Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Unfinished business in Knoydart

This is a wee story about a trip I made last March to Knoydart on the West Coast. It was without doubt the toughest two days of biking of the year and has lodged itself deeply in my memory. The trip had already stopped going according to plan long before we had even turned a single crank. I blame the hire van, the weather, and the now defunct MTB mag, Maximum Mountain Bike.

The plan had been to drive to Mallaig and catch the train to Glenfinnan. Two days of riding were to bring us back to Mallaig via the Rough Bounds of Knoydart, Sourlies bothy, Bruce Watt’s ferry from Inverie to Tarbert and hopefully some cracking singletrack along the shores of Loch Morar.

Most of the route had been described in a few 10 year old pages torn from the aforementioned publication. The rest looked ok from the map. What could go wrong? We even had intentions of a civilised lunch at the Old Forge in Inverie, the most remote pub on the UK mainland, and the perfect spot to while away the hours waiting for the ferry.

The night before departure Ali had called whilst I was packing. The weather forecast for the West Highlands which he had just downloaded was predicting 70mph gusts of wind and temperatures of -22 degrees with wind chill. I stuffed some long bottoms into my rucksack.

I’d already picked up the hire van, the bike was loaded into the back and I was ready for the off. No backing out now.

At the crack of dawn the next morning I was in the van and on the way. About 5 minutes after the crack of dawn I discovered a small problem with the hire van. It wouldn’t turn right. On the first roundabout on the way to Ali’s house the rear wheels tried to overtake the front. To be fair it was wet and I was giving it some on the empty early morning roads. On the second roundabout it happened again. Fortunately it was mostly left turns to Ali’s house after that.

Four hours to get from Ali’s and onto the train at Mallaig should have been no bother. Factor in a top speed of about 40mph and the right turn problem and we were cutting it fine as we passed through Fort William. Then we hit the road works. The plan was quickly changed to stop at Glenfinnan, and then get the train back from Mallaig at the end of the ride. We figured we had 3 hours from getting off the ferry to ride 15km and meet the last train from Mallaig. Piece of cake.

It was absolutely tipping it down, so we waited for the rain to ease off for about half an hour. When it didn't and we couldn't find any more pointless tasks to do, we gritted our teeth and got on the bikes.

By the time we had ridden 200 yards we were already soaked from the rain and spray coming off the tarmac.

Heading under the Glenfinnan Viaduct (of Harry Potter fame) and up the glen was initially pretty easy thanks to the smooth tarmac which has been laid up to the Lodge house. We branched off onto a nice rocky Landrover track and after a quick sniff around in the bothy at Corryhully, began climbing in earnest up the glen. After saying to each other about the amount of water in the River Finnan we came across a massive ford which was in full spate and looked about waist deep.

Initially we thought we were stuck and would have to turn back before we had barely started, but there was a rickety bridge slightly upstream.

The Landrover track deteriorated as we climbed to the first of four river crossings before the summit of the pass. These were freezing with snowmelt off the surrounding mountains, and the fact that they were fast moving and pretty deep meant spending a lot of time in the water making sure we had a solid footing before taking the next step. The result was blue legs followed by blue everything else as the chilled blood was pumped round our bodies. After four of these crossings we were both pretty cold despite several layers of clothing, but at least we still had some climbing to do to warm us back up!

At the saddle between Sgurr Thuilm and Streap we had a quick "stoppette" in the lee side of a boulder and a bite to eat before heading down the glen towards Glen Dessary. The only problem here was that there was no real path, so we had to push the bikes for 6km over wet boggy ground. Which was fun. I discovered that 5.10’s shoes, while sticking to flat pedals like glue, don’t have much heel grip on steep wet grass, and spent a good percentage of the first kilometre or so on my arse.

We were back on the bikes on the forest road in Glen Dessary and quickly span round to the bothy at A'Chuil for a late lunch stop. Bacon rolls on the camping stove have long been a tradition of my bike rides with Ali, and this was no exception. We left the bothy about 4pm, reckoning that even if we had to walk the last 10km to our overnight stop at Sourlies bothy at the head of Glen Nevis it would only take us 2 hours. Ha!

