BOTHY BIKING IN SCOTLAND | NORTH WEST INCIDENTALS
Mountain bikes can take you to places that cars or other motorised transport never would, with this in mind we went bothy biking in North West Scotland.
There's a lot to be said for travel in your own country, especially with a bike and more–so by bike. Bikes (mountain bikes), can take you to places that cars or other motorised transport never would, and can deliver you there sooner than a journey on–foot ever could. Furthermore, a mountain bike trip can provide lots of little experiences (‘Incidentals’ I'll call them) that make a simple day or two out in the hills into an unforgettable 'Life Experience'.
DIRT ISSUE 125 - JULY 2012
Words by James McKnight. Photos by Andy Lloyd
Fuel is mighty expensive these days and getting to the North–West of Scotland from, well, anywhere that you are likely to be living, is probably going to break the bank…it did ours. Therefore, I shall not burden you with the story of our entire epic voyage into one of the UK's best kept areas of 'wilderness' – the hills behind Torridon – but I will tell you about a number of the incidentals from our visit. Take these little nuggets of useful and mostly useless information as you will, my intention is that you understand what a great time we had once we'd ditched the van in a lonely lay–by, saddled–up and disappeared into the northern wilderness for a weekend of eye openers.
You don't have to travel to the tip of nowhere and beyond to make a great adventure of your own, you don't have to rough it, and one thing you certainly don't need to do is to spend a lot of money. Plan your own trip this summer and take away some incidentals to remember forever...
Incidental #1: The Fountain of all Knowledge
No trip into the middle–of–nowhere would be complete without an incentive, a goal and an eventual target to hunt down. Folk have been taking pilgrimages for millennia in search of Holy Grails and Oracles. However for myself and photographer Andy Lloyd we were only headed north, from the city of Bristol to the mountain bike mecca that is Innerleithen; our itinerary had been kindly prepared for us by a bearded man from the mountains... Our god–like leader was awaiting us in a lay–by near his base in the famous downhilling town and his first miracle was the ability to sport shorts and t–shirt whilst we were layered–up in nearly all the clothes we owned.
“Going to get a lot colder as we travel north", this Andy is Andy McKenna of Go–Where Scotland and his initial greeting and hardy mountain–man look had us slightly worried. A slightly pathetic, “is there anywhere to get breakfast and a cappuccino" is about all I could offer as an insight into my southern mentality. Andy McKenna, thankfully, is no stern mountain guide – rather a happy chappy who has managed to carve himself a fantastic life out in the hills. This guide knows all there is worth knowing about the bike riding across his fantastic country and he also has the logistical know–how to shepherd even the least intrepid of explorer to a destination that will change the way they ride and think for good. I trusted Andy from the moment I stepped into the fresh Scottish air and I could tell we were in for one hell of a journey.
Incidental #2: The Road North
I don't know if there is ever a good time to take a gamble and drive north up through Scotland's vast expanses; the weather is certainly one part of the country's reputation and by that we all know I'm not talking sunshine and cool beers on a beach. So why not risk everything and take our chance? We chose not just any old Spring–time weekend, but one that was forecast to be the wettest of the year, and the prophecies proved true...everywhere but our destination, that is.
Lady Luck cannot be thanked enough for the blessing of +25º weather we experienced while the rest of the UK was being pounded by storms and gales. Who'd have though it? Sunbathing loch–side in the north–west of Scotland, solitary in our thorough enjoyment and smug that for once a gamble had paid off. Aviemore was battered with reported twenty–foot snowdrifts, we were cooked up and served; three roasted Brits on holiday and headed for a remote shed.
Incidental #3: Four-star Bothy
If any of us were to claim a 'spirit of adventure' then he telling the utmost truth would be Andy McKenna. Andy travels the length and breadth of his country in search of spectacular riding locations, spots to camp out with his wife and friends and areas to take the clients of his Scottish–wide guiding firm. Scotland, as many will know, is one country that can probably boast more free mountain accommodation than any other. 'Bothies' can of course vary in size, upkeep and inhabitant, but fortunately Andy knew best this time.
I was over–packed to the absolute maximum with camping kit and food that could have sustained a family for weeks, so it was with quite something of a struggle that we climbed the handful of kilometres to reach our base for the weekend; a lonesome bothy with a view down the stunning valley and a surround of high, fierce, but intriguing peaks. Scotland's mountains aren't the biggest but they are some of the most crafty when it comes to catching explorers unawares and so the quality of your bothy can make quite some difference to the weekend's fun. With this one our luck was in – nothing like a bit of 'local' knowledge.>>
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Incidental #4: The Torridon Open
Golf has become a slight habit of mine recently, a 'fling with the dark arts' perhaps you could call it. But at least I don't play golf of the walk–around–a–course–in–tartan type of affair; more that I hit balls in an attempted straight line as far as I can (most call this the 'driving range'). So it was to my pleasure that, on opening the door of our bothy for the weekend, my first greeting was that of a seven–iron. An evening session of hitting stones across the adjacent river was enough to free any man's mind from unnecessary stress in life.
