Way Out West With Joe Barnes and Max Schumann
Forget the American wild west! We headed out into the Scottish Highlands for a day of adventure with EWS racers Joe Barnes and Max Schumann.
Scotland’s Wild West
The last of autumn’s hangover still clings to the landscape by a slender thread. Deer scatter from beside the singletrack roadside and bound towards the hills, clearly unaccustomed to a steady stream of traffic; we hadn’t seen a soul since leaving the main road at Invergarry.
We’d heard a few whispers from the boys at Nevis Cycles bike shop in Fort William about a seldom-used ridge top trail, best reached by following in the footsteps of hunters on an old deer stalking path. Swapping EWS stages for Scottish back country, we were joined by Max Schumann and Joe Barnes who met us on the road up from Fort William for a little dose of carpe diem.
The low water level on the loch shoreline could lure you into thinking the ground under wheels and foot was anything but sodden. Wrong. After a gentle spin along the flat valley floor we teetered across a narrow hydroelectric dam before we had an abrupt and unavoidable introduction to one of Scotland’s finest bogs. The boys had a couple of ‘PeakRider’ bike carrying systems on test and looked pretty smug as they began marching off hands free into the wilderness. There wasn’t any escaping the ascending slog as the faint path trudged the contour lines of the hill back and forth as we edged from the valley floor and closer to the low lying cloud hugging the hill tops. A tangle of monotone glens with luminous strips of rivers opens up below us, each imperfection on the neighbouring slopes highlighted by the belts of snow clinging to the hollows. By now the boisterous banter had tailed off slightly with each of us head down, staring at our feet as they slowly clawed upwards.
Earlier chat of how still the wind was had to be swallowed as it began to slap us and our bikes around, the already bleak vegetation soon fizzled out into snow and rock as we became immersed into the somewhat disorientating grey of mist. Disorientating in the way it hid the sheer drops either side and only left us with the soft shape of the narrow arête reaching out ahead. Progress is accelerated by the fact no one is that set on hanging around in the wind and flurries of sleet showers, particularly Barnesy who has donned a fetching set of goggles for the final and most exposed dash of hike-a-bike. The weather continues to roll in and out, taunting us at it reveals brief glimpses of what’s to come. The ridge eventually reveals what we’d been looking for. A thin indentation worn into the hillside tapered over the edge and out of sight, we needed no convincing and gave heavy calf muscles no respite by leaping into the unknown.
“A tangle of monotone glens with luminous strips of rivers opens up below us, each imperfection on the neighbouring slopes highlighted by the belts of snow clinging to the hollows.”
Joe Barnes and Max were in their element, anchoring up for the steep slick turns with ease, carrying a ridiculous pace… only becoming apparent as I pinball through well behind them. Exiting onto a brief plateau we ditch the cloud but gain no extra daylight in doing so, the sun had made no appearance all day and seemed to have thrown the towel in as it became alarmingly dark. Peaty soil streamers are launched into the air from wheels as we now stare down the barrel of the gun onto Loch Quoich and the layers of blue and grey glacial carved mountains. Soaked to the bone and being attacked by moisture from both above and below, the onslaught of turns recommences under a crescendo of brake squeal. A narrow animal track’s-worth of grip was all this hillside was willing to offer up. Run wide at your peril. A layer of waterlogged grass and moss that made ice seem like velcro lay in wait, both Max and myself falling victim, just as comically as each other. I reverse parked off a steep banking and chose not to dwell too long on the potential consequences, whilst Max decided to let his Nomad ride him down a grassy chute.
Racing the light felt like a losing battle so we crack the whip and dump the remaining altitude with the trail becoming straighter and faster through a jigsaw of craggy rock faces, eventually funnelling us into a tunnel through a dense canopy of rhododendrons. We are spat onto the road and in the nick of time too. A short roll to the car gives us time to process the whirlwind dash down the mountain we’d just devoured. A few choice swear words, admittedly mostly from yours truly, were the best way of summing up what’d turned into more of an epic than we’d imagined setting off in the morning. Dignity on full show, wet bikes and clothes are dumped in the vans and left to be dealt with at a later date whilst the heaters are groped and worked overtime… A chilled-to-the-bone satisfaction that lingers well into the evening.
Scotland, don’t ever change.
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