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HT550 May 2019 – Iain’s Epic Adventure

It’s now been a few months since by Highland Trail adventure, and I thought I’d try and capture some of the experience whilst things are still relatively fresh. Here’s a summary of how my 2019 group start panned out. 

And so, on the morning of the HT550 group start after months of preparation and anticipation I found myself sat at a small table in the Tyndrum Inn enjoying an early breakfast with 3 strangers; Dustin Eroh (USA); John White (ENG) and Daniel Gona (AUT). Nerves weren’t too evident as the four of us chatted about the weather, the route and our kit choices. As soon as I left the table and got back to my room however, the realisation that there was only an hour to go dawned on me and I felt the fear!

On the start line riders were busying themselves with selfies, last minute adjustments, or a quick call or text. Of all the participants I was probably the closest to home geographically, though on a conscious level I felt anything but at home. I’d only ever completed one qualifying “race” to somehow gain my entry, yet here I was lining up alongside some bikepacking legends and riders from all over the globe. I’d read numerous accounts of HT550 exploits in books and blogs, and as the clock ticked down I felt apprehensive about what I was letting myself in for. I went over to Alan the organiser (and riding legend) said a brief hello, and thanked him for giving me the opportunity to be there. At that precise moment I’m not sure if I was being fully sincere.

From the off the pace was crazy fast and despite me riding quicker than I felt was sustainable the leaders gradually disappeared off into the distance and I was content to ease in to the middle of the pack. My race strategy was more Tortoise than Hare anyway, I wanted to try to ride in blocks of 4 hours at a time, ideally moving for around 16h a day with 8hrs stopped, allowing a 6h overnight kip with 2 or 3 short breaks in daytime. I optimistically believed this would allow me to complete the 550 miles in around 5 days. 

Day one went to plan, although the weather turned very cold and wet from around 3pm meaning from late afternoon things got pretty miserable, with the long grind up and over Corrieyairak a notable low point. My first real stop of any length was at the Pizza restaurant in Fort Augustus where lots of riders were gathered feeling the effects of the unseasonal cold snap, with many talking of scratching this early. After my feast I carried on for a few more hours eventually pitching my tent in the driving rain in the woods North of Invermoriston. Day 1 9am-1am

Sunday - Monday forecast

The next morning I made it the 15 miles to Cannich where I found myself holed up in the campsite cafe sheltering from the cold rain whilst drying off some wet kit in the laundry room. There were lots of riders around and It became evident that many of the field including many of the pre-race favourites had scratched from the race. I think many believed the river crossings were too dangerous and with the poor forecast had decided that weren’t going to improve and so had elected to scratch early rather than find themselves stuck in the middle of nowhere. My own pre-race strategy went out the window entirely and my targeted finish time of 5+ days quickly became less important. I’d started riding with a group of guys; Daniel Gona (from pre-race breakfast); Petr Kouhtek (CZK) and Berten De Canne (BEL). We’d decided there would be safety in numbers. Of course when you ride in a group it’s always a little slower, but we were all happy to sacrifice some speed for peace of mind and some company. That evening we checked the weather forecast and decided to stop early rather than press on over towards Oykel Bridge. We slept in a warm dry Hotel bunkhouse a little way off route near Garve – it was a godsend to get some kit dried out. Day 2 8am-8pm

The third day was an enjoyable epic, the rain finally relented and the water levels started visibly dropping which gave us some encouragement for what was to come. The odd shower blew through but on the whole the conditions were a huge improvement. Getting from our start point not far north of Contin to Kylesku in the north west was satisfying and more like the distances I’d hoped to be covering pre-race. Some of the landscapes in the northern loop were magnificent and getting to the summit of the Bealach Horn the most northerly part of the route well before sunset was a significant milestone. That night we had the added bonus of finding shelter in a cosy fishing hut meaning we’d have a comfortable night’s sleep before hitting the Kylesku Hotel for breakfast. The ideal end to a perfect day’s riding. Day 3 5am – 10pm.

Day Four was done very much in touring mode, after a long stop at the Kylesku hotel for breakfast we cruised down the busy coastal road in the sun feeling very much like holiday makers, even stopping off at Drumbeg stores for some fantastic hospitality. Although the weather had improved we all seemed perfectly happy to remain in each other’s company. Morning to mid-afternoon allowed easy progress. In the late afternoon we tackled the hike a bike from Lochinver past Suilvan to the main road at Ledmore Junction. This section is pretty tedious with lots of bog trotting and heather yomping with very little in the way of track to follow. The final reward is a quick run down the road to Oykel Bridge, we carried on for another hour to the Schoolhouse bothy which was unoccupied meaning a room each ☺.  

