Wednesday, July 15, 2015

And haggis for breakfast: Scotland part 2

The day after riding half of the West Highland Way in Scotland  in one day, we were understandably a little bike-weary. The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful, though, and I was not prepared to spend a day relaxing in Scotland’s self-proported outdoor capital.

“Let’s just hike up Ben Nevis,” I coaxed Audun, by which I meant Scotland highest mountain, “hiking is easy compared to dragging around a mountain bike!"

And both believing that hiking was, in fact, easy, we set off from the center of Fort William to conquer the mountain.

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The entrance to Glen Nevis

I had forgotten about the almost ruthless manner in which we two tend to hike together. We both have naturally fast walking paces, and since neither of us will tell the other to slow down (because we both find this pace comfortable), our hiking always turns into power hiking. Combine that with my competitive instinct to Pass All The Tourists, and you have us chugging up Ben Nevis like a two-man freight train.

It was hot at the base of the mountain, and Audun didn’t feel so good. I guess I should have put on the brakes, and suggested we find something more relaxing to do. But I had the mountain in my sights, so I just said, “Are you drinking enough water? Let’s just keep going for a little ways and we can turn around later if you want to.” Soon there was no turning around.

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Headed up Ben Nevis on a gorgeous day

We passed literally hundreds of people on the way up the mountain, so I guess Roddy was right when he referred to the mountain as crowded. The ascent starts on rocky switchbacks through farmland, before reaching a saddle near a beautiful loch, and giving way to talus slopes up the rest of the mountain. The trail is broad, although a little rough.

A couple of trail runners were powerhiking up as well, although they were cutting all the switchbacks and going straight up the slope. I couldn’t help thinking that taking the trail must be more efficient, but I guess they were training for the off-trail hill racing events that are typical to Scotland.

The last stretch to the top there were a couple of big snow patches, and we were again ascending into the fog. So all we saw from the top was this:

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Yeah, highest mountain in Scotland!

On the way down, we decided to run (we were, after all, in running shoes), and I felt the pure joy of bounding down a big hill, laser-focused on not misstepping. Eventually we cooled back down to a fast walk, wanting to conserve our quads for the next day.

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Descending below the fog, swaths of tourists headed up behind us.

It was a weary duo, feeling fried by the sun, that plodded back into Fort William that afternoon. Ben Nevis might not have been the ideal choice for a relaxing day, but it was a good hike.The day was rounded off in typical Scottish fashion: with good ale and pub food. For once we didn’t eat fish and chips, but instead indulged a veal burger, a wild boar and haggis burger (only in Scotland) and delicious breading pudding with custard.

The next day we had planned to check out the bike park in Fort William, but Audun woke up not feeling so great. I guess I should have taken a hint when he wasn’t feeling so great at the start of Ben Nevis! We were to pick of a rental car and drive to Skye that afternoon, so we formulated a plan where a leisurely morning would be spent in Fort William, and then I would bike a portion of the Great Glen Way, which stretches north of Fort William.

The Great Glen Way is a 150 km footpath which runs from Fort William to Inverness. Reading about it earlier, I had decided it looked like a lot of dirt roads and not technically challenging. But I decided easy, predictable, well-marked biking was just the ticket if I was heading out alone. We agreed that Audun would pick me up in Fort Augustus, 50-odd kilometers alone the Great Glen Way, and not too much of a detour from our drive to Skye.

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The start of the Great Glen Way in Fort William

It was 2:30pm by the time I set out, my backpack filled with snacks, rain gear, and a map covering the whole Great Glen Way. I was kind of excited to be setting out of a solo adventure, which requires a whole other level of alertness.

The first section of the Great Glen Way follows paved walking paths along the sea shore, before doing a hair pin turn to pick up the Caledonian Canal. I, of course, missed the hair pin turn at first and got to do a little extra sightseeing before finally finding the Way markers again.

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Ben Nevis on the left, Fort William across the bay (center), and an abandoned ship on the beach.

Threateningly grey clouds loomed overhead, and just started to rain as I attacked Neptune’s staircase, a series of locks that allow boats to move vertically in the Caledonian Canal. After reaching the top, the Way was really flat, and actually kind of boring, for a while. You could only see as far as the next bend in the Canal, and the riding was on an easy dirt road. I decided to go hard, assuming that there would be Strava segment here, so I just put my head down and grinded along. I quickly left the rain behind.

After reach Gairlochy, the Way began to climb along of Loch Lochy, an enormous lake, before swooping down to the shore side. The beginning of the section along Loch Lochy was my favorite part of the Great Glen Way. Here the Way was a trail rather than a dirt road, and it twisted through verdant woods spotted with wildflowers.

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Self portrait along Loch Lochy.

