Words: Pete Scullion
Photos: Rosie Holdsworth
Part 1 (Barcachd) here.
Part 2 - Achadh nan Seileach
Our second day in Lochcarron started well. My original plan to wake at 6am to see the sun rise was thwarted by my ability to sleep through even the harshest of onslaughts on my ears. We'd opted to stay indoors, defying the very spirit of adventure, but saving our energies for time on the bike rather than burn all available stokens by shivering to death in a tent. Our erstwhile colleagues, Sam (Rosie's brother) and technical riding wizard Huw Oliver, had joined our party that night. Sam hopped aboard the Iron Maiden train in Fort William while Huw drove his Berlingotron solo the previous night from Dundee. We were all in for a treat.
Our accommodation was far plusher than the price tag would have led us to believe. Loch Dubh B&B sits unassumingly above Lochcarron but offers a frankly ridiculous view across the loch and beyond from the solid oak breakfast table, flanked by two stag heads. With the sun crashing through the large ceiling-high windows, we knew the Achnashellach loop was going to be a winner. After we'd shovelled down porridge, two rounds of toast plus gallons of coffee and orange juice we were ready to hit the hills.
Woody and the Blingblingo
Every trip to the van was delayed by Woody. Who's Woody I hear you ask? He's the 18 month old Collie that is as stoked on everything as I am, possibly even more so. He'd have happily joined us for our adventure, if he'd been allowed. Both Rosie and myself planned to steal him, but decided against it in the end as we planned to return!
We arrived at Coulags to find Huw and Sam in deep discussion about the dashboard features of the Berlingo. Sam, most inquisitive about the automobile's many functions, listened intently as Huw laid down the knowledge. Anyway....bikes, yes. We had a long day ahead as both Huw and I knew from riding this loop before. Both members of Clan Holdsworth hadn't and were most excited. Me and Huw weren't exactly calm either. I'd say we all involuntarily hit every surface of our respective vehicles on the way there, such was the anticipation. Rosie smacking the first disc of Iron Maiden's 'En Vivo' into the CD player got us to fever pitch, with a perfectly timed track change to 'The Trooper' seeing the occupants of our van almost self combust.
The faff was unusually limited as we'd all ridden the day before, so bags just needed a quick change of water, sweets, gels and tubes. A brief pedal across the bridge from the car park gets you onto the public right of way to Torridon towards the Coire Fionnaraich bothy and beyond. The first climb was the same as the previous day, so needs little introduction. Rather than hook left at the first split in the path towards Bealach a' Choire Ghairbh we kept turning right, taking us towards Loch Coire Fionnaraich. It was here we took our first pit stop and looked back at the distance we'd already covered. The beauty of riding in this part of the world is that you never feel like you've ridden as far as you have. The trails are as engaging as the landscape, so you've little time to spend thinking about tired arms and legs.
The trails are as engaging as the landscape, so you've little time to spend thinking about tired arms and legs.
At the loch, you can see why coire, a Scottish Gaelic term for cauldron, is used many times in these parts. The UK's glacial past is very obvious here as the mountains rise sharply from the loch damned in by the deposited moraine. The loch itself sits at 236m above sea level with Meall Chean Dearg and Sgorr Ruadh rising many hundreds of metres above it. All the surrounding peaks are as impressive as they are imposing, especially when still capped by winter snow still clinging to the higher peaks.
The climb from the loch towards Bealach Ban is less gentle than its predecessor but is mostly ride-able if the legs allow. A few steep, loose climbs punish tired legs, as they are unable to meter out the power to find whatever grip is available. The views keep improving until you scale the 45-degree quartzite slabs at the head of the bealach. There is only one view on this route that gets better than this. From here, there is an uninterrupted view of the Liathach, a 5 Munro mass that rises sharply from the deep Torridon sea lochs to over 1000m at its height. Skye can be seen to the west on a good day and the view from where we'd come from was only smeared slightly by, almost unbelievably, heat haze. We took a moment to sample the unrivalled grip of metamorphosed quartzite by stoppying down, and wheelying up, the steep slabs of rock. The grip was so readily available that Sam's jaw dislocated, as can be seen in the photo below. Luckily, he didn't require medical attention and another stoppy in the opposite direction saw his jaw swung back into place.
And then came the snow
Above the slabs, the terrain became tougher going with the addition of wind-hardened snow. What had been a fast and flowy trail before the scree slope below Coire Grannda was reduced to walking pace and finally, walking itself. I paused at the top of the scree slope to ensure our companion Stuart, a gentleman in his late 70s walking the route on his own, made his way up safely. In all fairness, with all our stops to admire the view, he wasn't too far behind us. The coire offered sights we hadn't yet seen, owing to the presence of the sun beforehand. The amount of snow and ice here confirmed its northern-facing aspect and the quantity of frozen waterfalls were immense. Everything here was covered in snow fallen weeks ago or ice that had been that way since winter first came to say hello. I was slightly concerned as even as dry as the climb up the corrie wall was last time, it wasn't easy. Being covered in snow and ice would be another matter altogether. This is where the adventure portion of the trip came into full effect.
At the base of the corrie wall, it was clear we wouldn't be walking on rock or earth at all until we were some way down the mountain. The presence of snow and cramp-on marks made me even more worried, but upwards we went anyway. Being a midget in these circumstances is never the best. Where the snow was deepest and had sat above gaps in the rocks, I lost most of my leg into the snow. Weighing in at just under 9 stone makes me 20% heavier with a bike on my back. It was tough going until the snow hardened enough for me to play my trump card and not break the surface.
Weighing in at just under 9 stone makes me 20% heavier with a bike on my back. It was tough going until the snow hardened enough for me to play my trump card and not break the surface.