This day had really brought home the point that mileage is a pretty meaningless measurement of effort on the Highland Trail. Some miles come easy while others are incredibly hard fought. Day 4, 7:30am-10:30pm.

Day 5 started early and frosty, it would turn out to be easily the hottest day of the week. The strong sunshine was countered by the cool NW wind making for ideal riding conditions. It would turn out to be the last we’d see of the sun. After a pleasant easy spin over to Ullapool for a delicious Breakfast we tackled the coffin road. It was a torturous steep slog and we all laboured in the mud. The reward was a fun down before heading upwards again to the start of the revered Fisherfield section. The notorious wide river crossing went well, it was only waist deep and on tippy toes I was able to avoid going full Soprano, still effing freezing and a bit daunting, I was glad to have had company for my maiden crossing.  

This was a day I was keen to keep moving. I felt good and was happy to be making progress, perhaps spurred on by the stunning scenery. From the river it’s a big slow climb up through the tight steep switchbacks towards the Fisherfield plateau, extreme Hike a Bike here is rewarded with great views from the top and stunning trails down to Carnmore. I made it up first and had a cat nap on the sun warmed ground waiting for the others. The run down towards the Carnmore descent is wonderful and the views just jaw dropping. We arrived at the Carnmore bothy at 8:30pm, it’s a very basic shelter so with a couple hours daylight left we decided to carry on along the postman’s path to Kinlochewe. As darkness fell heavy rain came in making the tough terrain even trickier. The track is narrow and off camber with lots of on/offs before turning in to a tough hike a bike over unforgiving ground. Without warning my right knee started giving me real problems here, I found it almost impossible to walk over the tough terrain and I covered the last 3 miles in 3 hours. All of us with the exception of Petr were really struggling. It was still raining heavily as we eventually stumbled into Kinlochewe at 4am. As the others set about trying to find shelter at the caravan park toilets I pitched my tent under the shade of a huge fir tree and collapsed inside. I feared I’d have to stratch in the morning as my knee was very swollen. I soaked it in Ibruprofen gel and popped a couple more Ibuprofen tablets and slept very well for the first time all week. Day 5, 5am – 4am

Day 6

I woke around 9am and made my way to the café. There was no sign of the others. Walking was a real effort and riding not much better. Inside I was aware of the odd stare and so made my way to the bathroom to freshen up. I chuckled when I saw my reflection, with dead midges dotted around my face, huge bags under my eyes, bright red sunburn and 5 days of stubble I was looking more like a cartoon than an actual person.  As a noob bikepacker “turning feral” for the first time was a proud moment and I returned to my table with a wry smile on my face. 

After some soul searching I called home and told Lorna I was thinking of quitting because of my knee. I settled on persevering for the morning but would scratch if things didn’t ease. I left Kinlochewe and pressed on, solo for the first time since Sunday morning. I was riding ok and started to feel more positive as I passed the Tea house bothy on the climb up towards the Torridon network. As the track climbs higher it becomes rough with numerous drainage bars, virtually each one forced me off the bike. Unfortunately walking was my weak point and the pain quickly returned causing me to grimace and pause lots. I was only a few hundred meters from the top of the climb but was considering whether best to keep going or about turn. I decided to press on to Achnashellach station at the foot of the descent from where I could plot my escape. 

I was limping down the first tricky techy bit of Torridon trail when I noticed my GPS unit was needing charged. This gave me an excuse to pause for food while I hooked it up to my battery. As I lay on the smooth rocks I started massaging my leg around the knee and found everything was really tight. I worked away clumsily and quickly started to feel better, maybe there was still some hope. I re-joined the track and continued to complete probably one of the slowest completions of the Ach na Shellach descent on record (Strava backs this up). 

As I rode past the Strathcarron Hotel at the bottom I saw Dan’s bike parked up, he’d noticed my gps dot was moving again and waited on me. He told me how they’d been chased from the Campsite toilets at dawn and had spent a couple of hours huddled in the teahouse bothy. Dan had come off his bike the day before and hurt his calf, that afternoon we’d press on together like a couple of walking wounded.

