The Highland Trail – First Winter Attempt

I gave my bike one last shove through the deep snow and crested the col at the head of Bealach Cumhann. A harsh wind searched my outer layers for ways in to reach and freeze my skin whilst flakes of snow fell groundwards promising to make my path even more difficult.

Andy was close behind me, his head down as he focused on the relentless push upwards. We’d being doing this for over two hours now and were only 53 miles into a 550 mile route. It had taken us 25 hours to get to this point and now I had to have the dreaded conversation.

Andy, I’m afraid I need to put forward a massive vote for baling. We’re never going to make it over the Corrieyairack Pass in these conditions and I can’t see how we can conceivably ride for much of the rest of the route

There was no protest. We both knew that in these conditions our attempt on the Highland Trail was over. The first winter ascent would have to wait a little longer.

Sorry for the spoiler. You can stop reading now as you know what happens. Two men set out to try something slightly mad and not unexpectedly failed. Or did they?

I think it all started with a conversation concerning the Highland Trail mass start (it’s not a race!) and the fact that the last two years had seen decent weather and some quite frankly astonishing finish times. We began to wonder what the trail would be like when things got properly harsh? I’d been out on it in some pretty nasty wind and rain but never under winter conditions. An idea began to form between the two of us and turned to reality when Andy stepped forward and asked me to join him on a winter attempt.

He’d picked an odd companion as I’ve gone home early twice from this route. Once from inexperience and once from injury. Surely he’d asked the ultimate Jonah? And maybe he’ll live to regret my “yes”. But the attempt had so much appeal. “Real” problems to solve in terms of logistics, mental attitude and kit choices. How to balance weight verses comfort? How to resupply when many places will be shut? And what tyres for the Scottish winter?

I couldn’t resist it. There was so much “no” that needed turning into “yes”. The chance of failure was extremely high and nobody appears to have had a go before. Isn’t that why idiots like me do these things? Dare I say that isn’t it quite the definition of adventure?

The two of us spent months looking at maps, planning food stops, consulting each other on gear and frantically buying just about every winter cycling accoutrement conceivable. I spent a bloody fortune on new boots, gloves, tyres, base layers and stoves, ending up with enough Merino to make a complete sheep.  My kitchen filled with stuff and the family often went to bed leaving me pacing around gear scratching my chin and muttering about wind chill.  I booked a week off work based upon a plan hatched by Andy. We could get round in 7-8 days using bothies for all but one of the nights. A few open hotels would provide emergency options and if desperate we’d break into somewhere instead of dying.

I also upped my training. Not in terms of leg strength but building coping strategies. I set out deliberately to tackle heinous weather. Late nights on the Ridgeway with sub-zero temperatures to figure out glove/boot strategies. A whole weekend in torrential freezing rain to work on my head and the rest of the kit. And many 50 mile rides home from work when I only live 1.5 miles away.

We set the date for the 10th February and for once in my life I set off from home feeling properly prepared. But one thing nagged. The weather forecast was starting to swing against us. We’d known it would be cold, but this was a good thing as the ground would freeze and make progress easier through some of the boggy sections. We’d anticipated some snow but not ideal skiing conditions across the whole of Scotland. The forecast began to indicate that this might be the case. Fuck it, we’d worked so hard on this plan that we had to give it a go. Hopefully it had been put together by Michael Fish (those under fifty can use an internet search engine of their choosing to understand that joke).

I coaxed my van onto the A419 and switched on my IPod to help me with the drive north. Shuffle chose “Ready to Go” by Republica. The song could not have been more apt, I really was, and subsequently air punched my way up to Stratton. Five hours later I was standing freezing cold high on a motorway verge starting down at my not-very-well van. A warning light indicated that the engine considered itself to be in a bit of a paddy and I ought to stop straightaway. Yeah, thanks Republica, what the fuck do you know? My attempt was shafted before I’d even turned a pedal. I awaited the recovery man to confirm this.

He arrived 75 minutes later because I didn’t have the guts to put on a lady voice and pretend I had children. My van’s version of Hal told him that it was having trouble breathing, he confirmed this as my engine compartment looked like a scene from the film Brazil (see you really do need to be over fifty to read this shit). The van had been serviced recently and it appeared that the garage had run out of the time necessary to replace many of the hoses. Luckily it was all fixable and he helped me dictate a stern letter to a VW garage that shall remain nameless unless they bloody well sort it all out and grovel when I get back.

So I made it to the start, a little late, but with enough time for a last civilised dinner with Andy and some final worrying about the weather forecast.

