From Ross-shire with Love Part 3

Words: Pete Scullion
Photos: Rosie Holdsworth

Day 3 – Mar Sein Leibh Loch Carrann

After what can only be described as the fastest consumption of dinner and deepest sleep ever, we were primed and ready for our final day in the mountains. Having been out for so long the day before, we opted for a ridiculous combo of porridge and a cooked breakfast. Both Rosie and I struggled to finish the latter portion but certainly made a hefty dent. Much needed fuel for the day ahead. After mucking about with Woody the Collie for the final time, we settled up and said farewell to our most excellent hosts, the rather lovely building and of course, Woody. More live Iron Maiden got us primed for another long day out; we couldn’t wait, not after the previous day’s antics.

Rosie saying a final goodbye to a rather rad pup.
Rosie saying a final goodbye to a rather rad pup.

For the final day, we’d be joined by Fort William supremos Joe Barnes and Fiona Beattie. This mirrored the trip we’d made here in October as the group comprised only of people who would much rather be out in the hills on bikes than doing anything else. It also meant that everyone had someone to chase/put space between. Huw had his eyes set of hunting Joe down, me and Sam exchanged places more times than Sam had punctures (that’s a lot of times) and there was now a duel in the ladies’ camp between Fiona and Rosie. All good natured and never planned, but just another facet of the final day.

The rough plan was to again head from the same spot, not that adventurous to be fair, but the path that follows the Fionn-abhainn is a great way of accessing the very heart of the area best known for its amazing descents. We’d again be heading up to, and past, the bothy. The plan was to again ascend to Bealach a’ Choire Ghairbh and around the back of Maoll Chean-dearg, skirting Loch na Eion and off the top of Bealach na Lice.

Skirting Loch an Eion looking out at Beinn Damph, Joe and Huw miles ahead.
Skirting Loch an Eion looking out at Beinn Damph, Joe and Huw miles ahead.

We bumped into a local member of the Marines out on his own, heading over to Torridon and back, who said our chosen route was not the most optimal as there was no real descent around the back of the peak and we’d be better off heading in the opposite direction. Everyone knows that while big days out on the bike are the business, there has to be a descent that warrants the amount of climbing involved. Seems like common sense doesn’t it?

Pete taking in the Highland scenery.
Pete taking in the Highland scenery.

We took the Marine’s advice and turned our route on its head. We’d ride a familiar climb before hooking left between Maol Chean-dearg and Meall Dearg. The trail that skirts Loch na Eion is a blast, another case of ‘get out what you put in’. Not massively steep, but with good flow and quite technical in spots. This trail was new to us all and I had one of the most bizarre crashes I’ve ever had only a few corners in. Some walkers had stopped to let us pass shortly after the trail crossed a stream. The stream looked fairly non-descript but was far deeper and the sides more precipitous than I had anticipated. I managed to send myself over the bars, but with my hands on the ground, my feet clipped in and the bike hanging vertically in perfect balance. Fiona arrived shortly afterwards and couldn’t get any words out she was laughing so much. She’d seen the whole event unfold and almost fell over laughing. I was pleased to provide her with amusement, which seemed to last most of the day…. The loch still had some thick ice where the sun hadn’t paid a visit, but was far from ride-able, despite Huw’s investigation. We spent some time trying to skim stones into a large hole in the ice some 30 feet out. Joe proved once again that he is the stone skimming World Champion and made us all look fairly average. Is there nothing this guy can’t do?

How to ruin a perfectly good view, part 2.
How to ruin a perfectly good view, part 2.

From the ice smashing, we headed up a fairly gentle and fast climb where it was all about the legs. Where the trail peaks, the view across Strath a’ Bhathaich and to the Beinn Damh massif matched the surrounds of the previous days and would produce a postcard in any direction. From here our movements were hampered by a number of landslips that had seen the original trail long gone and the going more stop-start. We eventually decided to turn back on ourselves. The lure of the descent out of Bealach na Lice was too strong. We’d ridden up it 3 times now, so it was very familiar and we knew fine well that we would be descending for some time on some sweet singletrack all the way back to the van.

Joeman showing us how it's supposed to be done.
Joeman showing us how it’s supposed to be done.

We weren’t to be disappointed. Swooping turns punctuated by ridiculous rocky gulleys that promised to snap off all extremities of bike and body came thick and fast. There’s no reason to back off where the going is good. The standard trail format here is a 3-foot wide patch of white quartzite gravel that weaves its way across the valley floor. Staying light on your feet and on the brakes pays dividends, rewarding your efforts for preserving momentum. The sun was still high and the breeze light, what a day for riding bikes! We were all having far too much fun to stop and regroup, everyone assuming the bothy would be the best place to get back together so the hammer was down. Joe made haste and proved his talent on a wee bike is not to be taken lightly. His change in velocity in all situations has seen a major jump over the winter. Huw set about hunting him down, using all the knowledge he gained guiding in the Alps and his XC racer legs to keep Joe in check. Sam and me were again at each other’s rear tyres until I had a big moment and let him pass. I left a big enough gap to not see him again until the bothy. By now, Rosie was in a sugar coma, but still trucking well with Fiona not far away. I forget which order they were in….

