In May 2015 (18th) I had set off from Tyndrum to attempt the HT550, but after being blasted by gale force winds and horizontal rain, trying to get up Glen Golly to the top of the Bealach Horn, I bailed out when reaching the road at Achfary, and sought sanctuary in a 3star hotel in Lairg some 35 miles down the road.
But somehow I wanted to get on this route again… Why ?
It’s the magic of the Highlands, the being out in it all day, and several days, some good riding, and the experience of being self contained in a hostile but beautiful environment, far away from the normal delights of daily life.
I didn’t want to do the group start (not that I would qualify anyway) as I wanted the freedom to start when my head decided, hoping my head was more in tune with the weather than me !
Besides I’m far too old to want to race a route like this, being a pensioner of more than a few years…
Monday 23rd May
So I started from By The Way Tyndrum at 6:10am on Monday 23rd May 2016, taking advantage of the glorious weather we had been having. My bike and gear weighed in at 53lbs (my bike is a Scott Scale 900 carbon everything, which is sub 20lbs without pedals but with eggbeaters (very light) and Mudhugger mudguards , probably weighed 21lbs. So I was carrying 32lbs of gear, including 1 litre of fuel (2lbs) and 3 days of freeze dried meals (1lb per day), loads of ‘stodge’ in the form of energy bars, flapjacks, gels, biscuits etc.
Because of the extra weight my seat bag was moving about too much, so when I reached the turn off to Glen Lyon after about 3 miles I had some adjustments to make.I put some in the Wildcat Lioness and some in my back pack, but it was only on day 2 that I got things more stable.
The start of Glen Lyon (new section):
It was a glorious morning and the track was excellent but with a few crossings to make of the river before Loch Lyon was reached:
After about 15 miles I reached the singletrack road… Here’s a picture of Highland cattle crossing the river:
I met one walker in all this time.
After a few more miles I stopped for tea and scones with jam and cream, at Bridge of Balgie:
Soon after that I turned north to reach Rannoch forest and Luban Feith a Mhadaidh:
Then a few. Miles further on the Bridge of Gaur.
The route then heads further north towards Loch Ericht, and Ben Alder Cottage:
On a very good track but about a mile or so before Ben Alder Cottage the first HAB (hike a bike) begins. There is a funny bridge spanning the stream before the cottage, where it must be nearly 5 feet to lift the bike onto the bridge – I found it easier to manhandle the rocky stream than get the bike onto the bridge.
It was then a very tough and frustrating quarter of an hour to actually reach the gpx route, pushing uphill through deep heather… Then out of nowhere this magical singletrack appears !
The Ben Alder Singletrack:
It’s practically all rideable, but you do have to concentrate, and it’s gently uphill most of the way to where it bends right just after Beinn a’ Chumhainn, still rideable but you do have to push to get up and over at Meall an t-Slugainn.
Looking up and fearing the uphill push a bit, I suddenly got the empty feeling in my stomach, and stopped to eat. Then on with the jacket as the rain started.
As I got to the col there was quite a dramatic rainbow :
Then on with the tricky business of descending, without falling off ! When you’re on your own up in these mountains you can’t really risk a fall, and I’m always aware of dodging sharp rocks, so easy to cut a tyre.
The rain got harder and the skies went darker as I descended, but at least I was riding. Passed a solitary walker ahead, stopped for a quick chat, he was pleased as he’d just got to the top of a beautiful mountain (to the south of us) which looked just like a pyramid from this angle. It was Ben Alder (1148 m/3766ft).
Going past Loch Pattack was pretty grim, rutted mud channels which required quite a bit of effort.
Then I got going again speedily. I needed to be cracking on, it was probably getting on for 8pm and I was tired, hungry, and weary, and needed to sort my ‘accommodation’ for the night. I’d thought I might pitch near Garve Bridge but when I finally got there it was still raining, and going dark.
There were deer everywhere in the gloom, and it was fascinating watching how skilled they were at running over lumpy heather whether it was uphill or not.
Hungry again I had to eat, and squatted down in the rain forcing chocolate and apricots and raisins in… I decided it was going to be Melgarve Bothy. I reached there about 10:15pm after 82 miles and 16 hours since I had left Tyndrum at 6:10am.
