Highland Trail 550: Part 2 (23/08/18-29/08/18)

On the second half of the trail I passed a few places I visited on my last ride down through Scotland. The first of these places was Kylesku Bridge, which crosses Loch Cainbawn. I’d been coming down the coastal rode last time but then changed my mind and followed the main road to Lochinver, rather than trace the coastal road which the HT 550 then joins. I can’t quite remember why I skipped the section, but it was probably to do with the cold, having been wet for 10 days and looking forward a night indoors in Lochinver.

I was glad to cycle the coastal road that I had missed last time around. In one cafe I met an English guy who was walking the entire of coast of Britain. He’d been walking for around 9 months and still had a long way to go down the East coast back to London. I thought he was bonkers. It was only when I cycled off that I realised that was probably what most of the people I met cycling around the world thought of me…

This is probably the longest section on tarmac that the HT 550 follows. It was much faster cycling, but still undulating at steep enough gradients to be a tiring. The sun was back and the views across the sea were amazing. It was very different to the wet mountains I’d been riding for the previous couple of days.

After Lochinver, the HT 550 did what it normally does: the main road will follow a logical route but the trail just hops up and over the mountains. It was only 20km on the map but in reality was a long and exhausting hike-a-bike that kept me busy for most of the afternoon.

The trail dropped down into Ullapool via a nifty section over single track that cut through the hills. It was another town I had visited on my last visit to Scotland and I remember being just as delighted to find a proper supermarket as I was last time. I headed straight to the big Tescos, bought far more food than I could possibly fit into my packs and sat outside on the curb eating my lunch. I had done precisely the same thing last winter.

I followed the familiar main road south for a short way before the HT 550 headed off-road again via the devilish Coffin Road, which was probably the most evil gradient I had to push the bike up. It was not my legs that struggled at the end of the day – I have the thighs for long days in the saddle – it was my upper body that had the real workout in Scotland.

The trail dipped straight down the other side before heading up the next mountain. The next climb was on an easy double track but it started raining again so I pitched my tent before the pass and dived into my sleeping bag.

I was starting to get a little tired of the rain. I was in Scotland 10 days and it rained every single day. It didn’t seem fair. Locals told me they’d had weeks without a drop through June and July but now it pissed it down the whole time. My feet were wet everyday from the rain and stream crossings and my toes were turning weirdly wrinkly. There was always stuff hanging outside my packs to dry, but they never did make it dry.

The next morning it was still raining. I sat in my tent reading for a long time before I mustered the motivation to get back out into the wet and sulked as I packed up my tent. I was being pathetic, but my woes were about to become far worse.

The road dipped down into a large valley. You can see the river that was about to screw me over in the pic below, where it joins with another further down the valley…

I passed a small bothy where a hiker (who just so happened to come from the same London suburbs as myself) was hiding from the rain. He’d been planning on two days hiking but had decided to just sit out the rain and drink tea all day. Perhaps all of us Londoners are total wimps.

Beyond the bothy there was a boggy footpath that I had to push my bike along. After a while it joined the rocky shoreline of the loch and then my gpx route took me straight into the river. Uh oh. I checked my phone to see if I’d made a mistake. Nope – the route wanted me to go right across the river.

The only problem was that the river was about 20m wide. Surely I couldn’t cross that? I threw a log into the water to check the depth but it plunged straight in and sank out of sight. I then waded into the water until it was thigh deep but I was only a few metres in. There was no way I was getting my bike across that.

River crossing

I had no choice but to back track and push my bike back along the boggy trail until I neared the bothy. From there, I reckoned I could cut across the marsh and cross the river a little further upstream, where it was divided into a couple of different sections.

It was a long walk but I eventually reached a spot where I could cross the river. I opted for a section where the the water was thinnest. It was gushing fast but it didn’t look too deep.

I am embarrassed to say that I messed up in exactly the same way that anyone ever gets a river crossing wrong. I underestimated the current in the middle and the power of the water knocked me off balance. My legs could stand their ground but my bike’s back wheel was whipped away from me and I fell straight over into the water trying to hang on my to my bicycle. I dragged myself up after just a second but only after I had had quite the bath. I’ve crossed plenty of rivers with my bike around the world but this is the first one that has really caught me out. What a pity it happened in such a cold and wet place.

After that there was a slow half hour pushing the bike across a swamp before an easier river crossing to rejoin the trail across the valley. By then the rain had eased up so I took the above snap mid-crossing.

I’ve since had a proper look at the Highland Trail 550 website. Under ‘route details’ it reads: “One route alternate is available to avoid a potentially dangerous river crossing in Fisherfield”. I suspect that would be exactly this crossing. I assume it is easier when it hasn’t been raining every day.

