HT430 for leisure…or pleasure ?

This is the story of my bike trip in the Highlands of Scotland…
I wanted to do the HT550 route (not the race) – but I had problems with my GPS Power, so nearing Oykel Bridge I opted for the HT430 instead.

Even though I wasn’t in a race, some days were very hard indeed, especially the ‘hike-a-bike’ sections in Fisherfield, Annat to Achnashellach, and the dreadful section of Glen Ling ending at Nonach Lodge, where there is a road.

Some days I started without breakfast hoping for refills along the route (towards Fort William at the end) and when I found nothing had a hard time coaxing my body to run on empty !

It somehow stretched to 12 days – I had one or two easy days, after nearly a week of battling with cold and constant wind, spells of rain, I seriously needed to buy some leg cover, and this I did in Ullapool in the form of ladies’ leggings – definitely the best value £5.99 for a long time !

I started Tuesday 20th May at 6am from By the Way, where I had stayed in the dorm the night before. Weather was good.Enjoyable riding all the way to the Kingshouse, and even the Devil’s Staircase went well.

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A bit of lunch in Kinlochleven, bought some Smidge, and off again. Hard work going up past the vacant Mamore Lodge Hotel.

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Crossed the Abhainn Rath (easily)

 

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then 3.5 miles of not much riding but plenty of cursing and pushing and shoving – plenty wetness in the ground did not help at all.

A relief to get on the track at the bottom of Loch Treig, then upwards to Loch Ossian. Good tracks all the way along Strath Ossian, through the forest, needing to camp and lie down after a long day, but not many suitable spots so just kept going… as the skies darkened at about 8:30pm managed to get a spot near to Loch Laggan where the track meets the river.

Here’s my first camp:

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Awoke at 4:30am to the sound of heavy rain, so had some porridge and tea, packed up except the tent, and sat there for half an hour hoping the rain would ease…. but it didn’t so packed a wet tent, got back on the track, very wet and windy and miserable, especially with shorts on. Decided to put my waterproof gloves on (Sealzskin £35) but discovered that when your hands are wet they are almost impossible to get on. The constriction on my fingers actually made them worse, and whiter… unpleasant.

Bad weather for about 3 hours, and GPS problems – I don’t think it likes the wet. So I hit the A86 a bit too soon.

A wet and miserable Lochan na Earba

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And still some snow on the hills

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Quiet road to Garva Bridge but had to stop to put all my layers on as the cold was getting to me.. put the useless gloves away and resorted to my cycling gloves with thin thermal undergloves. At Garva Bridge very strong winds and more rain, but soon reached Melgarve Bothy for a bit of shelter from the wind. Leaving there it brightened up a bit so plodded upwards towards Corrieairyack Pass. Needed a dump on the way (in the heather) and got four ticks on me, but brushed them off before they got their teeth in (I had those tick removers in my bag).

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Corrieairyack was a big push, but what unsettled me was the construction work going on a few hundred metres away, upgrading the pylons… so out of place in this wild area.

Descent at last to Fort Augustus but with many uphills as well !
Rolled into Fort Augustus at about 5pm, and decided to take B&B, dry out, and get some good food in.

Set off on the Thursday along the Great Glen Way, Blaraidh, then forest track to Loch ma Stac. Just before there the weather turned bad, strong winds and rain. It’s a bit of a shock when you realise the track stops there, and your line is along the very rocky shore of the loch.

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Got a bit of shelter in the ruin at the end of the loch (it was actually blowing a gale through there, so you had to tuck into the corner just past the door to get any escape). Another layer on (they were all on, again)

Muddy, boggy track to reach the windfarm track, then down to Corrimony and onwards to Erchless Castle. Hit the track north from here and camped about 4 miles further on, with problems charging my Edge 800 due to the Maplin Power pack. 8:30pm, good to have a brew and lie down.

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Friday away for 9, with a big push to get me on a good but waterlogged in places track to Orrin Reservoir. 10minutes from the wind in the Scottish Hydro Bothy just before Orrin Res.then off again, to reach the road to Contin.

