Friday, May 25, 2012

Highlands Coast to Coast -----Mark 2 !!

In October I set off to cross the Highlands from Ratagan (17 miles from Kyle of Lochalsh just to the east of the Isle of Skye ) to Montrose on the east coast(in between Aberdeen and Dundee).Total distance approx 250 miles.

I had no idea what sort of terrain to expect and took a rigid older mountain bike with rack and panniers . ( laughing to myself at thought of it now ). I managed to cross west to east ending just south of Montrose at Carnoustie (golfing territory ) where the rear wheel finally exploded.The kit was totally inappropriate !!

So back to try again. Let me explain -----this is a ride which literally goes across the Highlands .It does not follow tarmac( ( although there is of course tarmac riding in some parts) for easy ways out.It goes west to east over four mountain passes and it is up to you and your equipment as to whether you can do it or not. Just the sort of thing I personally LOVE. Brutal terrain and brutal conditions at times --even in May.

As before Inverness is the hub from which you set off . It is the centre from which most of the fantastic rides up here are accessible.Train up to Inverness from Cambridge is a joy.Leave 11a.m and arrive Inverness approx 8.30p.m (Yes it is a long way up ). Normally change Peterborough and York. When you book tickets make sure you book your bike on as well and then things run really smoothly.
From Inverness following morning take the fantastic train ride from Inverness to Kyle of Loch Alsh. Departs 9a.m and arrives approx two and a half hours later. You get an idea as you travel --the sort of terrain and desolation you will be dealing with on this trip. The vastness and unforgiving nature of this area does send shivers down your spine.Fantastic !!! especially when you realize you are in it alone ------once on route you rarely see people.

Once in Lochalsh take a look at the Skye bridge and long for the Cuillin Hills and maybe a glance towards the awesome region to the north which holds the only Alpine cycle climb in the British Isles (The Beallach Na Ba ) and the almost mythical Torridon (for photos of this landscape look up Steve Carter on the internet ) and then get going !! You will have a long and hard ride if you are to get to Invergarry in the day !!

Getting home from Montrose is no probs as the station is on the main East coast line and will take you non stop to London Kings Cross if you desire !!


O.K this is where I have gone a little soft !! Recently I have realized that staying in Youth hostels or any sort of hostel is not the way to go. It used to make sense when one was younger---they were considerably cheaper and this factor would outweigh the awful idea of dormitory bedding down (had 8 years of that at boarding school with a little chair beside my bed !! ) and the certainty of hearing at least one person snoring or even worse another one starting up with them to almost create an orchestra. These days are past and it makes sense to stay in B&B's almost without doubt.

Let me give you an example or two. The hostel in Inverness will charge you the same amount for a room on your own (miserable one too ) as the lovely B&B I stayed at. Invergarry was the same . On the same road there is a hostel offering nothing but a bed charging £20. 100 metres away is a lovely Scots lady called Marion offering B&B with your own bathroom and lovely breakfast for £25 !!! Make your own choice but heed my advice !!

The other great thing with B&B is that they have towels and soap etc so you need not carry these extras. Infact I carry only a toothbrush and toothpaste.In Montrose the B&B actually had a shaving kit so that was brilliant as I could remove my mini beard before entering" society" boo hoo again.

This fascination of mine with the Scottish Highlands started (bicycle wise )when a customer gave me a book written by MTB pro. This trip was the subject of the book. Anyway one of the things I quite liked was that they say you can do this trip on pretty much any bike. To quote (after providing good advice on the ideal) they say "any clunker of a MTB will do ". O.K this book was written in 1995 when perhaps men were hardier ( but not as hardy as the men in tweeds from the turn of the last century !!)

Forget that bit of their book. Take my word for it -----to complete this ride you need at least front suspension and I would say ideally a proper dual suspension machine (where you can lock out your suspension units). Also vital is disc braking. If you run with rim brakes as I did last time you may well have a destroyed rim by the end or before. The other thing about braking is that there are many fords and depending on water levels lots of rivers to cross some of which can be knee to thigh deep and disc brakes are perfect for this sort of terrain.
I took a Giant Anthem 4 which was faultless. I can now see why these bikes exist -----it is only when you take them into terrain for which they were developed that you can understand why they are as they are !!! The bike took a pounding, a real pounding but it took it !! Awesome. I was treating it like my friend the longer we rode together. It was sort of like my horse and without it in areas like Mt Keen and Arnisdale it would have been tricky at times .

