Monday, October 12, 2020

The BB200 2020 Dodging

I sent one Last message, closed Ms Teams, took my headset off and closed the laptop, unplugged the power and turned off the big screen. I grabbed my bag and the bucket of toys standing at the top of the stairs - a tent in a bag, a selection of other bike bags, a stove, two part-used canisters and pot noodles and some random straps & bungees.

My own kit was all on the bike but from my own first race experience, I remembered that something is better than nothing when it comes to being prepared. It wasn't my first race any more but Landslide's. We had exchanged packing lists and his reminded me to bring my gaiters. I suggested his paddling flip flops should stay at home (remember when I used to carry flip flops)? I arrived at their door and asked H, "Can Chris come out to play?" then we chatted about her weekend plans with 2 boys. They were off to Hathersage pool and I was a bit jealous.

With little fuss we were on the road then stopped at an obscure Italian somewhere in the midlands for a meal. Chris was navigating down dark, twisty country lanes - avoiding diversions after recent flooding - and then we spilled into a Ludlow Travelodge. Unloading bikes, I definitely should have realised I had too much stuff. We faffed with bikes and food till midnight. Unlike my usual palatial Travelodge suites we had nothing but a double bed so I slept on the floor on my thermarest, adaptation for the night ahead.

The 5am alarm was too early but we were ready to depart from our chosen lay by next to the Fforest Inn at 7. 20am, before I realised my ride was far too comfortable. We retraced so I could pump up my tyres with the track pump and it was 7: 25 when we finally started - happy with the 5 minute turnaround and I now had a well oiled chain too.

I'd told L he was to ride on at his own speed. I'm slower but more determined so I didn't want a grumpy boy shadowing me at 4am. He wasn't ready to let me go just yet and we stayed together side by side until we hit some decent off road.

I'd struggled to find the thin wool socks I'd brought, planning to wear them under my waterproof socks for warmth. Instead I'd switched to bamboo ones which were ok but wouldn't be as warm. As soon as I noticed my wool socks sitting at the top of my food bag I swore under my breath. I tallied it up - too much food, extra socks, 3 pairs of gloves, I was still wearing my buff, so 2 of those, the extra food I'd stuffed in at the last moment in blind panic. No wonder I felt heavy.

• • •

To hide my disappointment with myself I sent Chris on ahead whilst I had a pee in the grass and metaphorically kicked myself. I put on the gaiters for extra splash protection and instantly felt better without the pressure of someone else's pace.

My saddle had been changed for the ride - its angle wasn't exactly perfect. As I set off across the field behind an ever-diminishing Chris I knew I'd have to sort that out later but at least my feet were behaving.

The trails were wet, the rivers and streamers swollen and muddy puddles threatened to steal my front wheel but it wasn't * actually * raining and I kept all but a bit of grit out of my boots until the first river crossing when my foot slipped off a tussock and I got icy water down a waterproof sock.

It quickly became apparent just how much cooler bamboo is as a material and my one wet foot was uncomfortably cold. I was rather dismayed, having extolled the benefits of Bridgedale Waterproof socks to so many: when you inevitably do get wet feet; at least the water warms up in the sock and you end up with warm wet feet.

The whole situation was exacerbated by the frequent crashing of my Garmin which has both become ultra- sensitive to off-course meanders, (Off route could be so much as crossing the track to avoid a puddle or setting my bike to one side to open a gate).  Although it is not set to recalculate my route, the second I go off course it tries its best to direct me back onto the route. Because I ride off road, it inevitably confuses itself into a crash calculating the easiest way to get me from one geophysical location to another on roads that just don't exist. Divide by zero anyone?) 


When I dropped off a steep lane onto an old drovers road lined with slabs of rock that formed curbs, the moment was right for a feed stop. I sourced a dry rock and breathed in the autumn colours as well as my first delicious sandwiches of the ride. After restarting the Garmin yet again I considered my average speed. On good ground that is tricky but familiar I can usually manage a moving average of 10km/hr. 

When I count sleep stops it re-sets my average to around 6km/h. Over a 200km course this has resulted in times of 50 hours (Braunton), 36 hrs (BB 200-2019 & 6 hrs sleep), 29 hrs Peak200 60 mins sleep.

My average speed was already only 8 and I hadn't even hit the big climbs or the food stops yet.

• • •

An hour later I was in Hay on Wye. On arriving at Hay I instinctively turned right in search of toilets and maybe a convenient street cafe but cars ruled the roost and women in camel coats and fur hats walked with men in chinos and wax jackets and I felt out of place. The Garmin had crashed so I retraced my line out of town while it re-booted and found myself a bus stop where I could sit down, out of any showers or breeze, change my socks and consume some of the weight I was carrying before my first Brecon crossing.

• • •

Given the half hour I spent there, the Garmin recovered most of my data points. I'd been relying on the spot tracker to back it up but at Hay I decided to risk using my spare Garmin to track my ride, just sticking to the big one with the proper maps on to navigate. This was a brilliant call and gave me the confidence to just ride on through the vagrant wobbles and crashes of the device on my bars (not me).

I rode up the charming Dingle and out across fields and woodlands to eventually find another sheltered spot for a pee. There were some lovely flat grassy areas here for a Bivvy and I almost thought we should have done the route from South to North except we agreed we wanted to finish on some of the 'easier' terrain at the North of the course.

The trail eventually emerged into the tourist hotspot of Hay Bluff.


 

Landslide would later tell me his heart burst here - not from the effort but from the beauty of the hill with Red kites circling overhead. I turned to take a picture of the bluff and looked back over England, laid out before me and my heart burst with regret as I realised I had missed the ice cream van.


Going along the bluff was at first hard then eased off at a paved section where erosion protection had been put in place. People were appearing all around me and it just didn't seem right, nothing like a bear bones event. Sure enough, the Garmin had crashed so I re-traced my line while it loaded, finally noticing the vague sheep / pony track that petered out through the long, yellowed tussocky grass, around an actual landslide.  I heard the people I'd nearly met on the path above me exclaim, "*that*, on a bike?" 


Then there was more pony track before adjoining the descent where I retrieved Landslide's flipflops from a bog.

A few scrambles were required on my part for the rocky descent but I later settled into a mash down the hill ready for the next stages of puddle dodging and riding up some seriously steep lanes and hill tracks - often needing to get off and push the heavy load. It's tough to sit on my sofa and wonder how 7 hours between lunch and dinner disappeared without recollection.

• • •

Significant events were lacking, it was all just fucking hard. A few farmyards seemed mostly unoccupied except for a Jack Russel that came out to see me off. I understand I was quite lucky in this respect.

I saw either a Parakeet or a green woodpecker near Abergavenny as I passed "that hill", the one that represents the fact that I'm almost in Abergavenny in the cyclo cross calendar.

The"steep lanes and tracks" in my pace notes yielded one memorable churchyard where the porch beckoned me in, despite it being too early to sleep. My remaining sandwich, some crisps and chocolate were consumed lay on my back, on a stone slab, head on my rucsac, knees propped up to drain the gunk from my muscles. I may have had a short snooze.


 

At the end of the steep lanes and tracks though, the ride entered the forests again and headed toward the hills with led to the next resupply at Crickhowel.  More lanes then another ominous start up a dirt track. The extra weight of Landslide's flip flops started to weigh me down and every time I dismounted and remounted I banged my leg on them and cursed.

The dirt track took me into a forest meaning I missed any sunset there might've been. Instead, the trees just gradually got darker.

A steep climb straight up at 90 degrees to the contours had me immediately off the bike and pushing, then soon after, flopping into the pine needles on my sit mat to finally consume fruit pastels - my first proper junk food of the trip. I looked at my Garmin. Average speed had slipped to 7 km/hr and I still hadn't had any big rest stops.

• • •

Never more had the rules of "just keep moving" and "do what you can while on the bike" been more critical. Still, I needed my time sitting in the pine needles for a while and as the twittering of songbirds subsided into the occasional caw from a crow and a twoot from an owl, I did the math. A 36 hour finish (not out-of-time) would require 5.1km/h average.

• • •

I could still see the turn off and as I chewed through a strawberry fruit pastel, another Boner nearly overshot the turn, enchanted, as I had been, by the appearance of a building (I'd even questioned if it might've been a pub). "Up here" I called out. The rider pushed up to where I was sat, "Obviously I've ridden it all this far" he said. "I just thought I'd have a walk". He introduced himself as Andy with a gloved fist bump. Huh! Me too. It was really nice to talk to another person and I suddenly realised the buzzz I got from the first human physical interaction with a stranger in months. (in retrospect Ive had a sports massage but somehow didn't get the same tingle there).

We had a good moan about how hard the course was and cursed Stu for this climb. Andy set off ahead whilst I dug out my dynamo light cable, fully aware that it wouldn't get enough power off the hike a bike to illuminate yet. There was still just enough daylight penetrating through the branches for me to see where to put my feet.