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Bought a cheese and onion pasty at the service station, but wanted some good food, so followed the sign to the Coul House Hotel… it’s uphill for about half a mile ! And very posh ! But I got biscuits and fudge with my pot(s) of tea, which I stashed in my bag for later.
Forest riding in the now sunny afternoon brought me out at the Inchbae Lodge Hotel. If I could get B&B I would  otherwise just press on and camp. As it was I did get a room, even though they are not really open as they are in the process of selling it.

Left there Saturday after a good breakfast – enjoyable riding on a good track for several miles. Saw what was I think an eagle.

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Eventually reached Loch Vaich, and ahead of me a rare sight in the form of a person, who turned out to a walking guidebook writer getting material for his next book. He was on a sort of road bike, and as I was chatting to him could hear all this hissing and crackling, which I thought were geese or something, whereupon he told me it was his radio as there was ‘a lot of sport on today’ !

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Magnificently remote country – a big valley to the west (Gleann Beag) with some big looking cliffs.

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And Deanich Lodge

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Along Gleann Mor had my packed sandwiches in a bit of sunshine,

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then continued to the beautiful gardens of Amat Lodge, and an interesting little church at Croik, to gain the ‘Road to Ullapool’.

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I was coming to decision time – whether to continue north along the northern loop, or bag it and head for Ullapool. I decided on Ullapool, mainly because of my GPS charging problems. Two days without a power point and I would be without my GPS, which is no good at all, even though I had the excellent Memory Map with the route on it, on my phone.

On the way to Ullapool I went past this sort of a smart shed, went back to take a look, and discovered it was Duag Bridge Bothy, so I couldn’t resist calling it a day, getting a brew on, and eating half a pizza and that cheese and onion pie

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Continuing Sunday on a good track, but after a few miles you see a metal arrow sticking up, painted red, and pointing “That way” – so you are on single track down which ends up on the side of a steep valley,

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eventually getting to Loch an Daimh.

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Good track from there, then a surfaced road, which you have to leave to get on the “Hill track to Ullapool”.

And a gate which was securely locked, so had to somehow get the bike over (without unloading it).

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Ullapool was a welcome sight…

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First job was to seek B&B – got this place on the main street:

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Then Tesco for provisions, then pub for some good food.Then the all important task of buying some leg cover ! This I got at the hardware store in the form of ladies’ leggings, great value at £5.99 (keep the change). They certainly did the trick.

Monday was to be the test day ! Left at 7:15am for 8 miles of road, which I didn’t like at all. Then the ridiculous ascent from Auchlunachan then over a difficult and wet track to Dundonnell House, all hard work.

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Even at the top it seems to go on and on, boggy, wet, on and off riding

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From Corrie Hallie it’s a good track but climbing nearly all the time to the summit at Lochan Dubh,

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followed by the descent into Strath na Sealga, on a  good track

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where the track becomes single track and increasingly difficult. Brief stop at Shenavall,Lance Armstrong R.I.P)

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then ever onwards towards Loch na Sealga, to cross the river.

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At this point I was joined (but not for long !) by Phil Simcock who had clocked 340 miles since the start on Saturday (54 hours), but managing to raise a smile..

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Quick photos then Phil was off over the river – about mid thigh deep for about 50 yards, so not too bad.

Then the weather closed in. Starting the awkward single track in the valley of Gleann na Muice Beag I stopped to fill up my bladder, and the midges descended.

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The single track was not very rideable (not rideable for me) and it went on and on, gradually upwards then predominantly upwards, for ever and ever. Resorting to pushing and heaving the bike one step at a time. Desperate for me because of my old injury (fractured heel from many years back) –

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but eventually I got to the top and could ride again, amidst stunning mountain scenery.

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The descent to Carnmore was brilliant with steep drop offs never too far away…
Here’s Dubh Loch

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It had stopped raining but the skies were becoming increasingly black, and by the time I got to Carnmore the bad weather had moved in. Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch beyond, separated by a thin man-made causeway

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It was 7pm and I decided to carry on to Poolewe.

The single track for about 2 miles was very difficult and every time I stopped the midges were out… so best not to stop.

Then the heavy rain eased a bit and the riding was good on a very crafty single track, until I reached the forest.

The track was good at first, then very muddy due to forestry. At one river I jumped in with the bike, and washed the mud off me then off the bike.