Hang on a second, have I told you about the Highland Trail? Whoops, sorry, here’s a little bit of history. The route is for mountain bikers and is 550 miles long. It’s harder than advanced calculus and has an extremely high attrition rate. You’re supposed to ride it without help or any pre-booked accommodation. So you have to carry all your sleeping gear and a lot of food. Alan Goldsmith invented it to hurt people and every year like a cycling child catcher he lures 50 odd souls into his trap. I got lured in twice and it fucked me up. The route starts in Tyndrum and goes north for 200 miles avoiding as many shops and towns as it can. Then it comes south and gets even harder forcing you to cross rivers, wade through lochs and push your bike through bogs and hedges.

Ok that’s enough back story let’s get to the start. We left the hotel as it began to snow and said our goodbyes to Tyndrum along the West Highland Way. Right from the start it was ridiculous. Inches of snow grabbed our wheels and we were huffing along like two treacle bound ferrets. Within a kilometre we were both shedding gear and exchanging notes on snow riding techniques. The snow showed a complete absence of footprints or bike tracks. Just us two idiots chuffing along.

Fortunately we got to turn right after a few miles onto snow free tracks heading towards Loch Lyon. But the stress did not subside. When riding in winter one needs to ensure that the extremities are looked after. A simple rule of thumb (sic) is to keep hands and feet warm and you’ll feel mostly OK. Freezing cold feet will do your head in as will ice block hands. This in turn means you need to keep them dry as no matter what any gear supplier or sponsored rider tells you there is NOTHING that keeps feet warm when wet during cycling. NOTHING and don’t even try to tell me about neoprene or Woolie Boolies or goat’s colon wax. Nothing works in winter you need to keep dry.

The next ten miles had at least five river crossings and we were determined to keep dry. Each approach was a mini-scouting mission with me hoping that Andy would go first. Riding straight over would keep the tootsies out of the water but what if one encountered a hidden rock that threw the entire rider into the stream? We rode a couple cautiously.

Then things got a bit deeper and the two of us paced back and forwards examining stepping stones and planning strategies. One crossing saw me make a bad decision and end up in a mini network of rivers thus adding additional crossings and more swearing. Finally we came to the crux, Allt Meurain, a wide and fast stream/river which required a number of bold steps and delivered a tight moment where water bubbled close to the top of my boot.

We both breathed a sigh of relief and celebrated dry boots, so of course it started to sleet. The next set of tracks alongside Loch Lyon were quiet splashy but everything was rideable. I elected for a little push at the final ramp before the power station as 22 kilogrammes of bike and kit were pushing the heart rate into the upper zone. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s better to avoid big efforts on long trips as they need recovery, something that is often in short supply when travelling loaded off-road.

The following eight miles of road to the Bridge of Balgie were a welcome relief as was the Glen Lyon tea room that greeted us on arrival with a big open door. The lady running it was lovely but very loud. As she spoke I yearned for the ear plugs that lay deep within my seatpack. Maybe she has lots of elderly customers? Maybe Andy and I looked far too haggard to be in our fifties?

We sat down to eat feeling reasonably pleased with progress so far. The initial snow had been a challenge but we were still mostly dry and all extremities were warm. Andy explained our quest to the other café residents, a family of four with two young girls. I saw “that” look in the father’s eyes, he wasn’t going to say it, but he wanted to be out with us as well. I’ve flashed that look myself in the past when coming across other adventurers during my family duties. (I might have to rewrite that last sentence).

We left the tea room and hitched up with some forestry tracks heading towards the Rannoch Forest. These had copped a decent amount of snow and the climb out of Bridge of Balgie was pretty bloody hard. The snow depth was on the edge of rideable as a lot of it was frozen but the tyres still sunk in. I was sweating hard at the top but Scotland soon saw to that with a foot of snow at the bottom which consumed my bike and most of my legs. I thrutched and swore my way to the forest gate as the snow was deeper on this side of the valley and hid many ice capped puddles. These ice caps were a right pain in the arse as sometimes they’d give and the bike would unexpectedly dive down into a watery tyre grave.

The ride down through the forest was a real hoot, the nearest I’ve got to skiing on a bike. Six inches of frozen snow down a tree lined piste dared us to up the speed a little which we did. This was rudely interrupted by some sort-of-singletrack littered with bits of trees which spat us out onto 6 miles of ice ridden double track leading to the Bridge of Gaur and another short section of road.

