless and did a great job of taking a lot of abrasion without puncturing. They were a bit noisier than I expected on tarmac, possibly due to the wide rims spreading the tread out a bit. If they had been available in 2.6″ size before the race started, I’d have snapped them up. If I’d not been so weight obsessed beforehand, I might have gone for something like WTB Rangers in a 3″, which would have sped up the downhills and saved my hands some grief – a future experiment once these wear out!
Brooks Cambium Saddle/ Ti Seatpost – These were transferred over from my road bike on a whim just before I headed to Tyndrum, as the saddle had been used on rides over 200 miles without any major internal injuries, plus I hoped the unbranded Ti seatpost would give me extra boing. I think most of my backside issues were caused by heat and sweat build up, rather than seating configuration.
On-One OG Bars – I’m definitely sold on swept bars for mountain biking and wrist comfort. These have less sweep than something like Jones bars (25 degrees), but still gave me the benefit I was after in terms of wrist angle, without losing any feeling of control. I paired these with cheap Ergo-style grips and some ancient bar ends on the inside of the bars, which I wrapped with cork tape to give an alternative cushioned hand position.
RockGeist Foxglove Saddlebag – This was purchased in order to bring down weight and prevent me having too much space in my old bikepack.eu saddlebag which I might be tempted to fill! It performed admirably, carrying tools and various clothing layers, with plenty of space left over to jam food in after shop visits. The compact size also minimised any sensation of tail wag on the few occasions I had the energy to stand up and pedal!
Rockgeist Barjam Harness – Another upgrade from my old handlebar roll, this is very light and comes with a carbon fibre bolt-on bar to lift it away from the cables and Voile straps to fasten whatever size/shape of dry bag you want to use. In this case, I had my sleep mat, bivy bag and sleeping bag all stuffed in the smallest drybag i could manage. The extension bar also gave me another mounting point, to which I fastened the quick release mount for my light. This setup proved to be rock solid and quick to use.
Rockgeist Apogee Harness Feedbag – This was probably my favourite bit of new bikepacking baggage. It is designed to mate with the Harness extension bar and add quickly accessible storage using a hook and elastic loop closure. I was constantly over stuffing this with sandwiches and whatever else I needed to dip in and out of as I rode along. The closure bungee also doubled as a storage point for any layers I was taking on and off during the day.
Alpkit Stem Cells – I’ve had these for a while now and they’re spot on for size, as well as being pretty weatherproof when needed. I had snacks on one side and electrical stuff like a cache battery and cables the other. The daisy chains allow plenty of attachment options and the only real issue with them is the lack of one-handed closure. There is a way to modify them to achieve this and I will one day be organised enough to do it!
Borah Designs Snowyside Bivy – This was bought as a lighter alternative to my old Outdoor Designs Assault bivy, which has been bombproof, but is too bulky and heavy compared to modern equivalent bags. The Snowyside has an eVent upper, making it heavier (390g) than some full silnylon bags, but the fully waterproof material meant I could ditch the tarp to save more weight. It also has an insect mesh insert like my old bag, but I did find the velcro attachment to be a total pain late at night when I was tired, as the hooks wanted to stick to the mesh net more than the loops stitched around the opening!
Western Mountaineering Summerlite – I’ve had this sleeping bag a few years now and it has more than earned its keep. It weighs 540g and is rated down to 0 degrees C. Being down, it packs nice and small and I have foolishly slept out as low as minus 9 degrees with an added silk liner and not managed to kill myself. For the HT550 it was easily warm enough without wasting too much packing space.
Thermarest NeoAir – This is a full length original version that I got for Yvonne in 2010 for our tour of the Hebrides. It blew me away back then as it meant I could sleep a whole night in comfort once I’d wrestled it back from her. Unfortunately, my recently acquired habit of using it outside the bivy bag to prevent condensation looks to have done for it, especially on the rough, stony bivy near the Schoolhouse bothy. I’ll see if there is a particular hole to blame before replacing, as it was excellent until that point!
Castelli Endurance X2 Bib Shorts – I got these for the Progetto seatpad, which has been my favourite for very long road rides. With the high temperatures, I could have done with something that allowed more airflow, if such a pad exists. I had also been thinking of getting the non bib version of these shorts for the HT550 and probably should have ran with that idea, as I unhooked the suspenders after Day 3 anyway. An extra pair I could have swapped to would have made sense too, but I think I overlooked that in my preparations somehow.
Howies Cadence Jersey – I’ve had this for a while and ended up taking it as it’s the type of jersey you can keep on when the temperature drops due to the thickness of the merino/sorona material. It’s got good pockets, as well as an easy opening zip one for me to keep the phone handy for photos. It was probably a bit clammy at times in the heat, but I think this may have helped me gradually cool down as I progressed. I also had a pair of cheap armwarmers from Planet-X to save me packing an extra long sleeve layer.
