The Highland Trail 550 is a mountain bike race (challenge/experience) running 550 miles through the Scottish Highlands, devised by the infamous Alan Goldsmith.
I had started "dotwatching" events like this (CT,AZT,APWR etc) years ago and was fascinated by a route that ran so close to home; even on some tracks I had ridden. The ability of riders to complete and compete over such time was anathema to me, but as I got into bikepacking with one-, two-, three day overnighters a niggle began... could I...?
In 2019 I attempted an ITT, wisely advised I was not ready for the Grand Depart. After 2-days and 200 miles I too decided I was not ready for the Northern Loop and scratched.
This is my 2021 story...
Planning and Preparation
Maps, charts, new chain, revised chainring and cassette and even new wheels arrived in the couple of days before start. Nowhere near enough bedding-in time but I was confident in the bike and a winter of training on wider tyres and snow put me in a positive frame of mind.
See setup here https://dotwatcher.cc/.../bikes-of-the-highland-trail-550...
Day #1 - Tyndrum to Invermorrison (100m, 15hrs)
A quick familiar day with Glen Lyon, Rannoch, Ben Alder and Corrieyairack. The biggest climbing day but mostly rideable and the seemingly mystical challenge of hitting Fort Augustus in time for the restaurant was facilitated by the early staggered (Covid-format) start. Boyed-up by a double-pasta supper I rode on into the woods, pitched the tent around midnight and set a 4am alarm.
Day #2 - Glen Casseley (118m, 17hrs)
Another target for the 550 completion is the Oykel Bridge Hotel for food orders before the end of day two. At another+100 miles it's not easy and so away in the dawn light. Quickly passed by gravel-bike Ruth who would be within an hour of me for the next 5 days. Up over the shoreline of Loch na Stack, ideal fat-bike territory brought me to Mike Dennison and we found plenty in common in contacts and riding pace. We would ride together pretty much from hereon in.
The big Orrin climb and Contin shop before closing fired us into Loch Vaich and the Allerdale wilderness with a fresh tailwind. Things were good pact Croick and an astonishingly early time at the pub around 7pm. We knew the tailwind was part of a complex weather pattern that would spin south of us if we were lucky, but with forecasts of sleet and gusty winds we took the advantage of light and rode another 15 miles that evening to a blustery camp up Glen Casseley.
Day #3 - Lochinver (71m, 13hrs)
Packing up a damp camp we warmed up quickly on the hyrdo pipeline climb and then buttoned up for the long fast tarmac freewheel to Loch Shin. The wind was already blowing water about in all directions but we pressed on, meeting Chris Sleight at a locked gate. Chris rides from Aberfoyle and is consistently faster than me but the tentless bivvy (brave choice Chris!) had slowed his morning.
Into unknown territory now that I should have map-memorised better as each climb and descent was a red-herring for the biggest Bealach Horn rounding. Pushing and carrying over rough ground going was slow, but warm until the track from the top down to sea level again. Burns were busted and needed wading through. The grit also ate through new brake pads to give a squeeling ride of limited control. At the bottom a half-sided cow byre was a desperate form of shelter, but a relative gift out of the teeth of the wind. We clattered inside, shivering to meet Nick Bubb. Chris came in 10 minutes later and we left with a plan to find anywhere to dry out that evening.
Climb and drop to Kylesku - no room at the inn, not a hot meal and narry even a hot drink - blacklisted forever! But press on with a phone call that there is a dry room 30 miles away, via the wonderful tea-bearing Drumbeg stores we made it to Lochinver with minutes to spare to order hot food and buzz in a post-traumatic experience.
Day #4 - Torridon (66m, 15hrs)
The Leadmore Traverse is an early taste of the next few days with a long walk through Canisp. Slow going and little to merit a bike for company though the views of Suilven shedding it's morning cloak of cloud were gorgeous. Road back to Oykel Bridge for the best hot roll EVER and then on again South. A feeling of progress on the route with a big day to come but heading in the right direction. Mostly rideable in the damp rain to Ullapool and stock up on new socks, fish supper and takeaway calories. And some Ibruprofen gel for an increasingly painful knee. A new section of route along some beautiful path bordered by evening colours past the Corrieshalloch gorge and out (via a bog) to the road to Fisherfield. We rode to the track end and set another early start. Fisherfield has a reputation.
