Sunday, 7 June 2015

Highland Trail 2015




Introduction



On the 25th of May 2013 at about 6pm I was sat at the side of the track out of Strath Ossian having my arm put in a sling by my friend Iona, having just broken my collar bone. 3 guys on bikes suddenly appeared with seat packs and bar rolls – ‘Do you have a car nearby?’ we asked – no they were doing a 430 mile adventure race called the Highland Trail so couldn’t help. I’d never heard of this but Iona had via the dark and murky Bike Packers grapevine. A route round the highlands of Scotland taking in some of the best riding in Europe, self supported with a time limit of a week. A seed in my mind was sewn….. Jump forward a year as I lay in my tent after day 1 of the 2014 event (Now 560 miles) nursing my screaming thighs and cursing my lack of discipline in tearing off from the start and blowing up after less than 60 miles. Day 2 was a study in purgatory with the inevitable bale out when the weather turned nasty. Next year would be different - nothing would stop me. The email to route planner and group start organiser Allan Goldsmith was sent 4 minutes after midnight on the day entries opened and the next day the reply came – I was in.




The Build up


How do you train for 560 miles of riding over the hardest terrain in Europe? Advice is thin on the ground but my plan was simple – ride my bike. A lot. Winter is seen as the cycling off season but for me it was the perfect time to get out, when the weather was bad, the nights long and the trails wet or white. This winter brought snow on the hills and hard winds to blow it about. Every weekend saw me on my local trails up in the Ochills - an unregarded range of hills running between Stirling and Tayport featuring steep southern slopes and rolling northern glens with bogs and tussocks a plenty and heights of well over 600m in many places. The climb from Tillycoutry to the summit of Ben Cleuch is 700m of hard pedalling and there was rarely a weekend went by that I didn’t do it as part of many circuits done in the rain, the wind and of course the snow. Pushing 35lbs of fat bike through knee deep windslab for hours on end was utterly exhausting but would provide a solid foundation for what was to come in May. Longer rides came in the form of the Fife Coastal path end to end, a chunk of the Southern Upland Way with its endless bogs and brutal climbs and a snowy Minigaig pass over to Aviemore. May Bank holiday was Cairngorms Loop weekend. I hadn’t entered as it was full but more snow and rain saw only a handful set off. I did my own route leaving Blair Atholl at 7pm and pedalling into the dark, rain, then sleet then snow to camp at 500m in a snowfield and more sub-zero temps. Saturday saw 12 hours of trails of all types and Sunday 7 hours in the slashing rain and sleet.


I was as ready as I’d ever be, kit was tweaked and refined to a safe minimum, the bike was fettled and weather forecasts scrutinised. It wasn’t looking good. Hopes of a high pressure front sweeping the whole country at the end of May faded as the start date approached. In the end it looked grim - a dry start but a rapid deterioration to high winds and endless rain. The night before the race I was nervous as hell. The weather was my biggest fear – I had the kit and the nous to survive it but my inner wimp would make it too easy to bale to drier places if it persisted….




Day 1 Hard Ride to Pizza


The start was sunny as promised. I arrived early and chatted to Iona Evans who was there to see us off but didn’t want to get the bike out until the last minute as I was worried what people might think. Or say….


You’re on a what??

Ah yes the bike. You see in November last year I took delivery of one of the first Surly Ice Cream Truck frames. For some reason as soon as I got it I knew that this would be my beast of burden for the HT. Think Surly, think steel frames, bomb proof, lifestyle, attitude etc. adventure racing? Err maybe not. Whatever, I’d done all my training on it and thanks to a bit of careful kit trimming my overall load was much less than on my 2014 attempt so no problem right?



Ready steady go

Eventually I got the bike out the car, strapped on bags, had a final kit check and rode up to the start trying to be as nonchalant and low key as possible. 9am sharp and we were off. I was determined to keep my pace steady and this put me firmly in the main group of riders. It was sociable, people were chatting, speculating on the weather, the trails and what the hell I was doing on this monster truck of a bike. I was cool, it was rolling well and I was pedalling easy. Suddenly all the stresses of kit prep, training and weather watching were gone. 560 miles and several days of adventure stretched out before me and I was thoroughly contented.



The first day is easy….isn’t it?

Kinlochleven came and went, the Co-op providing an early lunch and further chat. I’d already had my first push up the devils staircase and out of KLL its hard – steep tarmac then steep gravel; enough to require a big effort but only a taste of the monsters to come. The first obstacle was the Abhain Rath river crossing. Heavy rain the previous week had me concerned but it was easy. Shoes and socks off, paddle across, dry feet in sun and ride on. 






The next trail was fat bike heaven. Multiple boggy lines, rock outcrops, countless burn crossings, all with a firm tailwind. The bike ate it all and I was having the time of my life. The smooth track out of Strath Ossian was a tailwind assisted blast. My legs felt fresh and I was passing mile 60. Collar bone corner was taken slowly and safely and the tailwind continued all the way to Laggan Wolftrax. I screamed into the car park in the vane hope the café was still open – it was, deep joy! (they were following the race) Tea and cake were consumed to fuel the mighty climb over the Corrieairyack in the company of several people and Alan Goldsmith himself. We sat in the sun drinking lattes like it was an easy day out not the first day of the hardest bike route in Britain….



