Day 5 The only way out is through
This is shite?
You know your doing an adventure race when 5.30 am is a lie in. I had a leisurely breakfast and contemplated the day’s goals. I’d generally avoided this in previous days not wanting to try to get to places that were unachievable, damaging morale in the process. But today I knew I had to get within a reasonable shout of the end. Potentially I could get to Tyndrum the next day and achieve my sub 6 day crassly optimistic pre-race target. Realistically I would get to a point which would allow me to pass Fort Augustus the next day with a final easy day back to base. Once again it was grey and damp exiting Letterewe via the excellent path. This like many others in the area had been repaired in the late ‘90’s by the now defunct Ross and Cromarty Footpath Trust – a loose partnership of Scottish Natural Heritage, various landowners, Scottish Enterprise and the a handful of local community groups. In those days funding was plentiful and this trust carried out many miles of path improvements spanning from An Teallach to Torridon. Post Land Reform this has opened up vast wildernesses for the intrepid mountain biker to explore and lead to the amazing phenomena of the trails at Torridon. Poolewe was reached after the final schlep through the forest (on a track but ironically far soggier than the preceding path including the infamous cow shit bog). This wee village provided a valuable toilet stop and a shop. It was also a significant point in the route as it was the most westerly point. I bumped in Rickie Cotter also waiting for the shop to open, having bivvied the night in the ladies! The joys of wild camping….. I ate and stashed food then got going. A road climb then the infamous tollie path, a joke lost on those from south of the border as everyone told me it was indeed shite. I withheld judgement. I’d ridden this in 1997 and thought it a fine trail – an easy climb on a made up path followed by a rough descent with multiple lines and plenty rock riding. So it was today. The climb was straightforward and the descent, I’m here to report, was bloody amazing. If you raced downhill in the late ‘90’s you’d get it (when downhill courses were a mess of roots, mud and rocks with none of this berms and jumps nonsense). A wide eroded path with lines everywhere down which a careful eye could pick a route. Logic suggests that you take it well easy on such terrain but stuff it, I was in my element so got stuck in – Ice Cream Truck Party time! Halfway down I passed Rickie Cotter – greetings and encouragement exchanged then off again. Next up, the longest section of road on the route.
Black top cruising
To Kinlochewe it was wind assisted and easy. This gave me a chance to assess both my own condition and the bikes. Contact points OK but feels like a saddle sore coming on – must attend. Wrists fine (amazingly as my wrists always give me gyp on long rides) legs good, left knee nipping a bit – odd as this is my good one. Dodgy right knee no problem. The bike seemed OK but I was worrying about the effect of endless miles of granite / mud grinding paste on the drive train. Another issue was also occurring to me – brakes. How worn were they? I’d started with new sintered pads which typically would last for ages but this relentless mud was surely taking its toll. I had a spare set of part worn ones with me but these were for emergencies, not something I expected to use. Also of concern were the tyre side walls. Schwalbes Jumbo Jims are a fat bike revolution – huge but weighing massively less than Surly’s own offerings. These had been the clincher for taking this bike dropping a kilo off its weight and massively reducing rolling resistance. The trade off were the sidewalls which were thin and unprotected. I’d done mile after mile of rocky single track continuously accompanied by the scrape of tyre on rock. I had patches, thread and superglue with me but the thought of doing a tyre repair at the side of the road did not appeal…. Whatever, don’t look just ride. Kinlochewe provided further shopping opportunities and the excellent Whistlestop Café which gave another warm welcome and more fine food. This was turning into more of a gastronomic trip than an adventure ride! The road down to Torridon was headwind city and the previously fine weather was once more being replaced by murk and rain as the next mountain challenge loomed above me.