Perhaps, however, the club had an alternate purpose. Our second greeting was from the permanent inhabitants – mice, and plenty of them. As I cannot imagine there to be many bothies of superior quality or of sounder construction, these rodents have the run of quite a palace; a downstairs kitchen, sitting room and 'atrium' (OK, it is still a bothy and basic at best, but as far as mountain shelters go this one is of fine attributes); upstairs two bedrooms and a view to die for.
Incidental #5: Condensed Satisfaction
There is nothing more warming, calming and comforting than a brew. A cup of tea can do wonders for the morale but it can also create a lengthy diversion from more constructive ways to spend one's time. This is only a problem if 'one' is being assigned to create a dynamic feature for a dynamic magazine. Our couple of mornings (that is, entire mornings) spent drinking cups of tea brewed up by Andy's fair hands were perhaps not quite as Dirt editor Mike Rose had envisaged this 'high mountain epic adventure', but when the weather is so rarely that perfect one would have to be bonkers to not soak up some rays and sup a fresh, sweet PG Tips flavoured with condensed milk. Jolly good, old chap.
Incidental #6: The Scottish Two–day Trial
Riding bikes off–road was never intended to be easy or to take place on designer trails; 'real' off–roading has always meant tech, not sanitised. For that reason it was a great pleasure to be riding the absolute opposite style of trail to those that Scotland has become famed for. There are thousands of miles of natural singletrack and tech–heavy downhills all over the country and we are all free to ride each and every inch of them thanks to Scotland's forward–thinking and bike–friendly roaming laws.
The climb from our abode to the summit of a nearby ‘Munro’ on day 1 was more than challenging, in parts it was nigh–on impossible. We took our time to work our way up the mountainside and set ourselves targets through trials–esque sections of bedrock and boulders. And what a way to make a mole hill out of a mountain...before we knew it we were cresting high above our start point, gazing over the far away lochs and distant ocean and looking across to the adjacent snow capped peaks…what a special moment.
I've never felt so disconnected from civilisation and yet so close to it and its bad habits as when Andy dug out the lunch that we had prepared prior to our depart; tortilla wraps, hummus, cheese, olives and chorizo...I suppose it would have been 'epic' to sustain ourselves on more torturous or foraged foods, but there is no better time for a little home comfort than when you're sat in minus–degree winds atop a cold and unforgiving mountain. We tucked in and savoured the handful of minutes that we could afford to spend in such a place; in an environment like the Highlands time can work against you and we had one hell of a ride ahead if we were to make it off the mountain before dark...of course the tea–making facilities being located at the bothy were somewhat of a draw too...>>
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Incidental #7: Greetings, and Tally–ho!
The folk that you come across in far–away places never cease to amaze me. In northern Sweden I have been greeted by pensioners fluent in English and keen to know 'how much travel my bike has', in the depths of Spain friendly local inbreds have advised me on where to find the flowiest ribbons of singletrack. In one of the most desolate locations in the British Isles I would expect to mostly come across hardy, weather–beaten locals, perhaps reluctant to exchange words with strangers on odd looking bikes.
To our surprise, the first human contact during our trip was with a happy and social local couple on a 'stroll' up the mountain. Our second and third were with Jolly Good Chaps; well spoken and terribly polite Old Boys from another dimension...country gentry who probably own large corners of the space we were in, but perfectly friendly, interested and high–spirited.
Two Belgian pals in their seventies and on their regular trip hiking around the Highlands were our friends on one climb, and we chatted bikes, landscapes and bothy life with no hint of social difference or generational gap. We sessioned a corner whilst the hikers watched on. They then set off up the mountain, waving a cheery good–bye and wished us luck with 'shredding the gnar'. Something along those lines anyway.
Incidental #8: Put out to Pasture
When riding in to a location such as this, and certainly with an aim to set–up camp, at times you have to be a little too selective with the kit you can carry. I had this idea to lug a full–face helmet up into the hills with me, but on attaching it to my already bursting–at–the–seams bags, I decided better. My initial plan wasn't entirely without reason though; I had this vague inkling that the downhills might tend to get a little hairy, and how right I was...