Spring snow then pizza

The Corrieairyack is the highest point of the whole route and inevitably the point where the forecasted bad weather made its unwelcome arrival - A precedent which defined the rest of the week. The joyous tailwind became a hard headwind with horizontal rain quickly added. No choice but to push on, it would be much worse in the coming days. A patch of snow covered the track near the top – snow biking at the end of May??






The descent brought respite dropping out of the cloud into dry weather and the prospect of the Fort Augustus Pizza Shop. I joined an ever changing group of riders all chuffed to have made it over ‘the bump’ on day 1 and looking forward to a few more miles before stopping for the night. This was also the first real taste of just how social this ride would be. Pre-start I had a vision of me riding alone for the whole route once everyone got spread out. This didn’t phase me in the least but in the event I met and chatted to numerous people on route all the way round. The Pizzas were great and the shop owner seemed bemused but pleased to receive such business. 9pm came and it was time to go. I’d scoped out a wee campsite – Inver Coile - next to the main road a few miles along the great glen way and just off route. Others made use of the woods for a free night but I had my heart set on a shower and flushing toilet. The owner was still up and happy for me to pitch up late. A few minutes later I was joined by Rob Waller also keen on a night of luxury. Showered, warm and dry I turned in for the first night and reflected on my first day. The route had given a flavour of what was to come and the bike had handled it all with ease. I’d done 104 miles in 13 hours and felt as fresh as when I started…..





Day 2 – North 
Beach riding at 400m

5.30 am saw me leave a somewhat damp campsite and make my way back up to the route. Climbing out of Invermoriston saw breaks in the cloud and the promise of sun - not what was forecast but I wasn’t complaining. Sun and showers followed us north for the first half of the day. The trails were generally easy with only the rocky shore of Loch Ma Stack and the boggy track out of it providing the challenge – More fatbike heaven. Other riders were passed, others passed me. It didn’t matter - you said ‘alright mate’ passed the time of day and then went on your way. Cannich provided the excellent campsite café. Service was slow but the food excellent and whilst the racer in me champed at the delay, my sensible head knew this would be rest well spent. I’d met up with Rob Waller here who’d arrived early and decided to wait as he was short of food. The crossing over to Contin on paper looked easy but I knew from last year it was anything but.



Afternoon blues






A hard climb and then the track of a thousand puddles, many above hub level. It was along here I passed Richard Seipp and his son Tom. They had started the route the day before us and were riding it in there own time. I waved a greeting and carried on, the shop at Contin calling. More food in me and on the bike. The next shop was Drumbeg stores, 120miles further along the route with only two hotels in between. Overall I carried too much food with me on route but this appealed to my sensible head as running out in the vast wilderness of Sutherland would be a show stopper or worse. Contin to Oykel Bridge is easy riding but the weather was closing in with the gaps between showers getting shorter. The tailwind persisted as far as Cloich but we all knew there would be a price to pay for this and boy were we right. The first intimation of doom came on the road to Ullapool – a firm track heading northwest but the narrow glen funnelling the south westerly wind into our faces. Nothing for it but to keep pedalling and keep eating. My body had struggled this afternoon (as I do most days between 2 and 4) with a near bonk on the approach to Contin and a general feeling of tiredness thereafter. Nothing for it but to eat, drink and keep the pace down. I’d joined up with Rob Waller on the last section of muddy track to Glen Einig and we both enjoyed the turn back to the north east and the resultant tailwind. It was only as we reached the now famous Oykle Bridge Hotel that I realised I had blasted past my scratch point of last year without a thought. I could do this. I will do this (You’d better do this!) were my thoughts.



A touch of Luxury

The welcome at the Oykel Bridge Hotel was amazing. This place is posh and I had serious doubts about how they would take to a gaggle of wet, muddy and smelly mountain bikers only interested in getting as much food down their necks as possible. Rob asked about a room but they were full. I was quietly determined to get into Glen Cassley as I knew there would be plenty of camping spots. Several people gathered here and there was much chat about the weather, the puddles, the wind and what was coming. I had done hours of route prep for this. I’d looked at the route maps until it was all in my mind. I’d scoured Geograph.org and HeritagePaths.org for route info and photos to give me an idea of what was coming. Even google streetview provided an idea of the terrain and likely camping spots. Others seemed oblivious and were happy to take the route as it came. Who was right? Not sure as both approaches have there benefits. A loose posse of Me, Rob, Alasdair, Carl, Dave, Darren and Amanda cruised down to Invercassley and found an ideal patch of woodland just off the road. The tent went up and then I had a look at the nearby waterfall whilst reviewing the days ride in my head. Despite my earlier problems I felt good as I crashed out once more, ready for the next day. I’d done 107 miles in 15 hours.





