Close to midnight, dodging evening showers, I arrived at Euston Station to catch the sleeper train to Glasgow. My usual cheap seat beckoned me and I was prepared for the uncomfortable night’s sleep. The station guard asked where I was heading to and in which carriage I was located. He glanced at me and said “that carriage has been closed for this service so you have been upgraded to a bed, get more details from the lady over there.” Excitement flowed over me as the lady asked if I wanted coffee delivered in the morning and she showed me to my private berth for the night. Wrapped up in a comfortable duvet, the train steamed out of the big city lights bound for Scotland.
Tales of sleepless nights, pushing the limits in the most remote parts of the Scottish Highlands, all sum up the diaries I had read over the past years of the Highland Trail 550. Never did it occur to me that I could one day be attempting the same route. The race was announced for the end of May and over 50 people were signed up and setting out to ride faster than ever before. Due to the nature of racing, there is little media around this route. I wanted to create a film that showed the raw beauty of the landscape it battles through, maybe even show racers something they didn’t have the time to appreciate and to relive their experiences. I was riding out of Glasgow and along Loch Lomond at the beginning of May, two weeks before the start of the race. I had eleven days to complete the route or at least attempt as much of it as I could. This still made the average daily mileage and elevation a daunting proposition.
Nervousness hit me as I lined up at my imaginary start line at Tyndrum, not quite knowing what adventures awaited me. The clear blue skies gave alpine qualities to the surrounding mountainous landscape as I rode along a section of the West Highland Way. Time passed by as I filmed the start of the route and the perfect weather made me without out a care in the world. Thoughts of lunch occurred when I realised I had only gone a few miles in a few hours. I turned west ready to push some miles out alongside Loch Lyon when I was confronted by incredibly strong headwinds. I was pushing hard in my bottom gears just not getting any momentum. Frustration kicked in and thoughts of the sheer weight of my bike, carrying eleven days of breakfast and dinner, how was I going to survive in the mountains if I’m this slow at the start. The effort never let up, when I hit tarmac I was still in my easiest gear as the wind funneled itself down the valley into my face, blasting past my ears. After a quick refresh at the cafe at Bridge of Balgie, I started my push up Lairig Ghallabhaich joined by a few inquisitive deer wondering who this madman was. The climb plateaued at a bleak moorland with a full moon appearing in the clear blue sky, then down through the ancient Rannoch Forest. I felt the thrill of being the only person in the world, these vast expanses of inhabited landscapes hold subliminal powers over me.
The wind never eased, nor did the scorching sun making me loose more water than I could take in. I arrived at Loch Ericht late in the evening having achieved my planned daily target but totally shattered. I laid in my tent, watching deer in the horizon lit by the setting sun, wondering how I was going to do the same for another ten days straight.
Bleached white tree stumps lined the shoreline of Loch Ericht, telling tales of times past, being watched by the overpowering mass of Ben Alder. The track disappeared and I was pushing through truly open moorland hoping to catch a glimpse of the Ben Alder bothy. It was a total surprise to see another bikepacking bike leant up against the bothy, feelings of being totally alone in the remote parts of Scotland don’t last long. He had set out from Glasgow alike, and had found the route extremely demanding. He was spending the day off pottering around the bothy which started to sound all so tempting to my tired body. But there was no easy route out of where we were, I knew I still had to carry on to get back to civilisation. So after a few hours of chatting and deliberating, I left the bothy and pushed up through the pathless mountainside. Singletrack suddenly appeared out of nowhere looking very rideable. After clearing a few sections of trail, my spirits were starting to lift. Two mountain bikers appeared ahead of me, one having attempted the race a few years back, they filled me with amazing stories of the landscape and terrain that was to come. Their jealousy of my route and the weather forecast for the coming week, made me feel on cloud nine once again. I attacked the climb up to the start of an endless spectacular descent all the way down to Laggan. There I found the most perfect spot by Spey Dam to camp. It had been a mentally challenging day, but I felt the pressure had lifted. I had been mentally racing the route, but who was I racing? I had set out to make a film, but even that had been forgotten in my racing mindset. Once the burden of whether I would finish the route had lightened, the focus was back to enjoyment and showing off this spectacular scenery.
I can’t write about the Highland trail and not mention the infamous section of trail between Ullapool and Poolewe known as the Great Wilderness. The Fisherfield forest is a turning point for Highland Trail racer; once entered there is no quick way out. It had been another long day when I reached Ullapool at about five in the evening. The youth hostel beckoned and rain clouds started to form as I sat by the sea front devouring a sandwich. I gathered myself and rode the few miles down the side of Loch Broom before turning off to find the Coffin Road. It looked steep on the map, but nothing prepared me for what was to come. A vertical wall of mud awaited me, progress was painfully slow as the misty rain flowed through the valley. My arms started to give up and I could barely push any longer. Anger fueled my energy as I just had to keep moving forwards for it to end. How they ever got a coffin up here remained a mystery. I topped out past seven o’clock and set off hunting for a camp spot for the night. It was eerily still as I set up my tent next to Loch an Tiompain, ready to see what other challenges the morning would bring.