I can keep going for a long time but I never push the pace too much, and I usually ride every climb unless it’s just too steep and a waste of energy.
Sadly all the candles in Melgarve were right ‘down to the bone’ so I had to keep my head torch on.
I made a huge hot chocolate drink with sugar and powdered milk, and while it was cooling prepared my freeze dried (Expedition Foods) Vegetable Tikka with rice, followed by custard and apple.
Got the food and drink down, brushed my teeth, and got to bed at 12:30am.
Tuesday 24th May
Woke before 5 (without alarm) and away for 7:35, towards the Corrieyairach Pass:
A lot more pleasant now that Balfour Beatty have finished their upgrading of the power lines.
Rideable until the steep zigzags, but it was only about 35 minutes pushing then on again. A bit more up then down down down, until you reach a valley where a bit more uphill gets you speeding along again.
Some lunch in Fort Augustus, then the steep climb to get onto the Great Glen Way. About 5 miles of up and down through the forest gets you to Invermoriston. Tea stop there…
(and a bad encounter with a plump 30year old woman, who left her diesel engine running as she ‘nipped into the shop’, just where some walkers were sitting outside having their drinks, I had asked her politely to turn the engine off but she went ‘road rage’…)
Then 3 miles of road to turn off at Blaraidh, uphill on a gravel track for one and a half hours, past Blaraidh Reservoir and Loch Liath … then a stop to top up with water (Sawyer filter), before reaching Loch ma Stac
It’s a lonely and desolate place up here, but it felt a lot better than a year ago when it was 7pm and dark and gloomy. It’s far from any road but there was the distant sound of diggers and machinery (just visible on the ridge in the distance) disturbing the peace with their constant hammering and clattering… probably more wind farms.
Past the weird three storey building at the end of the loch (bars on the windows). Must have been a lot of rain in winter because the building was now surrounded by water.
A bit of a push to reach the cairn on the skyline some 200 metres away, then tricky technical riding all the way to the gate about a mile away , where a wide track leads down to the Abhainn na Ruighe Duibhe. Corrimony Bothy is just a bit further on.
From here quite a bit of quiet road (about 10 miles) until you turn off north via Erchless Forest. A bit of steep uphill then a track with several puddles until the ridiculous gate where you have to, with great difficulty, get your bike over (and it’s a high gate too).
I camped soon after this in a spot I’ve used before, good ground and water nearby.
Up at 5 and away for 7:15am, the track soon veers upwards and becomes a push. Soon riding again along the ‘track of a thousand puddles’, just riding through them.
Strangely the puddles disappear after crossing the stream – maybe not so strange from a drainage point of view:
Fast riding until the Scottish Hydro Bothy is reached, time for a ten minute stop for food, and to check the brake pads:
Easy and fast riding soon gets you to Contin, where I bought a coke, and sat outside for a rest and a drink. Delivery van turns up and driver spends a good ten minutes taking items into the shop, all the while with his diesel engine chugging away ! I decided this time not to tempt fate… the last incident leaves a bad taste in your mind…
(See http://www.ecology.com/2011/11/28/rough-idling/ and other references…)
On the way through the forest to Inchbae Lodge I stopped to adjust something and felt a bit tired, so I just lay down on the track with helmet on (an excellent pillow) and went into such a deep sleep with vivid dreams, for about 25 minutes.
It was now afternoon and the sun was getting hotter. Good riding along Strath Rannoch, and the uphill before getting great views of Loch Vaich:
Good riding then the climb to get past Meall a’ Chaorainn, before dropping down and past Deanich Lodge. At Croik I stopped to eat a bit then ever onwards towards Oykel Bridge. I reached there at 8pm (about 200 miles in) and ordered a coke, soup and homemade bread, chips, beans, and bread, and sticky toffee pudding with ice cream !
But the soup was very filling (especially with the lumps of butter I threw into it) and I could only manage half of the chips and beans ! They very kindly cancelled the desert.
I got going again at 9:30pm down the road towards Rosehall, and after going through the village found a spot near the river, at about 10:30pm.
Here’s a shot in the morning just before I got going again:
Thursday 26th May
Ate a bit and got going for about 7:30am, on the single track road, which eventually becomes a dirt track. No people, no cars, a few sheep, and plenty of deer.
