Highland Trail 550 – Part 3

Part 1

Part 2

I managed to sleep anyway, though, and got up at 5 to tackle the Postaman’s Walk along the north shore of Loch Maree, all the way to a hot drink at the Whistle Stop café in Kinlochewe. It was a huge mental struggle to get up and face the long daily routine of pedal, walk, eat, pedal, and my motivation was beginning to slip away. I really couldn’t feel wither of my sets of fingers by now, they had constant pins and needles. My bag was soaked, and I had all my clothes on as I climbed over the Bealach in the now familiar rain. From Letterewe, the trail wasn’t as bad as I had thought – there was plenty of climbing and walking, but I knew this was likely the last long stretch of pushing between me and Tyndrum. There were some absolutely sublime stretches of empty trail and mountainside beneath the bulk of Slioch, through ancient oak woods and past the ruins of abandoned crofts. I felt lucky again, rather than tired and wet, and whatever happened I didn’t stop moving…

The causeway at Carnmore

I was about half 10 when I sloshed into the café and asked for porridge and a bacon roll, with their largest, strongest coffee. I tried to explain my state by saying I was doing a race, but it felt sillier and sillier when I explained that I was the only one doing it. They did let me hang my bag over a chair by the fire though, which helped to take it from thoroughly wet to only damp by the time I had eaten, so I left the fleet of Teutonic motorbike tourers that were sheltering from the rain with me, and set sail for Torridon. I knew this section well from guiding it, and the miles slipped by to the lovely Teahouse bothy, where the singletrack climb to Drochaid Coire Lair begins. Compared to the Postaman’s Walk it was a quick push, and although I rode a lot less of the slabby Achnashellach descent than normal, I was cracking a grin and enjoying the ride when I started the road spin down Strathcarron.

The climb past the Teahouse bothy.

Sources of hot food were becoming my biggest motivation now, and I wanted some chips at Dornie, so I pressed on through Attadale and the boggy mess of Glen Ling to get to the pub there by 6pm. There are only so many oatcakes and flapjacks you can eat, so again it lifted my spirits for the slog out to Glen Lichd and the climb to Camban bothy, where I hoped to shelter again. That climb was as tough and as atmospheric as ever; if I made it I would be in the upper reaches of Glen Affric that night, and within a very long day’s ride of the finish. I made it to the bothy at 9.30, nice and early, but decided to sleep there and start early, as there were no more open bothies in Glen Affric and the rain had set in again. Predictably by now, it was absolutely rammed with a couple of large groups of young walkers who presumably hadn’t been shown the bothy code. They looked entrenched for the week, with piles of books (and rubbish) all over the place. There was a ‘party room’ where someone who couldn’t play a guitar was trying their best to ignore that fact, and the ‘quiet room’ where everyone was already asleep. I couldn’t face the driving rain, so I decided to stay, and silently unpacked and ate in the sleepy room. I really didn’t want to eat, feeling nauseous and sleepy from he constant effort of refuelling. For a long while I just sat there in silence, getting colder but lacking to the motivation to move or do anything about it. There was space on a bunk, but the guy I asked to move over seemed to insist on pretending to be asleep. I couldn’t be bothered to argue my case any more, so just curled up on the concrete floor and listened to the rain providing the backing track to a bad rendition of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’.

As an act of revenge, I made no effort to be quiet as I got up at 4 and dressed for the continuing rain outside. I had all of my clothes on and couldn’t feel my feet along the length of Glen Affric, which no-one had told me is actually really hilly in its upper reaches! The going got a lot faster as I reached the loch though, and I faced the first of two big climbs that would deliver me to Fort Augustus and more hot food. I had broken this last day (there was no doubt about it being the last day, I was finishing without stopping, no matter how long to took) into three sections: a cheeky 80km to start, which included the long, long Glen Affric and then climbs over into Glen Moriston and again into the Great Glen at Fort Augustus on Wade’s old military road; after that was the easy part, doing 45km along the Caledonian Canal to Fort William, where Morrisons pastry section would have my back. Then, and only then, could I do the last 75km down the West Highland Way to Tyndrum, over the Lairig and Devil’s Staircase climbs, before finally summiting Rannoch Moor and following Wade’s road once more all the way back to the van. Simple. This was happening.

Kintail 1

It was difficult to snap my attention back to the section in hand, but as I climbed away from Plodda Falls the rain stopped for a while and my mood lightened to match the air. The ride became a question of eat, ride, eat, ride, nursing my energy levels just above the dreaded bonk, and reciting to my self a list of all the waypoints I was ticking off as I travelled onwards. I had to eat every half hour or so, or I would feel my head dropping and the lights upstairs dimming, before the lift that followed twenty minutes after the food passed my lips. The first sight of the Great Glen was a huge boost, and after another fast descent I arrived at the shop, where I met Przemek and Saska, a Polish and Slovenian couple (also looking on-trend with Krampuses), who were touring the route before heading off to Iceland a few weeks later. We chatted while I ate, swapped email addresses and I told them a bit about what they had to look forward to. They were the first people I had met in five days who had any idea what it was that I was doing, and to finally have someone understand why I looked like I’d been living feral in the woods for a few years set me off smiling down the Caledonian Canal.

On the home straight in Fort Augustus – thanks to Przemek for the photo!

