Arctic Scotland - A solo winter attempt on the Highland Trail 550 2022.
“The right decisions in the mountains are the difference between telling a story or becoming a story,’
I read off an instagram post as I sat in bed nursing my frost bitten toes back to health. A cold snap had arrived at just the right time, as I sat in my B&B in Tyndrum, a frozen little town in the shadow of the Scottish mountains just north of Glasgow. I’d loaded my fat bike up with all the kit I would need for a battle with the infamous Highland Trail 550, which has the reputation as one of, if not the hardest ITT (individual time trial) bike packing route in this country. Designed by Alan Goldsmith as a training ride for his attempt on the Arizona Trail in the USA, it now stands alone as a hardcore route in its own right. There is a grand depart Summer with only 60 places available, and you have to provide your bike packing CV to the route’s founder, to be included on his start list. In 2021 Annie Lloyd Evans cemented her name in the HT550 history books by not only winning the women’s race that year, but she went back in December to complete the first winter round over the longest night of the year, and name of her film. Many including Alan himself thought it wasn’t possible to complete in winter, but Annie proved many wrong with an excellent ride taking under 8 days. I was inspired by this humble young gutsy rider.
As Paudie the photographer wished me well and drove off into the dark, I almost threw up, sat on my bike outside the Real Food Cafe. The very real emotion of what I was trying to do sat heavily in my throat, blocking my breakfast from ending up on the fence. I pushed the start button of my SPOT tracker and pedalled very slowly down the frozen main street.
The cold dry air burnt my nose and lips as I breathed deeply, pedalling my way out of town and onto the trail. Emotions settled as I focused on the bubble of light that would guide me for the next 3 hours until dawn appeared. Before I knew it, lost in deep concentration, I was at the first of many river crossings I would have to undertake on the route, and the subject of a lot of conversions I would have with other racers during my planning over the past few months. I’m not sure people realise the amount of planning that goes into taking on something like this, as there is so much to think through and get right. Kit choice, food, sleeping systems for minus temperatures etc etc, the list seems endless at the start. But one by one I’ve worked through the options and I think I have the perfect system. This system is ever-evolving, always changing with experience and conditions. To my surprise, the first river was frozen and my studded fat bike tyres bit into the ice as I glided across the top hoping not to plummet into the icy water running below.
There is something special about riding your bike into the dawn light, as the glow of the sunrise reveals the skyline high above you. The blue light of dawn changed to glowing reds and oranges and before I knew it I was cycling through a winter wonderland under clear blue skies with ice crackling under my tyres. This is what I had come for: cold dry conditions perfect for riding and something that is hard fought to get in the Scottish Highlands, which are more often akin to damp wet sleety snowy conditions. As I settled into a routine which would carry me through the next few days, my mindset relaxed from being completely overwhelmed at the thought of this undertaking. I was now simply enjoying riding the trails that stretched away into the distance and taking in the incredible snowy vistas that surrounded me. This by far has to be my favourite style of riding, winter conditions, and point to point riding has always been inspiring to me. Knowing what you pass today will be different tomorrow brings the sense of enjoying every moment good or bad, because you may not catch it again in the same way. The light hitting the trees, or cutting a golden line across mountain tops. A car-sized highland cow, ginger straggly frame with intimidating horns blocking your path, or farmers herding their cattle hindering your progress. Just taking those moments are so important to take in where you are, even when the clock is ticking on an ITT.
There are iconic parts of the Highland Trail which always come up in conversation, and one of those is the highest point on the route, which thankfully you tackle the first day, when you’re relatively fresh. The Corrieyairack Pass is a well known challenge that sits proudly south of Fort Augustus, the southern gateway to Loch Ness. The road was built by General Wade back in 1860 for military use and has been used ever since for all number of reasons, and mine, to try and make the fish and chip shop before it closed in the Fort. I stopped in the Melgrave Bothy, a small mountain hut on the southern side of the pass, to eat some hot food before heading up the long steep climb. Time and snow conditions were against me, so I decided to stop and eat before getting stuck into the long hike-a-bike over the grand pass in the late hours of the first day. With the gas stove hissing away like a top gun afterburner, I sorted my snacks for the evening, fetched water from a stream, and made a flask of hot soup to get me through the sub zero late hours. Within half an hour I was kitted up ready for a long night ahead, climbing the pass. Getting over the summit, and more so, down the other side was tough going, but my plan was to make it to Fort Augustus at the end of day one. Seeing the lights glistening away in the distance gave me the last bit of motivation I needed to roll into town just after 1am. I quickly found somewhere to get my head down, set a count down timer for 4 hours, and quickly drifted off to sleep exhausted, but happy.
