The Devil’s Staircase – The West Highland Way In Snow!

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Words and pictures by Jenn Hopkins.

This was supposed to be about all 96 miles of the West Highland Way. Then it snowed, in April, and what was already looking like a bit of an ambitious plan became something really quite stupid. Even by my standards.

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So that left us with some pages to fill. And me with a Highlands itch still to scratch. I live reasonably close to Scotland but still don’t get to ride there as often as I’d like. In fact, I mostly get to drive through the Highlands on the way to somewhere else. Glencoe is one of my favourite places in the country but I’ve never laid a tyre track in it. I couldn’t think of a better reason to formulate a plan. Except…

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There is no doubt at all in my mind that it’s completely and utterly wrong to drive for 11 hours to do a five-hour ride. It goes against every principle I have: it’s environmentally destructive, financially wasteful and also absolutely exhausting, for both me and my long-suffering car. Nonetheless the fact that I can leave at dawn, drive halfway up the country, climb mountains, immerse myself in wilderness and be back in my own bed before it gets light again, is really quite amazing. The island we live on is accessibly tiny and it would be daft not to take advantage of it every now and again. I don’t have many vices, so let’s make this my indulgence: I secretly love a road trip, no matter how short and rushed it is.

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I’ll plant lots of trees to ease the eco-guilt, all right?

The case for the south.

As tempting as it would be to start this ride from the north and finish on the bigger descent, it really is better off starting in Glencoe because – there is no kind way to say this – Kinlochleven is utterly grim. Like numerous little towns in the Highlands it has that eerily quiet, curtain-twitching atmosphere that presses at your back, making you pedal that bit faster to get the hell out of Dodge before the zombie apocalypse strikes from the shadows. Its saving grace may be the chippy, but even that was shut when we were there. At lunchtime. Hmm.

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It’s the first day back at work after the long Easter weekend. Down south, the daffodils are out and making a sunshiney mess of the verges while freshly-minted lambs (mmm, casserole…) are wobbling around in the fields. The first April shower speckles the windscreen somewhere around Penrith and by the time we get to Glasgow, it is raining not only sideways but also downwards and across. Half an hour out of the city, nearly all of that rain has turned to snow and we are passing snowploughs on the road. It becomes apparent that we have, as is customary for photoshoot rides, completely misjudged the weather. And, as usual, packed completely the wrong shoes.

Thankfully the one thing that we have got right is the provisions buy-in. With jelly babies and bottles of dubious ‘healthy’ green and purple sludge on tap, plus jelly snakes, pork pies, sausage rolls, and cheese & onion pasties stuffed into every spare pouch and pocket, I figure we’ll survive the weather by burning the wrappers if we have to.

He’ll never get… Oh, he has.

The payback for lazily parking right at the foot of the hill is that we’ve no warm up before hitting the Staircase itself but despite this, it’s not really the shocker I’d expected. A fair amount of the lower section is rideable, especially with an audience of encouraging walkers. The fact that the company today is two-thirds proper racers probably helps us gain show-off points, too.

Even the final section of steeper, switchback turns don’t last long enough for the bike to become a dead weight on your back once you’ve accepted you’re not going to ride them all. You’ve time enough to stop and look at the view as you’re climbing but not so much that you get bored of the sight of one foot falling in front of the other, and the feeling of your left pedal grinding a hole through your Camelbak and into your spine.

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The West Highland Way is one of the most popular routes for through-walkers in the country; an estimated 30,000 people traverse its full 96-mile length every year, which works out at about 577 people per week. And, this being the Tuesday after Easter, there are more people than usual dragging themselves up the hill as they make the pilgrimage from Milngavie to Fort William. You get a better idea of the scale of the place when you look up and see lots of tiny, anorak-red and cagoule-blue dots scattered in a haphazard zig-zag across the side of the mountain, but soon enough, we’re up there too and figuring it out for ourselves.

The view from the top is characteristically amazing. You suddenly realise just how much space there is around you; the thin grey line of the descent winds northwards into the valley immediately below, then up and over the side of another hill before vanishing towards – nothing. Just more hills. Layers of snow-topped mountains shift in and out of sight as the clouds drift around them, and it is all properly, speechlessly beautiful. As is the descent which follows. Fast, swirling with multiple line choices and diverting views: proper stuff of daydreams.

