Monday, 10 August 2009
Balls of Steel and The Devil of the Highlands
I'm going to ride the West highland Way and try to do it pretty quick. Anyone fancy some of that action?
So asked Scottish Phil one day...
Sounded pretty tempting, at least to see what would happen if we gave it a go. I had not ridden up Lochaber way in years and was pining for some good ol' rock fuck trail. I was also keen to keep some big-day miles in the legs for the impending Kielder 100.
After some logistical jiggery pokery, and losing Marty to celebrate his birthday with cake [Happy B'day!] and comissaring, Phil, Jac and I struck out from Glasgow on Friday night Fort William bound.
In case you have forgotten: the West Highland Way is a trail marked for walking linking Scotland's largest city, largest body of fresh water and tallest mountain following old military roads, drove roads, and trails of one sort and another. The 95 mile route grinds out over 4000m of climbing too. The route gets a LOT of traffic - thousands of walkers a year attempt the full thing or just bits of it - so to prevent the inevitable erosion it is armour plated with rock and stone the whole way. This means there is little bog-trotting and plenty of rocky technical goodness.
Aboard the Panzerwagen we decide to bypass the charms of the Green Welly Boot Stop in Tyndrum and batter on to Fort Bill to get the tents up in daylight and last orders of food somewhere. In my defence it has been a while since I have been to a proper campsite, so I would not have thought of booking in advance one of the busiest and most in demand campsites in Scotland, at the foot of Ben Nevis on a sunny early August Friday night. Nup. Pre-booking a campsite? Does not compute. The single reason that Jac is still speaking to me is that there is another campsite at the back of the High School towards Corpach. Lucky, I was definitely in trouble there. Tents up, haggis, neeps, tatties, burgers and chups and a wee mug of wine later we retire for an early night.
Only to be woken up by the drunken fucktards camped next door to us at 1.30am. After a couple of requests to shout quietly up they turn in around 3.30am. Only to start loud asynchronic snoring at 3.32am.
What goes around comes around, I suppose...
Viva Las Vegas throbs from my phone at 5am, Phil texts me "good morning" from the neighboring tent moments later and we try and get some up&attemAtomAnt.
Jac's plan had been to ride with us boys for the first bit of trail and aim for the 2pm train at Bridge of Orchy to return to Fort William and retrieve the car and come pick us up later at Milngavie. Due to a lingering lurgy, a committing route and the lack of sleep she decides to make the most of the quiet roads and boot it home for a comfy bed and some cat therapy.
Meanwhile Phil and I are on the road a little behind schedule due to faffing and having to ride a little farther to get to the trail head - a quick swig of Ardbeg toasts the proper trail start and we are off! A bit more faffing and clothes adjustment to take account of the positively balmy weather [7am and feels like 17 degrees] we winch on up to the Lairig beneath the glowering walls of the Mamores of Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban. Even at this early hour there are a few walkers out - they always look tired here - the combination of however many days they have been on the trail, the remoteness of the long glen and the flesh hungry midge must do it. I guess they must feel inner joy. I hope they do. Perhaps they should just go get a bike and have fun...
And fun is what we have as I try and follow Phil's accurately named Singular Swift down the 300m or so descent back to sea level at Kinlochleven. Rocky steppy switchbackery with too distracting views which are thankfully shielded from easily distracted eyes by the birk woods as we descend.
As we roll through a rain streaked Kinlochleven to start the meaty climb of the day - 550m or so of ascent from the leaky pipes all the way to the belach between Stob Mhic Mhartuin and Beinn Bheag - better known as the top of the Devil's Stair Case.
On the ascent [through indecisive spurts of rain and sun] we had a number of pretty damn quick hill runners coming at us. They all seemed well in the zone so most we got by way of recognition was a grunt or a swift thumbs-up. None of them were going slow enough for us to enquire what the hell was going on. As we cut through the field we pieced together that it was a mountain ultra-marathon [The Devil of the Highlands] and that the next few miles of trail may be quite busy. I had wondered how hill runners hydrate and I assumed they just fall head first into burns as they go, until we spied one ardently striding towards us in his semmit, *those* running shorts and firmly grasping a coffee mug.
What we did not expect was to be rolling down switchbacks and popping over waterbars to Altnafeadh cheerily calling ¡hola, buenos dias! to the 30 or so Spanish women who were heading up the hill for a wander amist the mid-pack runners.
