Amanda sets out to bag some Scottish Munros, returning instead with epic memories, incredible experiences and more than a few bruises.
In association with…
Words Amanda Photography Pete Scullion
As we park up, Pete signals to us to listen to what’s going on outside the vehicles. Expecting to hear a deathly silence from the huge expanse of mountains, we’re surprised to be greeted with what sounds like a cow on steroids. We take a moment to absorb our surroundings. Loch Quoich lies motionless ahead of our parking spot, completely surrounded by mountains as far as the eye can see. There’s no wind, just the sound of silence frequently being interrupted by a stag bellowing. Feeling fired up by the enormity of the glen, the promise of some amazing views, and the potential sighting of a stag, we naively get ready for our guided tour.
The plan is to ride the South Glen Shiel Ridge, a route that links up six Munros, in response to the question: ‘How many Munros is too many?’ This was a challenge set earlier in the year that had gone the same way most people’s 2020 plans had, but we have been gifted a window of opportunity to finally make the trip. I’m travelling with Vicky, aka my ‘Bubble Buddy’ for the past few months, or Dr Victoria Chapman to be formal. Vicky is responsible for troubleshooting the Covid test her lab has developed, so she has understandably been rather busy recently. As her test had reached manufacturing stage, we hurriedly made safe plans to come do the ride before the peaks got their first dusting of snow. We have Pete Scullion as our guide and moral support officer.
Hens on a stag do
The ridge would be a challenge at the best of times, but between us we have a few extra hurdles in our path. My aptly named Womb Of Doom (cheers Vicky…), a tangled rage of polycystic ovaries and endometriosis, has left me so anaemic that I’m suffering symptoms from the ‘you may also experience’ list. We’re both out of practice on rocky terrain and, thanks to the last minute rush on this trip, we haven’t actually built the bikes yet, never mind tried them out. We’re asking a lot of ourselves here: a single Munro is a mountain over 3,000ft (914m) and we were looking at a total of 4,900ft of elevation over 20 miles, so I took the advice of my peers at Singletrack and got some lightweight, short-travel carbon trail bikes that can take a thrashing downhill. I’m in my element on trail bikes, but Vicky is an enduro racer who has never owned a bike with less than 160mm fork travel so she’s somewhat apprehensive about the 130mm YT Izzo Pro Race I proudly present to her. Maybe I should have given her more information than ‘we’re going to Scotland to see Pete’…
Pre-ride faff is low. Pete is well-versed in this landscape and I’ve spent an eight-hour car journey thinking about what layers to take with me. Vicky simply doesn’t faff, but prefers to spend her time carefully packing her snacks in the most accessible parts of her bag. We set out on the estate track toward the glen, politely passing some Highland cows and taking time to watch several stags in the empty reservoir below. Pete explains that we’ve timed our trip terribly, as it is now rutting season for the stags. We can see them herding up their ladies and bellowing at their rivals, and all happening in such close range it’s like watching a nature documentary.
I’m not sure Pete is aware that I can read him quite well and just as I start to pick up his feeling of unease, he quietly tells us to stop where we are and rolls his bike in front of himself. A stag is approaching, three deer in tow. Pete explains that stags prefer to be on higher ground, so they’re likely just crossing our path to the hillside. Fortunately he’s right, and we cautiously continue our quest through the glen.
My senses are so alert that every sound is amplified. I’m silently praying that stags can’t smell fear, or hear my heart rate monitor buzzing. The bellowing has gone from a novel first-time experience to a continual moan from the glen and we can’t seem to escape it despite our best efforts. We’re having to stop every five minutes or so as yet another stag weighs us up. Most of them just move to higher ground, but now we’ve interrupted a disagreement between two that apparently have their eyes on the same deer. There’s a stag at the same level as us that’s unable to move to higher ground without causing a fight with his rival. Vicky doesn’t give much away; she’s one of those people that can remain calm in any situation – as I glance over to try to see what she’s thinking, I see her produce half a bagel from her pack, look at it, then pop it back away uneaten. She’s nervous.
Pete isn’t happy with the situation, feeling responsible for our safety since he’s guiding us and I soon realise it’s my call since I’m the one that brought us together to do the ride. A stern announcement from Pete that “people get killed by stags on the regular” was the decider for me.