Adidas Terrex Trail Cross SL Shoes – Absolutely brilliant footwear for flat pedal users. The Stealth rubber sticks to pedals, rocks, whatever you need and they have just enough stiffness for long days of pedalling or scrambling about on mountainsides. The outer wards off most splashes without baking your feet, though for the conditions, something more meshy may have been better. I really need to get another backup pair of these for when they eventually get trashed.
Adidas Tracerocker Fleece Jacket – This is a lightweight gridded fleece layer that packs down small but gives plenty of heat. It also has a hood, meaning I could skip taking a woolly hat. I rode in this a fair bit in the evenings as it allows plenty of airflow whilst taking the edge off the cold.
Rapha Brevet Insulated Gilet – This is a great bit of kit that give loads of extra heat for its size. Wasn’t really needed in these conditions but was taken as an extra bit of insulation in case of a cold night or bit of extended riding in the wet.
Castelli Idro Jacket – I’ve had this a couple of years now and it has redefined what I can expect from a waterproof. It’s the same material as all the Gore ShakeDry jackets, but had more colour and reflective accents for road cycling through winter than the others available at the time and was also on sale! It beads amazingly well, breathes better than any other waterproofs I’ve tried and packs down to nothing. The only payoff is durability as it is not recommended for mountain biking. That hasn’t stopped me, although I did manage to put a couple of holes in it by stuffing it in a saddlebag adjacent to hard pointy stuff. I repaired these the night before heading to Tyndrum. I think I wore the jacket for about an hour total during the ride, thanks to the pleasant conditions.
Castelli Nanoflex Knee Warmers – I took these to pair with waterproof shorts if the weather got properly wet, as they bead really well and prevent my knees getting cold even when soaked. I didn’t bother taking the shorts, thanks to the forecast looking good, but took these in case I needed the warmth during the night. They weren’t used for that, but did seem to help as additional support when my knees and achilles started to pack in on the last day.
Endura MT500 Gloves – I got these just before I did the Cairngorms Loop as I’d come to the conclusion that padded palms on gloves cause more problems than they solve. I’d done the Capital Trail bare handed and had no issues with hands, but needed more warmth in the Cairngorms in September. The temperature never really got low enough to need them on the HT550, but I did have them on for some of the last day as I had the beginnings of a blister on one hand and thought I’d nip it in the bud. They are really nice minimal gloves when needed however.
Garmin Edge 1000 – Garmin get a lot of flak for flaky bits of kit and dodgy software updates, but I’ve got nothing but praise for this. It’s never let me down over the last few years and the screen size means I can just use my iPhone for photos. I invested in getting the OS maps of Scotland for it too, as that is the only way my brain comprehends the terrain around me.
Exposure Joystick Mk10– All the light I’ll ever need while bikepacking, with lots of customisable power settings to maximise battery life. I didn’t even bother taking a charging cable, as I didn’t think I’d do enough riding in the dark to need a charge, which turned out to be the case.
iPhone 7 – I’d never be able to bring myself to spend the money on an Apple phone, but luckily I get one through work! This is a nice size, has a good camera and is waterproof, so ideal for this purpose. I mainly used it as a handy camera in the zip pocket at the back of my jersey, or for scanning the route ahead when stopped, as it’s much better for this than the Garmin. I’d uploaded the route to my OS Maps account and had cached the map areas I needed in advance using the ever-improving OS Maps app, just in case I had a fatal Garmin breakdown.
Anker Powercore 10000 – Compact and not too heavy, plus it charged up pretty quickly, whenever I had a chance to plug it in to my folding Mu charger at a cafe. To back it up, I had an older Xiaomi power bank that was supposed to be of similar capacity but didn’t last nearly as long in practice. This proved to be enough juice to get me through without risk of losing the GPS or phone.
SPOT Gen 3 Tracker – This was a mandatory piece of equipment, but is something I’d always wanted to use anyway. Due to the crazy inflexible subscription costs, I opted to rent rather than buy and found the process very straightforward and reasonably priced from www.spottrackerrental.co.uk . I took one spare set of batteries, but didn’t need them. I didn’t bother turning it off when I stopped for the night, just relied on its motion sensor putting it to sleep and resuming once I got going again.
Petzl e-Lite Headtorch – This was taken for general fiddling with gear in the dark and as a backup if I found myself trying to ride at night without my main light. It’s tiny, weightless and gives out a surprisingly useful amount of illumination.
Topeak Ratchet Rocket Lite Tool – Completely unused during the ride, but had all the bits I needed for basic adjustment and the pouch was handy to stuff in a tubeless repair kit. To supplement it, I added a tiny chain tool from an old On-One multitool, a Leatherman PS2, a Birzman pump and a valve tool.
