East winds and Snotcicles on the Lochaber Tundra

It’s pretty easy to laugh at Scottish skiers, given the flurries of speculation and planning at the first sign of snowfall, and what constitutes ‘all time’ conditions in a country when any snow is sometimes a blessing. On reflection though, I’m not sure that I can really point the finger, given the number of routes that I’ve traced along the map while dreaming of winter – routes that rely on a climate around ten degrees colder…

 

The winter landscapes of Scandinavia, Canada and the northern United States have crept right under my skin and got me looking northward every winter, following the stories of endurance and wonder from winter ultra races like the Iditarod and the Fat Pursuit, and wondering what it would be like to live somewhere with a proper cold climate, where lakes and sea freeze and the freeze sets in for months on end. I think part of the fascination is with the different skill-set needed to get by in those conditions, along with all the fun toys: fatbikes, snowshoes, big boots and Michelin man jackets… I associate British winters with bleached, sodden leaves, the grey-green of winter fields at home in Northumberland, and the general feeling that all the colour has gone. When we do get the occasional week of cold air swinging down from the north, and the veneer of white makes everything feel new again, I always wish it would stay, but it never does. On the other hand, we’ve got what we’ve got, and one of the beauties of the ever-changing British weather is that it forces you to make the most of an opportunity when it presents itself…

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When the Beast from the East came to visit the other week, it brought with it sub-zero temperatures at all levels for a week or more, a stiff easterly wind and plenty of snow for some parts of Scotland. After an interesting week at work, spent shepherding 12 year-olds through blizzards and wishing for goggles at sea level in whiteouts, we returned to Ballachulish, which is home for the moment, and found that there had been cloud free blue skies all week! More importantly, the slowly thawing old snow pack had been frozen solid, and with the consistent cold so too had all the many miles of bog that coat the ground of Rannoch Moor and the long, wide valley systems that wind between the giants on their way from Rannoch to the sea. Clearly these were conditions that don’t present themselves too often, and with freezing levels only just beginning to creep back up, we got the map out and decided to go for a route that could be fantastic, if only the snow would allow it…

 

Waiting on the platform at Fort William station the next morning, we were the only people with bikes and apparently the first fat bikes that the railway staff had seen. The heavy snow further south had limited the ability to get trains through to Glasgow, so it was having to be refilled from a tanker here in Fort William, hence the delay. The journey south by train for the Fort is spectacular, and definitely a box to be ticked if you haven’t done it. Climbing steadily from Spean Bridge, we wound into the hills at Loch Treig and saw promising snow cover above 300m from the train windows, in between drifting snow showers riding the persistent east wind. We passed the UK’s most remote station at Corrour, and stayed on to the next stop at Rannoch, where we got off and set about returning to Fort William, via Loch Ossian, Corrour, Loch Treig, Staoineag and Meanach bothies, and finally Glen Nevis itself.

 

The initial climb on the old Road to the Isles, past the old Corrour Lodge, was the highest point on the route and got us right up the into the snow and the wind. The track had drifted in, and the snow was firm enough for good riding, so with the help of the wind we fairly flew up, over and down to Loch Ossian. The mottled, patchy snow cover looked more like the landscape of interior Iceland in winter, and the drifting snow stung our eyes and noses while smudging the limits of vision across the moor.

 

 

From Corrour station things got more interesting, as we crossed the tracks and immediately lost the trail in among the snow patches, so we gave up on it and followed the snow patches themselves in a roundabout way, weaving through the peat hags on a highway of firm, white trail that led seemingly nowhere in particular, but which carried us north to Loch Treig without too much bother.