Day 3 The Hell of the North 
I’m a morning person honest

4am saw me wide awake and eating breakfast. Today would see the end of the easy riding and the first major challenge – Sutherland. A land of bog, rock and incredible remoteness. I was off before 5 up Glen Cassley into the stiffening breeze. I got a shock when I heard a bike suddenly come up behind me and saw none other than our Host Mr Goldsmith looking suspiciously fresh faced. Turns out he’d got the last room in the Achness hotel for a night of luxury. I let him pedal off as I was feeling decidedly wabbit thanks to the early hour. I stopped briefly to chat to Karl Booth who’d bivvied further up the glen. I’d first met him on the climb out of Bridge of Orchy so we exchanged pleasantries and I carried on. He seemed surprisingly cheerful for a damp 5.30am… The road climb over to Loch Shin was hard and my body wasn’t playing. Respite came in the form of sunshine and rising cloud giving tantalising views of our next objective – the massive Flanks of Foinaven and Arkle. This was part of the route I’d looked forward to since my first attempt in 2014. I’d climbed these peaks with my Dad on the same week in 1987 at the tender age of 16. That day it had been stunning weather with views out of this world. Today the views were firmly shrouded by cloud but occasional gaps showed the massive slabs and screes that make this place so special. The last tailwind for a considerable distance pushed me up the climb from Loch Merkland.



All hope abandon ye who enter here

I was now entering one of the wildest places in Britain and a contender for hardest section of the route. Turning up into Glen Golly confirmed this with steep climbs, saturated trails and a brutal headwind doing its best to push me back to the road, Altnaharra and failure. I kept reading my note I’d taped to the bar harness – ‘Go Canny, Eat food, Do not quit, enjoy’. The good news was that as the morning had gone on I’d felt better and better and my sprits were high. I was approaching the northern most part of the route, it was the morning of day 3 and everything was functioning well. The cloud lifted in time to see the climb out of Glen Golly. I just about fell off my bike laughing. A distant figure cresting the summit set the scale – this was going to be a stinker…. My Mantra for this stuff is ‘this too will end’ and ‘get up that effing hill you lazy barstard’. Forget the distance, height gained, gradient etc., just keep putting one foot in front of the other and you’ll get there eventually. The now ragged cloud made the vastness of the hills around me made far more dramatic and threatening. It didn’t last and my traverse of the ancient stalkers path along to the Bealach Horn was done with only the clouds as a view. As was now the norm the trail was wet, boggy and crossed numerous burns in full flow. This was a fat bike moment – I surfed across it all only walking on the climbs to give myself a rest.






The descent down to the Alt an Easain Ghil was a series of vast peat hags with the path long since sunk. It needed a careful eye to pick a line through it all, walking not riding in case you were wondering! As I’d approached this ‘burn’ I’d become increasingly concerned about its level. The Corrie above it had numerous waterfalls plunging into it and all I could hear was the thunder of water. There was no sign of Allan so he’d either crossed safely or was somewhere down in loch Dionard. I’d caught up with the figure I’d seen earlier (Fraser McBeath) and was gratified to see him cross without incident. I took the time to take off socks and insoles for the crossing and then squeeze as much water out of my boots as possible. For me dry feet are an essential part of being warm and comfortable so I was going to preserve them at all costs. The climb up to Bealach horn was brutal and the wind did its best to blow me back down. It finally gave and after a quick photo stop I headed off to get down the hill and back to friendlier places as quickly as possible. Hitting the road was a major relief. I’d done the northern section, I was still in good shape and it was only 12.




Leaving the gates of hell….
The hardest road in Britain? 
Next up was a steep but smooth climb and another easy descent from Achfary over to Kylesku with stunning views of the bridge, Loch glencoul and the vastness of Quinag, head in the clouds. Inevitably the Kylesku hotel drew me in for more fine food and the now inevitable meet up with Allan G. We chatted about the route and who had dropped out. The last section would take its toll we agreed. I mentioned the direct east-west route from Gobernuisgach lodge to Lone – an easy climb / descent on double track but we agreed the scenery of the Horn route was worth the extra effort. Pity we couldn’t see it. The next section bought relief from both the weather and terrain. The Drumbeg road is infamous in road biking lore as being a killer but after what we’d just done it made for easy pedalling in light winds and even some sunshine. Drumbeg stores saw yet more food and a welcome re-supply of bananas. The route takes you back off road and down passed Achmelvich beach. The white sand called to the fat bike but there was no time today so I settled for hitting a few wee track side dunes. This trail also provided a fine view of the next objective – Suilven and the billion year old landscape of Assynt.



Pies galore

Lochinver was one of the routes major re-supply stops with its famous pie shop. During the day there is a great Panini van to boot but this was gone when we rolled in at 6pm. More excellent food and another great welcome from the staff who were intrigued by our undertaking and happy to serve food and drink to a stream of tired and hungry mountain bikers. Alan was muttering about hotels again but a couple of cycle tourists bore the bad news – everything was full. Turns out this wasn’t quite the case as Andy Williamson sneaked into a B&B! I was for pushing onto Suileg Bothy. Fraser M had turned up so the three of us headed up to the Bothy at our own pace. I was content to take it easy, careful not to upset my recently filled stomach. The bothy was a gem, clean and tidy with plenty of space. The fair evening encouraged me to pitch the tent to get it dried but the need for an early start made sleeping in the bothy the sensible option. I turned in just before 9 and was asleep instantly only just about waking up when Alasdair MacLean and Carl Hutchings arrived at 10. Mileage today was 88 but they were hard fought over 14 hours….