The alarm sounded in what felt like a couple of minutes, so much for
the recovery I thought as I released the air in my mattress - a trick I learnt early on in how to get up and get moving. It’s never pleasant laying on the cold ground, it motivates you
to get on the move. I started the stove while I packed my kit away, quickly forced some porridge down before rolling out of Fort Augustus in the darkness of the morning. My breath in
terfered with my head torch as large white clouds exhaled from my lungs, filling the sky
as I pushed up through the forest path. It wasn’t long until I dropped out of the forest, turned left at Invermoriston, and was flying down the tarmac road. My fat studded tyres roared into the silent still morning. It felt good to hit road sections, feeling like I was clawing back lost time from pushing through the snow. Headlights from a couple of early comers illuminated the road like daylight, but they soon sped past, returning me to my small bubble of white light. I’d heard the climb up to Loch na Stac was a long tough one so I wasn’t phased by the pushing when it started, it was just part of the journey I was on. I managed to ride a bit of the shore line around the loch before that became too rough, deep and risky. The wee castle on an island at the end of the loch was a welcome sight, with scaffolding wrapped around it for repair, it resembled a giant bird cage. It was great to get some gravity-assessed help plowing through the deep snow descending from the loch. With the 4” tyres I was running, it felt more like to sledging than riding.
After another fast section on the road, I was starting to feel positive about the day. I was about to ride one of the few sections I had ridden before in summer, so was feeling confident I would make the Contin Stores while they were still open. A big ask in the winter season of Scotland where most shops reduce their opening hours, as there simply isn’t the same volume of tourists passing through. As I climbed into the snow line, it was clear that a lot more snow had fallen over night. Fresh snow made progress hard going along the landrover track, but I enjoyed riding over the frozen solid puddles that were the bane of the track when we crossed it a few summers ago. Hitting the flat milky coloured puddles and hearing my studs bite into the hard surface was a joy. Occasionally a loud crack would pierce the ambience and my heart rate would soar with the anticipation of cracking through the icy crust into a murky stale pool of smelly underlying water. This silly game of puddle roulette kept my spirits high as I haemorrhaged time pushed through shin-deep snow between the sections I could ride. The sky was a perfect summer’s day blue, and the ground had a thick brilliant white winter coat, which at times I enjoyed while moving at the speed of a crawling toddler.
As the low sun sank from the sky, bright blue turning golden then fading into black, my hopes of making Contin disappeared. Then I had a thought, maybe the garage stays open later than the shop? With a new lease of life I hustled off the hill and along the main road into Contin, happy to see cars filling up at the pumps. Yes! Forgetting the modern technology of pay at the pumps, I crossed the road and was crushed when I released it had been closed for hours. I messed around in Contin for a while trying to find water and food but had no luck, so decided to press on and keep going. It was around 7 pm and it had already felt like a long day in the saddle. My evening plan was to stop around this time. Cook and eat food, make a flask for later, then carry on riding into the night until I found somewhere to sleep, drinking the soup before bed to stay warm in these super cold conditions. With no sign of water to cook from, I had to keep riding until I found something. Rolling out of town I came across a bloke unpacking his works van, lights on, garage door open, so I stopped and asked if he wouldn’t mind filling my bottles from his tap. He produced a bottle of water out of his van, and asked what I was doing cycling in these temperatures. We chatted for a few minutes before I packed the water, thanked him, and headed on my way, stopping not too long up the trail to enjoy some hot food. A couple of dot watchers found me, the parents of a team mate, just as I was about to get going again, but not wanting to be rude and ride off, I walked with them for a good few minutes while pushing my bike, talking them through my day. After a short walk I bid them farewell and headed into the darkness along forest trails to Garve. I knew I was going to fall short of my planned milage for the day, so I was on the lookout for somewhere to get my head down and try and recover, ready to go again the following day. It took some time and it was higher than I wanted to camp in the cold weather, but I’d put in a big shift and needed sleep. 107 kilometres in 16 hours, ridiculously slow, even by fat bike standards.