 

As bleak and uninviting as Loch Treig is, the trail soon takes you through to Staoineag, which is a much more homey feeling place. There is a clipping inside the bothy, from an interview with a man who grew up there, and remembered trekking across the moor when the harvest was done, to have a celebratory ceilidh with the neighbouring family a few miles distant. The Abhainn Rath was frozen in most places, the wind skated the odd tendril of fine snow across the surface, which was black and polished, and seemingly solid. We tested the ice in a few places though, and it was never thick enough to take the weight of the bike. Shame. It must be great to be able to use frozen rivers as a highway, but sadly even the Beast couldn’t arrange that for us. At least the bogs were frozen solid though, and between them and the hard snow patches we made better time than we would have done in summer, working up the glen, back above the snowline towards the big barren amphitheatre at Meanach.

 

 

We stopped in at the bothy for a quick brew, seeing as I had carried the stove all that way. It was my first ride using the Salsa Alternator rack fitted to Snorri the Blackborow, which I’ll be using in Sweden later this month to carry Revelate Designs Nano panniers, so a bit of testing and bedding in seemed like a good idea. It was also a good chance to get reacquainted with Revelate’s pogies, which also don’t see too much use in ‘normal’ Scottish weather but which are absolutely my favourite way of keeping hands warm, dry and never too far from a pile of sweets! In the absence of anything having fallen off the rack, the small pleasure of a cup of tea can never be underestimated, especially as there was plenty of physical riding left to do as the day faded.

 

 

Coming into Glen Nevis from its upper reaches was beautiful, as the giants of the Aonachs, the Mamores and the Ben itself partially revealed themselves from the heavy snow showers still wrapped around their shoulders. By this point I was well off in my own world, pretending that this was interior Alaska or some other well refrigerated place, and that the glens lead off in limitless directions to more of the same amazing riding, rather than being stuck in our relatively small pocket of Arctic conditions above the snowline. Still, it was nice to play pretend. The relative ease and efficiency of riding on the snow and frozen bog was very real, and with the sense of satisfaction of making good time, and making the most of the very welcome conditions.

 

 

It’s a few years since I’ve traversed Glen Nevis by bike, so thankfully I’d forgotten how lumpy/rough/crap the lower section is, but by that point we didn’t care too much anyway! A little bit of walking, snacking and swearing, and a few moments to take in the beauty that is Steall Falls all frozen up. Before we knew it we were on the rolling road down the glen, 65km of winter riding done and if anything even more upset that these conditions don’t come around more often…

 

With that in mind, I decided to set out again to get my fill of tundra travel before the thaw arrived, this time starting a little more energetically by grinding the bike from sea level in Kinlochleven. After the steep initial climb I hit the conduit to the Blackwater reservoir, which was frozen over with brash ice as far as the eye could see, plenty of it having sprayed over the dam wall and frozen to the walkway. The snowline didn’t arrive until the other side, where I soon managed to start linking the snow patches between peat hags, sticking my head above their peaty walls like a periscope every now and then to get my bearings. The riding was physical but still exhilarating, as I couldn’t care less where the trail was and had no need for it. I planned to head to Chiarain bothy for a cup of tea, as it’s such a nice spot, and then traverse back out and around the corner into Gleann na Ghiubhsachan: a trackless glen that would take me through to Meanach again with minimal climbing.

 

 

At the bothy, I bumped into two local boys on quad bikes, who were just as surprised to see me out there as I was to see them! We were all out just to make the most of the lovely conditions, and they told me stories of all the other obscure spots around the high moors that they’d gotten to over the years. It was snowing heavily outside when we set off, but the traverse between Glas Bheinn and Beinn na Cloiche was easy enough on good snow.

 

From Meanach, this time I headed west towards Loch Eilde Mor, ignoring the buried trail again to take a more contouring line off piste into increasing snowfall. The temperature felt milder than it had been, and as I approached the western end of the loch at the new hydro scheme it was sleet that chased me down the Grey Mare’s Tail back to Kinloch. As sad as it was to watch all the ice sculptures melt and fall over the next few days, at least I made the most of it while it was there. Having had that wee taster will definitely help the motivation to pack kit and food for what will be a longer and colder trip through Arctic Sweden in the next few weeks.

 

Just as long as there’s tea…

 

 

 

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