Day #5 - Torridon(ish) (51m, 15hrs)
A well-justified reputation. Big and bold, we pushed, pulled and rode (a bit) through the wildest places I have read about and seen images of and never knew I could visit. The infamous crossing of the Loch na Sealga I was cocky enough to try and ride ... follow the GPS is the rule but as the water approached the top-tube the 4" fat bike tyres just float too much and the whole traction/friction equation goes against the rider. I stepped off (ooph!) and the bike popped up like a cork! Next was the hardest HaB of my life, up and down. Push bike 50cm, brakes on, step up. Repeat 1000 times. Into and out of the clouds. I'm sure the vista is amazing. We didn't see it. Something like 8 hours for 15 miles covered. So in need of more miles to keep on target we headed for Poolewe, then the Tollie Path (THE worst road in the world, ever) and finally some evening sunshine past Beinn Eighe and Slioch to Kinlochewe on tarmac. A few miles on and the ghillie passes us with a fresh fish supper and a kindly gesture to use the boathouse as a camp for the night.
Day #6 - Tomich (69m, 15.5hrs)
It's starting to blur now. Push up, push down technically unrideable (for me) descent, Hours at a time through Torridon, Strathcarron to Attadale and beautiful Dornie. The first warm day really. Tinned beans fired me up and the climb to Glen Affric we beasted before the slow (tired) traverse past the bothy, hostel and finally to Tomich after 9pm. With a long climb ahead we got well up into the woods before camping. Less than 100 miles showing on the Garmin route meant there was no intent to camp again!
Day #7 - Tyndrum (90m, 19hrs)
Ouch, swear, shout, yell, blaspheme -- this was my first noisy hour of the day before and after getting on the bike. A painful knee and backside I knew would wear off but that process was a testing one. I only had a few dark moments and scratch-thoughts in the event but Friday morning I seriously thought I just needed to be tempted by the train-station get-out. The whole event was so marginal that a touch of worse weather, a niggle more or a mechanical could have finished it off. I have come last in many events and the positive in me says I just push for the most difficult thing I can manage. But it's hard, day after day, long hour after long hour. My admiration is there 110% for the sleep-deprived winners who have the fitness and stamina to blast an event... but also and sometimes moreso to those who take so many days longer, day-in, day-out.
Salvation came with the most spectacular inversion below us, the Great Glen and Glen Morrison fulled with morning cloud and the snow-capped tops we had just traversed poking out like nunataks over a glacier.
Down, cold, up, hot, Fort Augustus, breakfast, fuel, path, wind, hill, forest, singletrack, canal, co-op and West Highland Way. Counting down the miles, calculating timings and remaining battery charges for phone messages and navigation. The stretch to Kinlochleven took hours longer than I remembered but brought the remaining miles into the sub-30 zone. Climb the hydro track out (still got it) and then HaB through and down the devils staircase. Still light. Still moving. Kingshouse and Rannoch Moor, possible in dark but faster with light so pressed on and lights only on for the last, quick cobbled drop to Forest Lodge.
Tired. One more hill. Familiar ground again and rolling in at 12:48am.
I wanted a welcoming committee, I wanted a beer, I wanted to kiss the ground and have a cry. But I just pressed stop on the SPOT tracker and shook hands with Mike. The first human contact with anyone apart from my partner since Covid. That was prize enough.
Total Elapsed Time: 6d 17h
Total Active Time (between camp): 4d, 13h (109hrs)
Total Moving Biking/Walking Time: 3d, 18h (90hrs)
Tracking history here: https://trackleaders.com/highland21i.php?name=Crispin_Hoult
Text by Crispin Hoult
Top image by Mike
All other photographs by Crispin