Spares – I didn’t go overboard on spares and went for my usual part selection of a brake cable, a gear cable, one tube, tyre boot, tyre plugs, two sets of pads, zip ties and a length of Gorilla Tape. None of them were required, which was nice.
Midge head net – used a couple of times for sanity when setting up or breaking camp.
Ibuprofen – didn’t get through nearly as much of this as I expected, luckily.
Buttonhole chamois cream – used first thing each morning and halfway through the day, probably should have used more!
Sudocrem – tried to use in the evenings to help keep down any inflamation from a long day in the saddle.
Sun lotion travel sachet – used factor 30 to minimise any extra fatigue from getting sunburn.
Wet wipes travel pack – used for squaddie shower each night and halfway through the day.
Hydration tablets – mixture of SiS recovery and vitamin-C tabs to make water more interesting.
I don’t think there’s anything I took that I didn’t use and nothing I really needed that I didn’t have. The only change I’d make would be to have brought a second pair of padded shorts so I could have given one a wash, especially with the hot dry days to dry them out. I purposefully left out any of my stoves, as I feel I end up wasting too much time waiting on water boiling and then drinking a hot drink. Hot food is nice, but there’s no gain in terms of calories and no handy sources of lightweight freeze dried meals during the ride. For this reason I relied on packaged sandwiches, or made my own on the go from packaged meats and cheese. Irn Bru was the drink of choice to replace my morning cuppa. I think I got my food intake and hydration pretty much spot on, as there was no point I got too close to bonking, I had no issues with muscle cramps and apart from a sticky-mouthed climb of the Coffin Road, I didn’t suffer too badly in the heat. The only thing holding me back was my damn frail, fallible body!
A couple of fitful hour’s sleep on a deflated mat and I awoke to my phone buzzing away. It was lighter now, but still dull and moist feeling without actual precipitation. I hadn’t managed to undress at all, so I sat up in my clammy bib shorts and managed to manoeuvre my ruined legs into my shoes. The midges were still hanging around so I started the usual dance of grabbing things to eat and walking around to prevent them convening in any one spot I inhabited. I tanked my bottle of Irn Bru from Dornie as well as some Ibuprofen to get myself kick-started and packed up my kit. I had the brief pleasure of rolling back down the now massively shortened 700m to the turn off and then had to knuckle down and start uphill again. My body wasn’t happy about this, with pains in all the same areas as last night making themselves known.
I kept going, but I wasn’t able to put any power through the pedals and my backside was screaming – this wasn’t looking good. After climbing in and out of the saddle through the trees, I stopped again to try and sort myself out, as this wasn’t going to work. First job was to go to town on the chamois cream and get friction down to a minimum. Next, I needed to do something about my knee and achilles. I had an idea to add a bit of support and compression by putting on my Nanoflex knee warmers. As I was just fishing them out I heard the rumble of some mountain bike tyres approach over my shoulder. Who could have possibly caught me up this early in the day? Le Shadow, bien sur! In my current state of mind, it should have been the last straw, but seeing his smiley face and proffered high five, I couldn’t help but laugh as he passed.
Now I had something to go after, I got my knees covered and climbed back on board. There was a slight improvement in my condition and I was able to progress to the edge of the forest, gaining slightly on my nemesis. The land opened out as I climbed along the misty power line service track. I had last been this way in 2006 and the conditions were exactly the same then, right down to the droplets of condensation adhering to the hairs on my arms. I reeled in Le Shadow a little more, but had to jump off and push for a slightly steeper bit, as my painkillers hadn’t quite kicked in yet. Normally I would have gradually caught him on a climb like this, but I think he now had the advantage over my broken body, so I let him slip away into the murk.
Next up was a speedy downhill, with a couple of bends that could go quite wrong if you weren’t ready to slow down. This was followed by another climb which I remembered as being the last bit for this section. The cloud cleared but I couldn’t see Le Shadow up ahead, so he must have been going quite well, although I did begin to worry he had shot off the edge on one of those corners.
More fast downhill took me to the main road at Torgyle Bridge for the briefest dalliance with tarmac before leaving to climb the Old Military Road to Fort Augustus. Luckily, the gradients were gradual so I could ride myself into some kind of health, although the only signs of life I came across were a very large, vocal German Shepherd and its owner.
Just as it felt like I was nearing the top, the track doubled back on itself to climb along the back of the trees on a rougher, narrower surface which eventually emerged onto open moorland. It was pretty pleasant riding and the sun was starting to show through the clouds to warm things up a bit.
The path eventually dropped to a ford for a rare muddy section, before emerging onto a hard fast dirt road that would take me all the way down to Fort Augustus. Unfortunately, the minute the track got level and easy, I started passing out. After several last minute veers away from roadside ditches, I decided I needed to give myself 5 minutes of power nap time. I stood in the middle of the track, slumped over the handlebars with my eyes shut – I just needed to get going quicker to wake up and reach Fort Augustus for a recharge. Once moving again, the downhill fresh air kept my eyes open, especially on a set of fast grassy switchbacks just before reaching some houses on the edge of the town.