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We’ve not got too far down the hill when the loud hiss that signifies ‘too much fun’ stops play. The conclusion is that while a single puncture is the mark of an amateur, it takes real skill and dedicated professionalism to pinch-flat both tyres simultaneously. This does not help the puncturee’s mood one bit, so we fix the flats and get riding before any bike-shaped teddies can be thrown. Thankfully this is Scotland and within ten minutes the clouds have parted (both real and metaphorical), we’re looking at blue sky and riding through warm sunshine with smiles on our faces. Lovely.

Groundhog day

The descent to Kinlochleven from here seems to go on forever and feels like it’s stonkingly good value. Although the steeper sections are indeed very steep and so very fast, there are enough rolling traverses and little techy ups to keep your brain thoroughly engaged making the most of the terrain. It’s flowing, high-altitude singletrack at its best and we do as much stopping to giggle and enthuse as we do to look for pictures.

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The return leg is another matter. In dropping to Kinlochleven we’re descending all the way from 550m to sea level. And to get back to Glencoe, and all the food and warm clothes we left there, we’ll have to climb all the way back to 550m. Thankfully we’ve a handful of miles to do it in. And at least some of them are rideable.

Just as there’s an art to portage, there’s an art to fireroad climbs, too. You have a choice of ‘attack like crazy and suffer the consequences if the hill turns out to be longer than anticipated’, or ‘adopt a crawler gear and settle in for the long haul’. When in the Scottish Highlands, where climbs have a tendency to go on a bit, one of these approaches is tedious and boring, the other doomed to failure. So it’s simply a matter of choosing your poison. Unless an ill-considered choice of bike – or drivetrain – does the choosing for you, and you’re left winching away on a single front chainring while 24t grannies are twiddling away easily in front and behind. Rookie mistake.

What with puncture stops, picture stops and general faffing around stops, we’ve now passed and been re-passed by the same groups of walkers far too many times, and we’re now passing some of them in reverse as we retrace our steps. The usual mix of incredulity (“You’re bringing those bikes up here?”), encouragement (“You’re making that look easy…”) and barely-disguised derision (“Could you make it any harder for yourself?”) are fully represented.

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Thankfully, we’re not so fussed about having the place to ourselves and the few folk I catch in the background of the pictures are dwarfed by the epic scale of the setting. There are very few places in the UK where you can look out over a landscape and be confident that the horizon you’re gazing at contains barely a handful of human beings. The remote setting makes the whole experience just a little surreal; here we are, in the middle of nowhere, with approximately one hundred other like-minded souls, all headed the same way. In fact, we don’t pass a single, southbound walker all day and only see one other cyclist, heading north into the rain as we flee it (via yet another puncture).

Pfffffffffffffffffffffft.

Yes. About those water bars. Thousands of pairs of boots and tyres traversing a steep and wet Scottish mountain, mean erosion. And, on popular routes which attract valuable amounts of tourist dollar, erosion gets well fixed by the powers that be. Grumble all you like about trail sanitisation; here, the result has been a thoroughly rideable, almost entirely mud-free crossing of a proper bit of Scottish wilderness. Not to be sniffed at, whether you’re on a bike or on foot.

There’s very little stone pitching here and quite a lot of loose, gravelly turns. There are also many stone-lined ditches, designed to channel water across and away from the path, and there is an art to negotiating them with your tyre pressures and rims unharmed, particularly on steep descents like this. Let go of the brakes and you’re almost instantly travelling at worryingly high speed, but trying to keep one finger on each brake lever while hopping the channels plays havoc with your technique – and landing with a brake on plays havoc with your teeth.

The answer is a clumsy hybrid of self-preservation and kamikaze downhill – roll up to each gap keeping your speed under control, let go of the brakes at the last moment, accelerate, hop, brake again, try not to slide, get lined up for the next one. This works fine when there’s space between the channels but, as happens in several places along the trail, becomes a bit of a handful when waterbars are placed close together, and on tight bends.