Day 4 The big one 
It’s not meant to be easy


This next section definitely would be the hardest section of the route. A few miles on a track that would be a breeze in the dry but today was the inevitable slime surf followed by nigh on 6 miles of hike-a-bike over terrain more reminiscent of the moon rather than Scotland. Alan G had already left so I set off with Carl Hutchings close by. The weather had closed in again but at least the wind was behind us. What a trail. The first section actually convinced me to return with an unloaded bike to tackle as a day circuit but this idea quickly faded.




The trail above Lochan Fada did provide some riding over slabs of conglomerate but it was a tiny percentage of the whole. The climb over to Cam Loch was a vast field of boulders and even the descent was unrideable. Once again I found myself in this strange state of just plodding along, not thinking of what was ahead or had gone before, just picking away at this forbidding landscape waiting for it to end. Along Loch Cam the route took you along the beach (fat bike yeah!) which was a blessed relief. Short lived however and the trail was unrelenting right up to the road. Carl was just behind and later said it was good having someone just ahead to pace yourself. For me knowing that Alan Goldsmith was just ahead kept me going, plotting just retribution on him for making us take this grim route – just joking Alan! An easy road ride followed and maybe another test. Beyond Oykel bridge was civilisation, train stations, brighter weather and tailwinds. On route were headwinds dark cloud and another vast range of mountains. Breakfast in the hotel restored me once again. I’d done the northern loop and there was no way I was quitting.



Oh blessed Ullapool

I said farewell to Sutherland and hello to Wester Ross on the old road to Ullapool. Track, path, bog, track, road, path. Suddenly nothing was fazing me after the harshness of the previous trails. I rolled into Ullapool feeling strong and confident. More food and a meet up with Alan, Steve and Mark. Steve was taking a day out awaiting the express delivery of a new freewheel. Mark had been having knee troubles so had eased off his pace. Rumours were rife about the front runners – mechanicals and body troubles taking their toll. A large feed later I did a quick tour of the shops for more food and rolled out of Ullapool on the last easy riding for over 30 miles. The climb out of Loch Broom was one I’d pegged as a killer but in fact it was OK – steep but smooth. Across the top were the inevitable bogs but the big tyres just kept rolling and the next challenge hove into view - The mighty An Teallach with its vast slabs of bare rock shining in the sun which had made a rare appearance.



A braw fine nicht for a swim ah dinae think

I stomped up the double track climb out of Dundonald, my legs defying the distance travelled. Ahead lay my biggest psychological challenge – the crossing of the Strath na Sealga.





I was keen to get a glimpse of the river. Descending down into the vast glen it looked OK but our official crossing point was a few miles down stream right at the head of the loch. Passing Sheneval Bothy I briefly spoke to a walker who had made the crossing just down from the Bothy. Alan had said to cross by any means possible but I felt honour bound to try the official point. As I approached I felt the fear building. If I failed here I knew my attempt would be over. Others had crossed I knew but when I first beheld the crossing point my exact words were ‘you are f***ing joking’… Prior to starting I had joked about inflating my two spare tubes and using them as a raft. Suddenly this wasn’t a joke. There was no way of telling how deep the loch was and waves a foot high were being blown into the river mouth. I walked back and forth checking for the exact point of the crossing and then stopped, heart pounding and stomach churning. Eventually I sat down, remove socks, jammed them into my shirt and set out into the water. Within ten feet it was above knee deep. The bike was fully afloat; the pedals clear of the water. Further on I went and further in. It reached thigh depth and still got deeper. Waves brushed my hips and tried to take the bike away from me. Suddenly my foot struck a slope, the depth dropped to knee depth and I plunged out of the water and onto the sandy beach. I’d done it. Between here and Tyndrum, every river would have a blessed bridge.


 This is the crossing, I’m not joking!



Hard ride to Luxury

Reaching Larachantivore presented a dilemma. It was just after 8 but too early to stop. I knew that worse weather was on the way and getting south and east as quickly as I could was the only way to beat it. Between me and Canmore bothy was at least 2 and a half hours of hard trail – taking me into darkness. I cracked on, riding as much as possible and pushing on hard. When forced to dismount I stomped along as quick as I could. As I’d read, the path improved away from the river but the gradient quickly steepened. This was the first of three climbs I knew would be hard with the fat bike. No thinking and no stopping just keep moving. Shouldering the bike to negotiate a steep, narrow and boulder strewn goat path highlighted my exposed situation. Even a small fall could incapacitate me and put me in big trouble. There was no where to pitch a tent and wouldn’t be until Canmore. The top of the headwall was finally reached but there was still a long trail to go, climbing steadily into another vast corrie with cloud shrouded peaks staring down at me.



Long way up….