I fancied getting a fry up, but no cafe seemed to be open until 10am, which was disappointing. However the petrol station/supermarket made up for it with a hot food counter, which I raided for bacon rolls whilst stocking up on every food and drink item imaginable. As I stood outside, filling my face, I got chatting to some other friendly bikepackers who were doing various rides in the area whilst staying in a cottage nearby. I couldn’t decide if I was envious or not – I was in quite a state, but when would I ever get a chance to again to do a solo ride through some of the best bits of Scotland in its best weather?
As well as food, I did a bit of admin work. Firstly I went in to the pharmacy to get some cheap elastic bandaging. The knee warmer approach seemed to have helped, but if the achilles started to get bad again, I was going to get some support around them and hope it did the trick. I also made the most of the 4G reception to see what riders were still around me and finally identify Le Shadow, as well as check he hadn’t plunged off a cliff. To my consternation I couldn’t find any Frenchman in front or behind me. This set me onto a worrying train of thought – was he real? The only time I’d seen him talk to another rider, he’d been ignored by our silent bothy companion, yet every time I stopped for too long, there he was with a cheeky grin and a high five. Maybe he was my subconscious pushing me forward? Or maybe his tracker had broken? Maybe I’d never know. Of more concern, I noticed my narcoleptic Belgian friend from a few days back was awake and bearing down on Fort Augustus. Determined not to lose any more places, I got myself organised and set off down the canal path with renewed vigour. I knew I could hammer this whole section to Fort Augustus without straining anything, so I got moving and into an aero tuck with my inward mounted bar ends.
It was a great feeling to be actually making some distance at a decent speed for once, so I put on some tunes to keep me in the zone. The miles flew by and even the odd climb on the forest tracks didn’t seem to cause too much pain.
All good things must come to an end however and so it was as I reached the outskirts of Fort William. I popped into the Co-op for extra food and drink that should get me to the end and resumed running the gauntlet of impatient drivers. It looked like there was some kind of organised ride going on, as I met multiple riders with number boards, looking at me like I’d gone the wrong way. Soon enough, I reached the roundabout and took the turning up Glen Nevis where I could make my escape from civilisation again. Once on the West Highland Way, the climbing began! The heat was back at the the levels it had been all week, but I was pretty adapted to it by now.
After much hot and sweaty climbing, I came over the first crest and saw the Way stretching out ahead of me through the trees. It looked quite inviting, although I expected to be doing a lot of walking. I kept my momentum, hopping off for the bits that were too steep or had steps to navigate.
After Blar a Chaorainn, the track got wider again and quicker going, despite the section being uphill. As i approached the ruin at Lairigmor, my steering started to wander again and I struggled to keep my eyes open. The sun was out and the midges weren’t, so I took a leaf out of Berten’s book, picked a nice comfy spot next to a trackside cairn and passed out.
I must have dozed for at least 20 minutes before I heard the rumble of mountain bike tyres approach. Surely not? For once, no – it was a young Geordie lass coming the opposite way. I blinked my eyes open to say hello as she looked down on me in a concerned manner. It turned out she was on her first bikepacking trip – she had bought an okay mountain bike from Halfords to ride the West Highland Way on her own and was loving it! I think she was on her fourth day and had just got on with it regardless of the difficulty. She chatted enthusiastically for a while longer before I wished her all the best and got going myself, feeling more energised by the pleasant encounter than the short rest.
I trundled on through the pass towards Kinlochleven. This was another one of those spots that I had seen a photo of in Ralph Storer’s book and always wanted to ride through. I’d come this way several times since, so it’s more like an old friend nowadays. Normally though, I stick to the land rover track to drop me into the village, whereas the HT550 wanted me to take a more vertical route. I reached the WHW turnoff and began my plummet through the trees, initially riding the steep stuff before coming to my senses and jumping off for anything too dicey after dinging a rim a few times. After receiving a good battering, I popped out onto the road and headed along to the Ice Factor. I headed straight through to the cafe area and performed a final weight shedding and general cleanup exercise in the bathroom. before stocking up on drinks and a Toffee Crisp, which would probably melt in about 5 minutes. During my brief pitstop, I also took the chance to book a room online at the same hotel I’d stayed in before the ride. Surely I’d be finished by about 10 pm? With visions of a pub meal and a pint in my head, I headed up past the bunkhouse to tackle the Devil’s Staircase.
It’s a steep old ride to start with, so I eventually succumbed to the gradient and pushed the steeper bits as usual. As the trail narrowed higher up, it also became easier to ride with just technical things to clear such as the new drainage ditches that have been spaced perfectly to stop a bike wheel dead if you mistime a hop. At least it kept me awake and focused.