We reached Dornie at around 5pm, the cold rain was lashing down again and the sky was heavy and dark. The next part of the route was the long hard hike-a-bike over to Glen Affric as  neither of us fancied this one bit we decided to try and seek out lodgings and set off early the next morning instead. A bike was parked outside the Dornie hotel bar – Berten’s. We found him inside packing up his things. I was amused to see him dressed in a black bin liner tabard, I say amused as he’s a rep for a high end cycle apparel company. I admired his resolve as he headed off into the cold grey storm while I ordered myself a pint of Guinness and a 2 course meal. We checked in to our lodgings, showered and got some things dried out. I hoped the long rest would allow me to recover enough to push on to the end. Day 6, 9am – 5pm. painfully short, literally.

Day 7   Dornie

“It can be done in 28 hours” Berten had advised the evening before in the Hotel, “here to the finish”. True, he’d done it in good weather but his comments had planted a seed in my mind to try and finish in under 7 days. And so I set about convincing my new Austrian pal that this would be a good goal to set ourselves. We set off at 5:30am and headed towards the Kintail hike-a-bike, I knew if I could make it over this hurdle I’d be in with a good chance of finishing the route. I took things easy and my knee held up well and we were soon making our our way down the long path through Glen Affric and made Tomich in time for lunch.

We focused ourselves on getting to Fort William by 9pm which would leave 12hours for the 50 or so tough overnight miles down the West Highland Way to Tyndrum. After a brief pit stop at Fort Augustus we ploughed in to the headwind and driving rain along the canal towpath. About an hour out of Fort William we came upon a familiar figure. Naturally it was Berten the proverbial “bad penny” again. He’d made a stop at the Eagle, the converted barge pub on the canal for a dry out and warm up. He too was pushing to finish by the morning as he’d a ferry to catch. We all shared the same goal and powered in to Fort William together to stock up at the Co-Op for the final push. 

It was at this point Dan had a moment of doubt, quite rightly he wanted to take stock and make sure he was up for the long night ahead. It was cold and wet so we sought shelter in a pub amongst the UCI World Cup rabble and discussed our options over some sandwiches. Dan reached the conclusion that it would be better for him to stay in town, which we respected. Berten had little choice but to try and press on to catch his ferry and I was still motivated to get in by 9am. 

We’d lingered in Fort William for 2 hours and it was nearly midnight as we set off up the WHW climb out of town. Unfortunately Berten began to fall back and I soon lost sight of his lights. I waited for 5 mins at the top of the climb but there was no sign of him so I pressed on along the high pass to Kinlochleven. The heavy rain was persistent and there seemed to be countless swollen burns to cross with the path itself resembling a river most of the time. Fortunately the storm abated as I embarked on the climb up the Devil’s Staircase. It was a wonderful moment as I reached the top just as dawn started to break and I allowed myself 5 mins at the top and took in views. The clouds were moving southbound offering me a slight tailwind down Glencoe and I started to realise barring catastrophe the 9am finish was within reach.

At 7am I spoke to Lorna, who was driving down from home with the boys. I even had time to ease off a bit to allow them time to get to Tyndrum ahead of me. As I navigated the final few miles I was surprised to find I had mixed emotions, in many respects I was sorry that my adventure was coming to an end. The HT had been my life for a week and I was going to have to exit my bubble and get back to reality. These feelings soon evaporated as I finally rolled over the line to an emotional welcome from Lorna and the boys. Day 7, 5:30am (Fri) – 8:30am Sat.

We made our way down to the Real Food Café where Alan Goldsmith welcomed me with a commemorative finisher’s beer. I sat and enjoyed breakfast chatting with a few of the other finishers. Naturally, just then Berten appeared from nowhere, he’d u-turned on that first climb out of FW and stayed at the glen Nevis campsite, he’d got a morning bus in from Fort William and even though I’d seen him only 9 hours prior we embraced like long lost family. 

Unfortunately Daniel didn’t make it to Tyndrum, his rear axel broke near Kinlochleven forcing him to scratch within 40 miles of the finish line. Petr had made it home early on Saturday morning around 8 hours ahead of me after some super strong riding over the last 2 days. I had finished in 6d 23h one of only a third of the 62 starters to complete the race. Not the time I’d initially hoped for but given the conditions I was more than happy with a completion. Had it not been for Dan’s late mechanical our pre start breakfast table of four would have had 100% completion. Indeed Dusty went on finish first in an amazing 4 days 2 hrs, John White was 5th in a little over 5 days. I owe a big thanks to Daniel; Berten and Petr for their camaraderie over the week. When you factor in all the hours of training it’s a pretty self-indulgent undertaking really, especially when you’ve a family to consider. It is however a massively positive experience and something I’ll remember fondly forever, despite the weather.

Words & pics – Iain

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