As I approached the top of the descent darkness was falling. I didn’t stop but that cold feeling in my stomach was growing. I had a light but no way would it good enough for the kind of rocky, techy descent I surely faced. Redemption – in this wild place, one of the biggest areas of hills in the Northwest, was a path you’d more likely find in a country park – smooth graded gravel contouring down the hill. I was saved! And quickly made the valley floor as darkness was falling. The site of Canmore Bothy filled me with a massive feeling of achievement and joy. I’d done yet another monument of this ride and lived to tell the tale. Inevitably who should be camped out side but Alan. ‘You again?’ he laughed. We’d talked of this bothy the previous evening (an age ago) and Alan had muttered about it being a dump. I didn’t fancy putting the tent up if there was an easy option so I went in to be greeted by what seemed like a hallucination. A dirt floor for sure but the room had several camp beds and even an old divan single bed at the far end – how the hell had that got here?! Occupying beds 1 and 2 were Andy Williamson, last seen at Breakfast and Stephen Sloof, last seen at Kinlochleven! I dragged the bike in and unpacked. There was even a folding chair, so I sat in splendour eating food, drinking tea and reflecting on what had certainly been the hardest, longest days biking of my entire life. Only 75 miles but nearly 18 hours to achieve it. Sleep was instant….



Day 5 The only way out is through


This is shite?

You know your doing an adventure race when 5.30 am is a lie in. I had a leisurely breakfast and contemplated the day’s goals. I’d generally avoided this in previous days not wanting to try to get to places that were unachievable, damaging morale in the process. But today I knew I had to get within a reasonable shout of the end. Potentially I could get to Tyndrum the next day and achieve my sub 6 day crassly optimistic pre-race target. Realistically I would get to a point which would allow me to pass Fort Augustus the next day with a final easy day back to base. Once again it was grey and damp exiting Letterewe via the excellent path. This like many others in the area had been repaired in the late ‘90’s by the now defunct Ross and Cromarty Footpath Trust – a loose partnership of Scottish Natural Heritage, various landowners, Scottish Enterprise and the a handful of local community groups. In those days funding was plentiful and this trust carried out many miles of path improvements spanning from An Teallach to Torridon. Post Land Reform this has opened up vast wildernesses for the intrepid mountain biker to explore and lead to the amazing phenomena of the trails at Torridon. Poolewe was reached after the final schlep through the forest (on a track but ironically far soggier than the preceding path including the infamous cow shit bog). This wee village provided a valuable toilet stop and a shop. It was also a significant point in the route as it was the most westerly point. I bumped in Rickie Cotter also waiting for the shop to open, having bivvied the night in the ladies! The joys of wild camping….. I ate and stashed food then got going. A road climb then the infamous tollie path, a joke lost on those from south of the border as everyone told me it was indeed shite. I withheld judgement. I’d ridden this in 1997 and thought it a fine trail – an easy climb on a made up path followed by a rough descent with multiple lines and plenty rock riding. So it was today. The climb was straightforward and the descent, I’m here to report, was bloody amazing. If you raced downhill in the late ‘90’s you’d get it (when downhill courses were a mess of roots, mud and rocks with none of this berms and jumps nonsense). A wide eroded path with lines everywhere down which a careful eye could pick a route. Logic suggests that you take it well easy on such terrain but stuff it, I was in my element so got stuck in – Ice Cream Truck Party time! Halfway down I passed Rickie Cotter – greetings and encouragement exchanged then off again. Next up, the longest section of road on the route.



Black top cruising 
To Kinlochewe it was wind assisted and easy. This gave me a chance to assess both my own condition and the bikes. Contact points OK but feels like a saddle sore coming on – must attend. Wrists fine (amazingly as my wrists always give me gyp on long rides) legs good, left knee nipping a bit – odd as this is my good one. Dodgy right knee no problem. The bike seemed OK but I was worrying about the effect of endless miles of granite / mud grinding paste on the drive train. Another issue was also occurring to me – brakes. How worn were they? I’d started with new sintered pads which typically would last for ages but this relentless mud was surely taking its toll. I had a spare set of part worn ones with me but these were for emergencies, not something I expected to use. Also of concern were the tyre side walls. Schwalbes Jumbo Jims are a fat bike revolution – huge but weighing massively less than Surly’s own offerings. These had been the clincher for taking this bike dropping a kilo off its weight and massively reducing rolling resistance. The trade off were the sidewalls which were thin and unprotected. I’d done mile after mile of rocky single track continuously accompanied by the scrape of tyre on rock. I had patches, thread and superglue with me but the thought of doing a tyre repair at the side of the road did not appeal…. Whatever, don’t look just ride. Kinlochewe provided further shopping opportunities and the excellent Whistlestop Café which gave another warm welcome and more fine food. This was turning into more of a gastronomic trip than an adventure ride! The road down to Torridon was headwind city and the previously fine weather was once more being replaced by murk and rain as the next mountain challenge loomed above me.