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The resulting overload of mental stimulus (‘Brake now. No, roll. You need speed. Hop. Carve. Hop. Shit. Brake!’) and muscle fatigue (‘The Devil’s Staircase: touches the parts other trails cannot reach’) is absolutely draining. It’s the sort of descent – never mind the climb – that you could easily find yourself needing to stop for a rest on, if it wasn’t lined with an audience. Thankfully we have the excuse of stopping for pictures.

And punctures. And maybe a pie or three.

The Case for the Staircase

Mention that you’re thinking of riding the trail which links Glencoe and Kinlochleven to anyone that’s been there before and they’ll probably say two things. One: it’s a fantastic ride that’s more than worth making the long trek north for, they’re very jealous and can they come along? Two: watch out for the water bars.

Now, as apt as mountain bikers are (in general) to talking up a trail’s hazards in order to flatter their own exploits, at first glance it wouldn’t be the trail features but the elevation profile of this ride which I’d be worried about. It has ‘just enough’ rideable ascent to warm you up, then ‘just enough’ hike-a-bike to wear you out. That opener is then followed up by a descent which probably passes the boundary of being ‘more fun than is good for you’ and heads into ‘ooh I’m a bit tired now’ territory, via (probably) more than one or two sketchy moments born of the combination of excessive speed, dull mental faculties and dubious handling skills.

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Flip the profile by retracing your steps for the return leg and you are now looking at a mammoth ascent (mostly rideable this time), followed by another gruelling, albeit shorter, descent. And all in the middle of nowhere. Take it easy. Spanner yourself here and you are looking at a very long walk – or Mountain Rescue callout – to reach safety. Be sensible, both with your riding and your decisions, and carry plenty of spares (we got through four tubes and a pack of patches between us). There are no bikes shops for miles, and this is prime midge territory; prepare bike and skin accordingly. The weather can be wild and changeable so take all the usual waterproof kit and an extra warm layer, too – just in case. There are no easy escape routes (it’s a long and unpleasant 18 mile schlep if you bail out on the road) so once you’re on your way into Kinlochleven you are committed to dragging yourself back out again. Whether it’s raining or not.

You can get coffee, food and a pint in Kinlochleven, though whether or not you want to is another matter. Prepare for a frosty welcome if you decide you’d like to spend your money in the pub [the Ice Factor café and bar isn’t bad though – Ed]. At the other end of the ride the Kingshouse Hotel and the ski centre café are both hospitable options, as is the fabled Clachaig Inn.

And here’s something to think on while you’re up there. The Devil’s Staircase was built and named by General Wade’s soldiers (who were responsible for much of the network of military roads that crosses the rest of the Highlands, making nice riding for us today). Workers billeted at Kinlochleven joked that the Devil had ‘claimed his own’ when those who’d travelled over the mountain to the inn at Kingshouse never made it back again. And, in 1692, the Staircase allowed Jacobite soldiers access to Glencoe to effect the Mort Ghlinne Comhann (Massacre of Glencoe), in which 38 MacDonalds were slain, and 40 women and children subsequently perished after their homes were burned.

Maybe not a route for a lone night ride, then.

The Knowledge.

Staying there and eating there.

There are more accommodation options than you can shake a stick at in Fort William.

The Clachaig in Glencoe is handy for food, lodging and a nice warm fire to warm your toes by:

  • Clachaig Inn
  • Glencoe
  • Argyll
  • Scotland PH49 4HX
  • 01855 811252
  • clachaig.com

Café and mid-ride cross-training in Kinlochleven:

  • The Ice Factor
  • Leven Road
  • Kinlochleven
  • Lochaber
  • PH50 4SF
  • 01855 831100
  • ice-factor.co.uk

Hostel and camping in Kinlochleven:

  • Blackwater Hostel and Campsite
  • Lab Road
  • Kinlochleven
  • PH50 4SG
  • 01855 831253
  • blackwaterhostel.co.uk

Bike shops.

  • Alpine Bikes, Fort William
  • 01397 704 008
  • alpinebikes.com
  • Nevis Cycles, Fort William
  • 01397 705555
  • neviscycles.com

Maps.

OS Landranger 41: Ben Nevis, Fort William and Glen Coe.

Useful websites.

The West Highland Way long-distance trail’s official website

The Heritage Paths Project

A GPX file is available in the Singletrack Mag Archive

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