“So, if we were to bail on the ridge ride, do we have an alternative that isn’t littered with stags?” I ask, in my best ‘I’m not giving up I’m just exploring our options’ tone.
This slaps a huge grin across Pete’s face, as he turns our attention from the South Shiel Ridge that’s been holding a heavy grey cloud on it the entire time and gestures at a golden mountain we passed on our traverse into the glen.
“That’s Gleouraich, the 32nd highest mountain in the UK,” he gushes, “and it’s flippin’ WELL GOOD.”
We’d chosen bikes that seemed a good match for a yomp across the ridge line of several Munros. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride, but in terms of technical descents the original challenge was more the length than the terrain. Gleouraich, however, from the base to the top is hikeabike for a large portion, then you turn around and retrace your path. From what Pete was telling us, it’s not a tame descent. Well, it won’t be if we have to carry our bikes up it…
Over the course of our friendship, Vicky and I have adapted an attitude of, ‘if you ride it, I will’. So following a brief trail rundown from Pete, I decide it’s doable, Vicky remains reassuringly neutral, so we do a 180 and head back to where we began, passing two camouflaged hunters along the way who suggest that Pete’s fluoro riding gear might be what’s drawing the stags’ attention to us.
Making a molehill out of a mountain
The first part of the ascent up Gleouraich is ridable, gradually stretching into a climb that requires excellent line choice and your weight over the front of your bike – eventually it’s a push. Steep, tight switchbacks with narrow exposed transitions between each one. Vicky has never been good with exposure, something she has voiced enough times for me to be considerate of it, so I keep checking she’s still keen to ride. She’s pleased to not be feeling fazed by the sudden height gain with a very sheer drop to one side. Thanks to the coordination issues Mother Nature gifts me each month, I’ve adopted Vicky’s exposure nerves and I have a bit of a clumsy fumble that eventually leads us to a snack stop.
We’ve managed to gain a lot of height quite quickly, and looking out on the mountains is truly breathtaking. Or is that my anaemia? I try to calculate how much further we have to go, because I’m starting to feel a bit weak – to play it safe I let the others know that I’m not convinced I can get to the top, but I’ll give it my best shot. This conversation is soon forgotten after we’ve hiked off another huge chunk of the climb and are tucking into another snack stop.
There was more than just bagels, cold pizza and dried apple rings fuelling us up at this point. Pete is a constant source of excitement where bikes are concerned, a transferrable energy he fed through the group despite having had a huge week prior to this ride. Vicky has wanted to bag a Munro for a long time, and I think the added challenge of a new bike that is nothing like her own is giving her an extra boost because she does like to test herself. As for me, I’m working on being more resilient after a year or so of letting life get me down. The snacks are helping, but there’s an underlying determination that’s making this climb easier than it should be – for all of us. Following on from a large section of hikeabike, Pete suggests we could call this our peak, as he points out one final ascent that eventually will lead to the cairn at 1,035m. It looks like a mountain in itself and we can’t actually see the top, thanks to the cloud that followed us up. Before we have chance for a discussion, I ride down the saddle between our fake peak and the next climb, Vicky follows, and Pete continues to be baffled by the fact I’m still moving after my earlier warning that I had no energy left.
Careful steps and grippy shoes are needed for the hike to the top. Vicky is a Silent Plodder when it comes to hiking. She’s seemingly unbothered by the bike on her back, the treacherous path of greasy grass sprouting between loose slippery rock, and the fact we had so far to go that we still couldn’t see it through the clouds. I’m a messy hiker, even with a super-light bike I struggle to get the position right and spend the following 20 minutes shrugging it higher on my back, taking it off, stopping to choose where to put my feet and doing everything possible to distract from my discomfort.
We were swindled
As we finally arrive at the cairn I realise we’ve been cheated out of the views I’m used to seeing on Pete’s photos from his highland adventures, thanks to our cloud that apparently has separation anxiety. But I’m at the peak of my first Munro with two of my best friends. It’s a disorientating feeling to know how high up you are with only a subtle hint of the glen below through a dense cloud. I’m secretly grateful for the impaired vision as there would no doubt be some wobbly knees on me and Vicky, being completely out of practice on big mountain rides. This false sense of security takes me over as I blast off from the top on a rather exposed and rocky section of trail, only to discover at the bottom that I’d locked the shock out on my short-travel bike. Pete tells me I’m a lunatic for riding the most technical, exposed part of the entire trail, but I can see him beaming with joy that we’re about to have a good descent.
