Mostly, this is random stories from my various trips as I collect them, but I've a wee backlog to get through too and those will pop up occasionally.

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Thursday, 24 April 2014

Count me Out

The past few months have seen me obsess over the forthcoming Highland Trail Race. I've been poring over maps, doing lots of extra riding, tweaking my equipment choices, planning stops and logistics and basically boring the hell out of my wife. I've certainly been making the most of any opportunity to get out on my bike, though it's sometimes felt like a bit of a chore rather than just being for fun

Last weekend I took the opportunity to do a reconnaissance of part of the HTR route and to get in an overnight bivvy. Starting at Laggan gave me the opportunity to cross the Corrieyairack East to West for the first time, something I'd been thinking about all year but had delayed due to the record levels of snowfall in the mountains. The weather was excellent as I started out, with not a cloud to be seen. 


Cloudless morning at Loch Spey
The road section up to Garva Bridge and then to Melgarve bothy went in easily enough and then it was on to the rougher (but recently resurfaced) track. A few of the stone water-bars proved to be deep and tricky and I opted to get off the bike for a couple. No point in having a stupid accident this early! The foot of the zig-zags was soon reached and I reverted to a little pushing up his section, climbing up through some large patches of snow to the little hut on top. 


Last of the snow patches on the Corrieyairack
Hills, hills and more hills
From here, the view west was amazing with snow-mottled mountains ringing the horizon. The descent is a full-on blast with the only major hazard being watering eyes. A couple of smaller climbs and descents and I was soon at a very busy Fort Augustus. 


First view of Loch Ness
A great day for messing about in boats
My plan here had been to check out a little cafe I'd eaten in on a previous trip and to check out what time they opened for breakfast but, despite it being a busy Easter Sunday, they were closed. I found a little chippie-type restaurant round the corner but after standing in a stationary queue for ten minutes opted just to grab some stuff from the supermarket and eat it al fresco. 

The next section follows the Great Glen Way all the way to Fort William so it's partly canal towpath, partly old railway bed and partly forest track. Another little detour en route took me to the shop at the Well of the Seven Heads, again to check opening times. I made it just as they were closing up for the day so opted for an ice-cream pick-me-up. 
Ben Nevis backdrop
Reaching the public road to Loch Arkaig then had me searching for a little detour by the lochside - the signpost for which was hidden behind a cunningly-parked car. This was a lovely little section with definite potential for some wild camping. I was running fairly close to my planned schedule at this point so opted for food in Fort William - an unashamed indulgence at McDonalds proved just the thing. 

Nom, nom, nom

I'd also realised just before here that the second days riding would see me pass no food stops of any kind, so stocked up with some snacks to carry me through. It was just before 6pm when I headed along Glen Nevis on the West Highland Way and I reckoned a couple of hours riding would get me well into the Lairigmor as planned. 
On the West Highland Way above Glen Nevis
The initial climb out of the glen proved to be OK, until I met a "track closed" sign. It was obvious that some timber extraction was in progress but I (correctly) reckoned there would be no one working on a Sunday evening so skipped around the gates for the short distance involved. I was very glad I had as the signposted detour from a lower forest track ended up with an incredibly steep ascent back to the normal route. 

Once the forest track ended, the WHW simply got steeper and more difficult to ride and I was eventually reduced to pushing and hauling the bike along, including a steep section of steps with a handrail on only one side and a potentially high penalty for loss of balance. I was therefore happy when the path started to level off again and I could get in some more riding. The sweeping singletrack along here towards Lundavra proved to be a highlight of the trip with some easy inclines and rocky steps. After the pleasure however, comes the pain and as the track carried on up again it developed into a massive boulder field. To exacerbate matters, I seemed to be riding into a wind-tunnel and the combination of tired legs, boulders, a laden bike and the headwind meant I was reduced to walking long sections. As I did so, I became increasingly aware of falling behind schedule. 
Tigh na sluebhaich
I passed three French guys who were pitching their tents, watching the setting sun out west while I pushed on eastwards, determined to reduce the distance I'd need to ride the next day. The strong wind threatened to make any overnight stop up here a bit of a pain, so I decided to push on to the relative shelter of Kinlochleven. With darkness falling fast, I reached the final descent, making reasonable time until the path disappeared into the woods, whereupon I was, once again, reduced to pushing the bike downhill. 