Onwards we go, I am constantly reminded how ace this trail is. Between Altnafeadh and The Kingshouse, the trail is rolling, swoopy and flowy. So nice. The Buchaille glowering on the right and the constant stream of A82 traffic helping to push a fast mechanical tempo past the family camped by the Kingshouse with cooked breakfast on the go...
By the White corries we are a safe distance from the bacon fumes and midge so we stop to eat and watch the low arc of a rainbow over the Kingshouse appear from the rain clouds that were not there minutes before. It looks like we'll get a dose of weather, too, before we get to Bridge of Orchy and a scheduled water stop. Indeed, as we crest the descent to Ba Bridge we get a face full of rain. Which makes me a bit cold because I decided that I would not put my rain jacket on - just man it out.
More varying degrees of happy walkers - one guy with a guitar on his back. We stop for water at Bridge of Orchy and Phil mentions that we maybe should take in a fish supper at Tyndrum. That is motivation enough for me to grind out the long slightly dull climb over to the Real Food Cafe.
We get our hot food [I get mine slightly muddled, but haggis is sort of like black pudding, right?] and a cup of tea [after Phil reminds me that I was going to get a cup of tea - I'm more addled than I thought] and we take a seat in the front tent of the cafe - it has canvas roof and one wall, one wall is the entrance door and the other a huge roaring log fire. It is so warm my eyeballs start steaming up. The lady who owns the place fills us in on the runners - she sponsors the race and it started from Tyndrum at 6am that morning - we passed them around 3 hours in and the winning chap completed the 45miles to Fort William in 5 and a bit hours.
Clever marketing - put on an event that ensures a bunch of extremely ravenous competitors [and their mandatory support crews] - sell quite wonderful fish suppers to fade...
We feel that the ride is entering a new more mellow, more sheltered phase even if it is still raining on and off as we winch up the steeps around the back of Crianlarich [and half-way distance now under tyre in just shy of 7 hours] and down Glen Falloch. As we hit the tent city that is Beinglass Farm the heavens open - so we decide another cuppa is required. Time is still on our side [well, sort of] and there may be an element of procrastination.
As we return our tea tray to the bar two wee boys are standing outside wearing shorts, t-shirt and welly boots, both totally drookit. One claims to the other "I'm wet!" To which the other counters with "Naw, I'm wetter than you!". Wonderful.
The next section of trail is well known to anyone who has been between Beinglass Farm and Inversnaid. To those who have not: leave the panniers at home and manage your expectations. In between there was hiking, biking and an entirely foolish and avoidable header off the trail onto some rocks below. Being a ten-stone weakling has its benefits with my fall between two boulders being arrested by a hammock of fallen branches - bike retrieved, body checked, apologies made.
The group of Italian hikers we meet [to add to our Hiker Top Trumps of French, German, Austrian and possibly American] give us some good heckles. As neither Phil nor I know any Italian that has not been in a Jamie Oliver cookbook so we take it that they think we have balls of steel for riding/hauling bikes along here.
Inversnaid comes sooner than expected but never soon enough and we are rolling the scant miles of skinny lochside trail and track to appear at Rowardennan and it seems that half of Glasgow are camped out on the bonny banks - tents at a comedy angle, Tennents and Bucky carry oots and a disposable BBQ smouldering sullenly at the centre.
Time is no longer on our side - because of our later start and extended breaks at Tyndrum and Beinglass we know Milngavie will not see us under this arc of the sun. Despite this we have made good time and are going about the pace we expected. As we skip along the road to miss the nasty wee climb from Rowardennan to Sallochy our options are mulled. We could just muscle on - but we know that it will be a death march from then on - no fun, and not the way we want to end the ride. A quick time check says that we can hasten our exit from The Highlands by riding straight past Conic Hill to Drymen to grab a pint and some pork scratchings in the square while waiting for our Princess in a Shining Volkswagen to come and save our sorry souls.
Around about 8.45pm as Phil brought out a round of Guinness and nips of Balvenie, Jac rolled up to collect two happy heroes with balls of steel. ; )
Stats for cats: on single speeds we left FW@0645, arrived Drymen@2045 we took the road between Inverornan and Bridge of Orchy. I reckon we would have needed an extra 2.5 hours for Chronic Hill & the last 12 miles to Milngavie. Maybe an earlier start next time... No punctures, no mechanicals and 4 mugs of tea. Riding bikes all day long is really rather quite good.