Scotland you beauty
Scotland you beauty
Words and photography by Toby Martin (@toby.c.martin)
Shot on a Canon AL-1 with HP5 400 film.
It all started with a bikepacking trip a few years ago along this very route. Scotland cemented itself in my mind on that trip with its truly wild offerings. While time constraints meant we had to rush on through our surroundings I took mental notes vowing to return one day.
Fast forward a few years and experienced outdoorsman Ollie - a newcomer to bikepacking and brimming with excitement - asked me to think of a trip where we’d find the limits of our humanity. “I have zero concerns other than meeting death without clean underpants on”, the text read. Perfect, I thought, I know just where to go.
The plan was to set off from Fort William and head for Dalwhinnie, via Glen Roy, Melgarve and Laggan, heading back via Loch Ossian and Corrour with the choice of Glen Nevis or Kinlochleven from there. We’d stay in bothies or bivvy, a perfect plan, a solid three day trip, a long weekend to remember.
Did I mention it was January yet? It was January. With very Scottish January weather. We arrived to the locals telling us they’d never seen the water levels higher. Needless to say it was water off a duck’s back at that point, we were only concerned with finding haggis for dinner and getting a good night's sleep before charging into the wilderness the following morning. We had a forecast of sun ahead of us, we’d make Laggan by the end of day one and resupply there.
Well day one was great, but going was a lot slower than I’d experienced previously - winter had softened up the ground somewhat. By early afternoon we’d only made it to Glen Roy, firmly in the zone of no phone, and it was quite clear we would not make Laggan - not even close.
Part of any great trip is the planning. We’d made contingencies for just about any situation, this included. We’d always carry at least one dinner and breakfast each as well as a multitude of snacks; bikepackers best friend peanut butter, macaroons and a stash of ‘when shit hits the fan’ Outdoor Provisions bars.
With a new plan hatched of ditching at the next bothy, we started collecting windfall wood while enjoying one of the most beautiful sunsets of our lives. With golden light bathing our double track trail ahead we’d turn every hundred or so metres to glance the valley behind us, the silvery surface of the river alive with reflected activity, snow capped peaks framing the red deer picking their way through the foreground. Ollie was smiling ear to ear. No pictures folks, that was just for us.
That night we made ourselves a fire, some peanutty noodles, and admired the hundreds of hectares of land we solely inhabited from the door of our temporary home. Aided by a generous dram of whisky we crawled into our sleeping bags. We’d make Laggan tomorrow, restock and crack on.
Watching our breath condensate over a couple of kilometres of frozen boggy land made evident that day two was going to be no laughing matter either. The fast flowing river next to the bothy had done its best to freeze over illustrating just how cold it was. Reduced to pushing the bikes we were approached by a man on a quad bike. The young looking lad was working with a team restoring peat over the nearest ridge and explained how they saw us as they drove in this morning and how he just wanted to check that we’re OK. "We’re golden", we reply, "never better".
“Oh good, I don’t want to scare you, but not three weeks ago we found a body where you’ve just walked” said the concerned local. Unfortunately this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of this in Scotland either, it can be an extremely hostile environment and mistakes are easy to make, even for the most well prepared. Our assumption of making Laggan by the end of day two was another one of ours. We assured the quad bike knight in hi-viz armour that we were OK and got on our way. With a full day of icicles, false summits and more walking than either of us had planned our bikes were more akin to zimmer frames than the efficient means of mobility we’d previously regarded them as.
We instead ditched again just short of Laggan in another bothy, our bones aching from battling the semi frozen bogs. With no resupply, dinner and breakfast are but words to us and food becomes just food. We talk about riding the ten odd miles to Laggan and back to buy rations, but with the makings of a serious storm outside we decide against it.
Instead, peanut butter, penne pasta and garlic oil is combined for what could be the first time ever as we use what we have and what has been left by previous occupants. (FYI it’s actually a stunning combo). The fire burns down and the whisky is finished, and in a moment of reflection I realise I couldn’t be happier. My eyes close to the noise of the raging storm outside.
They open in the morning to much the same. Day three of our trip is raining sideways and we agree we just have to make it back to Fort William. I seriously cannot put into words the amount of water that is criss-crossing the landscape at this point, every 100m we ride through another flood. We pedaled though knee height water, high enough that the current pulls on your wheels and attempts to dislodge you. Despite being covered head to toe in GORE-TEX at this point we’re soaked through, fifteen kilometres into the seventy or so we need to cover. At least the shop is finally in sight.
But in sight is all it was, closed until February for renovations is what it was also. We laughed, you couldn’t write this. With no option but to press on we turned into the wind, on road now, with driving ice rain attacking our faces. Stopping a couple of times to doctor our clothing for more comfort, and to push the last two OP bars we had into our mouths we hatched a plan; with three trains a day running through the valley we had to cover just ten more kilometres by half past three to evacuate from our situation. We’re doing this.
Urghhh it was cold, and miserable, and even the train station was shut when we arrived so we were left cowering in a doorway wrapped in foil blankets; type two fun. On this trip we made one days food last three, waded through floods, endured sub zero temperatures and heard of tragedy; but we also saw sunsets, and wildlife, and remembered how enjoyable it is to spend time talking, and eating, and riding.
Boarding that train on any other day would have felt like a cop out, but not this day. The snack lady on the train told us we stank of wood smoke as she poured out two sugary orange Irn-Bru's. It felt like a hero’s welcome, the final pint in Ice cold in Alex. We had survived.
Although reading this back it sounds a tail of calamity and hardship, these three days were some of the more interesting in my life, we’re already planning our next trip with sights on the river Jordan potentially. Not quite as freezing I hear.
If you too are interested in cycling to the fringes of existence, in January, here are Ollie and Toby’s top three tips to survival.
- Waterproof boots. Don’t even think about anything else. Waterproof trousers ideal, and with gaiters even better. In our experience you can’t be too waterproof.
- Head torch. Life is actually really hard without fire or light when the sun is up for a mere 8 hours and everything is wet. The most used item we both carried.
- Food and fuel. Take more food than you need. Then take more than you can possibly eat. You’ll end up eating it all. Also take enough fuel to make all that food hot and enjoyable. Rock salt makes everything taste a bit nicer.
- Bonus point. A trip like this, the most important thing you need is to make a plan A, B, C, etc. and let your loved ones know where you’re going and how long for. We planned for everything, but we still got caught out, and on reflection there were a few points where things could have gone very very sour. Think ahead and don't do anything that could put your life in danger. Have fun y’all.