I wasn’t too worried about this section in advance and it went pretty much as I remembered – even the final slog up to the summit wasn’t too dramatic. I was feeling pretty happy, especially compared to this morning and stopped up top to soak in a great view and send silly pictures to friends.
I rolled off, feeling like it was all downhill from here and in many ways I was right, just not in the good way.
When I came down this way over ten years ago with the lads on one of our coast to coast rides, I’d managed to ride to the bottom with a set of rear panniers on my Inbred. Today I had no chance – the path felt like it had eroded down by a couple of metres in places and just got a bit too tasty for me to risk in various spots. Still, it didn’t take too long to get down, depositing me at the base of Buachaille Etive Mor. Next up was a ride along to the Kings’ House Hotel on the improved track, rather than cheating and using the road like I probably would have done on any other day.
I bumped my way along, cursing my lack of energy to attack this bit and get some momentum, as it slowly began to dawn on me that last orders in Tyndrum might be out of reach. I wondered how late the Ski Centre stayed open, but didn’t fancy my chances.
I would have been hitting the hotel at the perfect time for some dinner if it hadn’t been in mid refurbishment, though I was more in need of water than food. I had topped up on my way down the Devil’s staircase, but I don’t think I fancied any water sources this low down. Still, the air was cooling and surely I wasn’t that far away now? Once past the hotel, there was a short climb up to the main road before crossing to the ski centre road and then turning off to continue the West Highland Way. I had a slight bit of reception, so I took the chance to call Yvonne for a quick chat and to let the hotel know I was going to be a late check-in. It was also a good excuse to walk as I talked, rather than raise the effort to ride the climb. Finally, reception ran out and I was forced to cycle again, slowly making my way to the top of this rise.
The surface widened and improved towards the top, letting me get some kind of rhythm going before what looked like a long descent towards the Black Mount opened up before me. I hadn’t really looked at this section in any detail beforehand, so this was a pleasant surprise. I shot down the first stretch, trying to avoid any major protrusions that could wreck a rim, as my tyres were feeling a bit soft. I would have pumped them up, but my hands were so battered from five days without suspension that I needed the cushioning. The further on I went, the more regular the stony surface became and the higher my speed. The tyres were providing just enough suspension to save my hands, but I found myself hugging the verge to maximise smoothness, all the while trying to pick out any potential wheel wreckers in the gathering gloom. In all it was rather exhilarating – no chance of nodding off at this speed! After what seemed an endless descent, I dropped down the last bumpy steep bit before Forest Lodge and rolled along to join the road heading for the Inveroran Hotel.
In previous years, reaching Bridge of Orchy from here would have been a question of whizzing round the corner on tarmac, but Alan had kindly thrown in a bonus hill this year, which was nice. I thought about trying my luck in hotel for a drink, but a desire to get this over and done with made me turn straight off the road and start climbing. Feeling fresh and in the daylight, this would have been a good challenge. Feeling shit in the middle of the night, this was a total pain in the ass.
I expended as much energy as I could before hopping off to push on a loose section and most of the rest of it. As I neared the apex, the gpx forced me to leave the track to climb up to the cairn before immediately dropping back to the track I had left. What the tent dwellers on the summit thought was going on as they heard a clicking freewheel, followed by a barrage of swearing before clicking away, I will never know. I do know that they were in for several repeats before the night was done.
Back on the track, I finally relented and fired up my light for the descent. This was at times technical or awkward, so I was down a lot slower than I’d like. As I clambered over some boulders at the back of the Bridge of Orchy Hotel, I thought it was time to get some liquid on board. Unfortunately, it had obviously been a quiet night as the bar was shut up and the chairs all upturned, so I took the hint and moved on. Up the steep road to the train station and under the underpass, surely just a coast from here? No chance – despite having ridden it all before, nothing looked or felt familiar in the dark. Additionally, every single bit of anticipated downhill appeared to have been removed from the track. I lurched onward, feeling totally defeated by even the slightest bit of gradient against me. This was getting ridiculous – “It’s not even a hill!” I shouted at myself as I struggled along after crossing the Allt Kinglass. Looking at the map, it was, so no idea why I refused to acknowledge it at that point. I felt the movement become easier as I rode over loose stones in what appeared to be a railway yard, but then was kicked in the balls by the realisation I’d breezed past the turnoff for the railway underpass. I sullenly did a u-turn and went downhill to find the locked gate in the blackness to the side of the path, before hefting the bike over the stile and scrambling through the narrow gap and on up to the track proper. This final physical effort complete, I was able to continue on an increasingly downhill trajectory through the sheep farm at speed, before navigating the final gate and rolling triumphantly to the finish at the village hall, cheered on by hundreds of adulating fans. Okay, maybe not – I stopped at the hall to take a selfie under the automatic security light whilst moths fluttered round my head. 0032 was the time, so 5:15:32 was my ride duration.