• • •

After what seemed like an eternity, I was still only a third of the way.

After what still seemed like an eternity, I was still only half way up but an uneasy misty orb was materialising through the trees, like *this* is where all the other riders had been hanging out all day.

The rider was Steve (Large?) on his 300 attempt. We empathised about how hard it had been then burst out of the climb onto a forest road to ride (moment of glory) side by side to the gate towards the open moorland.

Apparently my coat's reflective tabs left Steve thinking he was being faced off by a stag in the trees as they looked like two eyes glowing in the dark.

I couldn't hold the pace long enough to maintain conversation and dropped off only to find the 2 boys chatting in the gateway. Now knowing I was truly against the clock to finish and expecting to ride through the night to do so, I chided them, "c 'mon lads, lemme through that gate, I've no time to spare!"

Steve set-off first to chase 300k as me and Andy were thankful to have a guide for a short distance. The moor was tussocky and heathery like the Peak. Awkward but mostly rideable. The best bit was when we lost our guide-because he had dropped off the edge out of view. Good - because we knew the descent was finally upon us. Andy bounded off into the distance,although I got a bit of a boost from just watching his light, knowing I was on track and seeing where he came a cropper in the wheel-thieving puddles.

I'm always a little more cautious of the maps and regularly slow to tap the Garmin screen to check that I've not gone off course so we entered the final descent together as Andy had overshot the turn into the woods and had to retrace his steps. He was soon lost to me again... until the Chippy in Crickhowel.

We spent a half hour eating chips sitting on the windowsill talking about bikes like teenagers. He bought me a tea - how lovely. I stocked up on one fizzy sugarey drink and drank another and we discussed our strategies. He was carrying minimal kit with a plan to ride through the night. I was planning on sleeping but who knows when, where or for how long. He asked if I had enough food. That was an easy one - too much! He noted there was another village over the hill with a pub where he'd be having a shandy. I discounted it as I can't drink and race and didn't want to "waste" the time stopping.

He proudly informed me the next climb was 370m which got me shirty as I'd rather not know and my ex- husband used to give me those spoilers all the time but as I set off I thought, I wonder if we climb 370m, or if we just climb * to * 370m? At least my rucsac was refreshingly light, it must have been all the food I had eaten, plus I was wearing all the clothes from my stationary half hour. I looked at the Garmin. Fuck. Average speed: 6 km/hr.

The hill was not awful. It was a relatively major road so had been built for HGVs. At 9pm it had boy racers on but they used the road space and there was no conflict. It was long - the full 370m - but not steep so I could ride the whole thing. I span up it and occasionally flipped up the gears to stand up for a bit. The problem was, I was sweating and got really thirsty and then I drained the last of my water. Damn. Of course that's why my rucsac was light.

I soldiered on a bit then asked myself why I was dying of thirst while carrying around a can of Fanta.

I pulled into a driveway to a managed forest and sat on the dry tarmac to drink my can, my face pointed skywards, I admired millions of twinkling stars and for that moment with the milky way, the traffic stopped and all I could hear was the trickling stream in the valley below my feet.

Over the top I descended like a stone to Llan-something and went in search of Andy and that pub.

The route skirted the village, taking the first left straight out of it so I had to use the OS map to find my way. Inside, friendly faces behind perspex screens brought me a coffee and some chocolate. I shared my concern that our last stop cost me 1 km/hr I filled my water in the washrooms. Dared I say it, there was only "the Gap" to go and then...

"we were on to easier terrain". we dared utter the words.

"No doubt I will see you again," said Andy." Sometime in the middle of the night when I have a sit down and stop to cry for my mummy". Deal.

We headed back into the forest for a while, leading over to Tal y Bont reservoir.  My pace notes restored back to my brain even if my Garmin didn't and I remembered the turns I'd reccied on the map, steering my bike along the trails, down gnarly descents and "tracks" that were nothing more than flattened stretches of grass with trees either side. Reassuringly there weren't just Chris's tyre tracks but 2 other distinct sets of tracks- one fat, one skinny (kudos). I rolled through a carpark previously ID'd in my notes as a potential bivi spot but it was too early for me to stop and that felt good. 

A little commentary here: so I had almost expected to see Landslide in Hay on Wye. He rides faster than me but not a lot so I did think our paths would cross at re-supply.

• • •

I also wondered if I'd see him later. As his first event, he (like me on my first event) planned to get a somewhat reasonable sleep and just finish within the time limit. I had been hoping for a different coloured badge and a sub 30hr finish but without really making many changes to enable that, (taking less shit with me for a lighter ride but a less comfortable-if any-stop), still seemed to be on for scraping through. Of course there was the dwindling hope that I'd speed up on easier terrain on day 2. (my second day is always notoriously shit and slow).

In the pub, Andy and I had discussed the easier terrain in the last 50km - less climbing per km, open moorland tracks except for one long steep climb that was - at least - on the road.

So I had expected to see Landslide's camp by the trail as I passed. I knew he wanted to make the woods before the Gap in time to do the long climb into sunrise and he also had his eye on some shelters on the mountain itself for an excellent sunrise vista in the right conditions.

Andy, on the other hand was chasing 24 hours. He'd started 3 hours later than us so, if I was down on my 30hr schedule, he definitely was down on a 24hrs schedule.

I really didn't expect to see Andy again but still, as I climbed the bridleway up towards Pen y Fan, a little red light blinked high on the hillside ahead. In the beautiful peace of the mountains, the twinkling stars and, later, the gusting winds, I felt distantly connected to at least 2 other human beings, knowing Landslide was snoozing somewhere below. And because I am me, I quietly congratulated myself on gaining a place in the race - if it had been a race.

• • •

After the third gate there's a track to a farm building where people and torches were milling about. One torch approached. I'd not yet turned my exposure light on and had been enjoying just enough glow from my dynamo to see my way without stumbling.

"Hello" Called out a voice. There was a friendly chat about what was going on. "A few mates we're all doing the same route but all at different times". "Oh, cool. Erm, can I ask a favour?".

It was on the tip of my tongue. It was 00:30 on Sunday morning. I'd been riding for 17 hours and my light was dying. "No not really".

It was right there on the tip of my tongue, waiting to roll off. I took the cautious line "What's that then?"

I was expecting a harsh tone, a "stop cycling past my fucking house at midnight", I expected. However, this guy was really concerned.

• • •

They were 2 outdoor leaders (D of E / Scouts, I can't remember) and were waiting for their kids who were over an hour late coming off the mountain. Even more so as they'd been expecting to watch the head torches circumnavigate the clear dark valley for some time first. They had no phone signal where they were parked at the rendezvous so were going to retreat to the main carpark in hope of getting a signal and asked me to keep an eye out and if necessary send comms if the kids needed help or just let them know to walk on down the valley to find their car.

Despite my dwindling light I was happy to do so though slightly disappointed that no one had paper + pen and I had to ditch my rucsac, find my phone and turn it on to take their phone numbers.

When they started to give me the phone number for the lead hiker I had to cut it short. I was getting cold and my brain wasn't up for this. and I can't see my phone screen in my distance glasses at the best of times.

So this is how I spent the whole of the traverse of the biggest, most majestic climb of the route - with my head torch around my neck, staring at the reflections on the mountainside trying to tell the difference between sheep, rabbits or was it the dwindling head torch of a lost boy scout?

In reality, except for the sheep and the bunnies, there was only me and Andy's dwindling red blip in the distance now. I still rejoiced when it disappeared and I knew the downhill was in sight.

The final piece de resistance was the breeze on the summit.

At one point I thought I saw a bivi pitched in the lee of a rock bluff as I stopped to pull on my thick gloves and an extra baselayer but on inspection it was just a shiny rock.

The next valley opened up with the sight of Andy's red light about 2 miles below and a distant fire burning.

The fire distracted me a few times and I almost crashed as I wondered if it was circled by desperate boy scouts singing songs and downing Stella until I came to my senses and decided it was probably a farmer burning English tourists.

• • •

I didn't just feel like I was on the home straight, I was. Maybe I would go sub-30 hours. I made a pact with myself only to check my average speed at the end of long, blinding descents in order to maintain motivation. I was back up to 6.5km/h.

Somewhere after this descent is the visitor centre which a lot of people considered using as a convenient stop. There's a tap but the caf is not open till 10am. Far too much time. I carried on, making my final checks for boy Scouts until I decided it was too far out to hike.

• • •

In hindsight I should have checked in with the leaders but I had no news and I didn't want to jeopardise my own 'warmth' or batteries to fumble with my phone again... and time!

The bridleways here were jumbled and confusing in the dark. Without much light, I generally followed the pink line on my Garmin whilst intermittently finding a track between horse fields and stately homes. In one field a horse charged, suddenly startled by my light. Whether towards me or away-from, I couldn't tell until a split second later when I was still alive, conscious, upright and in no pain.