Eventually the Way dumped me out on a dirt road again. Luckily there was World War II memorabilia, in this case remnants of the Commando training center used by the Allies, to keep things interesting.

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Commando training camp sightseeing.

After passing several houses, the Way grew more remote again, this time with more sweeping views across the Loch and to the mountains above. There were numerous small ascents and descents, and I found the rhythm of riding dirt roads: pedalling up the hills and cruising on the downhills, an exercise in soaking in the views rather than the laser focus required for technical mountain biking.

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The Way along Loch Lochy

Once the rolling hills along Loch Lochy were finished, the Way crossed the main road again and continued along the shores of Loch Oich. Loch Oich was much narrower than Loch Lochy, and the Way followed abandoned rail road project. 

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At the end of Loch Oich, with just the home stretch to Fort Augustus left.

After Loch Oich, the rest of the Way into Fort Augustus was another long grind along the Caledonian Canal. I mashed out this section, barely looking around, and arrived in Fort Augustus before Audun with the car. So I continued for a couple of bonus kilometers, climbing up above Loch Ness to enjoy the view before soaring back down to the tiny town center.

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My bike, Casper, greeting the Loch Ness moster.

We enjoyed a dinner of pub food in Fort Augustus before making the drive to Skye through spectacular mountain scenery and evening light.

The next morning, the beautiful weather had disappeared and Scotland was once again grey and rainy. I chose our B&B on Skye as an opportunity to try haggis. The haggis was served alongside the typical English breakfast of eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. It tasted pretty good, but the flavor was rich and pretty overpowering. Determined to finish my whole portion of haggis, I was stuffed after breakfast.

We drove out to Glen Sligachan, a valley that extends under the Black Cuillin, immortalized in the mountain biking movie “The Ridge”. I had read all about how wildly beautiful this ride was supposed to be; however, the grey day did not allow our expectations to be met.

The trail started with drainage ditch after drainage ditch, and I kept getting off my bike to cross them. I got more and more irritated, and in the end we stopped so I could solve the drainage ditch problem. I manned myself up, and practiced first lifting my front wheel over a rock before attacking the drainage ditches. And contrary to my belief, the ditches did not swallow me whole. In fast, I just rode straight over them! Elated, I pedalled up the trail, practicing my newfound skill. It was like magic, like I could hover over these obstacles I had been so scared of.

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Audun in Glen Sligachan

The clouds grew increasingly thick the further into the valley we pedalled. The trail itself was devilishly difficult, with lots of technical, rocky climbs and extremely wet terrain. The breakfast haggis churned like a partially decomposed brick in my stomach. Audun was still feeling a little under the weather, and I was feeling many days of activity in my legs, so we turned about halfway through Glen Sligachan.

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Headed out of Sligachan, with a spot of sun in the distance

The clouds lifted as we rode out of the valley, although a glance behind told us that they were just as thick further down the valley from where we had just come. The riding was more fun as a descent, and the ride ended on a high note after I rode down an intimidating set of stairs.

The afternoon was spent visiting the Talisker Whisky Distillery (my favorite whisky!), which had been on my todo list. In the end I was glad we cut the ride a little short and had time to go to a distillery - they are pretty cool!

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Our guide explains the malting process.

The next day, Skye decided to show its best side and let the sun out from behind the clouds. We drove to the north of Skye and pedalled off to do the Quiraing loop. It started with a grinding climb on a paved road up to a pass.

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A nice paved road warm-up in beautiful surroundings.

We then turned onto a scenic trail, where a lot of hikers gawked at us - the idiots on mountain bikes!

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The Quiraing trail.

Soon after starting, I got my first (and only) flat tire of the trip, after lifting my wheel over a particularly large drainage ditch (yeah!) only to slam my back wheel far too hard into the ditch. Normally, I have a latex fluid in my tires that seals up any punctures, so I basically can’t flat. However, time and use had transformed the latex fluid into a rubbery, useless clump:

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Dead latex = flat tire

Once Audun put an innertube in my tire, we continued on the trail, which was an exposed piece of singletrack below spectacular rock formations.

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Stunning, but a little scary to bike on!

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I found the exposure unnerving, even though the fall on my right side was only a steep, grassy slope. My riding suffered, and I found myself getting off my bike on technical bits. This slowed our pace to the point that we were leapfrogging hikers, which stressed me even more. I felt like a taught rope, ready to snap, but relaxing slightly every time there were rideable sections.

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This picture gives a really good idea of what exposure felt like.

We took a wrong turn at one point and ended up having to drag our bikes down a 45 degree slope on slippery soil to get back on the main trail. My confidence sank with each dismount of the bike, and my frustration peaked when I fell into a hiker, awkwardly stepping on his foot. By the time we arrived back at the main road, I was tired and fed up, reading for a relaxing afternoon in the car. We drove back to Fort William and returned the car, and the next morning caught an early train towards Glasgow.

