Chasing Winter In Glencoe

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The terrain was softened by subdued colours; milky whites, sands and beiges abound. They felt alien to eyes used to the dark browns and greens of mud and moss. Ice formed structures everywhere. It cloaked grass hanging by streams, puddles had icy contour lines drawn concentrically in white across their surface, crystalline frost ferns fanned out across flat surfaces and boilerplate black ice polished the trail. Even the air contained ice, as crystals delicately shimmered in the low morning sunlight.
My winter’s riding to date could be described by a single word. Wet. Rain has fallen on more days in December than any other December before it. Even on the odd precious day when water hasn’t fallen from the sky, the trails are so sodden as to either be unrideable, or an exercise in stubborn-minded persistence, culminating in wet and muddy clothing, a filthy bike and a drivetrain one step closer to dereliction.
Winter’s meant to be about suffering though, isn’t it? Toughing through the worst of the conditions, stoically plodding on with one eye set on the longer days of spring, and all that they bring. I felt like I was losing my mind. Groundhog Day would roll round again. More rain, another load of muddy washing to clog the machine, more brake pads fitted. Onwards. I broke free from the prison that my local trails felt like they’d become. I was looking at the landscape with the eye of a couch potato, watching television ‘because it’s on’. It was a distraction, rather than an opportunity for immersion and true enjoyment. I rode other people’s local trails, other people’s mud – I made it my own.
It made no difference.
I was getting dragged into the bog. Regardless of the (excellent) company, or how fun each individual ride was (everything from very fun, to as pleasurable as shingles), I felt like I was suffocating. Drowning, maybe.

The Journey to the Journey

It was time to break free of the cycle, with the cycle. The ride wasn’t my idea, but when the opportunity presented, I knew it was right and that it wasn’t a matter of wanting to be part of it – it was a matter of need. Winter was still taking its toll though. The original protagonists fell to illness and other commitments. I needed a new riding partner. Tim was the perfect fit. Enthusiastic, and always open to the idea of an adventure, however large or small. No stranger to multi-day rides after a Transcontinental Race epic this summer, off-road riding in general was a new world to him however, and one that he approached with relish and wide-eyed keenness. Picking him up outside work, darkness was already drawing in when we pointed my van along familiar A-roads, then motorways, then A-roads. It is a journey that I’ve taken countless times before, one which I am deeply in love with. Yes; it is possible to be in love with a journey, even one that involves hour after hour of three lanes of tarmac – it’s not just about the destination. It’s about the sense of leaving behind one place, the process and transition to Another Place.
In this case, my heartstrings are entwined with the roads to Glencoe, and until now, the A82 road through Glencoe and northwards to even more remote parts of Scotland. It is the road that was brought to the wider public’s attention in the James Bond film, Skyfall. James tearing along it in his DB5, ferrying M to his childhood home. It felt fitting that we should take on this ride for issue 007.
So, on this Friday night, we stopped at Tyndrum, so often a refuelling (both vehicular and human) point on those longer trips, now an end, or a beginning. Our plan was to use a part of the long distance West Highland Way route to carry us to the Clachaig Inn. Nestled deep in the glen, it would offer warmth, food and beds for the night, before we returned the way we came. It was to be a luxury that I’m rarely used to on overnight riding trips, but one that would be welcome given the sub-zero conditions and forecast snow. This trip wasn’t to be about suffering or Type 2 fun. It was to be an escape, and a reconnection with why we ride. Something to be enjoyed and embraced in the moment, rather than just fondly remembered afterwards.

Sipping in the Cold

Fuelled by a full Scottish breakfast we crossed the A82 and began our journey, climbing up the side of the valley on a wide gravel track. There was evidence of the wet winter that the entire UK has been having, as streams of run-off were frozen across the width of the path. Within a few hundred metres we were reduced to walking, delicately hopping from exposed rock to exposed rock, using the bike as a crutch. The majority of our riding on that first day would take the same pattern. Long sections of freeze-dried trail, with the occasional frozen puddle or standing water to negotiate with care. It was impossible to stay focused on the trail for long though. Our eyes were drawn to the horizon, and in particular the looming bulk of Rannoch Moor and the mountains that frame Glencoe beyond. Soft browns transitioned to snowy flanks, then snow-laden clouds capping the peaks. It was as if we were viewing the world through a layer of tracing paper, pressed up close to the landscape. We drew our own line across that tracing paper. Twin lines of tyre tracks, occasionally joined by our footsteps, often punctuated by placing our bikes down and dwelling over the view. We drank it in like a fine single malt whisky, sipping, not wanting to rush to the end; content to savour every moment.
One of the benefits of the WHW is it offers easy access into a remote feeling landscape, without taking in the tops of mountains that would require ice axes and crampons to scale in winter and more easily reached on foot even in summer. The climb up to Rannoch Moor is an old drovers’ road. It isn’t steep, but it climbs constantly for a mile or so before plateauing and climbing again. The surface is made up of inset rocks, creating an energy-sapping, momentum-stealing surface. Each pedal stroke feels jarring and we slowly bounce our way up, thankful when the now contouring track transitions to smooth sand.