I thanked it for the adrenaline rush.

• • •

Another public parking area passed in the darkness but I was still awake enough to plough on so I did, knowing that soon I would need to stop just to eat something. It was, after all 6 hours since dinner. How the fuck did that happen? Unfortunately my pace notes indicated nothing more than a series of unimpressive exposed graveyards and a village hall with a tarmac carpark, a porch but a house neighbour in close proximity.

Finally I rolled through a village onto the A40. In my rush to scribble down the petrol station in my pace notes I had completely overlooked the 2* audax hotel (bus stop) across the road. Like all audax hotels that look twee with the presence of ivy growing through the roof, the reality is the mould and moss growing up the walls so the concrete floor is a bit damp and covered in glass shards.

I'd been feeling guilty about not sending a text about the lost boy Scouts so I pulled out my phone and switched it on. Dang it was 3:30am. How did that happen? Still, I didn't like an un-turned stone and reasoned that a scout leader no longer looking for his scouts would have his phone off or on silent at 3:30 am. It was, after all, only 3 hours since he asked a favour at an already unsociable hour.

At first I just lay on the bench to eat my peanut butter sandwich. The crusts were a bit dry so I laid those in my lap for later emergencies. When I woke up from a micro kip, scattering peanut butter crusts everywhere, I decided I was best off having a sleep here so I blew up my mat and pillow, stripped off my waterproof socks and left them on the bench inside out to dry and climbed into my quilt to dry the merino socks off with warmth (I hoped). I'd already decided I would see how my body and brain perform on minimum rest - given this was a one-night event.  I did it before in excellent conditions on the Peak 200 but it'd be interesting to try in cooler climes. 

I set my alarm for 25 minutes time, hoping to wake before my body stiffened up and before my mind had a chance to go into deep sleep, but enough rest to persuade it we had been to sleep for hours. In theory, it's 20 minutes time but I knew I'd spend 5 minutes settling down and gawping at the stars. I wasn't wrong. They were stunning. Also, a couple of road tankers screamed past in the darkness but I remained un­noticed and if any more traffic passed, I slept through it.

At 4:15 I hit the snooze button but thankfully woke again and reapplied my findings from the Travelodge - there's nothing like packing away a sleep bag and air mattress to warm you up. That and an effing big hill. Of course, around the corner was a much better bus stop and a bonafide campsite. I'd even have given the bus stop 3* for its view over the village green instead of the A40 but that's just typical.

My timing was surprisingly perfect. I was coherent through the hill climb. I looked at the map and concluded that the sunrise would appear to my right and then soon convinced myself that the sky was indeed lightening.

It was pretty cold but the upward movement helped me cope. I hit moorland as the first hints of gold appeared in the sky. Black turned to purple. Ochre lines arrived and when the sun did peep between 2 black clouds it illuminated the undersides of the billowing cumulus fog that had risen off Peny Fan over night. I hoped landslide was looking at it, not in it.


 

• • •

It's a good job the dawn was impressive because the Garmin crashed and blipped multiple times as I crossed from sheep trod to track and back trying to follow the map. Back down the hill and then onto *that* climb that we had looked at on the Garmin screen in the pub 8 hours ago. At least it's on a road, except now the dozies were starting to set in. A lady washing her car asked me if there was a race on. "Just a bunch of mates out on the same course... bla bla".

"I'm so impressed, knowing what this turns into wow!". I stared ominously at the "no through road" sign. I thought it was all road from here! I nodded, said I was tired but I'll just keep going.

• • •

It wasn't so long. I slogged over loose rock, rode through red mud up to my hubs and waded cautiously around bogs (I'd given up on wet waterproof socks and put my dry merino's into only-slightly-damp boots). The presence of a tiny tarn told me this wasn't "The big one" and my tall climb was still to come.

After its initial cattle grid, I could see most of the climb in its enormity so I stopped to remove my warm layers and gloves and eat a faux English breakfast of re-fried beans and saucisson. I lay down to eat again and a steady stream of passing dog walkers did an excellent job of preventing me drifting off into the land of nod. Then it was time to push and eat skittles in the hope that the sugar and E- Numbers would give me the energy boost to keep going.

I stopped at least 4 times to take a micro-kip, standing, leaning on the handlebars with my head on my forearm. Once, I toppled towards the bike and had to throw some shapes to avoid tumbling over it.

Near the top was a grit bin, a lovely big Welsh grit bin. I draipsed across it diagonally, my head resting on the top tube of my bike, helmet peak crunched into my saddle. I turned my wrists towards the warming sun and slept for about 10 minutes. It was amazing.

• • •

A passing car woke me up and I rode out of the climb in confidence, passing the beautiful turn by the quarry at the top then descending through the mine workings below, thanking the dog walkers who waited (a bit too long) to social distance properly from a passing, tired, Trep.

My pleasure at being in Builth Wells was overwhelming. So overwhelming I walked through the empty never-changing 4-way traffic lights and cast all sustainable independent cafes aside in pursuit of the pure unadulterated calorific value of Burger king. It was the right call.

• • •

I locked the bike, got a table, did the Loo then ordered burger, fries, liquid sugar and coffee and sauces for extra sugar and to aid digestion. I got to my table to devour my food and focus my brain on one thing only. "Excuse me. Are you a Walker?". An elderly couple. He was being friendly but I'd just locked my bike to the railing right outside the window from them. I already resented them for sitting in my seat.

"No,That's my bike outside"! I stuck my burger in my mouth.

"Just one more thing"... My shoulders visibly sagged.

"What's that blue tube for?" I didn't need to give him a death store, his wife did it for me.

• • •

I spat burger about in the least Covid-correct socially responsible way." It's a drinking tube - hands free water" I said. Then mumbled "It's vodka really". Then remembered This joke goes down better in the lifts at ski resorts in the Alps." I don't think so!" snorted his wife. I hope she was referring to my slight figure, not the horrifying notion that I should try and steer a heavy bike whilst pissed.

They finally left me in peace, inhaling coffee. Freshly fuelled and caffeinated I had one more interaction to navigate. A little boy on a MTB wanted to know what all the "extra bits" were on my bike. While I explained to dad that it wasn't "one of them bikes that does 60 miles an hour," I tried to engage with the little boy who was particularly captivated by the brooks saddle and jones bars.

• • •

The fuel worked and I set off like a rocket dispensing with many climbs I would previously have been walking, now riding with gusto and even some power in my legs.

Lord knows what goes into BK burgers but it felt like cocaine! (Whatever that feels like). For a while it felt like a little extra on every climb would take me gradually earlier to my arrival at the finish. I was up to 6 Km/hr again after my descent to Builth Wells.

What I wasn't expecting was any more offroad. I kinda knew it was there but after Andy said *that* climb was on the road, I'd put any more puddles to the back of my mind.

• • •

This offroad added insult to injury. First there was the bridleway of turnips. It's impossible to ride near turnips. Forget baby head boulders. Turnips are the solid stools of the devil.

Then there were 5 gates in 50 metres. Each more complicat­ed and evil than the next and stuck in the long grass. I searched desperately for the tyre tracks of my comrades and yes, they were still there in the dewey gas and the occasional mud splash and then there was the plantation.

Tree plantations are my most despised terrain.Tree roots that will slice your leg, branches that slide your crutch (your bike) away from underneath you or trip you up with its shattered splintered bark before you fall, twisting your ankle on another sunken stump. I jabbed at my Garmin screen, begging it to tell me I was off route now - when I needed it most! but no, that pink line ploughed on straight through the middle of the choss.

Thankfully it was only short lived and I carried on my way, everything relatively easy from here.

The last remaining bridleway was a chore more than anything. Streams and puddle dodging (for some reason it was important to finish with dry feet). I'd done all this already, I just wanted to stop now. I wanted that road back to the van - it was flat - right?

• • •

It ran straight west to east so in my head it was flat. Far from it. From the last byway the A44 undulated. Subarus roared and nervous old men pottered by and I just plodded on up. It wasn't so bad but it was rude and then there was a corner and a downhill and another corner and like a big surprise, my own van sitting innocently in a lay by.

I'm a Mancunian and so the first thing you do is stop the Garmin and clock the time then check for smashed windows-nothing. Then you park your bike where you intend to lock it with a big fucking lock while you sleep like the dead until your mate arrives. Then you check for a parking ticket. Nothing.

• • •

I sat in the van for a while. I'd felt cold and exposed since leaving Builth so it was good to be out of the elements. I did my best to get into warm comfy clothes then blew up a thermarest found a pillow and wrapped myself in a dry robe and a blanket. I'd closed my eyes for 10 minutes when Landslide arrived.