Shred the Gnar dude 
Torridon. Now a byword for extreme riding featured in various mags, endless you tube vids and made famous by Danny, Steve and Hans getting flown to the top and riding down on camera. Once the preserve of only a hardened few mountain bikers with maps and determination, now the hang out for an endless stream of fluro short and lid wearing dudes on full bouncers. They weren’t in evidence today and who could blame them. This is the longest continuous climb on the HT560 route topping out at 660m but starting at sea level so you get to enjoy every metre…. Actually slightly less than my favourite climb in the Ochills but harder, much harder. Any thoughts of riding this were quickly dispelled. Since my last visit in 2013, the path was way looser and rougher at a grade that needed maximum effort to ride – not on after over 400miles. The climb was gruesome and I knew what was coming having ridden down it a couple of years previously. The rain was blasting in horizontally and stopping brought an instant chill. I’d passed Rickie on the climb but not long after paused to eat a bit before the final slog and noted she wasn’t far behind. Suddenly staying in sight of a fellow rider seemed like an amazingly good idea. The final climb was desperate – nearly 50lbs of bike on my shoulder trying to climb a near scramble of a path up, and up and up… Finally topping out revealed the major problem facing us. The wind was blowing straight up Coire Lair and the rain now torrential. The descent was over 600m with barely a need to turn a pedal and so would be bitterly cold. Rickie had caught me up by this point and lead off on this descent that should have been a joyous blast but was instead a grim essay in survival biking. An incapacitating fall here would be life threatening given the cold. The road was only a few miles away but rescue would be over an hour – too long in these conditions. The two of us picked our way down the hill walking anything remotely dodgy. Dropping out of Coire Laire gave respite from the weather and finally spat us out on the road, soaked and chilled to the bone. Stephen Sloof was there too, similarly suffering, so we cracked on to the warm oasis of the Loch Carron hotel, food and hopefully, in my mind, a bed. Walking in we met Andy Williamson tucking into his main course and smugly telling us he had his room organised. I went straight to the manager and enquired about rooms – hallelujah he had rooms free. I’d ‘only’ done 60 miles and it was only 7pm but for me this was the end of day 5. Turns out I was in good company as Alan and Javi had also decided to call it a day here. 6 of us settled down for a night of luxury. Not so for Fraser McBeath. I’d not seen him since the previous day but he suddenly turned up at about 7.30, calmly drank a cup of tea and headed out into the rain saying he was heading for Camban bothy in Glen Affric…. ‘Good on yer’ I thought but for me a good sleep, dry kit and an early start should see me within easy reach of the finish by the end of tomorrow. Nothing would stop me barring major injury or a serious mechanical. The beer I had with my meal tasted like nectar….




Day 6 Lets get the hell out of here


Go East!

I was the last of the dirty half dozen to leave the hotel thanks to my typically casual pre start preps. A brief road climb provided valuable heat in the legs and then I hit the dirt again. I passed Carl Hutchings who hadn’t been able to find digs so had had to bivvy – he still looked as unflustered as I’d seen him on previous occasions. The descent was a swampathon par excellence – fat bike cruising! I passed Javi who was clearly suffering with feet and knees giving him serious problems. Despite this he was as cheerful as ever and determined to finish. I found the right trail to the gate (see Iona Evans tale of her 2014 ride!) and hit tarmac once again. The route follows and old road which climbs up above loch shiel – a pain but the view over Eilean Donan castle to the Cuillins justified it.






On the descent the expected happened – the front brake pads hit metal. I stopped at the inverinate garage for breakfast part 2 and set to changing them. Hmm, the lever took loads of pumps to get the pads back on the disc and the resulting brake was well spongy. Somehow air had gotten in but how?? Who knows but it would have to do. Alan, Rickie and Andy had all left by the time I’d sorted this so I was alone again heading to Morvich and Glen Licht. For a change the sun was shining but the hard westerly was cold and I’d caught a glimpse of fresh snow above around 700 metres. Glen licht was an easy pedal with a massive tailwind. The single track climb had found few friends from previous editions of the HT but it was only 350m i.e. half yesterdays climb so it couldn’t be that bad could it?



Once again as I started the climb the weather closed in with cold horizontal rain. Thank god it was behind me but it didn’t bode well for the next part of the route. For once I was compelled to put my headphones in and distract myself from the struggle of this climb. My choice seemed appropriate – Shostakovich’s mighty 5th symphony, his comment on the Stalin regime, a fitting counterpoint to my own struggle with rock, gradient and weather. The main steep finally eased but this just left me at the mercy of the brutal wind and rain, then sleet and even snow. I felt my stomach churning – would it be like this all the way to Tyndrum? Thoughts of barely making it to Fort Augustus this day loomed in my mind. The trail to Camban bothy should have been a joy but it just seemed to go on and on. I guess the distance was finally taking its toll as I felt weak for the first time in the ride. Onwards and upwards I went staring at the ground in front of me.