As on previous rides of this type, I felt more happy and relieved to have completed under the time limit without embarrassing myself than anything else. I made my way through the dark, quiet village to get my hotel key before depositing my bike and kit in the car and heading for my room and the most keenly required shower I’ve ever had.
I woke to my alarm and lay back, trying to psyche myself up for movement. My barnmates started shifting about, which forced me into action – no point leaving after them, when I’d already given them back an hour overnight! I packed up quickly and had a quick snack before following them to the gate and back onto the route.
I made my way round the headland and onto the causeway, checking to see how far ahead the others were. It was still quite cool compared to previous days, which was pleasant enough, especially with a climb to come.
As I turned into Srathan Buidhe, I was again surprised by how rideable the track was. I could see Le Shadow up ahead getting on and off the bike, but I felt comfortable just keeping the pedals turning. I overhauled him before the top, where I emerged into the morning sunlight, before plunging down towards Letterewe.
As I rode through the well kept Letterewe estate, I did my best to keep to the gpx track, but still manged to miss the entrance to a field before making my way back to the route. I stopped under the trees to put on some DEET before tackling the Postman’s Path, as the midges were out and I imagined ticks may be an issue here. Le Shadow finally caught me up and I gave him a shout as he headed off in the wrong direction. Once sorted, I followed on to see how bad this was going to be!
After a bit of bike hefting to get up onto the faint path, I got rolling again through the waist-high ferns. The path was narrow and very off camber, but nothing too tricky as long you maintained forward momentum. I quickly overhauled Le Shadow and decided to see if I could catch up with the early bird from our barn trio. Dare I say, I was actually enjoying this. I scrambled in and out of the gully that had been formerly blocked with a tree and was rewarded with even better riding along a thin trail through an endless sea of fresh grown Ferns, high above the loch.
Eventually the camber evened out as I climbed into a basin, with a view of a waterfall tumbling from the hillside above. The path went straight for the cascade and skirted around it through a shallow riverbed, before swinging back to the opposite side of the basin, where it climbed out through a small rocky gulch. Spots like this make all the physical suffering worthwhile, I was almost going to be sad to reach the end.
By now I was coming closer to the end of the loch and feeling that breakfast at the Whistlestop in Kinlochewe was nearly in reach. As is usually the case, breakfast was not as near as I thought.
I crossed the Abhainn an Fasaigh on the rather gappy bridge and started to make my way along the lochside and then river bank. For some reason, this last stretch seemed to take longer than I wanted and I felt like I couldn’t get going. The path meandered its way around and felt like it was never going to deposit me somewhere easier going. Eventually, it did and my sanity was restored as I rolled down the road towards the Whistlestop. I gave my prey a wave as he went into the shop – I’d been spotting him in the distance the whole way along the Postman’s Path, but he’d been motoring and I’d never made up any ground on him. I was planning on getting my first cooked meal since Kylesku, so he’d be well ahead soon enough.
I breezed into the Whistlestop and ordered up a breakfast, some lemonade, a Coke and a pot of tea. It was a good chance to charge up my cache battery too, so I didn’t try to rush things along and just enjoyed sitting in one of my favourite cafes. I was listening in to a conversation between the owner and some customers, when the Highland Trail riders were mentioned. I joined in and only then did it dawn on her that I was in it too. She seemed surprised: “But you look clean? One of the last two was giving himself a stripwash in the ladies toilet!” It seemed I wasn’t too far behind a group of others who had travelled the path overnight and had a rough time of it, so I felt vindicated in deciding to knock off early last night. I managed not to linger too long chatting and got my bottles filled for the next leg through the mountains of Torridon.
The stretch of road along the glen went by quickly and I turned off at Loch Clair. I’d cycled and ran along the Coulin Pass many times before, but today there was an added climb into the trees above Loch Coulin, rather than just going through the estate as usual.
I took a right before the bridge over the Easan Dorcha and made my way uphill towards the Teahouse Bothy. The last time I cycled this way was on my honeymoon in December 2007, so I reminisced as I wound my way past some fancy new hydro infrastructure and new estate cottages. I put my head in the bothy for old time’s sake and then went over to the river to try out a new cooling tactic for the climb up Drochaid Coire Lair. I took off my jersey and submerged it in the cool water before giving it a quick shake and putting it back on. I was hoping it would take most of the ascent to dry out, cooling me as it did. It might also minimise the odour it must be putting out by now.
