Heading north. As Scotland’s political commentators, journalists, politicians and activists settled down for some rest after their election night exertions, I was driving past the heather clad and snow-streaked mountains of the Drumochrer pass, with a friend, listening to the radio analysis of seats won and lost, and wondering whether we’d need an ice axe. Blissful isolation of four days in Glen Affric lay before us.
As we drove past Tiso I suddenly had second thoughts about my pannier rack, which I had rigged up to the bike with a shoe lace and a fruit shoot lid. I stopped to buy some heavyweight cord. The pannier rack came from a previous bike that bit the dust and was deposited outside the bike shop in the sky (also known as the Glasgow a bike station, a social enterprise project that gives bikes new life and also trains people for work). It wasn’t until later I realised I’d left a perfectly good pannier rack and mud guards on the bike and set off into the dark and rain at 10pm to remove them before someone else helped themselves.
It was this, hard won, rusty and ill-sized bike rack that I had been trying to attach at 8pm the evening before our great adventure was due to begin, improvising with what I had in the house. I had actually thought of it earlier in the day and taken it to a bike shop which proclaimed that it didn’t fit as I am still using the kids bike borrowed from my daughter a year previously (in fact it was the day after my previous bike was declared past help). However, even though he wouldn’t fit it, he gave me a couple of screws and I got the bottom fixed onto the frame near the hub. The rest of it waved precariously back and forth as I cycled home to see what I could attach it with.
Materials were sorely limited and so an old shoelace from a pair of long grown-out-of pumps had to do. The fruit-shoot lid was to stop the prongs of the bike rack moving forward past the seat when I braked. A previous itteration involving a bit of wood with two holes in, stuck out too far to be comfy while riding.
I bustled about the house ineffectively, trying to pack but mainly looking for things that I’d lost. The husband was nowhere to be found when I needed him to help me find the bike pump, or some plastic bags, or my ice axe (should we take it? it could be icy on the mountains, or, actually, should we leave it? It will be a right pain to carry in?). Eventually I found him in bed
It turned out that it was the only quiet place in the house where he wasn’t being asked to do things. “Am I being annoying with all the packing stuff?” I asked “just a bit” he said.
The rack seemed attached well enough as we set off, loaded up with plenty of luggage, into the glen. After a lengthy debate in the car about the state of the mountains, we decided to take the ice axes. Every mountain we approached seemed snow free “Look, that’s fine we won’t need it” Jo would say, until we passed it and looked back from the north, at the icy peak when we’d say together, “No let’s take them, better to be safe then sorry”. This continued almost the whole journey.
My ice axe stuck out from my pannier like one of boudiccas wheel sythes “you’ll do someone a damage with that” said Jo. Thoughtfully I tied a trainer onto it.
The track to the youth hostel is 8 miles along what was billed as ‘passable by mountain bike’ on the website we looked at.
“It’s not going to take us long”, said Jo, “I cycle 7 miles to work every day and it only takes me 35 minutes, how long can this possibly take?”
Turns out it could take a rather long time. My experience of mountain biking extends to my daily commute negotiating the potholes of dumbarton road and a “bonding” trip with my god-daughter – then 11- which involved her screeching with joy down a steep path in some woods in Dumfriesshire and me pushing my bike gingerly down behind her. I was ok on the uphill but skidding uncontrollably down loose gravel interspersed with larger rocks was a bit hair-raising, although after a bit I started to get the hang of it. The shoelace holding my pannier on broke a mile or so into the journey. “Ah ha.” Said I, reaching into my pocket, “This was just the occasion I expected and is why I bought that cord”. But it was no where to be found.
Facing the prospect of a difficult journey ahead, it was then that the true value of the ice axe became clear, and I took off the strap and used it to reattach the pannier.
We continued on our way, pushing the bikes over slippery rocks in streams and up steep sections with eroded rocky surface. Only last week I’d watched a video of Danny Macaskill mountain biking the Skye ridge. It was certainly harder than he made it look…. I mentioned this to Jo. “He’ll have a proper mountain bike though” she said “and I bet he didn’t have full panniers, a half bottle of whiskey and an ice axe when he was cycling the Cullin ridge”.
It was a fair enough comment, I was on my daughters bike ‘it’s too small for me mum’ and Jo was on her city commuting bike. Perhaps it really was only our lack of appropriate equipment that was preventing us zooming like athletes along this stony track. Although it’s worth crediting the daughter’s bike with successfully seeing me round the Bealach na Ba circuit (600m of ascent to the pass in driving sleet, snow on the road at the summit and then another 40 miles and loads and LOADS more ascent) the previous Easter.
Eventually we arrived two and a half hours after we’d set off. One of the clips holding a pannier to the rack fell off only 200m from our destination, but, once again, the ice axe proved its worth and the loop of the strap made a temporary mend.
The youth hostel, Britains most remote, was clad in corrugated iron painted millitary green and we arrived to a fine welcome and started getting to know our fellow hostellers. One was a woman, recently retired, making a food drop for 13 day across scotland trek she was starting the following week. She would be alone, dropped at start by her husband and camping, bothying and hostelling on route.
“You’re my two daughters” she laughed, a few minutes into our conversation. Her daughters are also called Kat and Jo.
Then there was a filmmaker couple who had taken the sleeper from London and were walking from Strathcarron to Inverness. Sue told us about making a film in a sea cave as the tide rose and fell. She would stay in there with the camera floating in a dry suit for 7-8 hours at a stretch. “It was magical, amazing, so peaceful” she said.
A cyclist bombed past at speed, up the Glen to a broken bridge and then back to the hostel where I was just getting the G&Ts out of the stream, where I had put them to cool. He was out on a quick evening bike trip. So far, out from the car park, up the glen and back to the hostel had taken him 45 minutes. “But look he’s got a proper bike”, said Jo. “And no luggage”.
By contrast, a group of eleven self-confessed “old farts” had even more trouble than us on the cycle in as they had brought four kegs of beer, two boxes of wine and three bottles of whisky in on a specially constructed platform attached to a kids tag-along bike. To add to their pain, one of their pedals had sheared off on the journey. They were up from Reading on their annual walking trip and intended to combine Munro Bagging with drinking.
But despite the bonhomie in the hostel, people took to their beds early, the objective on everyone’s mind was the mountains and we had the prospect of a good weekend ahead.
This looked like an inviting bench with a view as I pushed my bike up an especially rocky section of path…
….but turned out to be part of an old, decrepit bridge