Then it got hard again. More snow laden forest tracks that climbed a lot, more sleet and a higher wind and a dog that wouldn’t stop barking at me despite its owners attempts to defuse the situation by smiling a lot. Things were properly grim when we topped out. We spotted a large herd of deer doing star jumps to try and keep warm. The tracks were a mess of snow and ice and stayed like that all the way down to Loch Ericht which looked incredibly harsh and menacing in the fading light. Soon we were pushing over boggy tussocks. Where was the snow and ice when you needed it? The last mile towards the Ben Alder bothy was properly shite and when we got there it was dark.

So, the time was close to 6pm and we had a clear choice to make. We’d come fifty miles and our plan said eighty with a stop in the Melgarve bothy. But conditions were starting to get a little more serious as the wind picked up and sleet/snow fell. I had no idea what was coming next but Andy did and he called it.

I think we should stop in the Bothy

I wasn’t so sure as it put a real dent in our ambition and I knew the section from Laggan to Melgarve would be OK in the dark. But Andy added:-

We don’t know what it will be like up there in the dark, there’s ambitious and there’s fucking stupid

I deferred to common sense and noticed smoke coming from the bothy chimney, that sold it for me.

The last time I’d stayed in a bothy it had been shared with 11 others so it was a refreshing change to discover only the two additional occupants. We exchanged the usual pleasantries; where do you come from? what are you doing? do you know Shona from Sheffield?  And what the fuck is that thing you’re about to eat.

We were fed and in bed by 8pm. It was properly cold now and my bags were a little damp due to a failed dry bag. I slept in two pairs of socks to compensate and nodded off to the sound of snow falling silently to the ground.

Ben Alder bothy sits in a superb location, very picturesque and perfectly isolated. However, it suffers several disadvantages when compared to my house. It does not have central heating and despite a long search I could not find a toilet.  This meant I had to suffer the early morning kiss of damp cold clothes and a frost bitten arse whilst taking a dump. I was only too happy to grab hold of my bike and begin the push up away from the lake as this would inject a semblance of warmth into my shivering self.

That “only too happiness” did not last long as it soon became evident that a significant dump of snow had fallen in the night. The track up was hard to find as it was buried in snow and there was absolutely no chance of riding at all. We pushed upwards with wheels sinking into 6-12 inches of the white stuff. I quickly went from cold to sweating like Bernard Manning on a treadmill (get in, another over fifties reference). This was really hard work and I took every excuse to stop and admire the view hoping that this was confined to our valley and we’d see clear tracks once over the top. No such luck.

It took nearly two hours to reach the first col a distance of less than 3 miles covered. The scenery around us was spectacular but the price paid for travelling through it with bikes extremely high. Remember the start of this article? It’s at this point that we had “the conversation” as all we could see ahead of us was snow. It was now clear that the majority of our day would consist of pushing, as would the days to follow as the cold was not forecast to retreat.

I consoled myself with some chocolate and began the push into  Bealach Dubh. Things got worse. The snow here was even deeper often reaching above my knees. Occasionally I’d fall into a hole or lose the front wheel to a deep drift. On one comedy moment I found myself up to my waist with the bike on top of me. How Andy resisted the urge to take a photo instead of rescue me I don’t know? But I do remember him turning to me and asking: “Are you finding this hard?”

It was really hard. The bikes were sinking into this snow and we were having to push them through it like ice breakers. The off camber nature of the track compounded the effort, my back and arms were screaming in pain and my mind a muddle of frustration. “Yes Andy” I was finding it hard mainly because it was.

We ended up in a rhythm similar to high altitude climbers. Ten hard steps, stop and breath, ten more, breath, ten more, breath, ten more swear like fuck then breath. The only consolation were the high clouds and amazing views of Anoch Beag. We ended up laughing at our predicament, what kind of idiot brings a bike up here?

But soon we weren’t laughing. The low light hid a steep cliff above a  deep gully which I only spotted as I teetered over it. Below me a fifteen foot drop and the sounds of fast flowing water under snow. I realised that I was stood on a cornice and gingerly retreated whilst looking for a way to cross the gully. There was only one option, a wide snow bridge reached by a scramble down between some rocks. A mistake here would have real consequence both in terms of getting out of the water and also in getting and staying warm again. This was the one and only real risk we took as I flattened myself to the snow and crawled carefully across desperately trying to spread my weight. The bridge held and I carefully dragged the bike after me. Fortunately it held for Andy as well.

On the other side he turned to me and said “Imagine doing that last night”, his decision to stop at Ben Alder absolutely vindicated. We continued our painful trudge up to the final col to be greeted by the valley of Ben Alder Forest knee deep in snow. Our destiny was more pushing, downhill. A track requiring ten minutes of concentration in the summer needed two hours to descend in full winter conditions. Even finding the track was hard and we veered off course several times.