Sun beat down upon on my tent in the morning, views of the An Teallach mountain range loomed on the clear horizon. The morning’s descent was an amazing rocky singletrack down to Dundonnell. Whether it was worth the previous night’s ascent, you will have to find out yourself. The one mountain climb I had been worrying about for most of the trip was up and over to the Shenavall bothy, but to my surprise I rode most of the way up and the views were something else. Just how insignificant you look against these mammoth craggy peaks that totally encompass you. The singletrack to Shenavall was frustratingly technical, and the few people I had met on my descent kept warning me about a bog I had to cross. Arriving at the bothy I was ready to collapse yet apprehensive of the valley floor that stretched out before me. Having a few slices of chorizo and cheese I was met by Davey. He was hiking across the valley to spend a night on the top of a munro. We joined forces to find a clear path across and to our delight the river barely came over our ankles. The weeks of drought had almost dried up the bogland. This was a total contrast to his previous visits where he met Highland Trail racers having to spend twenty four hours in the bothy just to let level of the river lower. It was so great to have the company, and as we parted ways I felt revived once again, but this route always has something else to throw up at you. Due to my stupid near hundred pound bike weight, any steep climb meant I couldn’t shoulder or hike the bike, I had to push it up. This is about million times more effort than walking up, my arms screamed as I continuously exerted myself. Every rock stalling the bike and the effort to push it up and over was taking its toll. In the evening light, the view expanded behind me as I crept higher.
I chose to save big descents for the morning, mainly to have enough energy to enjoy them and not feel the time pressure of the setting sun to film them properly. To film oneself is ridiculously time consuming. You come round a corner and see an image you want to capture, then dismount, dig out the camera, tripod and microphone, walk down the track to find the shot, walk back up, mount the bike, ride past, walk back up to collect the camera gear and walk back down to the bike and pack it all away. This takes roughly ten minutes for each shot and about three hours of my days riding.
What awaited me that morning is one of my most treasured memories from the route. I had camped in the setting sun by Lochan Feith at 550m, and the morning had me descending all the way down to sea level. The track took me through a col which revealed a breathtaking sight. Singletrack snaking its way down through mountain ranges of your dreams. Round a vertical bend in the track, which catches many people by surprise with its near vertical drop off the side if things go wrong. The view opens up of Fionn Loch with a causeway crossing one end. The fun didn’t stop, tracks this steep are intense on a fully rigid bikepacking bike. Saddle high in the air and a huge seatpack behind the saddle stopping you pushing your weight back. Though this doesn’t stop you from screaming, hanging on for dear life and somehow getting down.
This was also true of the infamous Torridon Mountains. This is an area known for the best mountain biking in the UK, and one I have ridden before on a big travel full suspension bike. Here I was on what happened to be a Saturday, with about thirty other guys fully kitted out on full suspension bikes, and I riding past them on a rigid bike, huge tires and with a load of bags strapped on. A humorous sight I’m sure, yet still capable of riding surprisingly well, gaining lots of respect.
Rain had set in for the first time in ten days as I climbed once again a path leading to a rocky, muddy track down towards Eilean Donan castle. At the bottom I was still on target for the day and ready for a quick fifteen mile burst along a road before another mountain pass, but then a bridge and a boulder field confronted me. I had overlooked this two mile stretch on the map and it was painful and aggravating. I finally cleared it but was well behind schedule and turned around to see if Randy was there before setting off. I had picked up an antler on the second day of my trip and had it strapped across a bag on the back of my bike. He had turned into a companion, by the name of Randy Andy the Antler, always checking he was there behind me for eight straight days. So when I turned and he was missing, I just dumped my bike and started walking back the way I had ridden. I kept trying to tell myself, don’t be stupid it’s just an antler, but I couldn’t turn myself around just in case it was lying just around the next corner. Knowing it was probably back five miles on the rough descent I retreated back heartbroken.
The next section was on a road with strong winds blowing off the sea carrying sheets of rain. I was desperate for a roof, and so hunted for a hostel. All I could find on the map was a campsite, and when it came into sight after days in the wilderness, it was full caravanning campsite, I just couldn’t do it. I found a river just after it and wild camped there with everything sodden. Joined later by some dog walkers from the caravan site, they questioned why I was there and not in the campsite. I said how I was looking for a hostel, and they said “but there is one just down there”. Giggling, I wasn’t going to move but camped between a campsite and a hostel, how ironic.
As I dot watched the race, having only been back for a few days, I relived the whole route once again knowing exactly what the racers were riding. The first day I couldn’t understand why none of the spots ever stopped and in the first 14 hours the top few people were over 150miles into the race. Neil Beltchenko smashed all records and finished the whole race in 3 days and 10 hours. He had only stopped for 8 hours in this time, one thing we didn’t have in common.
I have the ultimate respect for anyone who has raced the Highland Trail 550, it’s truly one of the most spectacular trails. A trail that will only unleash its splendor once you have earned it. Someday I hope to be there again, but lined up on the start line ready to take on the beast once more.