Shaken and Stirred

Despite the feeling of remoteness I feel comforted, almost cosseted by the landscape. Soft rolls of moor are plumped up like a duvet and we make our way between the creases, before breaking free and climbing to our highest point, overlooking the north end of the Moor, and down to the entrance to Glencoe. High above the road, the sound of an occasional car drifts up to meet us, but it is otherwise silent. Safe in the knowledge that we are not far from our destination, we pause and dig out hip flasks. The metal is cold to the touch; the whisky it contains almost as cold on the lips. Warmth courses down my throat, as I turn to the north and feel a flurry of snow blow into my face. With base layers damp from the exertion of climbing, we shiver and pull on a shell to protect us from the prevailing weather. The descent is a high-speed affair to begin with, a clear smooth line always available amongst jumbles of rocks. The smooth line is increasingly covered by ice though, and we are forced to improvise, trying to float over the pointed jumble, or taking to the frozen turf at the side. Our speed inevitably drops, and the soundtrack to our journey is one of whoops, laughter and the occasional whimper as we find ourselves cast adrift on a patch of ice, wheels drifting, threatening to bring us to the ground with a snap. The inevitable happens, with no more damage than a bruised ego on my part, and a promise to myself to be more careful.
Crossing the A82, we ride past the Kings House Hotel, at the traditional crossroads of drovers’ roads – ours leading north to Fort William and the west-east road from Glen Etive to Rannoch. Casually sitting on the grass outside the hotel is a small herd of deer, relaxed and obviously used to the company of humans. We continued north, under darkening skies, as heavy clouds dropped lower and the sun fell from the sky. It wasn’t even a month since the solstice and days are short up here. The skirt of Buachaille Etive Mor was dressed in cloud, almost down to its base, hiding what is a traditional gatepost to the entrance of Glencoe. Despite the camouflage, there was no disguising the bulk of the mountains here, even if their craggy, wild summits were out of sight today.
As Glencoe descends to the north, the WHW branches off to the east, up the Devil’s Staircase and over to Kinlochleven. It is a rugged and steep climb, and one which we were thankful to be leaving behind as we swapped between the road and the odd track that ran parallel to the A82 all the way to the Clachaig. Arriving at dusk, the warmth of the old inn (it dates back to the 16th century) welcomed us in, just as the cold was beginning to claw more deeply.

Embraced by Warmth

It didn’t take us long to find the bar. Ours were not the only weather-beaten faces welcoming a first sip of beer. Tables were surrounded by equally rosy cheeks, dressed in down jackets, fleeces, T-shirts with mountaineering brands emblazoned across them. The walls were decorated with old skiing and climbing equipment, where more traditional pubs hang horse brasses and painted crockery. Our nicely used limbs draped over big bench seats, and a plentiful supply of ale, then game pie – then more ale – felt like it was earned, despite our meagre mileage. We maintained the pace of the previous hours, no hurry, no agenda, just soaking up the experience. A full day outside and copious food and alcohol combined, bringing waves of content drowsiness.
Pulling back the curtain to the bedroom the following morning revealed the snow-plastered face of Bidean nam Bian, rearing up above the inn, a pair of head torches moving through the early morning inkiness, about to cross onto white. It also revealed that temperatures had risen overnight. Where there was ice in the pub car park last night, there were now puddles again. The forecast was also for rain and sleet to move in by the afternoon. Our window of opportunity was slowly closing; for the first time since leaving home on Friday, we moved with a slightly greater sense of urgency.

A Different Return

I try to avoid out-and-back rides. Why ride in your tyre marks, when you can leave fresh ones and see new sights? Our return was a different ride to the one just a day before, however, despite doubling back. Snow had been falling on higher ground overnight. The boilerplate ice of Saturday had been replaced by slush and flowing water. It made large parts more rideable than before, and we made quick, if wet progress. It is amazing how quickly we adjust to our new landscapes. The views were no less beautiful nor spectacular, but I felt less like a visitor, just at home.
Our two days had been an immersive experience. More so than a day ride, less so than a full-on epic. It left us both aching for more as we sat back and freewheeled down the final few hundred metres of sweeping tarmac (look mum no hands). And if there was ever a definition of a perfect ride, is it not that which left us excited to be back out again before we had even pulled to a halt? Scotland had treated us kindly. Within minutes of turning the van south I had flicked the windscreen wipers on to full speed, flapping away wet sleet. It was a fitting full stop to a small, yet perfectly formed adventure.