Shred the Gnar dude
Torridon. Now a byword for extreme riding featured in various mags, endless you tube vids and made famous by Danny, Steve and Hans getting flown to the top and riding down on camera. Once the preserve of only a hardened few mountain bikers with maps and determination, now the hang out for an endless stream of fluro short and lid wearing dudes on full bouncers. They weren’t in evidence today and who could blame them. This is the longest continuous climb on the HT560 route topping out at 660m but starting at sea level so you get to enjoy every metre…. Actually slightly less than my favourite climb in the Ochills but harder, much harder. Any thoughts of riding this were quickly dispelled. Since my last visit in 2013, the path was way looser and rougher at a grade that needed maximum effort to ride – not on after over 400miles. The climb was gruesome and I knew what was coming having ridden down it a couple of years previously. The rain was blasting in horizontally and stopping brought an instant chill. I’d passed Rickie on the climb but not long after paused to eat a bit before the final slog and noted she wasn’t far behind. Suddenly staying in sight of a fellow rider seemed like an amazingly good idea. The final climb was desperate – nearly 50lbs of bike on my shoulder trying to climb a near scramble of a path up, and up and up… Finally topping out revealed the major problem facing us. The wind was blowing straight up Coire Lair and the rain now torrential. The descent was over 600m with barely a need to turn a pedal and so would be bitterly cold. Rickie had caught me up by this point and lead off on this descent that should have been a joyous blast but was instead a grim essay in survival biking. An incapacitating fall here would be life threatening given the cold. The road was only a few miles away but rescue would be over an hour – too long in these conditions. The two of us picked our way down the hill walking anything remotely dodgy. Dropping out of Coire Laire gave respite from the weather and finally spat us out on the road, soaked and chilled to the bone. Stephen Sloof was there too, similarly suffering, so we cracked on to the warm oasis of the Loch Carron hotel, food and hopefully, in my mind, a bed. Walking in we met Andy Williamson tucking into his main course and smugly telling us he had his room organised. I went straight to the manager and enquired about rooms – hallelujah he had rooms free. I’d ‘only’ done 60 miles and it was only 7pm but for me this was the end of day 5. Turns out I was in good company as Alan and Javi had also decided to call it a day here. 6 of us settled down for a night of luxury. Not so for Fraser McBeath. I’d not seen him since the previous day but he suddenly turned up at about 7.30, calmly drank a cup of tea and headed out into the rain saying he was heading for Camban bothy in Glen Affric…. ‘Good on yer’ I thought but for me a good sleep, dry kit and an early start should see me within easy reach of the finish by the end of tomorrow. Nothing would stop me barring major injury or a serious mechanical. The beer I had with my meal tasted like nectar….
Day 6 Lets get the hell out of here
I was the last of the dirty half dozen to leave the hotel thanks to my typically casual pre start preps. A brief road climb provided valuable heat in the legs and then I hit the dirt again. I passed Carl Hutchings who hadn’t been able to find digs so had had to bivvy – he still looked as unflustered as I’d seen him on previous occasions. The descent was a swampathon par excellence – fat bike cruising! I passed Javi who was clearly suffering with feet and knees giving him serious problems. Despite this he was as cheerful as ever and determined to finish. I found the right trail to the gate (see Iona Evans tale of her 2014 ride!) and hit tarmac once again. The route follows and old road which climbs up above loch shiel – a pain but the view over Eilean Donan castle to the Cuillins justified it.
On the descent the expected happened – the front brake pads hit metal. I stopped at the inverinate garage for breakfast part 2 and set to changing them. Hmm, the lever took loads of pumps to get the pads back on the disc and the resulting brake was well spongy. Somehow air had gotten in but how?? Who knows but it would have to do. Alan, Rickie and Andy had all left by the time I’d sorted this so I was alone again heading to Morvich and Glen Licht. For a change the sun was shining but the hard westerly was cold and I’d caught a glimpse of fresh snow above around 700 metres. Glen licht was an easy pedal with a massive tailwind. The single track climb had found few friends from previous editions of the HT but it was only 350m i.e. half yesterdays climb so it couldn’t be that bad could it?
Once again as I started the climb the weather closed in with cold horizontal rain. Thank god it was behind me but it didn’t bode well for the next part of the route. For once I was compelled to put my headphones in and distract myself from the struggle of this climb. My choice seemed appropriate – Shostakovich’s mighty 5th symphony, his comment on the Stalin regime, a fitting counterpoint to my own struggle with rock, gradient and weather. The main steep finally eased but this just left me at the mercy of the brutal wind and rain, then sleet and even snow. I felt my stomach churning – would it be like this all the way to Tyndrum? Thoughts of barely making it to Fort Augustus this day loomed in my mind. The trail to Camban bothy should have been a joy but it just seemed to go on and on. I guess the distance was finally taking its toll as I felt weak for the first time in the ride. Onwards and upwards I went staring at the ground in front of me.
Finally the bothy came into view. Not only that but suddenly the clouds cleared and the sun shone down neatly coinciding with the stunning finale of the music in my ears – a perfect moment and my earlier gloom disappeared instantly. From Camban the path became a track – wet but fast with the massive tailwind. This would be a major jink east and it went past in no time with the tailwind assist. The only dampner was my front brake. After only a few miles the pads hit metal again. Shit – I had no more spares. A quick survey showed that my rear pads were fine so these went on the front and the best of the rest went on the back. But disaster struck once more – I pumped the front brake lever with the bike lying on its side. The spongy front brake became a non existent front brake. I rode off, my mind racing as to how I would sort this. If I could get to Fort Bill I would get a bleed kit and new pads but timings were suggesting that this would cause me a big delay. Could I get down the descents on a back brake only? No chance – two fast gravel road descents were coming up and the descent into Kinlochleven and off the devils staircase would require all the braking I could get. I stopped after a few miles for food and tried an old trick learned from my days of riding old motorbikes. I tied the lever open and propped the bike upright. The air bubble should be near the top of the hose and this should allow it back into the master cylinder. After half and hour I removed the strap and tried it. Happy days I had a front brake again – A bit spongy but good enough.