I pushed up the next mountain but was rewarded towards the end of the day with a truly spectacular section of singletrack cutting straight through the mouth of the mountain. There are plenty of standout moments on the HT 550 but this was the track that really put the hairs up at the back of my neck.

I soon found myself back at yet another familiar spot – Kinlochewe village. From there I followed precisely the same road leading towards Torridon that I had cycled last time. I remember it clearly because it had been snowing during the night and the roads were all frozen. It was good to remind myself that the weather wasn’t that bad. I’m just not as tough as I was!

Last winter there was barely any traffic on these roads. It was hardly congested this summer, but most of the cars belong to tourists and there were very few of them in the Highlands in November. It was almost a shame not to follow the same road all the way to Torridon as it passes through a beautiful glen but the HT 550 did what it always does, and pulls you away from the road towards the next big climb.

November, 2017
August, 2018

It was starting to get a little frustrating. You’d ride a few miles on tarmac thinking ‘I wish I had a road bike’ but then you’d head off road and spent the next few hours pushing the bike along thinking ‘I wish I had ditched the bike and bought hiking poles!”
It turns out I am pretty crap at mountain biking. Lots of the sections were quite technical and I was a little clumsy with the extra weight on my bike. I had a lot of crashes on the HT550, none of them too bad but a couple of them a little painful. I had one of the more unfortunate ones descending over the next pass. I let rip a little too fast, hit a pile of rocks that I hadn’t been expecting, squeezed my brakes over one of the larger drops and lost balance. It was a good thing I bought a helmet.
I reached Dornie that evening, famous for its photogenic castle. I didn’t have time to admire it as light was fading and I was struggling for a place to camp. Along most of the HT 550 it is easy to wild camp, but there are some stretches where it is not so straight forward. I rode straight through the village and up on the mountain-side road in search of a spot to pitch my tent.
I followed a small trail into the forest and found a clearing which lead straight out to an ‘unofficial’ viewpoint over the castle. It was quite a view in the twilight.
Apart from the first night in a bothy I camped every single night in Scotland. This was the only time that it was dry all through the night and so it was the first time that I could actually pack my tent away in the morning. It is a nice feeling to start the day knowing that everything in your bags is dry.
I was finally nearing the end of the trail. The route heads up into another estate from Morvich and back up into the mountains. Suddenly I was not the only cyclist on the road as I overtook a tour group of mountain bikers heading along the same route.
The next pass was a real brute. I strenuous hike-a-bike that was impossible to ride. My arms were aching by the time I reached the top and yet somehow I made it up before the tour group behind me. One of them, an Aussie, tried to lift up my bike at the top. “Fuck, you make the rest of us look like soft cunts”. To be fair, it was true. They were riding full-suspension carbon bikes that were as light as a feather. While I was heaving my bike up the mountain with all my might, they just picked up their bikes and carried them over their shoulder.
The Highlands weren’t quite done with me just yet and there was one final nasty storm that came to great me on one last stretch on top of the mountains. On the exposed sections up there you are really exposed and they aren’t fun places to be when the weather turns against you. My raincoat is the one I was given in China a couple of years ago and it’s not really very waterproof. My waterproof trousers had ripped in the crashes and were useless. I was soaked through to the bone and freezing. I stopped in a small hut up in the clouds for a while and ate an awful lot of chocolate trying to warm up. Eventually I accepted defeat and headed back out into the rain.
I set up camp just a stone’s throw from Fort Augustus, only a mile or two where I had camped after the second day of riding. It was, of course, raining when I put the tent up that evening.
The last morning the sun was back out and I had a short ride through the Great Glen to Fort William. This is by far the easiest section of the trail along the pancake flat towpath following the canal.
I had initially planned on ending in Tyndrum after 11 days, but in the end I sacked off the last 45 miles back to where I started. I had already booked my train ticket home from Fort William and it was too much faff to try and change the ticket with bike reservation. Instead, I decided to spend the entire afternoon in the pub – it was very much deserved.

I’d have made the last section to Tyndrum if I pushed a little harder the last couple of days, so let’s say it would have been an 11 day ride to complete the course. It is worth mentioning that the top 3 finishers of the race finished in just under 4 days this year, which is quite an extraordinary feat. I am (clearly) not in the same category of athletes as these endurance mountain-bikers but I am a fairly competent cyclist. I’m quite confident that my body could have handled doing the route within 7 days if I spent a little less time reading in my tent, skipped the long coffee breaks and had slightly better weather. But that is very easy for me to say! Either way, the fact that these guys complete the course in such time is mind-boggling.

I was a little worried that getting back onto the bike and back into the tent might make it difficult to return to London. I dealt with all that at the start of the year and I didn’t fancy another identity crisis. Scotland was beautiful and although I didn’t push too hard to enjoy myself, I still found a balance where the trip was a real workout and as a result I was looking forward to returning to the Big Smoke.