I remembered last year how it was pouring down on this stretch. Got to Maovally Hydro Station then the massive road climb after it, which goes on and on and on, before the long downhill towards Loch Shin, and great views looking north east:
My route would take me into the hills beyond the second loch (Loch Merkland).
I passed with interest where I had had a bad time last year, struggling to get my tent up and get warm after being blasted by wind and rain for hours.
A few miles of quiet road until the turn off east after Merkland Lodge, where a good track goes leads over the Bealach nam Meirleach, before turning north west up Glen Golly.
I was struggling at this point with extreme neck pain, saddle sore chafing especially on the right gluteal bone, and lurking Achilles’ tendon pain. Ever onwards until the turn off into Glen Golly , just before Goberguisnach shooting lodge:
Then the turn off into Glen Golly, over the bridge
It was a very hot afternoon going up Glen Golly but what a change from my battle of a year ago. This time I could see the track clearly ahead, and hear a cuckoo doing its thing.
And this time I largely rode until reaching Creag Dubh
And Lochan Sgeireach perfectly calm instead of with foot high waves !
In fact I stopped here for half an hour to eat, and take my shoes off, and give my feet and smelly socks some air.
The riding after here changes character, and it is fiddly singletrack, but mostly rideable with a bit of effort…
and marvellous views of the beautiful quartzite mountain Cranstackie (801 metres/2628 feet) in the distance beyond Loch Dionard. Durness on the northern coastline is only 9 miles away, so this really is northernmost Britain
Eventually the difficult technical singletrack leads to the very awkward descent to the valley, and An Dubh Loch. Here’s a shot looking back up from where I have come :
And some of that is rideable ! But not this bit:
After crossing the river the steep ascent of the zigzag track begins, which takes you to the Bealach Horn, from where the big descent starts. It descends 3.4 miles to Lone, at the head of Loch Stack. And looking back splendid evening views of Arkle:
Then you hit the road at Achfary, but only for a mile and a quarter, then find the tricky turn off to begin the big ascent to get to the Bealach nam Fiann… it’s 350 metres (1148 feet), and only a few bits are rideable, not because of the surface but because of the gradient.
Looking back towards Loch More:
I got to the top some time after 9pm, and stopped briefly to put my jacket on for the descent, (5.5 miles down to Kylestrome, and good riding) and take some pictures:
Took a wrong turn trying to find Kylesku
but got there and just made for the picnic sign ! I just wanted to get my head down, as it was after 10pm and I had been on the go since leaving Rosehall at 7:15am. Any spot would do and this one was fine, but there was no water.:
Friday 27th May
I was away for 6am (without a brew) – the next stop was going to be Drumbeg Stores, quiet road for about 11 miles, but a lot of ascent ! (I measured it on Memory Map as 2200feet)
It was great to get some food in with an excellent pot of tea. Steve was interested in the bike and when I told him of my aches and pains, especially the pressure sore from the saddle, he produced some double thick bubble wrap and taped it to the seat with masking tape. This was a great help, but after two days it had lost most of its bubbles.
But a big thank you to Steve, Wendy, and Myrtle the cat !
Ever onward towards Lochinver, on a quiet road which still had plenty of hills, but some great views:
I reached Lochinver after some awkward off-road from Achmelvich, at about 2pm, and found the An Cala cafe near the pier. Ordered food and lots of tea and chose to sit outside, but the table was in the hot sun. Nevertheless still with a thermal vest on (by now its use was to keep the sun off me !), long bib tights and baggy shorts, and two pair of socks, I got on with it.
Left at 3pm to start the climb towards the track past Suilven and Canisp, which was quite enjoyable riding despite the heat and my various injuries.
Suilven in the distance, with Canisp on the left~:
and here’s the track, with Canisp on the left:
I’d heard how grim the going to Ledmore was and asked quite a few walkers if they had been that way, but they were all heading either to (one couple were going to camp on top) or from Suilven, and nobody could tell me, so I would have to wait…
It started at the end of Loch na Gainimh and went on and on and on, not worth the effort of trying to ride the various odd little bits, ever onward for ever and a day, on stuff like this:
When I started descending to Cam Loch I thought I would be able to ride from there, but no chance apart from the odd 30 feet or so ! After over 4 hours I finally reached the road, at about 9pm,then 10 miles to the Oykel Bridge Hotel, where I phoned Aneta then went in for a coke and a chat. I left there at about 11pm and did the 4 miles towards Ullapool to get me to the Duag Bothy (the old schoolhouse). There was other person there, who I woke up as I tried each room (Eddy from Kendal, who was riding his bike to munros then running up them ! I liked his self effacing correction of “well, I can’t really call it running..” ).