Waving goodbye to sleep recovery I shared in his joy at finishing his first event in a respectable 34 hours with 5 hours sleep. I snoozed whilst he dressed "for dinner" and we drove 50m down the road to the Fforest Inn.

They apologised for a limited menu, having being eaten out of many of their options but we didn't mind. After all, we largely knew who had eaten it.

• • •

Much to our joy, Andy arrived along with 2 friends who had also kept Landslide company yesterday.

It's a shame we didn't have the opportunity to catch up further but a 4 hour drive lay ahead inclusive of motorway services sleep stops to compliment the micro kips of earlier in the day. The last stop being only 40 miles from home when my motorway speed dropped sufficiently to warrant us stopping so I was capable of driving at 70 again. I threw Landslide out of the car at home as another driver waited patiently for us to unload the bike then I went home and poured myself into a shower at midnight.

• • •

Wrap up

I know I could have done this ride faster with less weight on board.

I carried a ridiculous quantity of food so this is me packing my / fears. Burger king demonstrated just how slow I go when I'm empty and ironically none of the food I was carrying was cutting it - from salty carbs to sugar or protein. I think I might need to start carrying potato products. Is there such thing as potato deficiency?

• • •

But I am immensely pleased to have completed the ride at all, given the elevations, difficult terrain and impen­ding doom of Lockdown II. Whilst I could have rested for 3 hours and still got a green badge, I enjoyed the peace and solitude of the night & if I can sit-out and enjoy the stars without freezing, I call those excellent conditions. After a few dark moments of thinking I might jack it all in, I spoke with Andy back at the pub. He had been 6 hours slower than previous years. 6 hours off my time is something I'd be very proud of. Getting in the same time as Andy's mates & Landslide, I realise I can now do this stuff at the same pace as at least some of the boys-which is a massive improvement, even if I do have to ride through the night to do it. I'm no longer sneaking in by the skin of my teeth.

• • •

Most importantly except for the occasional pedal- mash, saddle bruises (I never did adjust it) and few dark moments like the 5 gates in 50 metres and the turnips, I completely enjoyed it. I missed the camaraderie, friendship and cake of a group start but was more than thankful for the opportunity to ride in an area much further south in Wales than I have ventured for approximately 20 years and the Brecon were more strikingly beautiful than I remember them.

Since I finished this ride the Welsh borders have closed to visitors. I feel lucky to have 'risked' the forecast and followed a seriously wet weekend with soft conditions hungover from the week before. Lucky because it paid off: played for and won. I very much hope the situation is resolved soon so more people can get out there and finish this absolute beast of a ride.

• • •

Whatever you do though, don't forget your head torch and don't pack too many snacks.

Trepid Explorer made it into work by 9 am Monday morning but then, it was only up the stairs. She fell asleep once during her safety meeting.

Landslide is recovering well and has mostly managed to get his kids to school on time.

The boy scouts were found safe and well in the woods somewhere near Landslide's overnight bivi spot.

The flip flops were re-lost somewhere on the hike a bike in the woods - keep an eye out for them.  Finders keepers, or return them to Landslide.



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Bynack Beag, Bynack More and Cairn Gorm

Driving out to places to walk isn't something I've done for a while but I decided knocking the approach hike down to 4 wild kms around Cairn Gorm's flanks was infinitely preferable to 9km hiking over stony fire roads and rocky approach tracks from the Campsite (only to have to walk down on the road and repeat Wednesday's walk" home"). So we chugged upto Coire na Ciste carpark and joined 1 car and 5 vans staring into the fog.

It was the first time we've hiked together in a couple of years, racing having taken precedence over most holidays. I was in charge of now so I cheated and used the GPS to avoid any agonising back-tracking but the paths were mostly worn to the first ridge.

Just below the rim of the Choire, an older couple were stopped, discussing where to go next and we tried our best to persuade them to venture further whilst inwardly hoping they'd move on so we could steal their rock and stop for some food. They didn't.

Just over the top of the ridgeline we made use of a few stones in the heather to consume sandwiches whilst quietly watching an eagle soar by even closer than the one I saw on the flanks of Bealach Horn.

We dropped down to the river easily, the substantial bog having been dried out by the summer sun. The book said "straight up the other side to a sandy path".

Future sandy path - about 100m from the summit
• • •

We complied but it was hard going against the grain of the heather so found a faint path to follow in a zigzag. It intermittently disappeared so was still a tough climb. A gaggle of 12 ptarmigan scattered in the sun, taking to the wing like a flock of mountain pigeons then disappearing amongst the granite rocks.


 

At the top was Bynack Beag which we summitted to add to the Corbett list then hiked over to Bynack More where bizarre granite rock formations looked more like a jumble of dumped armchairs and sofas piled up alongside the path. 


 

These "Barns" continued off our first Munro of the day looking like a combination of cosy bivi shelters or stony coffins.

• • •

More Ptarmigans mooched around on the descent, convinced we couldn't see them, even though snow hasn't yet fallen. Their fluffy feet now visible, they were so close. A mountain hare saw us before we saw it and darted across the hillside, disappearing faster than the spindly path we had been following. 

I challenge you to spot them (2)
 

The book lamented "descend to the saddle where the full glory of the Cairn Gorms opens up before you".  Smug bastard.  The cloud lifted and broke enough for us to take it in "piecemeal" rather than "full glory" but Look Eounach was exposed along with its surrounding peaks and as we crossed the (not so) boggy ridgeline from where we could see many Cairngorms summits intermittently spread across the Landscape rolling around us.


 

• • •

The path up to Cairn Gorm's South shoulder was taken at a slower pace by me, still struggling with biking last week  and 2 walks this week.

It was a beautiful place to stop and eat the rest of lunch and take in some sugar though.

We left the path too early, making a bee line for the summit up sheep flanks but it was too hard going and we didn't seem to be making any progress. We must've looked desperate and lost as the mountain rescue helicopter made 2 passes to check we were OK. It didn't help that TSK's bootlace snapped so on the helicopter's second pass, I was providing shelter whilst he repaired the lace. We gave them the signal for "No thanks, we're fine, really", at 4:30 pm, and carried on. As the chopper disappeared up the Glen, I inwardly wobbled and hoped there really *was* a nice easy descent from the top.

After what seemed like a never ending trudge across a lunar landscape, the tourist path up from the carpark finally came into view. We bailed out of our rocky, mossy trudge and enjoyed the final 50m on compacted sand. 




 

The only other 2 people we saw on the mountain were well loaded backpackers about to make their descent to the loch for the night before attempting Ben Macdui tomorrow. She reassured me they had a fine selection of layers - as we all stood chatting amongst the summit snow which fell yesterday evening.

Summit selfies taken, we started the march down the tourist path, ignoring what would have been the easier option over something we perceived to be quicker.

It was our only nav error. In our rush to go the quick way down we endured a steep harsh descent on big rocks interspersed with slippery gravel and a few close-calls on my part as I skidded around on the loose stones.

The route we should have taken was glaringly obvious as a path but we'd descended too far and there was a steep gully in the way.so we sucked it up and kept going.

• • •

While there were no "tourist hoards" around to avoid (the book recommends the descent of the Coire na Ciste ridges to avoid the tourists), we did encounter a drone pilot as I weighed up the most effective way to rid myself of the electronic hornet - a small stone or the discarded orange peel 1'd picked up on the way down. The pilot took the hint, jumped in his car and left.

 

The walk to the van along the road was predictably tedious yet quiet. Interesting noseying at the out-of-season ski infrastructure.


The distant sunset developing under cover of the mountain cloud we'd been cursing turned from yellow to gold then finally, as we got to the van and ate our sandwiches, the glow emerged, casting pink light across the highlands, including through the clouds still shrouding Cairn Gorm and I experienced The Most Enchanting evening of the whole fortnight. It could only have been more perfect if we'd lingered on the mountain a little longer but still, it was a tad chilly for that and we quickly started the engine on the van and headed down to a warm pod and a hot shower.




 

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The ridge behind the campsite.

After a couple of rest days, I still wasn't really ready to ride a bike and definitely not on the road or hard forest trails. It was also a really windy day, so I left TSK to go out for a ride whilst I mulled about on the campsite and considered my next move.

I seemed to be OK on foot so I decided, after lunch, to check out the ridge behind the campsite - a series of lumps - 2 or 3 of which may be Corbets. It didn't matter really-it was more about the boundary than the summits. I'd planned to start with the indeterminate link between a forest trail which ended before the forest boundary and a footpath off the hill which ended at a dry stone wall before the forest edge. However, in seeking out the start of the forest trail, I walked the wrong way around the campsite and rather than retrace my steps, decided to do the walk the other way around. It was late in the day so maybe I'd just recce it for another day.

I started my watch and noted it took me 40 minutes to reach the path that headed up to the ridge. On the climb, I met a walker in shorts and light windproof who warned me it was incredibly windy on the tops. Since I was wearing my paramo waterproof trousers and coat with all the venting undone to let out the sweat, this was excellent news.