I stumbled onto the Caledonian Sleeper after a lazy afternoon in Wetherspoons and passed out in the cabin. Thank God there was no one sharing the berth with me – I smelt like shit.
The next morning I woke up in London. Wheeled my bike out of Euston station and cycled straight to work. Talk about a juxtaposition. It was hard to imagine that just a sleep ago I’d been enjoying the hours of solitude that the Highlands have in abundance. Now I was weaving through rush hour traffic breathing in car fumes and dashing past yellow traffic lights.

But I wasn’t bitter about being back in London. It’s taken a while but I’ve found my own pace of life back in the city. Instead, I just felt lucky to have been able to get away on such an exciting adventure so easily. It’s just one long train away and suddenly you are in a breath-taking part of the world with some incredible riding.

I started the previous blog by mentioning the American who had first told me about this bucket-list route on the global bike-packing map. It’s up there, believe me. I have a feeling I’ll be back up next summer again, too. Third time lucky with the weather? I doubt it somehow.

Practical info

There’s not an abundance of info on the trail online, so I thought I’d try to add some practical details on the ride. As I mentioned above, should you fancy winning the HT550 race – you’d need to be able to finish within four days. I did it over over 11 days. I was still doing plenty of hours a day and it felt like a good workout.

The route page on Bikepacking.com suggests doing it in 12-14 days and I’d probably agree. I wanted to burn up as few holiday days from as possible but if I’d had more time I’d have enjoyed doing it over a full two weeks. That way I’d have had time to cut a couple days short in the more scenic bothies and take a full days rest somewhere halfway if the weather became nasty.

The Bikepacking.com page is helpful, as is the race page. Despite reading ‘how remote the route is’ and even cycling some of the empty glens myself up there previously, I still wasn’t prepared for the hours of solitude. I wasn’t complaining – I just forget there is such space in this country. It’s hard to imagine when you are in London!

If I had not picked up those extra puncture patches in Fort Augustus I would not have found other places selling any until reaching Ullapool which was days away. You’d be a moron not to take all the essentials with you, as a mechanical in a bad spot could leave you with a long walk. If you have the same mobile phone provider as me you’ll barely get signal anywhere in the Highlands.

I was strongly considering leaving my helmet at home – what was the point in one when there is no traffic? I’m very glad I took one in hindsight as I crashed numerous times. On each occasion I thought ‘a serious injury here and I’d be waiting a long time before help may pass by’.

I’d also recommend taking the best waterproofs you have. This summer we almost forgot what rain is down in South England but the Highlands have their own weather system. In the middle of summer it can be cold and wet. I’m also glad I bought my winter sleeping bag as it dropped down to 5C at night.

The route would be far easier if the trails are dry, but don’t rely on that. I reckon May-July are the best months to ride the trail (which is also what Bikepacking.com suggests). Weather is usually OK and in May you’ll hopefully beat the midges. Too early or late in the year and the weather may spoil your holiday. Snow melt may make the river crossings a challenge early in the season (did you know there is snow in Scotland year round?). There were no midges when I was in Scotland last winter, but I’d rather deal with them than any snow.

I thought I was being very smart by taking waterproof shoes. I was convinced they were the right thing for riding in until after a couple of days I realised they took an eternity to dry and as a result my feet were pretty much wet the whole time. I’d recommend taking some breathable hiking shoes that dry a little quicker and some extra sandals for the crossings.

I was very happy with my choice of bike for the trail. A solid hardtail like mine would be a good ride but a rigid mountain bike would be fine with wide tyres. I know that some people do the route on cyclocross/gravel bikes but I can’t imagine that would be as enjoyable. There is no perfect bike for this, that’s the nature of long distance mountain bike routes. There are times when you will wish you had full suspension but other times when you wished you were on a faster bike on road.

Travelling light is definitely the way to go. I’ve never done a tour with so little luggage but I still had too much. My load was tiring on the hiking sections and cumbersome on the technical stretches. There’s definitely still a place for four panniers in my heart but I’ve been finding it refreshing to ride with rackless packs as it allows me to enjoy the riding. I’m here to cycle, after all.
The only thing I think worth mentioning is about deer stalking. I was a little concerned about the estates being closed for hunting as it is hunting season. Some sources online suggest that you should contact each estate and ask them when they are hunting. There are also places online that tell you which estates are which, but there didn’t seem to be an easy way to figure it out. In short, I decided not to think about it and there were no issues at all. A few of the entrances had signs up about hunting and I didn’t see people shooting, but I get the impression that if you stay on the trails no one is going to be bothered by you. Probably a little more of an inconvenience if you are a deer.
That’s all folks – see you next time!

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