Remember that major problems with your bike in this sort of area is trip over and potentially real problems actually coming out of the environment per se so go with a really good quality machine.

Most important words here are LIGHT and MINIMAL. I chose to ride with an Ergon rucksack designed for cycling where 80% of the weight is carried on the hips . The other great thing about this bag is that the frame and main body move independently of each other which means you hardly notice the weight on your back. 25 litre capacity but was never full. 5 days away with very minimal kit. I was pleased with that.The most important things are your waterproofs as you will have days of continual rainfall and if you are cycling from 9a.m until 8p.m as I was you need to be as comfortable as you can be.I ran with Altura Attack X waterproofing and as usual it did not let me down. No water in and as breathable as you can get. For me personally perfect. Overshoes are vital. You need heavy neoprene variety --mine were Pro and down to -15. You will struggle to do the trip without these as your feet are continually wet for the whole ride because of continual river crossing.The neoprene acts as a wetsuit does --keeping that water by your skin warm if not dry. Cycle without these at your peril.
Obviously warm and waterproof gloves which ideally fit over your cycling mitts and a skull cap to fit under your helmet are also essential. You set off in May thinking maybe I won't need these but YOU WILL !! Don't underestimate the conditions you may and almost certainly will meet.Although on the world map the Highlands are minor mountains they can be and often are ( even in May )as bleak as Arctic tundra.When you add altitude and wind into the equation you are talking serious weather conditions. For example the difference in temp between Fort Augustus and the top of the Corrieyairack Pass at 2500 feet on a clear calm day is about 7 degrees.Add in another -10 degrees in the inevitable fresh gusty breeze which is always up there and you are talking !! Can easily be -14 up there even at this time of year. This pass is officially classed as Arctic between Nov and March.

Clothing wise take very little. You need something to change into at the end of the day and if this can also be something you can sleep in then all well and good. I took a merino wool base layer ,pair of lightweight trousers and two fleeces ,spare pair of socks and underpants. Don't be tempted to go with any more -----you have to carry it.So at this time of year I was cycling with my Altura bib tights which were brilliant as usual (mini wetsuit in rivers) altura long sleeved thermal base layer and windproof top.On top of these for 90% of the time were my waterproofs of course as there were very few dry periods on this ride. Shoe wise running with MTB shoes with spd but dual sided pedals. You do not want to be clipped in when skirting round Mt Keen or hairing down 2500 feet from the top of the Corrieyairack pass (This tremendous descent alone made the whole trip worthwhile !! )

I took an Altura seat post pack with me which proved invaluable for storing my tools and spare tubes and other bits and bobs. Really good idea I think to have one of these. You don't notice the weight and means you don't have to keep taking your rucksack off for things you may need throughout the day.One bottle with water in and always topped up at each stop.

Gadgetry-----I am lucky I suppose in that if I want to use a great bit of kit I just use it. So I had my Garmin 800 which was invaluable in terms of read out for trip but also for navigation.In complete white out on Mt Keen with no visibility and almost losing path because of snow depth garmin was showing due south and I knew that was the course I needed.Another friend on the ride.

My new toy on this trip was the Go Pro Hero2 video camera. Fantastic. The video footage was great and really brings back the parts of the journey that I filmed.

One word of importance. This ride has no waymarking at all. You will need to rely on yourself and your ability to navigate at many times over the course of the ride. The most tricky parts will inevitably occur in bad weather, when you are tired and in the middle of this vast area knowing there will be no one to help you. If you can not navigate this may not be the ride to take on especially if going alone.One stipulation was that I was to phone each evening into command centre (My Dad) --to let him know I was safe!!

I hope this has been of help if you decide to do the ride. It will no matter what trips you have done previously go down as unforgettable. The scenery is truly awesome and vast ( the Caingorms and Grampian Mountain ranges alone are home to over 25% of Britain's endangered species ) and you realize how insignificant we each of us really are!! You know how it is -----the modern world can have a way of letting people get above their station. In these environments you surely are humbled--- a very important place for humans to be in sometimes. The striving for wealth and material belongings is a truly crippled way to live I am afraid. It takes a lot more guts and belief in your self NOT to keep up with the Jones's than to do it .Remember that one needs balance in life.

Will provide a day to day report of the ride ---------