• • •

The trudge to the ridge was tough and I merely wrote it off as "take a look over the other side then head home". 

 


It sure was windy but I could now see over the black isle and beyond the Forth of Cromarty to the wind turbines near Dingwall and beyond and I couldn't resist climbing to the peak of my first summit on the ridge - the highest at 837m.


On the top was a substantial cairn with walls to add protection from the swirling winds. I sat, tired, in its warm, sheltered embrace, admired the scenery and ate some food and marvelled at how a mountain and a little bit of shelter are amazing for making you feel amazing. It had taken me 20 minutes to Climb 1cm on my map so I calculated that it would take me two hours to get back. It was 4:00. Sunset was about 7pm. I had no head torch, emergency shelter, compass or whistle but 3 maps (2 elec­tronic) and plenty of layers and food.

I felt a little vulnerable but also unnecessarily epic but confident given the low elevation so I sent TSk a text

"Walking the ridge behind the campsite. Forgot spot - back about 6. I was also in full view of the camp- site for most of the route and whilst I didn't have a strong torch suitable for navigating, my red bike light was still in a rucsac pocket and would be visible from the valley should I get into difficulty. All of these musings were a little over the top for what was essentially a stroll in the park compared to most of the terrain in the Cairngorms. but the wind was making the chances of a fall seem highly likely and I was against the clock with the light.

Quite windy.  Having quite a lot of fun.

The first peak I'd just climbed was an outlier with a tempting draw to continue on to the Cairngorms range. Instead I retraced to the saddle before climbing back to the the first plateau on the return route at a substantial 735cm.

From here on it was more of an open moorland trudge to the two other summits so my 40 minutes per peak was a massive over-estimate.

• • •

I had a satisfying snack out of the breeze atop each one to fully appreciate the scenery and the shelter and continue my programme of refuelling after the top loop exertions of last week.

Finally, the part I had been dreading - the intermittent path down. However, my mind was put at ease by the sheer volume of mountain bike tyre tracks on the hill path and the sight below me of several possible work-around routes although my preferred direction wasn't obviously visible.

The forested area where we were camped was known as "The Queen's Forest" and as I moshed along the mountain, bike trail admiring some peoples' line choices and laughing inwardly at others' obvious failures, I said aloud, "Come on then Queenie, I can't imagine you descending off the moorland on your horse, getting branches in your hair, show me your path!"

Sure enough, the tyre tracks continued through the trees at the edge of the forest, snaking around the branches or roots of some fuller trees and boulders then morphed into a dreamy single-track that I promised I'd come back and ride (but never did) before pouring out onto the dead-ended forest trail which I suspected wasn't a dead end either.


 

I appreciated it as forest trails go. It didn't farce about with meandering up and down but set a steady descent all the way back to the campsite where I still had the pod to myself for an extra hour as TSK was still out playing with the breeze on his bike.

As mountain days ago it was no epic-a mere 4 hours-but it felt like a homecoming. It's so long since I've done a walk for the sake of doing a walk. No trophy hunting, no training stats, not even much of a view.

It kicked of a chain of emotions including" I should do more of this" and Ultimately led me to get the Munroes book out after dinner and head for the big hills the next day-both mind and body freed up from the shackles of uncertainty about my condition and ready to take on new challenges.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Random Screams - The Highland Trail and how Covid Ruined Everything and Nothing

I set aside part of my annual leave to recce loop 3 of the highland trail from Oykel Bridge and back. It includes Bealach Horn, the fifth highest pass on the route, the third steepest and the most Northerly points on the map. It is notoriously difficult and therefore slow going and so far I have only watched in wonder as my heroes, these worship­ped dots - slow to a walking pace as they cross what is, interchangeably, one of the most beautiful and inhospitable places in the UK. I have been toying with the idea of leaving this loop for the event as a "nice surprise" but knowing how much confidence and reassurance I get from a good recce, I decided to crack on. Only I can suss my own acceptable camp spots and understand my pace and time restraints based on what's on the ground, not what's on a map.

A few things contributed to the title of this post. In the days leading up to my departure I had cause to look up a Golden Eagle in my bird guide having seen a large raptor with feathered legs in a field near where we were staying. I am humble enough to believe that out of a choice between 440 pairs of Golden eagles and 187 rough legged Buzzards in the UK (Scotland), I saw a Golden Eagle (but not naive enough to think I might be wrong in the assessment of the fluffiness of a raptor's legs).

However when the book described the eagle call as "Random screams" it made me laugh and also think of the Internet - that other place whose calls are made up of Random Screams. One particular Twitter post this month crossed my mind as several of my cycling friends had commented on it. "The Highlands are being ruined". I generally find it's best not to get involved in Twitter any more and hoped that any "ruination" would be merely temporary (and hopefully over after the kid's school holidays which we were * definitely * avoiding).

I'm happy to say that it definitely wasn't ruined where we were staying but our holiday host seemed to have some pent-up issues on his mind, which this post does go into.

• • •

We booked accommodation about 15 km by bicycle from Amat, a little village / Lodge on the HT Route . By car it is a sensible 40 mile drive avoiding the gravel tracks (closed to vehicles).

I left our temporary "home" at 9am, quickly hit forest trail and quickly saw my first bike packers coming the other way. They'd stayed the night in the BBITW, and reminded me of its location. I thought I might stay there on the way back. What I should have done is use fresh legs to go and find it again to mark it on the map for next time, but that might be for another day now.

At the top of the climb through the forest woodland I emerged onto the moor with a deer gate / stone ruin to mark the boundary. The ruin was inspected for bivi purposes. Just beyond, a collection of 6 enorm­ous boulders blocked the route ahead to vehicles but they were awkwardly, (not easily) passed by bike.

From there,  the track led mercifully and impressively in a dead straight line for a mile. It must have been a road once upon a time as the tarmac was more than intermittent. Yet heather was now established up the middle, a deer fence continuing to my left. At the summit was a lake, the perfect swimming spot, with a sitting / bathing rock, but today was still too cool and I had places to be.

• • •


These places

As I summitted the final rise, the peaks of Coigach - Suilvan and Canisp came into view. It would be the end of my loop but I was really excited. THIS is my place! I whooped out loud a little bit (a lot - but it didn't matter as there was no-one to hear for about 2 miles).

On the downhill a hiker was pushing his beaten bike in the opposite direction. He looked a bit annoyed to be pushing this extra load up, the hill that he was so clearly intending to hike on foot. Still, my enthusiasm could not be damped. I wished him a cheery hello whilst secretly realising this would be me on the way home.

As the pastures opened out at the bottom a wooden bridge came into view, the perfect place for a snack I leant up the bike, crossed my legs and listened to nature whilst eating crisps. 5 minutes later I was in Amat, the end of my 27km commute and the start of the top loop. I deposited my rubbish in a bin, noted the turn off to the BBITW and cycled the familiar route past Croick church to the "Road" to Ullapool, no hesitations on navigation this time to reach the turning point of last year where I decided not to bother with the OBH (Oykel Bridge Hotel) but instead keep going to the school­house as part of loop 2.

Th OB in OBH

Today I descended to OBH to see what all the fuss was about. Past a water treatment works (ah, how sweet, they can't do mountain water) and onto the "carpark" by the bridges. I couldn't see the hotel from the road but the steady stream of fishermen in brushed tweed shirts had already persuaded me not to bother. I sent Andrew a text and sat down to eat my lunch, realising instantly that I had left my lunch in the fridge back at the Croft. Ah well, I had enough to see me through. I ate half the beef jerky I only really carry for emergencies and some fried beans then descended the road only to be saved... SAVED!... by the tea rooms at Invercassley being open and serving.

I ordered a tuna chiabatta and helped the owner chase an invading sparrow out of the building.

After the cafe stop I discovered the biggest challenge to attempting to "race" the highland trail - a lovely couple from Lossiemouth who wanted to chat. But I wasn't racing so we talked for a bit then I got a little fed up when the conversation moved on to where my husband was and how I could possibly be driven / brave enough to go out and do this on my own. Not so extreme, never in so many words but why is it folk need to feel reassured that somewhere at the end of the leash / chain of command there is a man waiting to come to the rescue, should things go wrong.  The old paradigm of there needs to be someone who cares because what will  you do if there's no one to care... and if there's no one to care then no-one will care... and I'm not sure that's ever a problem.

I think I might invent myself a Lesbian wife who is at home doing the dishes or maybe a dog called Lassie who will raise the alarm if he thinks I have fallen down a well. Or maybe I'll just keep telling everyone about my real life husband who is doing his own thing, thanks very much.