I woke to a world full of diamonds, everywhere my head torch shone, it lit up millions of tiny sparkles attached to everything, as I drank hot coffee in the still darkness of a minus 15 degree Scottish winter morning, I was the richest man in the world. However it wasn’t all plain sailing in these temperatures. The cold was playing havoc with my battery packs and recharging capabilities. Plugging things into recharge, they would start charging then cut out, meaning I’d be riding along happily thinking batteries were being charged, yet they had turned off and nothing was happening at all. This cold spell was also making life harder for my tiny little sram AXS batteries. I wasn’t convinced the AXS wireless system would be any good for ultra events, especially in the cold weather, however the testing I had done prior to this ride the product had been faultless. I risked it, bought 3 batteries and a charger, thinking that would be good enough. However the issue was getting the batteries to recharge from my 28,000mAh battery pack, which wasn’t having a fun time at all in these conditions. I had to keep stopping to swap out batteries when my gears refused to shift. At times I rode long sections stuck in the one gear to save time and give the battery on charge time to take more juice on board. It also helped to charge two things at once, so the draw of current was higher, keeping the battery pack from shutting off.
Gleann Mor and its frozen solid tracks were a joy to ride. At last I was making good time and enjoying whizzing down the glen, sunshine lighting up the mountains either side, while I raced through the shadows low in the valley. Once again the studded tyres gave me the confidence to hit sheet ice at speed and roll over the shiny surface like rubber tyres on a dry tarmac road. I played ice puddle roulette again with he first few, before gaining the confidence that everything was frozen solid, and I relaxed, hitting them as fast as I could. I loved these frozen sections, feeling the bike accelerate before hitting the fresh snow at the end, my tyres sinking through the softness until finding firmness in the pack before rolling on. It was hard going, but I was happy to be moving with speed at last.
Keeping your head positive on rides like this is a challenge and something that comes with practice and experience. I get caught out when the going is good, and I start to predict what time I will be into the next town or feature on the map. This I find, is often where I come unstuck, for a short while anyway. Here I was thinking I was going to arrive in Oykel Bridge earlier than expected, however where Gleann Mor had been a highway, turning west into Strath Cuileannach was back to deep soft snow, pushing and postholing, my progress coming to a screaming halt.
I enjoyed the golden rays of sunshine that filled the sky, reminded myself why I love this hardship, and after a couple of long hours, I was back riding the descent winding down to Oykel Bridge. A short pit stop and a refill of bottles from the iced-over river, and I was on the road for a long section and happy in my own head about making good time once again.
Glen Golly, at the far northern end of the route is well known as one of the tougher sections of the route. It follows the Glen Golly River until it breaks off up a rib above Creag Dubh, which leads you across a plateaux of peat hags before dropping down to cross the An Dubh Loch river, then climbs steeply up another rib, before rounding the famous Bealach Horn. All in, this section is roughly 17 kilometres with around 800 to 900 metres of climbing, so nothing too crazy. However, it must be given the respect it deserves, as it’s pretty remote terrain. I started riding up the Glen Golly road just before 10pm, and I was surprised how far I was able to ride, thinking it was going to be horrendous from the start, but that was to come. Once I arrived at the base of the rib, knee deep snow filled my path upwards and I battled to lift, push, part throw my loaded bike inches forwards at a time, taking two steps up, post holing in the snow, and repeating the process for hour after hour after hour. At one point I think it took me about 2 hours to cover just 200 metres. Regardless, my mind strong, I never lost focus or my cool once. I had a job to do and that was to push my bike through this snowy blizzard until I reached the other side, then I could relax, but until then, I was rock solid and focused.
At 2am I was starting to feel it, tired, struggling to heave my bike through the snow and thought I must stop and rest. I was on the plateau at this point and in a full blizzard with howling winds and driving snow, and it felt like I was on another planet. The falling snow killed any visibility from my head torch, my eyes struggling in the darkness. I came across a large boulder offering slight shelter from the wind, spindrift blasted over the top. I messed about for a couple of minutes to see if I could flatten a ledge to pitch my tent, but it was no use. The more snow I shifted, the more it filled back in, and there was no way I thought I’d be able to pitch my tent even in the slight shelter of that boulder. I quickly decided I was better on the move, I had to keep going, that was the safest thing to do. I took a deep breath, and carried on, focused and more determined than before.