Easily one of the most memorable descents of my life was well earned on day one; after peaking and eating, we kitted up and headed down...a long way down. From a cradle between two of the Torridon Hills' hardiest peaks we hugged the shore of a small loch, rolling at speed before being spat out into the vast wilderness beyond. We plunged from somewhere in the skies and into what can only be described as a bastard of a rock garden – endless line choices, slabs of rock, holes, streams, moving boulders and more than enough brutal encounters with the floor...
Now, I've been taking part in some tough old mountain bike races this year and seeing some of Europe's longest and most exciting downhills, but I really am not exaggerating when I say that the run down this particular hill (you'll have to ask Andy for its location) really will stick in my mind as one of the most epic. We took in sections not too far removed from Fort William's downhill track, we fought our way through tight switch–backs, we flowed over slick slabs of grippy rock and we finished with a soft, rooty cruise through some pine trees. Truly unbelievable and absolutely unforgettable.
Incidental #9: Platform One and Only
Having finished the most removed and off–the–map trail of your year – one that will stay in your personal history books as one of the most remote ever and also possibly the first that was more exhausting than the climb before it – it's a funny feeling to be re–accustomed with humanity. OK, we were only out on the hill for a matter of hours (almost 10 hours, incidentally), but to roll around the last corner and directly onto a train station platform was a funny feeling.
There are tiny, remote and lonely train stops all over the Highlands; Achnashellach is but one of them and there is an overnight sleeper train that runs all the way from London up through England and Scotland to this far–out corner and beyond. Just imagine jumping on the train with your bike after work on a Friday, getting a nice long sleep in and then alighting at a solitary platform with a direct connection to Wilderness, Adventure and Mountain Bike Central. Andy knows of a few folk that do this for walking trips and why not on a bike? That could possibly be the ultimate liberation from work and world related stress right there. Of course, you won't know where to go, but that's all part of the adventure, right? Bike–tent–back–pack... It's all you need. Simple.
We celebrated our trip and its success with a long chain of teas and a party of pasta as we looked back down the valley from our welcoming and now homely bothy, having eventually returned from the almighty downhill as the sun was beginning to set. With several rounds of golf and a hip–flask of fine whiskey to end our energies, sleeping on a wooden floor could never have been such an inviting prospect.>>
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Incidental #10: Bonnie Descents
Although only a brief foray into the art of mountain survival, our trip was eye–opening and mind–expanding. Our departure was all too imminent from the second we arrived and I could see myself being quite happy there for many more days, and plenty more satisfying brews.
Fuelled by a hearty mix of porridge, dried fruit and Cadbury's chocolate our last day of escapism was spent hiking the hill behind the bothy; tackling its savage, unforgiving and ever–changing moveable rock sections and attempting to ride with some sort of finesse – not easily done when the ground beneath your wheels is constantly opening up to expose new and even sharper rocks! The terrain 'Up North' is not easy to get to grips with but it creates a great bike ride for any level of rider; freshies to intermediates will enjoy the sharp learning curve (especially when aided by the expert tuition of Andy or one of his affiliate coaches from Dirt School), and even the most expert of downhillers will revel in the gnarled and weather–beaten characteristic of Highland singletrack. I thoroughly recommend a trip with Andy to see what I mean.
Fin: An Epic Evacuation
Leaving the idyllic setting and dream–like experience at the bothy behind was not going to be easy, and I for one took quite some persuading to put down the golf club, pack up my roll–mat and finish my cuppa. Almost as soon as we had left the van, it seemed, we were on the return journey back down the access trail. Having left some supplies behind at the hut for future passers–by and a few snacks to keep the mice happy (of course), our bags were significantly lighter but still hugely over–packed for the occasion.
Navigating a technical and rock–strewn mountain path with an army issue back–pack and sleeping kit for two is quite a challenge I have to say, and in the end my arms couldn't take any more; over the front it was to be and hands out into a pile of coarse Scottish rock. There's now a nice scar on my right palm to forever remind me to keep on adventuring and to take chances when they're there; we chose to head out the door and up, up, up on what promised to be the bleakest day of the year, but oh my did we profit from it.
To learn more about bothy etiquette and to make a donation to the MBA (Mountain Bothies Association) visit www.mountainbothies.org.uk.
Did I tell you about Andy McKenna enough? Give the man a shout, he's friendly, welcoming and level–headed, one of the best mountain guides I have met. Plus he can tell you all about his first ever encounter with a deer tick... We were in the hills behind Torridon taking in some of the riding available on Andy's 'Torrid Affair' ride package. www.go-where.co.uk or call +44 (0)1896 888 096.