The Great Glen Way and Corrieyairack Pass

Retro ride: 16th May 2004

Having been obsessing over offroad touring after my Cairngorms adventure, I was itching for another ride. After much internet research with what little information was available, I decided I wanted to tackle the legendary Corrieyairack Pass. It is an ancient road, built by the industrious General Wade in 1731 to allow for efficient movement of troops around the country for the purpose of crushing rebellion. Ironically, the best recent information I could dig up was 4×4 enthusiast forum conversations and a write up from a mountain biker warning he had been turned back by snow drifts and blizzards in June! However, with my trusty Scottish Hill Tracks book, I had all the information I needed. To make it into an overnight ride, I would jump an early train to Inverness, ride the Great Glen Way down to Fort Augustus for my overnight camp and then ride the Corrieyairack the next day before catching a train home from Newtonmore.

After an uneventful train ride, followed by a bit of kit shopping in Millets, I made my way over the bridge and along the river. I was using a black and white print out of the OS maps for the ride at half normal size to minimise paper. I had a decent idea of where I was going, but anything intricate was going to be tricky! This immediately made itself felt as I tried to catch the end of the Great Glen Way in the housing estate below the psychiatric hospital! I manage to find what looked to be just the ticket and followed it up to the hospital before missing a turn somewhere and ending up going downhill. I also managed to let my bundled up gilet fall into my back tyre and wear a hole in its containing pocket. Rather than face the heartache of going back uphill, I decided to push onwards at a lower level across a forest firebreak and rejoin the path further up. At a squint it looked like it would work!

Bluebell forest in the general vicinity of the Great Glen Way
Amazingly, my improvised route actually worked

I got back on track and followed the route along a mixture of forestry tracks and stretches of tarmac road. There was one bit that showed a planned route on the OS map, with no actual path indicated on the ground, so I took a road detour above Abriachan, rather than waste time struggling to find out if there was one. This gave me a phenomenally steep tarmac descent in to Drumnadrochit, during which I still swear my speedo hit 55mph – a speed I have not come close to matching, even on the road bike. Probably a calibration issue with the old Sigma computer, but I wasn’t backing off to be fair!

A rare stretch of level cycling

I was pretty tired and dehydrated by this point, so I hit one of the many tea rooms for tea, Coke and food. I had been so consumed by the idea of climbing the Corrieyairack Pass, that I hadn’t really considered what I was riding beforehand as part of the challenge. After taking on as much liquid as I could consume, I left town and started regaining all the height I’d lost.

Great views when there’s a gap in the trees

I followed the many undulations along, high above the loch, occasionally glimpsing a view when the trees opened out. I was managing to stay on track despite my inadequate map detail, but was goosed and Invermoriston couldn’t come soon enough.

This could go very wrong in the dark
Invermoriston falls

At Invermoriston, I availed myself of the lavish public toilets on offer, shedding some weight and cleaning off the sweat of the day’s exertions. I also made a decision – I was going to skip the last off road section and take the main road into Fort Augustus. Time was getting on and I hadn’t the legs for another climb above loch level. Even so, the steady tarmac incline away from the village felt like hard work at this point. I managed to survive the road stretch without any mishaps and rolled in to town some time after 8pm. After a bit of strolling around the canal to pick a dinner spot, I went in to the Lock Inn, barely making the cutoff for a hot meal. The large pizza went down a treat whilst I watched the football, before reluctantly climbing back on my bike for the mercifully short ride to the campsite.

I was travelling light again with the same army bivy bag, cheap sleeping bag and borrowed Thermarest as last time. I had upgraded my luggage to a Camelbak Transalp pack, imported direct from the USA via eBay at a considerable saving, which was much more suited to cycling and allowed me to carry a bit more kit in it’s many pockets and pouches. I locked my bike to an adjacent picnic bench and settled in for a thankfully mild night in my non-insulating sleep setup. In the morning, I had some fun with hexi-stove cooking of army rations and headed off for what was supposed to be the tough part of this ride with some trepidation after my poor performance yesterday.

Last night’s home

I had a bit of micro navigation to do to get me to the bottom of the pass, but managed okay with just one dodgy crossing of field full of cows.

Fence presumably to keep out the 4x4s
Plenty of warnings of impending doom

Once through the gate, the climbing began in earnest and there was to be little respite until I reached the top. I slowly winched myself up the first steep section, before dropping down to a dip where I crossed the Connachie Burn, before resuming the climbing.

Looking back to the loch
Fixed up the old sign at the burn

Next was climbing, climbing, climbing.

One of the steeper bits
A wee splashy bit
An endless uphill straight

I noted the position of Blackburn bothy for a potential future visit, but couldn’t hang about as I had a train to catch and much more climbing to do. On the long steep drag, I admitted defeat and jumped off to start pushing. No big issue, as my knees and backside were needing the break anyway.

Checking what I’d conquered
This would be a seriously rapid descent
Looking back from the false summit
Great views up here
Can finally see the summit hut with its scenery enhancing pylons

As I finally reached the hut at the top of the pass, a couple of proper mountain bikers out for the day caught me up and stopped for a chat, whilst they waited for the rest of their group. They also obliged me with a rare portrait shot for the memories.

Pure style all the way

Once my lunch was eaten on the doorstep of the hut, I started to head downhill towards the famous zig-zags. Even with the super-advanced elastomer suspension afforded by my Judy TT forks, it was rough going. There were large chunks eroded from the track to drop off, but I was managing okay. Once they were dispatched, the track improved and settled down to a constant rattling. As I ploughed through a ford a little too vigorously, I managed to pickup a hefty snakebite puncture. I began feeling a little anxious about getting to Newtonmore in time for my train.

The Ford of a Thousand Snakebites

Tube patched, I resumed my descent, with my arms getting particularly pumped on the rough cobbles taking me down to Melgarve bothy.

Rattling down towards Melgarve

I passed by without poking my head in, fully focused on making that train. I was back on the tarmac in no time and just needed to get my head down and see how long it would take me to hit Newtonmore.

Still paused for the odd bit of sightseeing

I wasn’t really a road cyclist, so wasn’t sure how much quicker I’d be along the main road when I reached it. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, arriving at the train station with a good 45 minutes to spare before my train back home. A highly pleasant way to spend a weekend and expand my horizons of how far I could travel by bike offroad.

Chilling at the station

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