Finally the bothy came into view. Not only that but suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun shone down neatly coinciding with the stunning finale of the music in my ears – a perfect moment and my earlier gloom disappeared instantly. From Camban the path became a track – wet but fast with the massive tailwind. This would be a major jink east and it went past in no time with the tailwind assist. The only dampner was my front brake. After only a few miles the pads hit metal again. Shit – I had no more spares. A quick survey showed that my rear pads were fine so these went on the front and the best of the rest went on the back. But disaster struck once more – I pumped the front brake lever with the bike lying on its side. The spongy front brake became a non existent front brake. I rode off, my mind racing as to how I would sort this. If I could get to Fort Bill I would get a bleed kit and new pads but timings were suggesting that this would cause me a big delay. Could I get down the descents on a back brake only? No chance – two fast gravel road descents were coming up and the descent into Kinlochleven and off the devils staircase would require all the braking I could get. I stopped after a few miles for food and tried an old trick learned from my days of riding old motorbikes. I tied the lever open and propped the bike upright. The air bubble should be near the top of the hose and this should allow it back into the master cylinder. After half and hour I removed the strap and tried it. Happy days I had a front brake again - A bit spongy but good enough.



Pizza time, a reprise!

The climb out of Tomich is actually one of the biggest on the route but on a nice smooth gravel road. I passed Rickie but there was no sign of Alan. Had he gone into the Tomich hotel or was he pressing on for home?? Who knows but the Fort Augustus pizza shop was calling me so I screamed up the hill and blasted down the other side in defiance of my dodgy brakes. The trail over to Fort Augustus was a joy – a nice easy climb and a fine smooth single track descent. The sun shone, the wind was behind me and I felt good. Fort William looked on the cards for today leaving only 40 odd miles for the next. I arrived at the pizza shop but no one else was there. Had Alan pressed on? Doubtful as he seemed to be determined to patronise every eating establishment on route! He arrived on my third slice shortly followed by Rickie. Alan had elected for a 9” pizza but me and Rickie both demolished 12” ones with ease – the joys of long distance bike riding. A quick stop at the shop for final snacks was curtailed by a tremendous downpour. Javi had caught us up by this time but further disaster had struck – his freewheel was failing. Poor bloke; I couldn’t believe his incredible fortitude on keeping going despite such physical and now mechanical pain.



An evening’s ride

The rain eased and the three of us headed down the great glen way for some easy miles. Showers came and went but the route is fairly sheltered so no drama. Javi’s freewheel was hampering him so he quickly fell behind. There was nothing we could do but this is when the rules of Adventure racing seem harsh – no assistance too be given or received. Alan hadn’t caught up so on we went chatting about the route, life the universe and everything (Point of order – we were riding side by side, not drafting each other!) Rickie decided to make use of a handy wood shed for a luxury bivvy but I was keen to press on. The rain showers were more frequent as I approached Fort Bill (as per usual, it always rains when I’m here) and darkness was falling.


I’d planned to hit Glen Nevis campsite but suddenly the thought of hard accommodation appealed - that inner wimp coming out again but I felt justified in my decision as a):- it was chucking it down, b) I would get a quick start and c) Alan G had stayed in 2 hotels on this ride so I was due one. Not as easy as I thought as every place I went past on the run into town was full. I had one last try on the main road into the centre and hit lucky – the end B&B of a terrace of several had vacancies – a twin room for £30; what a bargain. It was 10.30, and I’d done 104miles in 15 hours. Tomorrow would see me back at Tyndrum in about 6 or so hours.




Day 7 And finally….


The West Highland way is rubbish

Leaving the B & B at 6.30 in the rain felt good. Tonight I would sleep in my own bed for many, many hours. I saw Rickie heading for the all night garage for breakfast after an early start but I’d already stuffed myself with most of the remainder of the food in my bag. The climb out of Glen Nevis is a mere bump compared to what had gone before but once I again I resorted to musical distraction – Shostakovich again, this time his 7th symphony, written in Leningrad whilst the German Army laid siege to it, putting my own troubles firmly into perspective. The rain came down but I was on the home straight and feeling unstoppable. The grotty singletrack went by in a blink and I was on the rough double track climb below the flanks of the mamores and riding strongly. I’d done the strap trick on the brake lever overnight and the front brake was performing well but even so I was careful down into Kinlochleven as a crash now would be heartbreaking. The Icefactor café was shut so I made do with a cold second breakfast courtesy of the co-op and headed off for the final challenge – the climb up to the devils staircase. It seemed an eternity ago since I had passed here on the way out, in the warm sunshine. Today it was cloudy and cold – several inches of snow were lying above 700m and although the rain had finally eased off, the wind was bitter. Ride, walk, ride, walk – I barely noticed the trail. The top was reached and another careful descent made in the face of the now continuous stream of walkers. People said this section seemed to go on for ever but for me it was over in a blink. 