Dropping down to cross the river was a good feeling. Weaving through peat hags was less so. The driving snow still giving me problems with visibility, and I did the best I could to weave my way through the hags and drifts. All of a sudden, I felt weightless, my bike light as a feather. It didn’t last long as I crashed into the snow-covered hag below me. I quickly found my feet and searched for my bike, and scanning around with my head torch I found it. Ten feet below me sticking out of the snow. For a second I had no idea what had happened, then surveying around with my obstructed beam of light, I realised I’d just walked off the edge of a giant peat hag that I was now swallowed up in. Adrenaline pumping hard, I waded down the snow to collect and check my bike. It could have been worse I thought, as I searched around trying to find an exit point. I crossed the river which was mostly frozen over, and made my way slowly up the rib underneath the horn. Motivated by the skyline coming into sight with dawn approaching, I dragged, pulled, and lifted my bike inch by inch, up the deep snow that covered the rib. My arms were cramping, shoulders were screaming, legs burning, yet my mind was focused and not willing to listen to individual complaints from every appendage. As the wind dropped, and the snow stopped falling, the dawn of a new day was showing me all of its glory. I crept under the horn until I could see the valley drifting away far below me. As I started to make my way off the hill, I had the harsh realisation that this downhill section wasn’t going to be easy. Knee deep in snow, I was still hours away from being able to ride this two-wheeled machine once more.
By the time I was able to ride again I was exhausted. I’d started up Glen Golly at 10pm the previous evening, and when I came to a stop just before the carpark, sunshine on my face and the first time I’d felt safe in a good few hours, I burst into tears. Unable to hold the strong mental focus anymore, I could lower my guard and be human in this moment. I phoned my wife Caroline to let her know I was okay and told her I wasn’t sure how much more I could take. I needed some time to refocus and I needed food, I hadn’t eaten in hours. I had no idea at the time but it had taken me 18 hours from Glen Golly to Achfary, just 17 kilometres in distance.
Sat in my tent eating food which felt amazing, I could feel the energy returning to my body. I drank hot coffee, hot chocolate, and soup. Checking the forecast, it was due to snow heavily again over night. I had one more pass to get over, this time much shorter, until I dropped onto the coastal roads that would take me around to LochInver, before the next hard section would start. It made sense in my head to get over the pass, before the heavier snow fell and down near the coast. I finished my food, drank the last drips of coffee, packed up and headed off.
After less than 2 hours of rest, I pushed on 34 hours since sleeping, with the goal of getting over the Meall Diamhain, and down to Kylesku, then following the coastal road around to Drumbeg, easy! An hour after packing up my tent, pushing up the narrow path through the Reay Forest, I realised this wasn’t going to be straight forward either. Deep drifts of snow took progress back to a snail’s pace, which I had spent most of the last 20 hours at. This section was relentless, and I questioned why I thought it was a good idea. With severe fatigue blurring my thoughts, I had no answers, I was just confused, as the snow begin to fall as forecast. Gaining the plateau, there was no let up, deep snow drifts had buried the road and it was almost impossible to see where it ran. I was back to following a line on my Garmin and every time I strayed from it, I was penalised with knee deep snow.
The Kylesku Bridge is a feat of modern architecture and engineering, and its difference in height at either end and large curve makes this a picture postcard location, but not for me. I was just glad to be below the snow line and riding my bike, and giving two shits about its beauty in the darkness, I rolled across it without sparing a thought at the wonder or marvel of it all. Drumbeg was the goal, and that was only 17 kilometres way. One thing I had forgotten to appreciate was that those were just about the hilliest 17 clicks on this island. In a sleepy haze, I pedalled what I could, and pushed what I couldn’t. It’s normally just over an hour’s journey, but for me this evening took closer to 2 hours. I was so happy to see the Drumbeg sign when I rolled past it. I rode through town trying to spy a stealthy camp stop hidden away, with no great success. I pulled my bike up in the hotel car park and went about setting up my tent on the gravel. I lay on my sleeping mat wrapped in down feathers, wondering why I couldn’t sleep. The wind picked up in the night and being in a gravel car park, I couldn’t peg my tent down, so I was woken at 4am with my tent hitting me in the face. I pushed the large rocks I’d found back onto the guy lines, and got back into my bag. I checked my phone was charging and had a quick look at the forecast. It seemed my good run was coming to an end; the temperature was rising from below freezing to just above, meaning more snow and sleet instead of stable cold weather. I drifted off to sleep thinking about what was still to come.