• • •

I made my excuses before getting embroiled in a long discussion about where we were & where to go next, excusing myself with, "I don't know, I'm just following a pink line on a map". Not entirely true-I knew exactly where I was and where I was going but I wasn't about to get involved in whether "that road there goes to Laing". They passed me in their car three times after I set off up the Glen, eventually having to stop to remove my big coat. It wouldn't go back on again until the evening.

There's a lot of very pleasant woodland riding until the final hydro scheme infrastructure and resulting slog up some switch-backs to the top of a hill.

The other side was a beautiful yet slightly frightening descent above fish farms and reservoir worker's cottages where I admired Karl Brooks imaginative yet unpicturesque bivi spot between 3 brick walls of the 1970's hydro station buildings.

There aren't many things that make me glad to have stopped last year but the unromantic reality of what it must've been like to try and sleep there in -7 degrees C (and then find out your mate has scored a hot bath down the road) is one of them. A locked gate sent me and Midnight through the eye of a needle deer-kissing gate (not sure who wants to snog a deer) that I swear added 5 minutes to our time. Highlanders went about their business of putting dogs out & playing with kids & I passed un-noticed.


• • •

It was a late Lunch when I finally turned off the road onto the track towards the most Northerly part of the route at about 4 pm.

Just like Fisherfield last year, the area around Ben Hope and Foinaven has been an imposing target since childhood. Ben Hope is the most Northerly Munro. Its neighbour is pretty inaccessible and difficult and there are many unpronounceable (for a non Gaelic speaker) neighbours that are equally inaccessible and dangerous due to their exposure and sheer Northern-ness.

Robert McFarlane, lover of all things wild, in his book "The Wild Places" did not even like Ben Hope. (insert quote if I get around to it).

Me and TSK drove over on our honeymoon to take a look at it and drove away again.

I had certainly packed an extra jumper this time. Still, the start was innoccuous. A locked gate with a sign on it saying, "The occupants of this house do not have the keys to the gate". A car parked in the gateway had a sign on it that said "the rental of this cottage is for holiday-makers" - a road bike with some geeky TT bars bolted to the roof rack. 

I snaked through the footpath access, made a mental note to book that cottage for another time, then headed over to a big rock to fuel up for the trudge across the moorland track. My waterproof socks went on in anticipation of some puddles or later bog- hopping. It's a long, long track but I have taken a look at it on Google Earth and someone has walked it with a goggle backpack-showing that much of the surrounding moorland is wet, open expanse. It was enjoyable at first, then started to get chilly around 7pm as the sun descended then,from the high rolling plateau reappeared (much to my excitement) taking on the pinkish hue of evening sunlight and I started to accelerate my pace towards it in the hope of snagging some kind of moment of sunset + one of my increasingly favourite peaks. 

Mind, I was hungry so I also had an eye out for a camp spot. A series of dug-outs from the track construction appeared. One was occupied by a couple on their way home to Carlisle from Durness. They were fully loaded with thick down coats, a full 2 man tent and already scoffing hot food from pouches. Their hidey hole seemed a little high and breezy to me but I still coveted one of my own***.

I finally found one with its back to the wind and a fine rock wall plus an animal feeder to lean my bike against.

Unfortunately it came with a feeling I was about to pitch my tent in shit.

I put my dinner on to "cook".  Now bear in mind that I forgot to bring stove fuel so I left my stove behind. Still, (small mercy) the water had been carried in my camel back so was body temperature (30C at least). I sealed the pack & put it in the kangaroo pouch of my coat to "cook" while I fussed around pitching up my tent. First the pegs wouldn't hold as the thin layer of shit just covered rock and more rock. Weighing the guys down with rocks wasn't going to hold against the wind which had moved, ever so slightly, to gust around the edge of my mini quarry instead of over the top of it.

For the first time in my bivi life I deemed my spot "a shit idea', packed everything away again and moved on, my dinner still sloshing around in my coat.

About as close as the sunset got
• • •

I knew that at the bottom of the track was a Lodge so I needed to stop before it to remain out of sight, following the wild camping code and generally not being disturbed by barking dogs.

The Google Camera had mercifully stopped at the lodge so I did not know what was beyond except for satellite images.

I had it in my head that after the lodge, things would get soggy under foot, further driving my desire to stop before it, not after. However, as I checked on my Garmin screen to see how far away I was, I noticed a pin on the map that I had placed during one of my sofa recces. Oh, a reassuring strike of genius. I flew past the lodge, on a new mission and after giving my food a proper dose of heat from climbing three steeps wearing *all* the layers, I reached my spot on the map. 

I briefly assessed the safety of the situation, deemed it absolutely acceptable then set up camp, snuggled into down and gorged myself on lukewarm pasta. I lay down at 9.30 pm. An early night for me. I only had one day of (relatively easy) riding done and so I found it difficult to sleep. 

I'd dropped my earplugs outside so was hearing every noise but I didn't want to go out into the cold to look for them. At midnight I woke up for the third time, this time needing a pee so I braved the cold, instantly found the earplugs nestled in my bike's rear triangle and peed under the MOST impressive stars I have seen for a LONG time.

I'm not kidding myself. This will not be an option in May.


Back in my tent I sat up for a while staring at the stars, watching satellites drift by, catching shooting stars in the corner of my eye and watching really hard just in case there was any sign that I might eventually get to see the Northern lights.

Morning audience

I thought of various people who have put me off this recce, telling me "it's just something you have to get done". "Might as well leave it for race day". How wrong they were (sorry). First, it was good to see the terrain for myself - how much road, how good / bad the track is.

Second, here I was, having a great time.

Breakfast should have been Sunday night's pizza leftovers but they were still in the fridge. Instead I ate the honey / coconut mix I'd carried without the porridge to put it in, a cereal bar and a packet of crisps. The pack-up was less romantic, fuelled by getting away from midges. 



Paddling

To go with that, the track became intermittently boggy then really hard and jarring. It was actually a relief to turn off onto the Beallach Horn track and begin riding across heather in between short boggy walks. Instead of being bothered by the wind I was pleased to be away from midges and it cooled my midge bites. I stopped still for a good 5 minutes to watch an eagle soar and swoop over the peak at the other side of the valley. I was terrified I'd scare her away but after I'd had my fill of birdwatching I set off riding again & she came to take a look at me, gliding past around 20 m away from me. I could see the shape of her head, she watched me watching her before drifting over to perch on the crags at the head of Meall Horn. her Random Screams fitting in amongst the grey crags and cloudy skies.

• • •

The Peat bogs up there were something to behold. I balanced Midnight precariously on a few walls whilst I jumped down then lifted her down from above.


I found a glacial boulder with a rock ledge to perch on out of the wind whilst I demolished more beef jerky and peas and washed it down with M&Ms.

I was pretty tired already and although I'd enjoyed myself, the old question still remains, how on earth will this feel when I am 3 or4 days in and the weather is shite (as it inevitably seems to be when I race my bike)? Then I thought of my Aunty, currently battling cancer and thought, as struggles go, mine is paltry, at least vaguely enjoyable and after all, voluntary.

• • •

Still, it was time for the big hike up the Horn! Again, I found myself asking, how will this feel on day 4 or day 5? and quickly telling myself that I'd be carrying fewer bloody jumpers for a start.

From other peoples' write-ups of their experiences, Beallach Horn wasn't nearly as bad as I was expecting (not un­common) but also I had fresh legs and wasn't trying to race it either. I picked up Midnight, for a short steep section but the rest of the way relied on the step-step-shove-recover method.

The lift was interesting. Considering I'm still only squatting lightweights (12.5kg) in the gym, I suddenly needed to lift my awkward bike at around 22 kgs. It almost wouldn't go but the thought of struggling to push it one more metre was too much to bear so a mighty heave got us upright and far enough up the track that it was safe and comfortable to put her down and start walking again. 

This time I managed to extract myself (more) gracefully from the handlebars which was a relief as I stood up to find my red face had an audience of 2. A couple walking the Cape Wrath trail in stages of one week were on their Last pitch. We compared bivi notes. They had camped the night at loch Stack bothy (still dosed due to Covid). We chatted until her knees got goose- bumps.


 

The descent to the Loch was dreamy, fuelled partly by a pang of sadness to be leaving such beauty or remoteness, a sense of achievement at having not just survived, but enjoyed, one of the most wild places in the Uk and a hopeful return to civilisation.* .




 

The descent pops into trees. After hours of exposure to the elements, trees are so precious. This boulder is at the end of the path. It gives the last opportunity to waste some time photographing stuff before reaching civilisation.

• • •

* There's nothing public at Achfary. No services. For some reason it has a black telephone box that people come to look at and photograph. It has some fishing lodges. Now the phone box has been repainted with a white trim and its telephone sign replaced by the inevitable "Defibrilator" sign. What it does have is people - people who could (and probably would) help if you were really in difficulty.

I wasn't in difficulty, although I did fancy some more savoury food. A few camper-vanners said hi.


