It’s been a blustery winter so far, but for the second time in four days last week the forecast turned up a gem in the far North-West. Another early start; this time it was local bicyclists Ronan and Nash joining me in the front of the van. As we moved through Inverness at 0630 a watery sunrise began to shine through the rain beating on the windscreen. Inverness is no stranger to early mornings, being a hub of the oil and forestry industries in the northern highlands, and the roads were already rumbling with pickups and vans heading out.
We wanted to trust the forecast, but as we followed the road away from settlement a crisis of faith began to set in. There’s riding in the rain, and then there’s riding in the rain at 2 degrees in February, knowing that your route will take over 6 hours and will involve carrying up to 700m altitude. As we descended the glen into Kinlochewe though, there was a hint of early sunshine through the mist, unmistakeable and welcome. The last of the rain cleared to the East while we sat in the van at Annat, one last brew for the road and bags packed with winter extras.
The Annat climb is surely the best in Scotland, if not the UK as a whole. Come on, find me a better one, I’ll believe it when I see it. Several kilometres of beautifully technical climbing on slabs and set stone steps, leading upwards to Loch an Eion. We reached the first bealach in good time, reminded of the season by the chill wind as we climbed again to Bealach Bán and hit the snowline. Ascending even further to the third and final bealach, the upper reaches of Coire Lair beckoned on the other side. The snow became deep: sometimes firm enough to ride, but more often swallowing your wheels when you least expected it, seeming to scold you for forgetting the silliness of taking bikes here in winter.
We reached Coire Lair at 1130, again in good time given the conditions, but we didn’t stay long in the snow-filled wind funnel. Obligatory photos taken, we surfed the snow that had drifted over the trail at the head of the coire. With gravity on our side, the success rate of riding the snow out improved sharply, and the blank white surface was a mile away from the ball-pit of fist-sized quartzite rocks that normally carpets the descent. To match the lofty status of the Annat climb, the ludicrously fun Achnashellach descent gave some symmetry to the ride, and we were virtually at the Strathcarron road before we noticed the transition to warm sunshine that marked our crossing to the hills’ south-facing slopes. A bite of lunch in the layby, and then the spin down the road to Coulags and the start of another stellar technical singletrack climb.
Pausing only to get the elusive clean shot at riding the bridge over the Fionn Abhainn, we continued to move quickly upwards and into Coire Fionnaraich. The contrast with the higher trails we had ridden earlier was marked: jackets off and the first bare-armed ride of the year as the sunshine contained a palpable warmth. It was a struggle to draw ourselves away from the charm and peace of the bothy, but after a final bite to eat it was time to hit the trail and broach the final bealach, rejoining our steps from earlier in the day and anticipating the flow of the morning’s climbing when ridden in the opposite direction. The descent to Annat delivered, and as we left the snow and wind behind the sun began to set, and we were reminded that the early start wasn’t over-keen after all. Golden light added to the high-speed slabs and snow-tipped peaks, and suddenly the soggy bum and numb feet were forgotten. All I could hear was the constant, deadened thud of the tyres as they floated over rock, and the burning of well-used legs wasn’t enough to intrude on the need to crank faster towards the sea.
It was perhaps ambitious to choose a high mountain route for a ride in February, but with an awareness of the challenges and patience for the right forecast, not to mention a willingness to set an early alarm, the reward can be to see a stunning place like Torridon in a more hostile but more hopefully more rewarding light. Good winter conditions might sometimes be fleeting in Scotland, but the snow and low light makes the hills seem both more distant and more beautiful, growing them into proper ‘mountains’. We dropped out of the hills to the van; there were no other cars and not a sound to be heard, just the sun, the snow and the sea.