I only got to bed at 1am, so in the morning I was away for 9am, en route for Ullapool.
Saturday 28th May
When I reached the Hill Track to Ullapool, I found a spot and just lay down for a 20 minute sleep. The riding after the first climb is very enjoyable, along a lovely single track winding its way dodging gorse bushes, then soon you bear left and start descending…
Found the Tesco and stocked up, then headed for the seafront and had jacket potato and beans and two cups of tea, then set off again at 3pm for 8 miles of road (hate it… ! especially that Jaguar which blew his horn at me, so I gave him a “wave” with two fingers, and he politely responded by opening his window and waving back, but I waved back again, so 2:1 to me ! (glad we don’t have guns in this country, I’m sure quite a few motorists would shoot you for that…). Very hot work, but soon over and the turn off at Croftown and the Coffin Road track, which is very steep in parts (it makes you wonder how they got a carriage with a coffin on up there…). As I was nearing the top of the ascent I met two walkers who had been out for over a week, doing the Cape Wrath trail… “Never had wet feet in several days” – they must have been sleep-walking as it was wetter than a wet kipper.
Here’s the view towards Fisherfield and An Teallach:
The track is just about visible on the right, a bit on and off, but mostly on (with difficulty). Here’s another which shows it more clearly:
Anyway I was soon down to the road at Corrie Hallie, then the track up the Allt Gleann Chaorachain. Before I started ascending at about 6pm I thought I should eat something… then the Midge appeared in its millions, so I quickly got the midge-net out and my thin gloves and walked away at a speed, whilst putting on the net and the gloves. Then back to my bag to get food out. I was protected but I looked at my arm (thermal vest sleeves down of course, and thin gloves on, and it was covered in midges. Again I walked away until after a few feet I could risk lifting the net to get food into my mouth.
From Corrie Hallie to the top is just over 1100 feet of ascent, here’s the top:
My objective – Shenavall Bothy – was 4.5 only miles away, and downhill and along the bottom of the valley. I reached the bothy just after 10pm, and had already decided that I would put the tent up, despite the midge. Same procedure: stop, midge-net on, thin gloves on, handlebar bag off, undo, take out tarp. Frame bag, take out carbon pole and pegs, pick a spot, get the tarp up, everything else under it, then put the inner tent up, sleeping bag in it etc. Get water from the stream (I use a dry bag to hold at least 10 cups of water, yes it does leak a bit but there is usually enough for a morning brew and porridge…)
Sunday 29th May
I was up early and away for 5:50am. Here’s the tent in the morning and some early morning views: (NB the bike acts as a second pole if I want a door entrance)
And just before the river crossing:
Beinn Dearg Mor – on the southern side of the loch
After crossing the river after a couple of miles, you start up Gleann na Muice Beag. The track is on off, but the views are magical:
I remember two years ago the ascent at the end of the Gleann na Muice Beag almost finished me off, but this time I was unphased by it ! When it levelled out at the top, I did however lay down and fall asleep for 10 minutes or so, and fell into a very pleasant other worldly state, and remember thinking am I alive or dead ? Better see if I can get up to prove it !
Along the single track at the top I did meet another person (!!!) who had been camping high up to beat the midge, and we stopped for a chat for about 20 minutes.
Then the start of the descent to Dubh Loch and Fionn Loch:
Looking back, you can see the descent where the notch is at the top of the gully (beyond the causeway).
It was hot, it was midday, I had been going for 6 hours, I was tired, I was hungry…BUT I wanted to see if I could get to Kinlochewe for 6pm.. (not knowing that the Whistlestop Cafe was closed on Sunday, and it was Sunday).
The 2.3 miles to where I branch left to go up and over to Letterewe were hard going, not because it was hard going, but because I was jaded and weary. However when I did turn left to go up and over, it was not bad riding, although always uphill. My pressure sore on my butt was giving me a lot of pain, as was the pain in my right neck. My achilles tendon pain wasn’t quite so bad but I had to be careful just how I used my right leg. The seatbag was troublesome and kept catching my mudhugger, and needed frequent adjusting. But eventually I started going down on a tricky little bumpy descent, to get to a good track leading from Letterewe Estate…
The Postman’s Path….. Aaagghh !