Leaving Fort Augustus, I caved in to the excitement of being on the penultimate leg of the ride, and the speed slowly crept up. I had my elbows resting on the bars, to relieve the pressure on my hands as much as for the aero tuck, as I really couldn’t feel much in my right hand anymore. I ate a little, but to stay warm in the heavy showers I was riding too hard, giving in to the deceptive trail along Loch Lochy, which has plenty of small rises to test tired legs. The Prius engine got thrown out of the window as the bulk of the Ben emerged from the mist, and I could practically hear the hubbub of civilisation in Fort William (never thought I’d writer that!). It took 3 hours to get all the way along and into town, where I was faced with a dilemma at the roundabout leading into the shadows of Glen Nevis. I still felt good, but knew that I’d pedalled too hard along the Great Glen Way. The finish felt almost within reach, but that was only within the context of the HT550 as a whole: I still had a half West Highland Way to complete, having already been out for 12 hours or so that day. I figured I would potentially be another 6 or 7 hours to get down to Tyndrum at my current rate, so I vetoed out the itchy feet and dropped into Morrisons café for a last café and a baked potato.

Looking to Buachaille Etive Mor from the Devil’s Staircase

Half an hour later I set off, watching the rescue helicopter hovering over the halfway Lochain opposite as I climbed the West Highland Way out of Glen Nevis. The gloom was closing in as I entered the Lairig and bounced through on my way to Kinlochleven. I could have sworn it was shorter than this! And smoother! The track was a watercourse, and my hands weren’t doing a fantastic job of holding on to the bars any more. It didn’t matter – still moving, still moving, and the distance to the finish becoming shorter with every pedal stroke. I passed that day’s stragglers on the WHW as I approached the rocky descent into the village, and a fair few tents containing the warm, headtorch glow of people settling down to some rest out of the rain, not that I was jealous or anything.

The last big climb faced me past the industrial halls of the hydroelectric plant by the river Leven. A 450m climb and I would be over into Glencoe, with easy miles home on the old military road. Simples! I was alone now on the trail with just the endless flapjack and chocolate peanuts for company. The pace slowed to a crawl at times but thewalk/ride (mainly walk) to the top seemed to go by fast enough. At the top of the Devil’s Staircase I downed a bottle of flat coke from Morrisons, hopefully dropping a sugar bomb that would see me most of the way to the finish. For a second I thought I wasn’t looking forward to the finish, that it had been a release to commit fully to the ride, to have not a single spare minute to think of anything other than food, pedal, sleep, repeat. To have infinite space and to travel through it freely… I thought that for a moment, but then the sugar began to kick in and I remembered that I was disgusting, sleepy and ready for a bed, so I dropped in to the descent to Glencoe. I rode more of the Staircase than I meant to, what with a brain that was becoming slow to suggest that maybe it was time to walk a section, and the result that it often missed the opportunity.

The Coke-grenade saw me past the King’s House, over the Rannoch summit climb from the White Corries of Glencoe ski centre, and most of the way down the long, sodden drag to Victoria Bridge. Desperate to finish, I dragged out a long-forgotten gel, swallowed it and dashed the road section to Bridge of Orchy. The light was fading fast as it was now past 10, but I didn’t want to stop to grab the headtorch. I got a pleasant surprise as I passed under the railway, as Annie was waiting there to join me for the last 10km. I couldn’t stop talking, launching straight into the story of where I’d been all week, partly from excitement but partly because it was distracting me from the pain of the last wobble home. We span into the dark, navigating the lumps of the trail using carrot-vision, until at last there was only a quick climb over the final watershed left. It took seemingly forever and a day, always one more pedal stroke needed before I could give in and let gravity take over…

Just as we were finally entering the village, a bright light at the side of the trail turned to look at me, and proved to be attached to the handlebars of a small, energetic Spanish man who had ridden the HT550 last year, and was in the area to recce the new route before the mass start. He had driven all the way up from London to get a chance to ride in the hills for a few days – good choice! I wasn;t prepared for the barrage of questions about the route, about Fisherfield and the river crossings, although it still felt as though I had come from those places just moments before. I had to excuse myself to get changed and fed, but ended up sitting on the floor of the van for several minutes wondering where I was. I was done, finished! Not a single mechanical hitch, I hadn’t even had to change brake pads. Five days and fifteen hours was a good chunk short of the six-day target I had set for myself, and I thought I had ridden well given the lack of experience of ultra-endurance rides under my belt. The places and trails and experiences swam around for a bit, before I eventually hauled myself off the floor for a good mug of tea, a change of clothes and the fuzzy nothingness of proper sleep.

I’ll be back again for sure to try and cut some time on the route, mainly by not sleeping so much. The experience of committing deeply to the ride and nothing else over a period of days was a buzz that I’ve never felt before, even touring, so watch this space to see if there’s not room for a new ITT…

4 thoughts on “Highland Trail 550 – Part 3

  1. Hey, great blog and mega full on trip. Not sure how if survive on the lack of sleep!
    Looking at new bikes for bikepacking in Scotland – would you recommend the krampus?

    1. Thanks! Well, me neither apparently, given the constant oversleeping.
      The krampus was effectively the original plus bike, and I think it ticks a lot of boxes. The frame and rims seem to be as tough as old boots, given mine and others’ experiences, but the stock build is heavy and benefits from going tubeless and getting some posher tyres on the rims. If I were buying again now I would look hard at a 27+ bike, but in terms of efficient rolling on rough roads and long term durability, it’s great. I think it rides better when loaded – the tyres take a load without losing composure and take technical climbs majestically!

      1. That’s great. Thanks for taking the time to reply. There’s so much info out there it’s hard to make a decision!

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