The day before, my friend Roddy had texted me, asking if we wanted to join them for the Luss Highland Games. “We’re going to do the hill race (3 km 300+m)!” he exclaimed, and that was all it took to sell me. Highland Games are events that happen every weekend, all summer, somewhere in Scotland. There are strong man events (think people in kilts lobbing rocks around), as well as more informal track and field events. We arrived at the Luss Highland Games in dreary Scottish rain. The parking area was a grassy field that was quickly turning into mud.

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The gang all ready for the Luss Highland Games

In the events tent, we poured over the multitude of different track and field events we could sign up for. In the end I decided everything but the hill race was too short for me, and I would rather take pictures. The others signed up for ominous-sounding things like “90 handicap” and “obstacle race”. Audun, who used to do track and field, got all excited signing up for things like the long jump.

The main problem was then to figure out when each event started. Some of them had nominal starting times; others didn’t. All the events took place on the large field where the Games were being held, so basically you just had to wait around until a guy who looked like he was in charge announced each event. We commenced waiting, and observing the fascinating combination of events taking place simultaneous on the field.

There were men lobbing around enormous poles (’toss the caber’), as the same time as children’s sprint races took place. And in the background, multiple bagpipes serenaded us.

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Only in Scotland.

After some hours of watching the various events, swatting at midges and shivering a bit in the rain, it was time for the 90-meter dash. Roddy and Audun warmed up diligently and then lined up for their respective heats.

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Many of their competitors were fit-looking guys in tights and race spikes. Oh well, at least it will be fun to watch, we all thought. The judges had an unfathomable handicap system, wherby a couple of meters disadvantage were given to sprinters in their spikes whereas the others were allowed to start slightly ahead. Roddy held is own during his heat, but was unsuprisingly beat by the fast-looking sprinters.

Then it was Audun’s turn. Audun in his surfer shorts and Gore-tex shoes. Audun who didn’t look like competition at all, but in truth is a lean, mean, sprinting machine. He won his heat easily, and proceeded to win the finals as well.

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The finals of the 90-meter dash.

We were all in shock, laughing and jumping and hugging each other, when Audun showed us a little piece of paper he had been given, his prize voucher. As we flipped through the program, we suddenly realized that he had actually won quite a lot of money - 90 pounds!

Audun proceeded to destroy the guys in tights and spikes for the rest of the afternoon, and won the long jump, came second in the triple jump, and won the ‘Foreigner’s’ race, where he was given an enormous handicap (like 50-odd meters in a 200 meter race).

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Audun can also fly. Nah, this is just him during the triple jump.

Then it was time for the rest of us to do the hill race, which involved running straight up a hilltop that we could just barely see through the clouds, 300 vertical meters above us. I was nervous, because it was foggy out and people had said you could easily get lost in the bushes out there. There was no trail or course markings, because this is Scotland. And what if I was dead last? It will be fine, I coaxed myself.

We lined up, a bunch of guys in racing singlets and the most grippy trail running shoes Salomon makes, and me, in my biking shorts and city running shoes, and soon we were off. 

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The start of the hill race

It felt great to be running again, and I settled into the middle of the group, following some people who clearly knew were they were going. We had to jump several sheep fences on the way, and I revelled in the novelty of it all. No trail! Straight up the hill! 

As the hill grew steeper, I developed a steady power-hiking pace. Soon we could choose between thrashing through neck-high ferns or sinking into boggy water with each step. But I was gaining on the people ahead of me, and soon I caught Roddy. There was only one woman ahead of me (out of only 4 who started!) - maybe I could catch her?

I was only 10 seconds behind her when we reached the top of the hill, marked with an enormous neon yellow flag. But as soon as the downhill started, the superior grip of everyone else shoes really started to make a difference, and I started falling behind the people I had hiked up with. After doing two full-frontal slides down a 30 degree, marshy slope I decided I needed to be a little careful. Soon I was thrashing through the ferns all alone, trying to go roughly the same direction I had come from. When I exited the ferns, it was clear I was lost. Uh-oh.

I continued on in roughly the direction I thought was correct, and after jumping two barbed wire fences and taking another hideous fall, I finally found some semblance of the trail we had started on. I sprinted back to the stadium, cursing about how much time I must have lost because of slippery shoes and stupidity.

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Final lap around the stadium, soaking wet!

My legs were like lead, but I had taken second woman and had so, so much fun. Strava shows me running 500 meters extra due to my navigational error - oops! And with that we went back to Roddy’s mom’s house for a warm shower, hot food, and goodbyes. Our Scotland trip was over for now, with only travel left, and what fun it had been!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

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