I crossed the bridge and started making my way up, immediately spotting a couple of mountain bikers up ahead that gave me something to chase after. I was hoping not to catch them, to be honest, because once I passed them I’d have to keep going! It was another decent track, but steep enough to hop off occasionally to save my legs for later in the day. I eventually caught the pair just as we reached the top of the pass and stopped for a chat, whilst admiring the mountainous amphitheatre that opened up before us under the baking midday sun.
I left my new buddies to recover and pressed on, as I had a descent and some road riding between me and lunch. I took a left and then plunged down the hillside towards Achnashellach. There were a few slabs to ride over, before it sarted to get steeper and looser, with plenty of boulders and drop-offs to negotiate. After a couple of near misses, I decided to walk the dodgiest bits, as breaking me or the bike at this late stage would have been heart-breaking.
Eventually the steepness subsided after going through a gate at the edge of the forest and I picked my way through the trees above the River Lair before emerging onto a Forestry track which whizzed me the rest of the way to Achnashellach Station.
I crossed the railway and then dropped onto the main road, where I made haste to minimise my exposure to trucks flying along the single track sections. I had a wealth of options for late lunch in and around Lochcarron, but was heading for the Strathcarron Hotel as it was on route. When I got there, it looked deserted and was hard to work out which door was the way in. I tried one, but it was locked with a sign saying they’d be back half an hour ago, so I moved on. Luckily, I had the Carron restaurant further down the road as a backup, so I popped in for a panini and lots of drinks before continuing on to Attadale.
I grimaced my way up the punishing steep road climb and immediate descent just before the turn off for the gardens. As I made my way through the Attadale Estate I got the feeling it was one of those places where cyclists would be unwelcome – signs everywhere telling where you could or couldn’t go. It looked like there were a lot of earthworks going on ahead, so I kept to the route and hoped I wouldn’t be held up by any of it. After passing the gardens entrance the dirt road was flat for a while then started to really pitch up. I kept to my gpx track, which joined and weaved either side of the big wide road that the heavy machinery was using. It was hard work, but I wanted to get the whole climb over and done with in one go. Unfortunately a pickup truck coming down the other way had different ideas and stopped in front of me for a chat.
“Where are you going to?” said the driver.
“There’s loads of work going on up there, you won’t get through – did you not read the sign?”
“I haven’t seen any, but I need to go this way.”
“Well you’ve got no chance.”
“Ah well, I’ll just have to see how far I can get?”
“Ah you feckin…” was his parting shot as he wheelspun away.
After the unpleasantness I resumed climbing, all thoughts of a blistering Strava KOM dashed. There had been mention of the Attadale works prior to the race beginning and someone had been kind enough to ride through and check it was all passable, so I knew he must have been talking through his backside. However, I still felt on edge as I passed more bits of machinery just over the summit and took a look at the sign that had been mentioned.
I carried on climbing through the trees, with the help of some metal grates that had been dropped on the muddy sections of track to support the forestry machinery. Eventually, I emerged onto the open hillside high above Glen Ling, where I joined a wide bulldozed track that contoured round and down towards the glen floor.
As is always the case, the going got tough at the bottom of the glen and I took a while to progress along the muddy, undulating path above the River Ling, all the while casting envious looks at the calm river below and the wide estate track on the opposite bank. Finally I escaped into a field which was crossed to meet some houses near Nonach Lodge, where I could quickly get to the tarmac and make my escape from the glen.
I made my way along as quickly as my legs would allow. In my head, I felt like this should be all downhill, but I was at sea level and the water was now salt water, so it was really a coast road, with the odd rise and fall to stop me going too fast. Perseverance brought me to the mouth of Loch Long and I joined the A87 for a thankfully short stint to Dornie where I headed straight to the shop for a restock.
Loaded up with juice, biscuits and sandwiches , I made my way out of Dornie to see what this road climb was going to be like. Rather than stay on the main road, the route takes a detour on a minor road which climbs high above before dropping back down a few kilometres further on. I imagined this was going to be hard, but I was way off the mark – it was brutal! I did the first tough section and then noticed I actually had data reception for the first time in days, so I replied to a few nice messages from people and uploaded some pictures as I took it easy along a flattish gradient, before full pain was resumed. There was no way I was stopping on a road climb with mountain bike gearing, so I creeped up and around, occasionally weaving from side to side for some respite and eventually reaching the summit viewpoint. I lingered for a minute, taking in the view and eating snacks before pointing the bike downwards for hair-raising high speed descent to the main road I’d been avoiding.
Back on the busy road, I was more than ready to return to the wilderness. Most of the remainder of the route was familiar to me now, so it really felt like the home stretch. First up was replicating the running section of the Highland Cross with a bike. I have run from Morvich to beyond the Glen Affric Car park in 3 hours, so i was intrigued to see how long it was going to take tonight on my bike. My guess was more, but by how much? I took note of the time when I passed the running start point.