Getting down the top third of Gleouraich takes confidence and trust in the bike you’re riding. It’s a wild mix of steep loose rocks, wet grass and practically impossible technical sections that actually go if you dare to let off the brakes. Vicky and I have waves of determination, riding a section and getting to the end of it in disbelief that we successfully rode it and then rewarding ourselves by safely pushing over the next bit…
The descent narrows as we make our way back across the exposed section I felt squiffy on during the climb. I approach it with confidence, which almost backfires on me as I nearly skid off the mountainside, but I manage to save it, and hear a squeal from Vicky behind. From here on, we alternate who is riding ahead and giggle our way through the tight switchbacks we’d carried our bikes up. Seeing Vicky make it around one of the steeper corners gives me a push to give them a go – I surprise myself as I cut my back end around Pete, who has parked up to take some photos.
The lower half of the descent offers fantastic, distracting views of Loch Quoich. As the trail tames we’re still struggling due to the exhaustion of such a long descent, but Pete urges us to focus on getting off the mountain before we run out of light. Endless switchbacks and greasy mud send us on our way, and as we reach the woodland at ground level Vicky has a low-speed crash into a tree, sending me into a bog, and marking the end of our first Munro with a fit of laughter.
The following morning we enjoy a light breakfast at the Invergarry Hotel, limp to our cars and form a vague plan to go do some more riding. The previous evening’s discussions covered the bikes we had borrowed for the trip, and our surprise as to how capable they had turned out to be. Gleouraich had spent the day with a cloud parked on it so the dewy mountainside lacked grip, which has led us to a chilled out morning on the trails of Torridon.
Thanks to the success of the previous day’s climb being a track walk of our descent, we do the same again here. Only today our push up is a slow one with breaks to catch our breath between power-yawns. We don’t even have the energy to snack. Our focus is on the terrain, which is a harsh contrast to the green mountainside of yesterday. Torridon is a remote spot with truly wild rock formations. Veins of magma pierce through the whale-like Torridon Group sandstones, patches of which are broken up by coarse, unforgiving rock gardens that look impossible to ride. I can almost hear the echoes of punctures past as we crunch our way up the track. Pete suddenly becomes very animated, and too giddy to get full sentences out, shouts: “Eagles!”
I could not be in a more suitable spot, or in better company, for my first-ever eagle sighting. It’s hard to describe the feeling the Torridon landscapes gives. It’s harsh, chilling and intimidating, yet incredibly peaceful all at once. The perfect setting for three birds of prey to be hanging on a thermal up near our destination.
We take respite on a large area of smooth sandstone. I’m not sure how much time passes as we mooch around enjoying the view, investigating the rocks and putting the grippy ground to the test by creating a pump track through the whales of rolling rock. I manage to surprise my friends once again by finding the steepest roller I can and riding down it, demanding a photo the third time. It feels like a cruel joke, being at my most confident when I’m at my weakest and most clumsy state. Eventually, it’s time to tackle the trail that Vicky and I are both feeling might be out of our capabilities today. We’re both tired and I’ve forgotten to wear kneepads.
On the way down, all the tight impossible rock sections seem to open up. We’re blasting over them with no effort, endless grip and brief moments of calm on the smooth sandstone tempting us to ride on and stop doubting ourselves. The water bars are probably the biggest challenge, as they’re too big to ride over and we don’t have much strength left for bunnyhops. Somewhere along the way, I make a bad choice and manage to hit the ground with enough force to knock myself out briefly. I come around with a tenderised right-hand side. That’s enough resilience testing for this adventure…
Sitting on a wall in Fort William, eating chippy tea sometime later marks the end of our Highland adventure. We didn’t achieve what we set out to do, but the small victories along the way combined with seeing (and hearing) countless stags, three eagles, and not having any mechanicals over two days of harsh riding feels more rewarding than being able to say our ridge ride went to plan. What a boring story that would have been… And we return to the question posed back in summer: how many Munros is too many? I’d say go for quality over quantity.
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