That was soon ruined by the presence of sheet ice and I must say, my bottom was all a-quiver. This was something I was completely unprepared for and the group of walkers with full winter climbing gear made me realise how daft we were in pursuit of this descent. The view from the top of the corrie is the business. Again, the Liathach is in full view but you can now see the descent stretching out in the opposite direction down to Achnashellach railway station. The line here is accessed from Inverness and runs all the way to Kyle of Lochalsh, but is a fairly roundabout why of accessing the area from the south.
With that out of the way, we quickly decided to try and ride across the frozen lochan. Huw was confident that it was ride-able when one of the hill walkers smacked the ice with his axe and barely marked the surface. Rosie played it safe and stuck to the path, while me, Huw and Sam set about seeing how brave we wanted to be. Huw won by deploying a one-handed wheelie on the ice. Good effort sir.
We had a brief time riding on snow before the sun finally had the height to peak over the top of Sgorr Ruadh and find the ground below Benn Liath Mor. The upper stretches of the track here are littered with bright white quartzite that presents itself as the loosest surface going. Rocks of varying size lie upon a fine gravel of the same stone. The best approach is to hit everything flat out and allow the bike to handle the task of dealing with the hits while having the reflexes to make split second decisions should things start going wrong. Lines don't really exist as the trail doesn't see any significant traffic and the weather is the determining factor to trail conditions. After some wild rides above Loch Coire Lair, the trail flattens out but still offers some amazing riding if you have the pistons to make it happen.
After some wild rides above Loch Coire Lair, the trail flattens out but still offers some amazing riding if you have the pistons to make it happen.
A decent trail bike, a dropper post and a pair of well tuned legs will love this part of the ride as you get from it exactly what you put in. At full chat, which is the only way we saw feasible, the trail comes alive. Water bars and natural jumps come at you thick and fast, leaving you wanting more. Speed allows you to use transitions to great effect with great sections of trail cleared with the wheels off the ground. Where the trail widens, the surface worsens with a few hairy gullies to negotiate. I'd said my goodbyes more than once on this section. Where the trail starts to climb is always a good place to regroup and we all struggled to get the words out while breathing heavy and thinking of enough superlatives to do what we'd just ridden justice. Me and Huw were wide-eyed, knowing full well the descent that was about to come, Rosie and Sam could only sit gawping when we pointed out we were still 300m above the road. We'd already been descending for a good 25 minutes!
The trail splits several times more but sticking to the left of the River Lair reveals what this ride is all about. In stark contrast to the loose rubble of the upper reaches, the dark quartzite slabs offer unrivalled grip. Where a dropped banana skin has the lowest grip coefficient of anything known to man, the rock slabs above Achnashellach are the antithesis of that. This surface has to be ridden to be fully understood. Both times I have ridden this section of trail, I have immediately wanted to ride it again. My mind conjures up how much faster I could have hit every section only once I'm done. Needless to say we spent some time sectioning the best bits as the sun was still very much on our side and the trail had definitely given us a second wind.
Before the final descent starts proper, there is what I can only describe as the best section or sections of any trail ever. A fast double-track with rolling slabs offers multiple options to double things up and make yourself feel like a king. Shortly after there is a mega rocky section that can only be hit flat out for good effect with a couple of pro lines and finally a right-hand rock berm followed by a left-handed rut full of gravel (that offers no option but to rear wheel steer the living daylights out of it). From here on down, water bars are maybe the only complaint. These can be easily negotiated with a decent hop and are usually just before, on the apex of, or after a turn, so there's no relaxing top to bottom. The gradient sharpens in the best way possible and with the exception of Sam racking up yet another puncture, it was as good as it could have been. I sectioned one corner maybe 15 times while waiting for the wind to return to Sam's rear tyre. I was far from bored.
The final section seems like what would happen if trail centres occurred naturally. A 4-foot wide trail, hardpack with loose native pine needles covering the upper layer. Again, maximum attack is the only way here as you weave your way down through the native trees with the River Lair in a deep crevasse below. Once through a deer gate it's all over. How do you go about describing the best ride on the planet? I can honestly say, I don't know of the right words to truly explain the Coulags-Achnashellach-Coulags loop, it really has to be experienced.
This is the end
From the foot of the trail, a quick blast down fire road and you're back to relative civilisation. We only saw enough people to count comfortably on one hand all day. While that offers a unique experience with regards to truly feeling like you're in the middle of nowhere, it's also important that you have everything you need for a full day in the wilds. Regardless of what time of year you visit this part of the world, the proximity to the sea and the prevailing wind, plus the height of the mountains can put you in a sticky situation very quickly before accidents and mechanicals are factored in. Thankfully, we got very lucky with the weather and in fact, got ourselves a suntan. While you can buy a whole host of traditional Scottish delights from the shops in Lochcarron, a tan from a high Scottish sun is a rare treat no money can buy.
From Achnashellach, the pedal back to the car park is all on road unfortunately. Thankfully the road only has one climb, which is over fairly quickly. The A890 is technically singletrack with passing places and the locals are well versed in keeping out of the way of other road users, so it's certainly not a dangerous stretch by any means.
With the vehicles packed, Huw and Sam made straight for the Lochcarron Hotel while we took advantage of a much needed shower and got cleaned up before heading for food. (The Lochcarron Hotel is a fantastic venue for post-ride banter and foodstuffs. The food is most excellent, being cheap, awesome and plentiful. The menu will have you guessing until the moment you place your order and the desserts are the bomb.)
Following dinner and after a couple of rounds of board games, we were all spent and made our excuses. We'd been out for 9 hours; many folk would have been in work that long on the same day.
It's not too often you end up getting only as much sleep as you rode your bike the previous day.
Final part of the story coming tomorrow.