The good track however is not for long… all too soon I found myself pushing the bike along a heather strewn excuse of a path, up a bit, down a bit, here a bit, there a bit, but seemingly (from what I remember from the state I was in) nearly always between a deer fence with a placard on it advertising or announcing the Letterewe Estate, and higher up the hill, another deer fence.
This was indeed grim work for me. Due to my old fractured heel injury, I do need to place the foot flat on the ground, if it goes on for any length of time, and this it did, and no I could not my place my foot properly.
And it was hot, no midges (the midge doesn’t like hot sun), but the flies love it !
But beautiful views of Loch Maree:
Just a case of keep going despite everything, but when the track dropped into a gully and I saw this:
my already depleted spirits sank further, and with a lot of effing and blinding I dragged old faithful down there, and lifted over the first trunk…. then climbed over it, but there was a second trunk, and it was very difficult getting a loaded bike over that tree, then up the steep bank.
It went on and on and on, you can see from the shot below where I’ve come from:
After some time it went a bit left, through a green bit which you can see below (it’s bracken) but after the bracken it went through bog myrtle which was 2 feet high… at least it’s a different smell from the heather !
When it met the path coming down from Slioch I thought it would improve a bit… it probably did, but I didn’t… eventually I jumped on the bike and tried to ride, but within 20 feet I hit something and rolled off to the right down a bit of a slope, nothing too serious but as I rolled for the second time the bottom bracket of the bike (and a chainwheel) were coming straight for me… I laugh even now as I remember how I just instinctively stuck a foot out, and got it right under the bottom bracket to deflect it from me..
I reckon the Postman’s Path goes on for some 9 miles.
I was glad to get to the pub in Kinlochewe afet 8pm, and asked if there was food… “I’ll have to check on that…” – can I have a pint of that before you go and check..
What a magnificent pint, and I got food as well, and another half… ( I thought I should get a pint but was worried that it would affect me, the state I was in)
Then got the tent up on the campsite. I had decided that was it. My foot and other aches and pains had taken all the fun out of it… I did keep having secret thoughts though to get on and do the new Torridon section, but the other half of my brain decided no.
I think I had clocked about 390 miles to here.
Monday 30th May
Monday morning I had a fine breakfast in the Whistlestop, then 10 miles road to Achnasheen, to catch a train to Inverness.
I couldn’t get from there to Perth/Glasgow/Tyndrum, so at 4pm had to cycle 35 miles on a not flat road, to Fort Augustus. Had a great pint on the way, and got to Cumberland’s Campsite at 9pm.
Tuesday 31st May
Tuesday morning down the canal to Fort William (32miles), where I had booked a train to Tyndrum. A fine meal in the Real Food Cafe, and Wednesday morning went to the finish to see the first finisher of the group start HT550 (Liam Glen) come in, and a bit later Phil Addyman.
Glorious weather, and the new section via Glen Lyon keeps you on the move until the hike-a-bike before Ben Alder Cottage, and that Ben Alder single-track is superb taking you high up into those magnificent mountains. Ben Alder itself is a fantastic mountain. This new section is better than last year’s route with its bad section of 3.7 mile before Loch Treig.
I was enjoying the trip despite the build up of a lot of pain due to saddle sores and neck pain, and after 2 or 3 days achilles tendon. Sure I was usually weary and tired in the evening, and still riding you do feel very alone at this time, and long to get your head down. I find the different mental states quite interesting and have my own methods for dealing with them.
Having got to Shenavall Bothy Saturday night I thought if I got a good day in on the Sunday and got to Kinlochewe by 6pm, and got some good food in, I could perhaps camp somewhere up in the Torridon section.
And perhaps get back to Tyndrum either late Tuesday or early Wednesday.
But “it was the postman’s path what did it” I’m afraid. On top of my other aches and pains it upset my bad foot…
But a big thanks to Alan Goldsmith for this route. If not already it will be a classic.
(I did the HT430 in 2014 over about 11 days so I know what most of the remainder of the route is like)