I crossed the river after Glen Licht House and got myself psyched up for a long push. I’d also done this route once before by bike, so knew what I was in for – this time I wouldn’t be able to use waiting for my mates as an excuse to stop! I grunted and griped my way up with plenty of oxygen breaks, the long day beginning to take its toll.
The summit was reached eventually and I got going on the narrow undulating trail to Glen Affric. There were a few ditches to interrupt the flow, but progress occurred, which was nice.
I slogged up the last rise to Camban Bothy, looking forward to the chance to increase my pace on some easier tracks. I met several members of a family who were mountain biking to the bothy for the night as I moved on, all in various states of enjoyment/distress and had the usual jokey conversation about the other riders who were MILES ahead. All good fun, I was only worried about myself at this point.
My next landmark was Glen Affric Youth Hostel – I decided to pop in and raid the tuck shop, without being tempted to stay the night. As I chatted to the lovely warden chap, I was offered a cup of tea but declined. Partly due to wanting to use the last bit of light to get to the end of the loch, but mainly due to becoming increasingly aware of the odour emanating from my feet and person against the clean, civilised hostel. I ate some food and took my leave.
Revitalised by the short break, I started riding a bit more aggressively, hoping to hit the end of Loch Affric without resorting to lights. It was good fun, but I overdid it a bit, feeling a tweak in my knee as I tried to power up a loose climb. Still, I made it to the bridge at Athnamulloch without much delay – from here on there was nothing technical to ride, so darkness wouldn’t slow me too much.
Coming up was a series of climbs and drops on a good estate track along the loch, the first one being the biggest. I winched my way up and started to think think about when I should be stopping. There was a toilet block in the Glen Affric car park that may be unlocked, or would I be capable of going through the night and getting a couple of hours kip in Fort Augustus? My answer started to come to me the as I plodded along the main track and began to struggle to keep my eyes open. The sleep monster was coming! Again, I was struggling to keep the bike in a straight line, but I just wanted to get to the end of the loch and tick off this section. The downhills were just about refreshing enough to stay awake, but I was really pushing my luck. I passed some building works, where it looked like they were building a house into the hillside. I thought about seeing if there was an open door, but I just rolled on by without deciding to investigate or not.
The end of the loch was reached, but the thought of going slightly off course uphill to check out the toilets at the roadside was too much to contemplate, I stayed on route, aimlessly pedalling forwards, becoming more aware of the pain in my knee, which had been joined by aches from my achilles, occasionally upgrading themselves to stabbing pains. By now I knew I needed to get my head down, but again I seemed to be hemmed in by trees and undergrowth, with no decent spots off the estate track to lie down and pass out.
I was in the exact same state as I had been two nights ago, yet I still couldn’t see a way out of this trap. I rode the length of Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, every contour line a torture. Occasionally I’d stop and allow myself to slump onto the handlebars for minute of shut eye, before resuming my velocipedal somnambulance.
By now I was committed in my head to reaching Tomich and seeing if there was somewhere in the hotel grounds I could get my head down. Many hours earlier, I’d been speculating whether I could book a room and get a blissful shower. If I’d had the energy now I would have laughed at my naivety. The gradual climb over was interminable and the drop to the Glen felt bumpy and unmanageable, but I somehow got there. At this point it decided to start raining.
Cursing my luck, I rolled quickly along until I found some low hanging trees to dive under and get my waterproofs out. As I did so I pondered just getting my gear out here and sleeping, but it had the feeling of a spot where midges would love to hang out, so I got back in the saddle and continued my fruitless hunt for the ideal bivy spot. On the tarmac, going off route to sniff about the hotel seemed like a wild goose chase, so on I went, never feeling like any spot was going to work for me, especially with all the houses around here.
As I climbed out of the village, I started to fixate on the thought of sleeping at the Plodda Falls car park. I didn’t remember there being any toilets there, but there was short grass and picnic benches, which worked for me. It was only about 500m off course and at least it gave me something to aim for. I pushed on, veering between both sides of the track and between hope and despair. Finally, I reached the turn off that would take me over the hills on the pylon track. No chance tonight – I followed the Plodda Falls 700m sign. There then followed the longest 700 metres anyone has ever travelled. I cursed everything and anything as the car park refused to appear and the track refused to give me the respite of an even gradient. Just as the pain in my achilles reached a crescendo, the car park blinked into existence. Too shattered to be relieved, I got myself fed and set up for sleep, fruitlessly inflating my sleep mat to feel comfortable long enough to pass out. The rain had been swapped for midges and the velcro attachment for the net on my bivy bag was not co-operating, wanting to adhere to itself rather than the bag. After thrashing about for a few minutes I gave up and pulled the bag over my head and just left an air hole for me and my new midge friends to get some fresh air. It was beginning to get light as 3am approached, so an alarm was set for 0500 – I needed to feel like I’d had some sleep.