We reached the Culra bothy sometime around 2.30pm. A full six and a half hours on the move and less than eight miles covered, not one of them ridden. We retreated inside to make a brew and solidified our decision to bale off the route. At this point my back was in pieces I’d used too many dormant muscles in pushing through the snow and welcomed the opportunity to lie down and stare at the ceiling. I also welcomed the porridge and tea.

Andy scanned the map and spotted the station at Tulloch was on the line to Tyndrum. This would become our next objective as it was clear the Corrieyairack Pass would be even deeper in snow given its greater height. Today was Sunday and we had no idea whether there’d be any trains. If not Fort William was another ten miles up the road.

Things became semi-rideable beyond the bothy, with an emphasis upon “semi”. There was still a lot of deep snow even at this lower level, along with ice and frozen tussocks. The ride out to the road took some doing even though it trended downhill. We greeted the A86 with an unusual relish and turned our faces into another snow storm for a bleak fifteen mile ride to the station.

I dreaded finding it closed or arriving after the last train had gone, but we were saved by the 18:08 train to Glasgow (calling at Upper Tyndrum). This gave us a two hour wait in the cold which came with a reasonable amount of hurt as the snow wading had forced water into my socks which were now trying to freeze.

But we were laughing about it all. What a mad mad day. In all of our planning we’d never thought it would turn out like this. We’d imagined the occasional halt due to snow but not a full day of pushing our bikes through a perfect ski resort. The forecast had given us the middle finger with both hands and then insulted our mothers. Scotland was determined that we were not going anywhere on this ride.

However, as Andy said, we’d made the first attempt. For sure it had not succeeded but somebody has to be the first and it was us. Maybe others will follow inspired by our failure, having learned our lessons and waiting for a better weather window. But we can always say that we tried first and we both agreed that we’re not accepting any winter completion without the rider(s) having waded through snow. As is always the case on rides like this an element of luck helps a lot with the completion. We had very little on day two but I personally came away with a face stuffed full of experience. I’d go back and have those two days again tomorrow.

Despite the trials I felt privileged to be where I was and found myself constantly feasting upon ocular heroin. Writing this I want to go back and do some more. I want to see the sun rising over snow caped mountains. I yearn for the sight of stag arses running off into the distance and relish the memories of hot porridge in a freezing cold bothy. I had very few low moments on this trip because I genuinely enjoyed the trials even when beaten into submission.

And so to paragraph five of this tale. Was it a failure? In terms of objective, yes. But in terms of injecting a little bit of proper adventure into modern living absolutely one hundred percent no. Two men setting out to take on a seemingly impossible challenge can never be a failure.

Dave, Only those who attempt the absurd will achieve the impossible” – Andy Lawrence 13th February 2018

(I think he might have cribbed that from somewhere?)

Posted in Cycling blog posts
6 comments on “The Highland Trail – First Winter Attempt
  1. Craggy McEddy says:

    A hugely entertaining and amusing read, Mr Barter. Your appetite for self-abuse (so to speak) stands as a lesson to us all. I’m glad to know that ultimately you both enjoyed yourselves despite the manifold challenges.

    I’m sure you’ll know the Scottish mountain biking term ‘hike-a-bike’. I have to say that spending more time pushing then riding does my head in; give me the well-drained chalk tracks of the South Downs in summer any day!

  2. Tom Rowntree says:

    Enjoyed reading, thanks Dave.
    I’m just back from a 4 day ski touring trip in the highlands. We encountered some extremely deep snow! Can’t imagine how bonkers you would need to be to set off to ride the HT550 in these conditions. Chapeau.
    I have been considering a “Festive HT550” for a while, but my wife says she’d leave me if I did attempt it.

  3. Chris DiRollo, Ullapool says:

    A great read.My brother and I attempting the HT in May, God help us! To be honest, kinda glad you never made it, to read about a couple of folk managing it in this years conditions might have been more that I could handle! Best, Chris.

  4. Gabriel Garcia Marquez says:

    Shame you never reached the much maligned seafood pizza.

  5. Ian says:

    Inspiring stuff, Nd a great account as always,Dave.
    Would you like to borrow my fat bike next time? 🙂

    • Dave Barter says:

      I was contemplating taking the semi-fat which would have helped on day 1 a bit. However, day 2 the snow was just too deep for anything and I think the extra weight would have been worse on the long push/drag up