Pizza time, a reprise!
The climb out of Tomich is actually one of the biggest on the route but on a nice smooth gravel road. I passed Rickie but there was no sign of Alan. Had he gone into the Tomich hotel or was he pressing on for home?? Who knows but the Fort Augustus pizza shop was calling me so I screamed up the hill and blasted down the other side in defiance of my dodgy brakes. The trail over to Fort Augustus was a joy – a nice easy climb and a fine smooth single track descent. The sun shone, the wind was behind me and I felt good. Fort William looked on the cards for today leaving only 40 odd miles for the next. I arrived at the pizza shop but no one else was there. Had Alan pressed on? Doubtful as he seemed to be determined to patronise every eating establishment on route! He arrived on my third slice shortly followed by Rickie. Alan had elected for a 9” pizza but me and Rickie both demolished 12” ones with ease – the joys of long distance bike riding. A quick stop at the shop for final snacks was curtailed by a tremendous downpour. Javi had caught us up by this time but further disaster had struck – his freewheel was failing. Poor bloke; I couldn’t believe his incredible fortitude on keeping going despite such physical and now mechanical pain.
An evening’s ride
The rain eased and the three of us headed down the great glen way for some easy miles. Showers came and went but the route is fairly sheltered so no drama. Javi’s freewheel was hampering him so he quickly fell behind. There was nothing we could do but this is when the rules of Adventure racing seem harsh – no assistance too be given or received. Alan hadn’t caught up so on we went chatting about the route, life the universe and everything (Point of order – we were riding side by side, not drafting each other!) Rickie decided to make use of a handy wood shed for a luxury bivvy but I was keen to press on. The rain showers were more frequent as I approached Fort Bill (as per usual, it always rains when I’m here) and darkness was falling.
I’d planned to hit Glen Nevis campsite but suddenly the thought of hard accommodation appealed – that inner wimp coming out again but I felt justified in my decision as a):- it was chucking it down, b) I would get a quick start and c) Alan G had stayed in 2 hotels on this ride so I was due one. Not as easy as I thought as every place I went past on the run into town was full. I had one last try on the main road into the centre and hit lucky – the end B&B of a terrace of several had vacancies – a twin room for £30; what a bargain. It was 10.30, and I’d done 104miles in 15 hours. Tomorrow would see me back at Tyndrum in about 6 or so hours.
Day 7 And finally….
The West Highland way is rubbish
Leaving the B&B at 6.30 in the rain felt good. Tonight I would sleep in my own bed for many, many hours. I saw Rickie heading for the all night garage for breakfast after an early start but I’d already stuffed myself with most of the remainder of the food in my bag. The climb out of Glen Nevis is a mere bump compared to what had gone before but once I again I resorted to musical distraction – Shostakovich again, this time his 7th symphony, written in Leningrad whilst the German Army laid siege to it, putting my own troubles firmly into perspective. The rain came down but I was on the home straight and feeling unstoppable. The grotty singletrack went by in a blink and I was on the rough double track climb below the flanks of the mamores and riding strongly. I’d done the strap trick on the brake lever overnight and the front brake was performing well but even so I was careful down into Kinlochleven as a crash now would be heartbreaking. The Icefactor café was shut so I made do with a cold second breakfast courtesy of the co-op and headed off for the final challenge – the climb up to the devils staircase. It seemed an eternity ago since I had passed here on the way out, in the warm sunshine. Today it was cloudy and cold – several inches of snow were lying above 700m and although the rain had finally eased off, the wind was bitter. Ride, walk, ride, walk – I barely noticed the trail. The top was reached and another careful descent made in the face of the now continuous stream of walkers. People said this section seemed to go on for ever but for me it was over in a blink.
I was pushing on hard to get back before 1pm and I felt like I’d done an easy day’s ride, not 560 miles. OK my knees were definitely squeaking a bit but everything else felt good. Finally the end came in site after one last push and for the first time I let myself relax. I’d done it. I’d done the Highland Trail. 560 miles of hard biking in weather best described as challenging. Nothing would faze me again and no bike ride would be hard after this. There’d been a few low points but these were totally over shone by the many highs and a few perfect moments that I would never forget. As I approached the finish line a guy jumped out of his van and started cheering me – none other than Mike Toyn who had finished the previous day, second person home. He congratulated me and we chatted about our experiences. Alan’s friend Sarah was also there as the great man wasn’t far behind so photos were taken and more congratulations made. Stephen Sloof appeared to shake my hand. The feeling of achievement was like nothing I’d ever felt before. It had taken me 6 days, 3 hours and 50 minutes and I was the sixth person back – an achievement way beyond any expectation I had harboured at the start. I headed down to the car, photographed my faithful steed and loaded it up. A quick freshen up and change of clothes and then I headed back up to welcome Alan and Rickie back. Alan had just made it back as I arrived and Rickie arrived not long after. Handshakes and hugs were exchanged and we all looked at each other knowing this ride had been a massive achievement.
