HT550 2018 Day 5

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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.

Locked and loaded
Rejoining the route at the friendly gate

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.

Approaching the causeway
It was more substantial than I expected
Draggy pebble beach at the head of Fionn Loch

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.

Tailing Le Shadow up Srathan Buidhe
Sunny up top
First peek at Loch Maree
Handy directions at 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!

Dappled sunlight before leaving Letterewe

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.

Ferns galore

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.

Idyllic and remote

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.

Dropping towards the mouth of the loch
This could have gone quite wrong at night!

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.

Heading towards the Coulin Pass

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.

Easan Dorcha
So hard not to go for a swim

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.

Pristine singletrack approaching Drochaid Coire Lair
It’s what I imagine riding in the alps would be like

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.

Much steepness from here on in
I’ve looked worse
Sinuous sylvan singletrack
Furiously fast forestry road
At least there would have been an escape route if I crashed

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.

“Dornoch.”

“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.

My brain was not quite there for working out if there was an issue, so I just carried on

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.

Useful to ride, but very unattractive

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.

Eilean Donan from up high

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.

Highland Cross start point
Gleann Lichd in the late evening sun
Glen Licht House marks the end of the easy section

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.

Food break in the last sunny spot
First water stop on the Highland Cross, 500th on the Highland Trail
Looking back to the Five Sisters of Kintail

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.

Looks easier than it felt
It went on a bit

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.

Fully dark by Athnamulloch

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.

Distance: 89 miles

Elevation: 2792m

Temperature: Max 36°, Avg 20°

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