The end
I was pushing on hard to get back before 1pm and I felt like I’d done an easy day’s ride, not 560 miles. OK my knees were definitely squeaking a bit but everything else felt good. Finally the end came in site after one last push and for the first time I let myself relax. I’d done it. I’d done the Highland Trail. 560 miles of hard biking in weather best described as challenging. Nothing would faze me again and no bike ride would be hard after this. There’d been a few low points but these were totally over shone by the many highs and a few perfect moments that I would never forget. As I approached the finish line a guy jumped out of his van and started cheering me – none other than Mike Toyn who had finished the previous day, second person home. He congratulated me and we chatted about our experiences. Alan’s friend Sarah was also there as the great man wasn’t far behind so photos were taken and more congratulations made. Stephen Sloof appeared to shake my hand. The feeling of achievement was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It had taken me 6 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes and I was the sixth person back – an achievement way beyond any expectation I had harboured at the start. I headed down to the car, photographed my faithful steed and loaded it up. A quick freshen up and change of clothes and then I headed back up to welcome Alan and Rickie back. Alan had just made it back as I arrived and Rickie arrived not long after. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged and we all looked at each other knowing this ride had been a massive achievement.










I’d have never have done it without…..

The people I met made this ride. Sitting here writing this I can hardly remember the hardships and pain. I’d met and chatted too many people on the way and our shared tales of the crap weather, endless bogs and waist deep rivers made it all worth while. Major thanks to Alan Goldsmith for creating the route and organising the group start, Track leaders etc. etc. It’s a lot of work for him and he doesn’t get a penny back – he just does it ‘cos he cares. Bravo that man. Also cheers to Rob Waller, Andy Williamson, Carl Hutchings, Javi Simon, Fraser McBeath, Alasdair Maclean, Steve from Callander, Karl Booth, a few others I’ve forgotten and especially Rickie Cotter. I shared a bit of the trail with all of you and you helped to make it easy. I hoped I helped to make it easy for you too. Also big cheers to Iona for major inspiration, motivation, help, advice and threats of endless slagging off if I failed. Also cheers to her man Rob at www.backcountrybiking.co.uk for supplying revelate bags, the tent and sleeping bag at great prices, as well as the threat of abuse if I jacked it again. And finally thanks to my ride - my beloved Ice Cream Truck for going the distance. Fat bikes rule!!







Kit list (Nerds and gear freaks only)



By and large all my kit worked well, keeping me warm and dryish most of the time. The only issue I had was contantly taking waterproofs on an off on day 4 as I had my frame bag full of food so had to stow jacket and trousers in the front dry bag, which was a pain to take off, open, close and re attach. Otheres were using small ruckscacks as well as bar rolls and seat packs so I may try this next time.



Bike – Surly Ice Cream Truck with 1x10; Middleburn cranks with 27t ring, one up 42t sprok and rad cage. Holly rolling darryl rims, hope hubs and Schwalbe Jumbo Jim tyres and tubes. I ran the tyres mainly at about 20psi rear and 15 front as a reasonable compromise to save time. I only pumped them up for the two long road sections. Hope FR stem (extra short) Big high and wide bars for manhandling the beast through the gnar. The bear bike with mudguards weighed 32lbs.



Sleeping – Vango helium pro carbon tent on a wildcat bar harness; Criterium quantum 200 sleeping bag (cosy!), Thermorest neo air 2/3rds mat, exped pillow in a Revelate terrapin.

Junk - Vango Ti gas stove and alpkit ti cup with a tin foil pie case lid. Toppeak alien multi tool, leatherman, lots of patches and tub tyre thread for tyre repairs (not needed), two spare JJ tubes (not needed for punctures or for river crossings), Lezyne micro floor drive HV pump (300 pumps to 30psi!) in a revelate frame bag (designed for my fargo), gas tank and two fuel cells. I used a garmin Dakota 20 GPS and a pink rubber rat which squeaked.



Eating – I started with a handful of fruit nked bars, 2 bananas, some banana loaf a work colleague made for me, haribo, cashew nuts, energy drink powder sachets and a foldable bottle, 8 gels, energy tabs, a mountain house dried curry, a sachet of instant porridge.



Drinking – water, valuables, spot tracker and selected food stuffs went in a camelbak lobo



Clothing – I wore a pair of DHB aeron pro shorts (all week!), cheapo DHB roubaix longs, a Helly hensen merino base layer and a Torm merino cycling shirt. Gloves were spesh gell gloves when it was dry and a pair of sealskin gloves the rest of the time. I wore sealskin socks and a pair of bridgedale merino wool medium weight walking socks with Shimano Goretex spd boots. My feet were warm. In the bag went my PJ’s – merino longs and another HH merino top as well as an ancient thin microfleece top. Over the top went a Paramo Quito jacket (exceptional) a pair of cheap vaude over trousers and some unknown gaiters which fell apart just before Ullapool and were replaced by another pair of unknown gaiters. Lid was some fox effort I got cheap from CRC.





And again finally….



My decision to take the fat bike was based on its ability to ride over / through anything. The endless bogs and wet trails made it my perfect choice and it never seemed heavy or draggy on the endless miles of double track and road. That said the first person home for this ride was on a rigid single speed 29er so don’t take this as a recommendation! Ideally you’d take some kind of carbon or ti framed lightweight with 4” tyres rather than my 4.8’s but I do real, not ideal. And for all those cynics and journos who think that fat bikes are joke bikes only for riding on the beach, get it richt up yer!!



Phil Clarke, 5th June 2015