I continued on my way. Next destination: Kylesku and the Kylesku hotel where I was looking forward to a fine, indulgent non-race holiday slap up dinner, four courses my good man.

First though, I had a hill to climb and I was set to become dinner.

The path at the back of Achfary passes the WTW and a fancy shed housing the estate's backup generator before reaching diagonally up the edge of the forest. In contrast to the wild exposure I'd left it was the height of the sun's day, sheltered due to the trees and so humid it showered, momentarily. 

 

Despite the heat I had to keep on my long sleeves and wear a head net to stop the persistent attacks of some rather annoying fly / ant species that was highly motivated by ears, noses, mouths and eyes. I can usually ignore creepy crawlies but these bastards were persistent in trying to crawl into orifices and were almost impossible to shift without resorting to killing them which consisted of very carefully pinching them (and a handful of skin) and purposefully pulling them away. I blew on them. they flattened down and held on. I flicked them and they latched on again 5mm away, held firm then recommenced their determined scramble for the nearest nostril or ear canal. 

To stop them I had to stop progress so off came the helmet and on went my headnet and the buff to close off all access routes.

Then came the difficult task of identifying a crawling insect from the rivulets of sweat pouring off me. My midge bites from the morning were long forgiven & forgotten. 

 

Fun fact: As a child, I was stuck in a traffic jam on a family holiday whilst the Army carried out a bomb sweep of the newly constructed Kylesku Bridge prior to the Queen visiting to open it.  I have never seen it from this angle.  Also: yes, I am that old.  The day's finale was my mum explaining to some French tourists, through the medium of mime, what a Bomb(ber) was,.

The descent to Kylesku was a little early for dinner but that didn't matter. I was excited to have finished this stage and be getting some food. I pulled up with other bikers & had a chat before heading up to the till to greet the waitress or ask for a table. 

• • •

"theres a one way system, can you use the other entrance?"

Me, confused, "The one that says residents only?".

Her, "well, there's a walkway isn't there?".

Is there? (I'm all for the right measures in place but clear signage is a good start). I re-traced my steps. Fuck the walkway (40in round trip) and went up the stairs where I heard the couple in front of me being turned away. "Sheer number of people blah de blah". * "The higlands are being ruined" rang in my ears.

In retrospect I'm not sure any Scottish accents were involved in this exchange.

I went back to my bike. Before leaving I decided to use the public facilities The toilets were clean so I filled my water bottle then gave the hotel one last try with my best solo desperate female face on. I like to think there was a glimmer of compassion there but the answer was still no so I snaffled a paper take-away cup so that I could make up a re-hydration tablet without getting my camelbak sticky or messy.

I'd almost considered paying through the nose for a room so I could get a meal but as I sat on the grass watching the harbour, listening to the people at the room behind me with their balcony window open and TV blaring. I realised that after 30 years of passing this hotel which is "only for the rich people" I now have a salary that allows me to stay here but a spirit that does not.

A little face bobbed up or down in the water, inspecting the shore from afar, then dived down, it's sleek body cresting the water before it disappeared from sight. Did anyone else notice that? I doubt it.

Time to try for Drumbeg Stores. Maybe the hotel there would have a table.

I've read about the climbs heading to Drumbeg. They made Ian cry. My parents, absolute dedicated visitors to the Northwest highlands rarely came here on our family holidays - probably because those roads made me or the dog sick.

I didn't cry. I did push my bike quite a bit and I zigzagged a lot and I sat down in lay bys, supplemented my calorie intake with skittles & kept going to Drumbeg aside from the occasional interlude to allow a car to pass.

• • •

A lot of time passed-about 1.5 hrs and Drumbeg stores was closed at 5. 30 anyway. The hotel had a large sign outside advising "Residents only due to Covid". I decided to aim for Clachtol so at least use the campsite or - more aspirationally, Lochinvar where there might be someone at the petrol station or another hotel. 

I did still have a stash of sweet calories and more re-hydratable pasta, even desert, but a packet of crisps or a bowl of chips was high on my list of desirables. As time passed on after Drumbeg I started to notice the sheer volume of vans parked up. Campsites were all full (or still closed), lay bys were full. Passing places were occupied until there was only one spot remaining to use for passing vehicles. "No overnight camping" signs were blatantly being ignored by scores of vehicles. 

At least 3 cars passed me repeatedly, first one way and then the other or they'd stop at a campsite as I rode past, only to find it full and move onto the next. 'The Highlands are being ruined! I was glad I can still park anywhere and it's why I've stopped tweeting my exploits hoping that my personal little corner of the blogger net will continue to fail to attract any attention whatsoever.


A short time after Drumbeg at the bottom of yet another descent was a grand house with 5-10 acres of green pasture around it.

The fence line was intermittently signed "No camping" with a picture of a little stick- man asleep in a tent inside a red prohibition circle.

• • •

He looked so warm and peaceful and I immediately started to look out for a more welcoming spot with just the right amount of breeze to keep the midges away. Partway up the climb out of that dip, I just CBA'd to climb any more and a flat spot next to a very old gateway appeared. In any normal year it might have been boggy but it was dry underfoot so I pitched with a view of Beinn Mhor Coigach on one side of a hillock and the sea and the summer isles on the other side. 


There had been no sunset to speak of, cloud cover meant a gradual greying of the sky whilst I set up my cold boil rehydrated food to" cook" and pitched my tent. When each of the two or three motor vehicles passed, I killed my light and hid by my tent just in case they were a grumpy farmer but most would (should) have been concentrating too much on the snaking single-track road to care.

I snuggled into bed, actually enjoyed cold spagbol (I pretended it was goulash soup) and ate some fudge as desert.

I sent some dramatic text messages about how the next day would be dependent on me getting resupply and received one from my mum (who loves to send the daily forecasts) warning it would be cold overnight. I had enough data to check the forecast but was relieved to find nothing dramatic and continuing low wind speeds.

• • •

The tent flapped a little in the night but this time I had been more careful with my earplugs and no passing motorists woke me either.

Brightening skies and an empty belly woke me up. It was cold re hydrated apple and banana crumble for breakfast which looked like soggy baby rusk in a bag but actually tasted ok. I ate more sweets and packed up quickly, hitting the road at 8:15am.

It wasn't too far to Clachtol and I was beginning to wonder if I'd missed something navigationally as the off-road sections here seemed a little thin on the ground.

Calchtol tea shop was an unexpected pleasure. The weather was having a little coastal Scotland moment and showering slightly so I was just contemplating putting my coat on when something the shape of a beach hut appeared by the roadside and a jolly voice inside confirmed they were open for business.

I felt kinda guilty ordering a Scotch Pie for my breakfast at 9am but then a local stopped by and ordered a bottle of grouse, 4 pack of Tenants and would have had rum too if they'd had any in stock. She had to ask him to come back later and pay at a legal time.

When I'd eaten my camp breakfast that day I noticed my dynamo charging cable was snapped so I set about stripping cable with a penknife

Just at the right moment John Waugh. and his wife Andrea pulled up and joined me for about an hour discussing routes.

Soon after Clachtol, the off-road routes appeared and I enjoyed every moment - occasionally dropping the seat and having a chat with a few more walkers.

Life was pretty normal in Lochinvar and surprisingly my legs felt pretty normal. I really fancied riding on after today and whether I decided to go home to "our" Croft or carry on over to Ullapool and Fisherfield to recie the new route there, I was probably going to need dinner for the night as neither the Alt Hotel or Oykel Bridge were serving non-residents. 

I locked up the bike, hit the shop and secured pot noodles, a pasty and replenished the savoury snack supplies for 2 days ahead. I wasn't sure how pot noodle would fare on cold water but I was willing to find out if I needed to. I wasn't particularly enjoying cold re hydrated food but I was enjoying finding out that it is an Ok (feasible) option. I also found out that there's only 25% of the energy in a pot noodle compared to outdoor shops boil in the bag type meals. So I bought 2.

• • •

I secured tea from the cafe opposite my bike and had a laugh with some bikers who witnessed me trying to blow a wasp away while still wearing my mask. They had failed to secure a "slot" to get a cup of coffee from the Lochinvar stores (having spent 30 minutes downloading the app to do so) and were heading across the road to an alternative source. They watched me cram 2 pot noodles into a food packet I was carrying and passed on dinner at my place.

After the usual comments about how brave I was, they asked where I was headed next.

I've got this. I was on home (holiday) territory. So instead of the usual,"I dunno, I'm just following a pink line on a map," I was able to respond. "Well, it sounds like you know the area" he said. Boom!

After a third breakfast of yoghurt it was time to tackle Glen Canisp.


After the first climb I had to stop and remove baggy shorts and knee warmers and change out of my thick waterproof socks.