The initial ride along the forest road and a sandy riverside track was pretty nice, if a bit boggy in places. We came round a corner to find three massive stags on the other side of the river. I don't know who was more surprised that we had come upon them without them hearing us, but we stood and stared at each other for a couple of minutes before they decided they didn't like the look of us and took off.

Then things got a bit tricky. I blame Maximum Mountain Bike for this part of the trip, as they summed up the whole of the next 8km in one short understated sentence in their route description. The track climbed steeply for a couple of hundred metres to the high point of the afternoon, which was basically a huge bog. So more pushing then. In ankle deep bog. Into a headwind. With hail showers. Horizontal ones.

After a couple of kilometres of this, the way ahead narrowed into a cleft between the two mountains on either side. There was a rocky path to follow, but the gusting headwinds, hail and frequent knee deep bogs meant that we were resigned to pushing.

As we pressed on, a general state of fatigue was setting in with both of us, and it was a case of just getting the heads down and grinding it out. In the course of grinding away, the path was becoming less distinct and even though we were both pretty tired and were in a “just keep moving forward” mindset, we knew something wasn’t quite right. Checking the map showed our mistake. We were on the wrong side of the river, and the path was taking us too high. Seven hours in and tiredness was leading to fundamental mistakes, such as not checking the map frequently in complex, unfamiliar terrain. Fortunately we hadn’t gone too far off course, so a quick back track, a steep drop down to the river, another chilly crossing and a slightly precarious clamber up a steep mossy bank saw us back on the right path without losing too much time to the ever decreasing daylight.

Soon we could see the shoreline of Loch Nevis and knew the bothy was just out of sight around the headland. All that remained was to drop down some steep rocky switchbacks, cross a footbridge over the deep river gorge and trudge over the last boggy couple of kilometres to the bothy. The switchbacks looked like they would have been a great technical challenge on a different day, but tiredness, failing light and the 3 inches of water running down them meant we trudged on.

I was glad I had decided to wear my 5.10s and keep the flat pedals on the bike for this trip. I knew Ali’s feet would be suffering in his bike shoes after all the walking. Not much we could do about it now though, so off we went following the well defined grassy track towards the shore. It was after 7pm by this stage, so was to all intends and purposes dark. Its amazing what you can mistake for a bothy in the dark, so after a couple of detours in the direction of big rocks that looked like they might be it, we saw something which we both agreed must be the bothy roof shining in the moonlight.

Over 9 hours after leaving the van, we leaned the bikes on the bothy wall and dived inside, glad to be finally out of the rain and the wind. Our well practiced bothy routine took over: dry clothes on, fire lit, stove fired up all under the power of our headtorches. The next hour and a half involved stuffing as much food and hot coffee down ourselves as we could. Ali found about a teaspoon of whisky left in a bottle on the fireplace. For some reason this only made its way into his coffee and not mine! We retired to our sleeping bags at 9pm and conked out pretty much straight away.

Throughout the night the rain lashed down and the wind howled rattling the roof and generally sounding like it was pretty miserable outside. Cocooned in down jacket, gloves, balaclava and sleeping bag I wasn’t too worried about it, though I did expect our bikes to have blown away in the night. Our plan for the next day was to head over the Man Meadail pass and follow Gleann Meadail into Inverie for that pub lunch and a boat trip back to civilisation.

However, on going for a pee at 6.30 in the morning, it looked like the snowline had dropped to about 300m. We wondered if it was sensible to try to cross Mam Meadail at nearly 600m. We decided probably not. We also reckoned that even if we did get to Inverie in one piece, the chances were that the ferry would be off. Despite being at the sheltered end of Loch Nevis, the water was looking a bit choppy. Of course we didn’t have any signal on our phones, so we couldn’t call Bruce Watt Cruises to find out. The decision was made to knock our original plan on the head and retrace our steps of the day before. So that was another 9 hours of trudging through bogs to look forward to, now with the added bonus of loads of snow. The silver lining was at least the last 10km was going to be a fast descent on good rocky track down Glenfinnan.