After about 100 yards I cam e across the ‘cow dung bog’ – no way around it so me and bike were covered in mud (and cow dung) very soon.

I eventually rolled into Poolewe at 9:30pm, wet and cold and not wanting to put my tent up.

I did just manage to get B&B but with difficulty. The lady (who another full guest house had phoned) had just gone to bed, but she offered me a room, and made a pot of tea, sandwiches, and cakes for me, brilliant.

Tuesday was bright and sunny so I changed my brake pads and set off at 10:30am.

I soon left the road to start the 5 miles to Slattadale. Hardly rideable, and in front were a group on an MTB Highlands holiday. As they watched me go past I commented that this was a load of crap, and they all looked a bit timid and anxious ! Then one guy I realised was the instructor – he said it was good fun ! (at £1000 a week it probably was…)

But stunning views of Loch Maree and Slioch

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Glad to get on the road to Kinlochewe, and called at the service station, and enquired about getting food. He said their cafe was closed, only hot drinks to take away… so I bought tea and sat on the bench outside drinking tea and eating stodge..
This guy was a southerner with a very pronounced southern accent – he seemed out of place up here in the Highlands…

When I set off again just around the corner was a splendid cafe with bikes and motorbikes outside !

That is what I call mean, very mean !

Anyway I rolled on towards Torridon, with good views of Beinn Eighe. I slept up there many years ago whilst walking in the Highlands.

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I suspected that the track over to Achnashellach was going to be hard.

Upper Loch Torridon:

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And it was – hike a bike mostly to get to where the lochans are then some good interesting riding. A bit of a haul through Bealach na Lice amonst stunning mountain scenery, then another haul over Bealach Ban, to drop down on a good track into the Coire Grannda… brilliant except you can see what’s coming at you !

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Some good riding:

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then a big haul:, the bike looks as if it’s had enough… and me… better not say

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Then finally the top… :

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looking down, ready for the descent down Coire Lair…

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It was getting late, after 9pm, and as there were no feasible tent spots I was a bit anxious to get down and find somewhere to put the tent up.The descent became trickier and I definitely didn’t want to risk ripping a tyre so I rode a bit and jumped off at the first sign of any sharp looking rocks.

I was glad to get into the forest hoping to find a spot, and finally got somewhere where the small track met a wider track (after 10pm) – pegging one end of the tent in a clump of heather I disturbed about a million midges, the air was thick with them, but I had wisely put Smidge on and my headnet.

Early morning tent picture

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Got water, sat in tent, took off my wet leggings and shorts and socks, put on dry track suit bottoms and thick socks, pumped up my Klymit, made a hot brew, and enjoyed it with a tot of whisky.

Away for 6am – downhill track to cross the railway at Achnashellach, then a quiet road for 10 miles to Attadale, but stopping at the Strathcarron Hotel on the way for a pot of tea and morning rituals (one good way to avoid the midges).

At Attadale it’s off road again, on a good track which eventually starts going up and up and up, then turns right into the forest on an ill-defined wet and partially rideable track, very tedious until eventually it starts dropping down into the valley… but not very rideable even going down, just wet wet wet, and boggy.

It’s frustrating when you can see what looks like a good track on the other side of the river, you check your GPS map and realise you stay on this side, and boy was it awkward ! A very tiring slog on a bad little path, which seems to take ages to get just 1.5 miles.

A relief to get to Nonach Lodge and get rolling again, on a quiet road, all the way to Dornie.

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Made full use of the cafe at the castle, loads of food and tea, but they won’t let you charge your gadgets… “Fire risk”…”Insurance…”  said the kilted floozie behind the reception desk !

Leaving Dornie to get to Morvich there is a big hill to get up…. hard work. At Morvich I decided to carry on to the end of Glen Lichd, and camp.

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Found a good spot inside a ruin,which kept a bit of wind at bay.

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Thursday morning away for 6:10am to start the climb up to Glen Affric. Looked back and saw I was being followed, it turned out to be Alan Goldsmith ! “It’s hard isn’t it” – definitely and that’s without the northen loop !

