Our Highland MTB Adventure, by Nikki Beckett
Regular H+I rider Nikki Beckett reflects on her Highland MTB adventure with us, during a very strange year
Looking back on our Highland MTB Adventure in Scotland
It’s a cold, dark, windy and rainy Saturday evening. My partner in crime, Carl and I are hunkered down in November lockdown. All our usual weekend plans are currently on hold, so what better way to keep the cabin fever at bay than to spend a few hours reflecting back on our epic Highland MTB adventure this summer.
It was all booked quite last-minute, thanks to a plan hatched by the team of adventure wizards at H+I Adventures. They contacted us when our international trips were cancelled because of the first lockdown. They felt they could arrange a short notice week of riding for us based on their new Highland Odyssey trip and it was just too good an opportunity to miss. We jumped at the chance of a few days of guided adventures and freedom in one of our all-time favourite biking spots.
Our local riding buddies Andrew and Anita were keen to join the adventure too. So, before we knew it, the four of us were piling bikes and bags into Anita’s van and we were heading north nine hours to Inverness, fuelled by strong coffee and an array of travel playlists.
First stop: the Cairngorms National Park
Day one, we bounced out of bed bright and early, joined by Claire from Glasgow, the other rider in our little gang. After a coffee and cake briefing at H+I Adventures’ HQ, our guides Chris and Max, whisked us off to Aviemore, to get down to the real business of riding bikes.
We covered some 40km and 700m of climbing through Rothiemurchus Forest. A solid wake up call for our legs and great to explore some of this ancient Caledonian woodland for the first time. We climbed into the extensive sub-Arctic landscape that seemed to stretch out in front of us for miles. Such a unique and beautiful place with flowy singletrack and plenty of little technical features. Already we felt the stresses of home and work life lifting off our shoulders and by the time we made it to the pub later that evening we were ready for a feast before climbing into bed feeling tired but happy.
The second part of our Cairngorms exploration took us to the beautiful Glen Feshie. What a place! Somehow, we managed to avoid the various weather systems that were brewing all around us but, despite avoiding a soaking from the skies, we didn’t stay dry for long!
A key obstacle on this ride is a major river crossing. A surprisingly expansive and fast-flowing one. Anita and I needed some support from Chris to make it across, sheltering us step-by-step from the force of the water so that we could crab our way across to the far side. Quite the adventure, the smiles in the photos say it all!
We covered over 50km and 700m climbing in this wild and wonderful riding loop, with varied terrain, from super-fast woodland descents, to moorland and bogland. A great sneak peek into this stunning landscape, it felt like we had only just scratched the surface.
Heading West: Mallaig to Tarbet, Off-Piste
Day 3 started from the bustling coastal port of Mallaig. Quickly heading inland towards the peace and quiet of Loch Morar. This freshwater loch is steeped in folklore and tales of water monsters and the trail we followed sent us deep into the wilds, following the contours and shoreline of the loch away from civilisation. This ride had a unique beauty, with classic Highland views in all directions and plenty of challenging technical trail, including deep peaty bogs and rocky sections. A few hikey bikey bits and rewarding technical descents. Mostly though it was the feeling of true wilderness that made it a truly special day and all still with a few more surprises to come.
On reaching the end of the trail at Tarbet harbour we had a little wait for the ferry back to base. Chris and Max laid on a surprise whisky and cheese picnic by the shore. Cheers!! With a few wee drams of Jura (just as well we didn’t need to ride any further) we enjoyed a blissful afternoon chilling and hanging out in this magical spot where time seems to stand still.
Return to base was thanks to the late afternoon ferry, which we had the fun of loading our bikes on, before settling at the front to enjoy the prime views. Dolphins and seals playing in the late afternoon light, what a perfect and special end to the day.
Over the Sea to Skye
How to top yesterday? Surely by heading to the dramatic and scenic Isle of Skye. What an impressive drive to the trail head through the magnificent Cuillins, their rocky slopes imposing and dramatic.
Today’s ride cut right through Glen Sligachan and over a rocky isthmus to the beach at Camus Fhionnairigh and then back again. On paper this was a comparatively short 27km / 425m ride, but on the ground, it turned out to be the toughest riding challenge of the trip so far. Well for me at least.
No big climbs, no long descents, just a non-stop series of short rocky climbs and descents punctuated with loose granite sections, water bars and bogs. This trail tested every joint, bone and muscle. Great fun and technically challenging for man/woman and machine. An amazing ride amongst a magnificent glacial landscape.
It was made all the more memorable too when Chris and Max persuaded us to join them in taking a dip in an icy cold plunge pool midway into the return leg. Dunking our heads took our breath away, but I tried to tell myself that the madness had method and the cold water would surely help our tired, sore muscles get us to the end of the trail. I still chuckle now remembering this. To top the day off in the best way ever, we celebrated Anita’s birthday each with a giant slice of super indulgent vegan chocolate cake. Served at the trail head with views looking back up the valley. What a finish!
To Applecross and Back
Wow, and then suddenly it was day 5 already!! Andrew summed up the day better than I could “Today we ate the huskies….” He nailed it! After 4 days of hard riding most of us (not Carl) were feeling just a little bit battered and worse for wear. Our heavy legs made a meal of the first steep technical climb of the day. From the outset most of us ended up pushing our bikes, but once the initial climb was over, the trail opened up nicely. It undulated towards Applecross with the odd steep techy climb thrown in for good challenge and two awesome but “high consequence” descents on the side of Meall Arachaidh, what a thrill! Down a farm track and then to the beach for a rest and lunch, before tackling the reverse journey back to the van.
The farm track warmed our legs up nicely ready for the main big climb back. Mainly hikey but once on the top, the trails seemed kinder in this direction. The steep climbs on the outbound leg became fun short descents and the climbs were typically less of a challenge. The final run to the trailhead was awesome and included several very entertaining fast and loose descents. A really great day out (despite having to dig deep for this one…)
We were very grateful when we pulled over on route to the accommodation, still in our biking gear, to order stone baked pizzas and cold beers. Heavenly.
Right, this was the big day we’d been building up to all week. Were we ready for Torridon? Full of anticipation we tucked into a big hearty breakfast. Torridon is world famous as a must visit location in the Highlands for mountain biking and for good reason. Today was the ride with the most miles and most climbing of the trip and two of the most legendary descents. Achnashellach famed for being steep, rocky and techy and Annat for being rough, fast and flowy. An epic day lay ahead.
It was a slow start out the blocks for me, with what felt like a never-ending road climb leaving me lagging a bit behind the rest of the riders. Max held back and reassured me I’d be fine. He was right, my legs eventually warmed up and with views and wilderness of breath-taking proportions. It was impossible not to feel buoyed and energised. Before long I was digging into the lung busting climbs and hike-a-bike sections, relishing them and earning those legendary descents.
We were too busy enjoying the day to take many photos. We’ve got no epic descent shots to share, but fair to say Torridon earnt its reputation as simply one of the best adventure days riding in the UK, steep, rocky, nothing quite like it. The thrill of riding these majestic and challenging mountains has kept us smiling since we returned home. We all made it round with no incidents or injuries, giving us cause to celebrate into the night with a local whisky & gin tasting session and some delicious much needed grub.
Looking back again now, I am so grateful that H+I managed to arrange this week away, it was a much-needed escape into nature, away from the rigours of the everyday and a chance to challenge ourselves and create special memories with friends new and old. A massive “THANK YOU!!!” to Chris, Max and everyone at H+I Adventures for making our Highland getaway possible and for introducing us to all the best trails and secret gems. Let’s hope it’s not too long until we can ride with you all again soon!