After porridge and coffee, we had another coffee and delayed beginning the trudging. We didn’t even bother putting our helmets on, strapping them to our rucksacks we began strolling with our bikes just after 8am. The rocky switchbacks which we clambered down the evening before had become an icy waterfall as we clambered back up them, wondering just how much water would be in the four rivers crossings at the top of Glenfinnan later in the day.

By lunchtime the sun had put in an appearance and we had reached the luxury of the forest road in Glen Dessary. It was a joy to actually get on the bikes for the first time that day and we covered the 7km of hardpacked track in good time to reach the bottom of Gleann Cuirnean with its 6km of boggy walking. Only unlike yesterday this time it was all uphill and the final 200 vertical metres to the summit of the pass was covered in snow.

The 2 hours that it took to do this section were passed in the head down, just keep moving forward style and I don’t really remember much about them. The summit cairn at the high point of the pass was a welcome sight and I seem to have regained conscious thought somewhere around there. We could see the ribbon of rocky Landrover track dropping down into Glenfinnan. The four river crossings had actually dropped a bit since the day before. All the overnight precipitation seemed to be staying on the hillsides as snow, rather than running off them as water.

The final high speed plummet back to the main road at Glenfinnan was fantastic. For a few minutes the two days of tough conditions were forgotten as we skimmed over rocks and drainage channels. I was grateful for my tubeless tyres on a couple of occasions as I slammed the back wheel into one or two of these and felt the tyre hit the rim.

As we trundled along the road back to where the van was parked at Glenfinnan station we mused on the ‘character building’ aspect of the trip. It had been cold, wet and hard work. We didn’t really ride much of the route and in places the bikes were more hindrance than help. It should have been miserable, but still, it’s hard to beat a couple of days in harsh conditions in the middle of nowhere. We also reckoned we deserved a fish supper!

I will have to get back to Knoydart at some point this year. A better weather forecast and an altered route should hopefully unlock the potential of this magnificent part of Scotland

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Welcome to the Scottish Mountain Bike Guides Blog

Welcome to the new Scottish Mountain Bike Guides' blog. My New Years Resolution was to keep a blog for 2009, and since the end of January is fast approaching, I'd better get started!

The idea is that the blog will accompany our monthly newsletter and keep you up to date with what's happening at Scottish Mountain Bike Guides, along with ride reports and other goings on.

As a start to 2009, here's a little review wrapping up the best bits of 2008. Some of these rides where done guiding our clients, some were done as part of research for a new Scottish MTB guidebook I have just finished and some were just for fun.

March: Ali and I went to the 'Rough Bounds' of Knoydart aiming for the Old Forge, the UK's most remote pub, accessible only by boat or miles of boggy wilderness. Snow, flooded tracks and swollen rivers meant we took 10 hours to cover 20 miles and after an overnight stop in Sourlies bothy on the shores of Loch Nevis we beat a retreat without making it to the pub.

April: Took the train from Fort William to Corrour in the middle of Rannoch Moor. A perfect spring day with snow on the mountains and clear blue skies. Eight hours of wilderness riding back to Fort William, with the light slowly fading over the last 2 hours. A beautiful day.

June: Half way across Scotland from Kingussie to the North Sea. Three days of fantastic riding and 2 nights on the soft heather in my bivvy bag. The weather was great - I even got a sun tan! I was travelling as light as possible, so no stove meant no caffeine for 3 days. I lasted 36 hours before the lure of the roadside coffee shop became too much!

August: a great Coast to Coast trip with a small group of clients. I drove the support van all week, but managed to squeeze in a couple of superb rides.

September: The Northern Trail Centres road trip. Six of Scotlands purpose built MTB centres in six days. A great group of riders and a week of constant blue skies. What more can you ask for?

November: Fewer clients means time to concetrate on getting my guidebook finished with a great little roadtrip to the North West Highlands and the Isle of Skye.

I hope 2009 brings everyone as much great riding as 2008 did for me.