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Called in for a brief moment at Camban Bothy, then continued to Alltbeithe Youth Hostel where I had promised myself I must get more air in my tyres. So got a good spot out of the wind, and carefully unscrewed the cap… carefully… but not quite enough ! Whoosh – the valve came out and it was flat as a fluke ! Panic a bit then carefully pump up whilst eating some loaf.

Onwards on good tracks for several miles until a turn right up into the forest, and down the other side to Knockfin.

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Leaving the forest the track goes through a field with cows and calves in it. They were all on the track ahead of me, so I slowed down, then they started jogging along the track ahead of me, some of the cows were so big they had great difficulty jogging. Then the ring leader followed by several calves turned off the track into the field, going faster and faster… I decided to get going when the last of them had left the track… by this time they were charging alongside a river which was forcing them back towards the track, and there was me going as fast as I could to get to the gate before they reached me ! Very scary ! The sign on the gate warned of danger because of the calves.

Plodding on through the forest the GPS battery was about to give up, so eventually I had to keep checking the map on my fancy phone. Somewhere above Fort Augustus I stopped to check where I was and another rider came along. Johann from Belgium, so we headed down to Fort Augustus together, and had a good meal in the Moorings Cafe. We were joined by Alan Parkinson recuperating from his fall on day 2.  Johann was hoping to get to Kinlochleven that night, but I opted for a couple of hours riding then a stop.

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I found a spot along the canal just before Laggan Lochs, and putting my tent up was very much looking forward to lying down. Threading my poles through the tent they went a bit too far and slid into the canal… horror of horrors. At the edge I could just see the end of the pole about a foot under water, and very carefully retrieved it. Phew ! Would I have gone in and under for the poles ? Probably…

Away for 6am without breakfast:  1) I had none and 2) I thought I’d find somewhere before Fort William, but sadly I didn’t. I was very hungry but did have various bits of malt loaf and things to help.

A beautiful morning, Ben Nevis gets nearer:

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Rolled into Fort William still on the route thanks to my phone map, found a cafe and filled up on food. Then bought a few things from the supermarket, before setting off again at lunchtime. The West Highland Way goes up at the start and I must have been going for 40 minutes or so, uphill, when I rounded a bend and off it went downhill… speeding down for a few minutes I then came to a dead end ! It can’t be… but yes it was. Cursing and blaspheming I set to in my granny ring going up again, for about 15 minutes…

The afternoon was hot, and it went on and on… I knew I was getting somewhere near Kinlochleven when I saw this beautiful mountain, probably one of the Mamores, Stob Ban:

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Dropping down to KLL I missed a turn again (which I should have known) and ended up pushing downhill over great boulders, before I reached the road.

Had a meal at the Macdonald Inn, then set off at 7pm for the ascent up to the Devils Staircase… I stopped at least once where there was an alternative track (even though I remembered it, I didn’t want any mistakes) and it was midge-fest time…

There is some quite nice riding even on the ascent. Got to the top at 9:15pm and immediately started the descent, which was going well until I took a bend too fast, and came off. Nothing serious but the impact had let some air out of my front tyre (tubeless), so there was no option but to get the pump out. I wondered how bad the midges would be… again the valve came out and it was flat ! Carefully got pressure back up again, and not too many midges. Reached the road and picked the little spot I knew to put the tent up, after 10pm. Grazing deer just moved a bit and ignored me !

Away for 6am, no breakfast, and a lot of midges, even though it was a bit cool with early morning mist. It was a bit of a drag to the bottom of where the ski slope is… and I was hungry so had only biscuits and energy bars.

Finally got going down again, dreaming of a cup of tea in Tyndrum, had to push the bike up the tarmac at Bridge of Orchy Stn. Not much left in those legs. Under the railway, up a hundred yards, then floated down all the way to Tyndrum !

A good trip, some very good riding, a lot of hike-a-bike, but it gets you into some truly awe-inspiring mountains.

Would I do it again ? No. Too much hike-a-bike for me. Even though my injury did well not to let me down in those mountains, about a week after being back, I have pain in the bone just under the bottom of the talus- I generally don’t get pain there, so I put it down to the trip. It even hurts whilst riding the bike. I’m sure it will go away if I don’t hammer it too much.

Respect for everyone who completed the race and also for those who didn’t. Where ever you came all of it needs effort, big effort.

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