Last of the daylight with the Pap of Glencoe in the background
By now, I was fed up of chasing a target time and distance, of concentrating only on getting somewhere and not being able to stop to take in my surroundings. A stunning West Highland evening had come and gone and all I'd been able to think about was plodding on regardless. When I came to a little spot in the woods just outside Kinlochleven, I decided to adjourn to the pub for a couple of beers to analyse my feelings in some comfort before retiring for the night. It didn't actually take me long to reach my decision - the HTR just wasn't going to happen for me. 

I weighed up all the pros and cons; the challenge aspect remained, a big eight-day outing in stunning scenery. However, I was already sick of the single-minded focus needed to maintain the required pace and the thought of riding alone for eight or more days was just depressing. With that out of the way, I set off up the hill a little to set up camp for the night and settle in a little less pressured. The combination of tiredness and a couple of pints of Trade Winds meant it wasn't long before I was fast asleep.


Bivvy above Kinlochleven


If Sunday had been all about decision making, Monday served to absolutely confirm I'd made the correct choice. My mood hadn't changed much the next morning as I ate breakfast and started to pack up and wasn't helped any by the huge climb required out of Kinlochleven towards Loch Eilde Mor. 


A bit of a climb from my sea-level campsite
Room with a view
The headwind I'd hit yesterday had got worse and I knew that I'd basically be heading into it all day. Ride, walk, push was the repeated pattern for the next couple of hours until I eventually spotted the buildings at Luibielt.  
Luibeilt and Meannanach Bothy

The Abhainn Rath and the Grey Corries
Here, the combination of big snow deposits and high temperatures had resulted in a fast-flowing, relatively deep Abhainn Rath and it took me a little while to find a decent crossing spot. Boots and socks off, boots back on to cross and thankfully the water wasn't very cold. I'd passed this way several years ago and had a recollection of there being many deep ditches along the route following the river downstream. That meltwater had made them even worse and I found myself once again manhandling the bike up, down and across them all. 

Final view of Ben Nevis
Pace now had slowed to less even than normal walking speed and I was starting to do all sorts of mental calculations about my ETA at Laggan. An initial 2pm guess soon became 4pm and as the "walk with a bike" progressed, became 6pm and even later. I was even starting to consider get-out options such as detouring to Corrour Station and getting the train north for my wife to come pick me up. However, I pressed on, glad of any longer rideable sections and was relieved to see Loch Ossian on the horizon. 


Loch Ossian (the Youth Hostel in the trees on the right)
From here, the path on the south side of the loch had been repaired a little since my last visit and I found it much easier going. Once the lodge was reached, the track became a vast, smooth motorway and, with some wind assistance, I found myself belting along it, going at a decent speed for the first time since yesterday afternoon. Thoughts of an early bale-out soon disappeared and I set off from Moy to Lochan na h-Earba with a bit of renewed vigour. Here, the wind hit me full-on on again but with the miles counting down and an end in sight it was easier to dig in and find the reserves required. the final couple of miles along the road to Laggan went in pretty simply, arriving just after 5pm, and I don't think I was ever so glad to see my van parked there.  

197km/3200m of ascent

Over the two days, I'd ridden for some 20 hours and covered about 122 miles. An eight day HTR pace suggests 70 miles per day. So, overall, I'd eventually managed a reasonable average pace, but I knew that there was little left to give and the thought of having to do another 20 miles or so would have driven me to despair - let alone having to repeat the exercise for six more days with an even more laden bike.

My admiration for the participants has certainly increased a couple of notches (it was already incredibly high). I guess it's not just about fitness but also having the mental fortitude to press on for so long. For me, I reckon I'm on the limit of being fit enough to complete it but not to enjoy it en route. I considered turning up at the start and simply cycling at my own pace regardless but I know there's a waiting list so much better that someone more able, more driven, gets the opportunity to participate. On reflection, I reckon I'll plan to take things a bit easier, spend more time looking around me and enjoying being outside without having to be somewhere in particular. I'll be following the HTR with increased interest this year and might even turn up to take photos as participants complete the route. My best wishes go to each and every one of them.