A steady stream of pink sweaty men heading the other way reminded me to apply sun cream against the Scottish sun in a clear end-of-summer sky. I sat and ate my pasty over­looking the loch then after I witnessed a group climbing into a river pool in their underwear I started scouting for my own swim spot. 

The path passed close enough to the lake for me to take what I thought was a secluded dip in just my tee-shirt, although I knew my mate Stu might've been up on Suilven somewhere so I hoped he wasn't laughing at my white pasty bum.

In the end I couldn't bring myself to swim in the cold water as my core wasn't ready for that kind of shock so I settled for a sit down wash -carefully so as not to waste the sun cream I'd applied. It was nice to give my bits a wash. Of course, just around the next bend were a couple sat eating their lunch so I apologised for ruining their view.


 

At the other end of the lake I met a climber named Andreas (two in one day!) who was fishing for information about the trail ahead to decide how to get over to Leadmore. Unfortunately I couldn't help. 

In retrospect I should have told him that Lee Craigie did not enjoy it but thus far I thought it was ok so that meant the worst was yet to come. I was to find out soon that there was great mobile reception at the beallach so I could have quite easily taken his number and texted him my findings when I reached the end of the track. Those findings would have been "don't bother mate!" Not that I didn't enjoy it but it's not for everyone and Andreas's tent was not lightweight.

After a mash through dry bogs to reach the Beallach I sat down for more food and checked my phone. Despite being in the middle of nowhere I had clear sight to a transmitter across the valley. Sure enough I texted TSK to let him know I wanted to stay out, not get a pick up and to book more days at our accommodation for me to finish what I was doing.

• • •

I also let my mum know things were great and despite her weather report, my sleeping bag was warm enough. My day one legs were back and I felt ready to take on Fisherfield.

I had not envisioned the next 8 miles. The track down was definitely single and littered with limestone boulders that went on and on... for hours. It wasn't completely unrideable but anywhere that was rideable soon became unrideable due to slippery loose rocks, bog or more rock or short sharp inclines.

I walked most of it. Completely and utterly enjoyed it but still, I walked it and it took time but it didn't matter. I didn't *have* to be anywhere. This is what holidays are for.

Last gratuitous picture of the same mountain

 

I consider­ed stopping at the end of the trail but what to do for 4 hours before dark? So I kept going, promising myself a night at the Schoolhouse bothy. It would be locked up still (I presume) but nice enough. Or I could head "home". The insects were waking up. No midges but the clingy flies that had dogged me at Achfary were back and now they were starting burrow into my hair and bite. Time to move.

Some of the single track along the lake was rideable - some of it was really sketchy but after so much walking I was prepared to give anything ago. Midnight rolled out of most things that I threw her into, making me giggle with delight or shake my head in horror at our near misses.

I checked my phone again when I saw that transmitter station on the hillside. I was tired now and TSK had only managed to extend our stay 2 more nights so I had 1 day before needing to help move all our stuff and unpack it at the next venue. My day 1 legs were starting to crack and I decided I'd quite like to quit while I was ahead, call this an enjoyable outing and leave me wanting for more on race" day". I arranged for him to leave the front door unlocked for me to get in the croft whenever but also to expect me to camp out but somewhere less bitey if I needed to. I did the last bit of proper off-road and being honest, the rollout to Leadmore was the most linked section of riding I'd done in the last 8 miles.

• • •

The breeze was now keeping the flies away and was mostly at my back so I can't complain that it was a little cool. The very gradual climb from Leadmore junction kept me warm though until I started my descent towards OBH. Then the inevitable seat by the roadside to reapply baggy shorts, knee warmers + windproof coat. There was a short pang of accomplishment as I reached the OBH along with resentment and distaste towards the podgy rich fishing parties, their exclusive use of this facility edged with a modicum of "what's all the fuss about?" The place has the look of a 1970's scout hut about it. Maybe I didn't see past the facade. 

Around the corner I plonked my ass on the ground again, ate some crisps and loaded my return route onto the Garmin to make sure I was going to go the right way in the dark. It took me several tries to realise my route home started at Amat, not OBH so I lost a bit of time here. Lets say I was basking in the glory of a successful mission and not really paying attention.

I reloaded "HT out" to get me back on course and waited while the Garmin crashed a few times. Thankfully I had a nice long fire road to climb to get out of there interspersed with deer suddenly bouncing out of the trees once I'd got onto open moorland.

My last task having left Oykel bridge behind, was to find clean water. I rejected the first stream on cloudiness but eventually decided to rely on water taken from near the upper bothy where a bottom-feeder fish gazed lovingly into my head-torch right up until I plunged the camelbak bladder into her pool and she was gone.

Hunger finally got the better of me once I reached enough breeze to even consider stopping. I even considered a camp - my spot was so flat and comfy but I was also considering the BBITW.

I put on layers, sheltered my legs behind my laid down bike and tucked into Oatcakes and cheese that I had forgotten at lunchtime.

In the near-distance a stag bellowed into the darkness. He sounded pretty pissed off to the extent that I was considering if it was safe to carry on. I extinguished all my lights and he seemed to calm down.

Through the next deer gate and the whole herd seemed to be in the field, scattering across my path as I rode through. Thankfully no sign of the big fella though.

I descended to Amat after passing Croick church. I'd momentar­ily considered a sleep here but little red and white blinking lights put me off.

Trying to weave through Amat Lodge back the way I'd come was much less intuitive than in daylight-especially when an Audi driver blinded me with his headlights then got frustrated when I took a wrong turn. 

When I nearly fell down the cattle grid shutting the last gate I knew I was getting tired now. I had bypassed the BBITW because I still didn't know exactly where it was and decided it was probably closed despite my Friends on day 1 having told me they'd actually stopped in it that night.

For what seemed like an eternity I trudged onward, trees to the left, river to the right. After the bellowing stag, my nerves were on edge so when Random Screams came from the forest, my adrenaline was peaked again but at least I knew what they were this time. My thoughts turned to my friend Ella with whom I discussed many random noises in the night during a November 200k audax. Now she has a baby she has her own collective interpretation for things that squeal in the night.

Unfortunately the wind was making the green open pastures too cool to pitch my tent on and anyway, they were all slightly sloped. All I had to do was get over the S-bends where I had seen the hiker on day 1 and then the climbing was all rideable and the descent took me all the way home.

I was navigating by bridges although somehow I missed the one that marked the start of the S-bends. What I did notice was a single wooden pedestrian bridge off to the side. I was still wearing all of my layers from my oatcake stop and had built up quite a lot of body heat. The timing was perfect for a nap - 10:30pm, past my bed time.

• • •

I propped my bike up, hid my dynamo light away to glow discretely inside my nose bag and lay down with my helmet as a pillow. My legs ached so I folded them up and leant them against eachother. The dry wood of the bridge felt like the perfect mattress and I drifted in and out of sleep between staring at the stars above me, framed by the latticework of the bridge's handrails and some overhanging branches. I pretty much avoided the flies as gentle tickles on my neck transpired to be the breeze blowing through hairs that had gone astray from my ponytail.

When I woke up I decided to get going before my body temperature got too low. Some more pushing and a bit of riding and suddenly the lake above the Croft came into view-on my Garmin screen. Somehow the S-bends had passed without me noticing and I was into the beautiful stretch of deciduous woodland that I'd noticed on the way out. Next was the lake and then it was all down hill, down the mile-long straight descent along the deer fence where an owl bobbed along with me for 200m before peeling off into the forest.

Heather in the middle.  Extra jeopardy at the edge.

Even the boulder barrier was easier on the way down and with nothing but the forest descent to go, the stone ruin lost its bivi appeal.

For a moment I considered a sleep in the Sumer house at the Castle (the highlands is *not* ruined) but the pull of hot fresh pasta back at the croft at 1am was too much to turn my back on.

I wheeled my bike down the steps to the door which was difficult because my brakes were squealing and I was trying not to wake the farm dogs.

Minutes of panic ensued as the door was locked & I had to try to wake TSK without waking every canine in the valley. Thankfully the croft has a floor to ceiling cathedral window so my downstairs tapping and strobing Exposure light both woke him and illuminated his way downstairs to let me in.


I put the bike away whilst he boiled pasta for my late dinner then despite my best intentions I slept in a clean sleeping bag for the first time instead of the one that matched my filthy body. With no hot running water at the croft, a hair wash in the kitchen sink and stand-up wash over a concrete floor and a bowl of kettle-heated water would have to wait until tomorrow.

The most precious outcome by far was the next day I actually managed to move. Not just a little bit but we went and got in the sea and walked along the coast and did stuff. 

 


I'd even go so far as to declare I would have gone for a ride. Sure, I slept fucking HARD but I wasn't dog tired-just regular tired. Unlike my previous recces.

If you're wondering if the highlands is really ruined? Yes it is, don't go there you wouldn't like it.

• • •

I hope you find my review useful.

What's less important is: I'm not ruined.