Pete starting back towards Bealach na Lice.
Pete starting back towards Bealach na Lice.

Between the bothy and the bridge, the trail starts to hit you with relentless water bars, each one vying to steal the wind from your tyres and at this late stage, 7 hours in, any one of us could have fallen foul. Luckily, we all managed to steer clear of the flats and made it to the bridge. The last few corners before the river crossing are high on grip and flow, offering some sublime riding. A short, sharp climb from the bridge presents possibly the second best descent on offer from the 3 days. It appeals to me, as it’s suitably long and rough, with multiple line choices favouring a cheeky backside of a rock to clear the rougher sections. My riding style in a nutshell. By now fatigue was setting in, so it was all about riding hard but keeping it in your pants. I’m sure we all had a moment or two where the bike decided it was going one way, followed by a strained facial expression and a summoning of all available strength to save the situation. The final stream crossing spells the end of the proper descending and was a chance to regroup and watch Rosie try and negotiate another river (she’s not a fan).

Huw getting his rear wheel steer on under the watchful eye of Sgorr Ruadh.
Huw getting his rear wheel steer on under the watchful eye of Sgorr Ruadh.

The last blast to the road is another where a decent set of legs and an inclination to pedal pays off. By this time I’d bonked, as had a couple of others. Rosie and myself had notched up 20 hours riding here, on top of the 6 the previous two days. We were all a little wrecked. There were no major style points available on the last section, so it was seats up and spin to the road.

The latest in helmet technology as modeled by Huw Oliver.
The latest in helmet technology as modeled by Huw Oliver.

Another amazing day out in the wilds of Highland Scotland and more reason to go again. If we’d arrived earlier on the Monday we could have easily made it 24 hours riding in 72. It’s almost too easy to make a steady ride here last all day; even if you’re cracking on you’ll be out for several hours.

The Knowledge

We attacked this trip from Lochcarron, opting for the shorter drive but perhaps missing out on the ‘classic’ Torridon descents. Glen Torridon and the village itself has plenty of facilities much like Lochcarron but is obviously going to take longer to get to. We couldn’t find anything wrong with Lochcarron that would make us want to go elsewhere.

Travel 

Trains: Only an option if you live near or can get easy access to the Inverness-Kyle of Lochalsh line. Lochcarron would be the best as it has the best facilities. A multi-day trip would mean you’d need to carry all your kit, plus the bike on the train. Bonuses are you don’t have to worry about driving or checking in. Downsides are listening to gabba blaring out of a youth’s phone for the duration of the trip.

Planes: Inverness is the nearest airport, an hour and a half away. This option would still leave you needing to catch a train or hiring a car. Bonuses are access to Inverness from most of the UK and you cover most of the distance very quickly. Downsides are you have to deal with ‘suits’, luggage restrictions and waiting lounges. 

Automobiles: If you’re lucky and own a suitable vehicle, this option allows the greatest flexibility. Put the fuel in and drive. Yes it requires one of those riding to get behind the wheel unlike the other options, but the scenery is the best, you can take as many pee breaks as you want and you get to choose the music you listen to. The major downside is the cost of long chain hydrocarbons to fuel said vehicle, small roads and crap drivers. 

Other options: Andy McKenna of GoWhere Scotland plies his trade here and seems to be the best at doing so. Nobody knows the best places to ride in this part of the world more than Andy. If you’re looking for the all-inclusive or a tailor-made package, do yourself a favour and give them a shout.

Accommodation: Rosie and me stayed here. Emma was the perfect host, had plenty of good chat, knew the area very well, had the best sheepdogs and even offered to let Huw and Sam camp on their lawn and use our shower. Breakfast options were hearty and varied to suit all tastes and the shower, while not enough to take your scalp off, was certainly a potent machine. Prices are £30 per person per night which is buttons considering what you get. The bed was so comfortable it almost made me forget my own bed. There are plenty of other options in Lochcarron, ranging from cheap to ridiculous and for those going solo or large groups.

Food: The Lochcarron Hotel is the best place to fuel up after a day’s riding. Dinner finishes serving at 9pm and we almost missed the cut on the first night but the bar staff clearly saw we were desperate and made room for us. Much of the food is caught, reared, grown and made locally and is all top notch. Service is rapid and the desserts to die for. Local beer, ale and whiskey is all available, just take it steady, you’ll want to be riding in the morning!

Part 2 of the story here.
Part 1 here.

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