I’d have never have done it without…..
The people I met made this ride. Sitting here writing this I can hardly remember the hardships and pain. I’d met and chatted too many people on the way and our shared tales of the crap weather, endless bogs and waist deep rivers made it all worth while. Major thanks to Alan Goldsmith for creating the route and organising the group start, Track leaders etc. etc. It’s a lot of work for him and he doesn’t get a penny back – he just does it ‘cos he cares. Bravo that man. Also cheers to Rob Waller, Andy Williamson, Carl Hutchings, Javi Simon, Fraser McBeath, Alasdair Maclean, Steve from Callander, Karl Booth, a few others I’ve forgotten and especially Rickie Cotter. I shared a bit of the trail with all of you and you helped to make it easy. I hoped I helped to make it easy for you too. Also big cheers to Iona for major inspiration, motivation, help, advice and threats of endless slagging off if I failed. Also cheers to her man Rob at www.backcountrybiking.co.uk for supplying revelate bags, the tent and sleeping bag at great prices, as well as the threat of abuse if I jacked it again. And finally thanks to my ride – my beloved Ice Cream Truck for going the distance. Fat bikes rule!!
Kit list (Nerds and gear freaks only)
By and large all my kit worked well, keeping me warm and dryish most of the time. The only issue I had was contantly taking waterproofs on an off on day 4 as I had my frame bag full of food so had to stow jacket and trousers in the front dry bag, which was a pain to take off, open, close and re attach. Otheres were using small ruckscacks as well as bar rolls and seat packs so I may try this next time.
Bike – Surly Ice Cream Truck with 1×10; Middleburn cranks with 27t ring, one up 42t sprok and rad cage. Holly rolling darryl rims, hope hubs and Schwalbe Jumbo Jim tyres and tubes. I ran the tyres mainly at about 20psi rear and 15 front as a reasonable compromise to save time. I only pumped them up for the two long road sections. Hope FR stem (extra short) Big high and wide bars for manhandling the beast through the gnar. The bear bike with mudguards weighed 32lbs.
Sleeping – Vango helium pro carbon tent on a wildcat bar harness; Criterium quantum 200 sleeping bag (cosy!), Thermorest neo air 2/3rds mat, exped pillow in a Revelate terrapin.
Junk – Vango Ti gas stove and alpkit ti cup with a tin foil pie case lid. Toppeak alien multi tool, leatherman, lots of patches and tub tyre thread for tyre repairs (not needed), two spare JJ tubes (not needed for punctures or for river crossings), Lezyne micro floor drive HV pump (300 pumps to 30psi!) in a revelate frame bag (designed for my fargo), gas tank and two fuel cells. I used a garmin Dakota 20 GPS and a pink rubber rat which squeaked.
Eating – I started with a handful of fruit nked bars, 2 bananas, some banana loaf a work colleague made for me, haribo, cashew nuts, energy drink powder sachets and a foldable bottle, 8 gels, energy tabs, a mountain house dried curry, a sachet of instant porridge.
Drinking – water, valuables, spot tracker and selected food stuffs went in a camelbak lobo
Clothing – I wore a pair of DHB aeron pro shorts (all week!), cheapo DHB roubaix longs, a Helly hensen merino base layer and a Torm merino cycling shirt. Gloves were spesh gell gloves when it was dry and a pair of sealskin gloves the rest of the time. I wore sealskin socks and a pair of bridgedale merino wool medium weight walking socks with Shimano Goretex spd boots. My feet were warm. In the bag went my PJ’s – merino longs and another HH merino top as well as an ancient thin microfleece top. Over the top went a Paramo Quito jacket (exceptional) a pair of cheap vaude over trousers and some unknown gaiters which fell apart just before Ullapool and were replaced by another pair of unknown gaiters. Lid was some fox effort I got cheap from CRC.
And again finally….
My decision to take the fat bike was based on its ability to ride over / through anything. The endless bogs and wet trails made it my perfect choice and it never seemed heavy or draggy on the endless miles of double track and road. That said the first person home for this ride was on a rigid single speed 29er so don’t take this as a recommendation! Ideally you’d take some kind of carbon or ti framed lightweight with 4” tyres rather than my 4.8’s but I do real, not ideal. And for all those cynics and journos who think that fat bikes are joke bikes only for riding on the beach, get it richt up yer!
Phil Clarke, 5th June 2015