At 5am my alarm sounded, and I popped the plug from my mattress, I instantly felt the cold rough ground on my back, and I sat up searching for my head torch. Shuffling around, I began to get sorted, but as I removed my sleeping socks, I noticed the ball of my right foot was white and waxy in appearance. I’d been pretty aware of my feet thoughout this trip and was keeping a close eye on them morning and night, so was surprised to see they was a change in skin colour. I sat there for a good few minutes massaging them trying to get the blood flow and feeling back into them but wasn’t very successful. I was starting to get cold now I was out of my sleeping bag sat on the ground, so decided I would put dry socks on, then a plastic bag before putting my wet socks over the lot, which I figured would keep them much warmer for the day ahead.
As I packed my tent away, a figure wearing a dressing gown appeared in the darkness, inviting me in for a coffee, asking me if I was the cyclist. I replied I was, but I told her I wanted to get rolling, so she replied and walked back into her warm dimly lit cottage. I carried on packing and within a few minutes just before 6am I was ready to roll. A wave of guilt came over me and I rode up the woman’s driveway to see if that coffee was still on offer, and of course it was. Wendy invited me into her home and popped the kettle on, pushed some bread into the toaster and invited me to sit in her living room while things happened. She even offered to run me a bath, which I kindly declined thinking if I got in, I would never get out! Warm and full, I thanked Wendy, owner of the Drumbeg Stores for her kindness and she wished me well on the rest of my ride.
LochInver is a small fishing village based in the north west of Scotland. This idyllic white-washed village is home to just 1000 people. Its surrounding are magnificent with mountains such as Suilven, Canisp and Quinag towering inland like a boundary wall to the outside world. To the west across the chilling waters of the Minch, is the Isle of Lewis sitting at the tip of the Outer Hebrides. I rolled in around 11am, wet coastal snow had fallen and there was a slush to ride through down the main street, as I pulled up at the post office and local shop. I’d crashed that morning and was sporting a bloody nose, so I collected a handful of snow off a windowsill and gave myself a face wash before heading inside. My eyes lit up at the racks of food, like a child in a candy store. I started to collect bags of treats, filling my hands before realising I’d need a basket. Water covered the floor as more and more folk dragged the wet snow from outside in, and I kicked over every yellow ‘warning wet floor’ sign they had spread around the shop floor. Far more of a hazard to me than the wet floor itself.
I emptied my basket and asked for a couple of carrier bags, something I never normally do, but I wanted new bags for my feet. On the way here, I’d had a great plan regarding warming my feet: I’d buy some hand warmers and stuff them in my shoes to keep my feet warmer during the day. They didn’t have any in the shop but pointed me towards the hardware store at the other end of town. But first, the famous LochInver Pie store beckoned for a warm treat before I heading off on the famous Ledmore Traverse. I was guided by a man to the back of the hardware store as he pointed out the hand warmers that he stocked. I grabbed a handful of them, some batteries I’d forgotten to collect at the last store, distracted by all the sweet treats, and I bought some new socks. I wasn’t quite sure why I did this as I still had two fresh pairs unused in my kit bag. Paying for the goods I asked if I could use their bench for trying on boots, to sort myself out, which they were happy for me to do so.
I took off my left boot first, removed the sock, then bag, and the last sock, which revealed some very swollen toes. My heart sank. Without looking too closely I repeated the exercise on my right foot, and although the swelling was less, the discolouration I had noticed that morning in my tent had worsened. On closer inspection, my left foot was indeed worse than my right, my fat sausage like toes had discolouration on all of the tips. In that moment I knew the hand warmers and new socks would make no difference. This was the end. I knew I needed medical help before the frost bite turned fatal for my toes.
I put my head in my hands and started to cry.
Words by Steve Bate. Images by Paudie Spillane
Notes on the ride:
On Wednesday 14th of December in LochInver, Steve stopped his spot tracker after 4 days, 5 hours and 44 minutes, 283 miles into the Highland Trail 550. With barely 10 hours sleep since the start, he headed to Inverness Hospital to have his frost bitten toes attended to. The 4 days riding coincided with the coldest week recorded in the UK for decades, hitting record temperatures of -18º. Steve is a visually impaired Paralympic and World Champion cyclist, with a wild passion for cold weather riding, and is planning a return to the route once healed, to try and complete the round in full winter conditions. He has no interest in riding the route in summer.