Bikepacking and the advent of winter in the Highlands

Riding past the forest fringes my lights pick up a bar code of black tree trunks, then suddenly four sets of yellow eyes reflect menacingly from the depths beyond.

In so many countries I would be freaking out, wolves? Cougars? Here in the Scottish highlands the most menacing predator is man and these weren’t human.
The first snows of winter had settled up high, dusting the fading heather in it’s winter coat. The stag stalking season is now over and the red deer were down in the glens and here in numbers. At times I was literally dodging antlers as I sped along, a narrow beam the only shaft of light as I looked to preserve some battery for the riding ahead. The stars are offering little but neck ache as I trying to work out constellations and scan behind me for the glow of northern lights. It was tough day after 140km fully loaded off road miles into a headwind but I was loving every minute of it!

This weekend I was heading south from Inverness; final destination undecided. It was a cold crisp morning in the car park of my random guesthouse in the Inverness suburbs. I was strapping on my Apidura 17l saddle pack, the 9l bar bag and the small frame pack rammed with food. I needed a bit more warm kit for this first freezing trip of the new winter so had gone for the 17l seat pack to get in my bivvy bag, sleeping mat and stove in but also a down jacket and fleece.
Recently I have been really loving the simplicity of covering distance on gravel tracks across Scotland and I was starting out on this trip by heading south on the Great Glen way. After some city paths I was climbing up to get views back over Inverness;

The first half of the Great Glen way is hillier than expected but almost all perfect riding on 40mm tyres (I had left on my 650b x 1.9″ Vee Tire Rails). The path climbs and falls through forest with open views across Loch Ness – the perfect vantage point for Nessie spotting;

The best of the autumn colours are maybe now behind us but still they linger in places.

Finally after a final large climb on the side of Loch Ness I descend into Fort Augustus. There’s a tour bus loaded with Chinese tourists all swarming the village. They must be baffled enough by Scotland in winter before I stride into the Nisa shop muddy and wearing coordinated turquoise dotted lycra. Adding to the image is my fantastic new Lezyne day flashing head light strapped to my helmet and still on its flash mode strobing white and a blinding red flash behind me as I study the pie section.
Loaded up with cold steak pie, orange juice and a king size snickers I head for the Corrieyaick pass. At almost 800m high I know it will be snowy and cold. I am just keen to be clear of the pass before dusk.

The pass is flanked by electricity pylons unfortunately ruining the true isolation and wilderness feel of the climb and my pictures!

The snow line is approaching and illuminated pink as a warning of what is coming.

The traversing track to the true top of the pass is solid ice and snow, my tyres ride well, the only danger is when the ice suddenly gives way and I lose the front wheel!

With the last of the warming suns rays gone it was bitter. A sign appropriately stated; Danger. I didn’t hang about at all.

The descent from Corrieyaick was north facing so had frozen even more solid. I walked the steep switchbacks which were just to dodgy to ride out here on my own.
Finally the snow and ice subsided at about 500m altitude as the track led out and I was back riding flat out hopping drainage channels.

It was now rapidly getting dark at about 4.30pm as I headed for Laggan in essentially the opposite direction that I rode a few weeks back on this trip. The glens were now dark but full of deer, all out grazing in the safety of night after a day spent sheltered in the forests. There were so many I was scared of getting hit by them.
The short section on singletrack road ended and I was through forest and then moor again. All the time in the dark, I knew I was missing views but the clear sky was shining with stars and the owls were whistling.
Finally I reached the road at Laggan and headed over the river Spean at Kinloch Laggan. I follow the maze of estate forestry roads up towards Lochan Earba the first of two cool lochans I can just make out the shore on this dark ride. A large white bird that looks like an Osprey rises in my headlight, I assume its probably an Owl but who knows in the few seconds it is highlighted. I get lost on a wrong turning and retrace 1km back on myself. It’s cold but while I am climbing it’s a good temperature. My ski gloves are too warm, I take them off. My fingers then get too cold, so much that I don’t notice slamming one in a gate. Drops of blood on my bags warn me something’s leaking! It was one of those rides where you’re never the right temperature.

Finally I head towards Corrour lodge and then Loch Ossian Youth Hostel where I’m booked in for the night. I roll up to find a fire roaring, spare food being offered, 5 hikers, 4 French girls and two large stags outside that enjoy Anslie Harriet CousCous.

I’m shattered. 150km into a solid headwind, 90% off road and the temperature never rose much above 2 degrees. The calorie defeciet is huge.

In the morning the sun rise causes a picture frenzy. In the dark I wasn’t aware of just how stunning the setting is. This is the morning light on Loch Ossian;

I ride up to get better views of the white alpine Ben Nevis to the north;

At 9.30 I’ve taken 5o pictures and it really is time to leave this pretty youth hostel behind and head off.

I climb up southwards to get even better views back north towards the loch and the mountains;

It’s then about 20km of perfect gravel towards Rannoch Moor.
The roads were built to aid a Hydro scheme being put in, they are designed to be easily reclaimed by nature but allow smooth surface for cyclists. Both Loch Ossian and Rannoch are by far easiest reached by train along this stunning railway headed north towards Hogwarts!

I then blast east along the road towards Pitlochry. Saturday destroyed me a bit. It the cold and feeling tired beforehand it was a long day. 77km later I am done, eating hot soup in a café.
I arrive at Pitlochry train station.

A total of about 4000m climbing and 220km in 1.5 days isn’t to shabby, but next time it would be good to make it south the Glasgow!

This was Saturday’s ride;

Kit used:

Tripster ATR with 650b wheels

Vee Tire Rail 1.9″ tyres

Praxis Works Alba Cranks (Alba for those that don’t know is the local name for Scotland so appropriate!)

Apidura dry series 14l saddle pack and 14l bar bag. 

Lomo 100% waterproof backpack for camera

Terra Nova Gore Tex Bivvy

Exped SynMat Hyperlite UL

Gore – Power Trail Gore Tex Jacket

Gore -Power Trail Gore Tex Shorts

Morvelo – Thermo Long sleeve jersey
Morvelo – Thermo Leg Warmers
Gore – Oxygen CC Bib shorts

Lezyne Super Drive 1500 front light (lasted both nights)

Lezyne Zecto Drive Auto 80

Lezyne Super GPS (24hr battery life on a GPS lasted the weekend on one charge!)

2 Comments
  1. Are you loading a home-made GPX file of your route into the Lezyne GPS and following turn by turn?

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    • For this trip I used the Badger Divide GPX as a starting point track, hence I took couple of wrong turns on the Strava data! I try to save my phone battery life so didn’t use the Lezyne App but took some paper maps too. The Lezyne Super GPS I use mostly just to track data, I like the temperature data and use heart rate but most of all the battery life is fantastic – after both days riding it had 48% battery life left! Given it was around 16 freezing hours that’s not bad.

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Any thoughts or questions?