What really are the essential ingredients for the ultimate weekend away for a bunch of outdoor enthusiasts? Well, our latest weekend adventure got pretty close to the perfect blend. Words: Sean McFarlane, Pictures: Andy McCandlish
For such a small place Bridge of Orchy seems to be blessed with a lot; not only does the West Highland Way (WHW) go through it, it also has a train station as well as a fabulous hotel. They all combine perfectly to make it the ideal location for weekend warriors like us.
At the end of another Friday that seemed to drag on forever we choose to take the car to Bridge of Orchy. As we arrive we speculate how those Canary Warf mega workers could jump on the overnight sleeper and wake up here on Saturday morning. Nice.
Our train the following day leaves at mid morning so just a few post-meal beverages are on the cards tonight. As we eat our evening meal we ponder over maps; the WHW is however very well signposted though, so this was more a tradition rather than a necessity. We head out onto the balcony for a nightcap.
It’s a glorious early summer’s evening but we’re not lulled into any false sense of security so we check our phones for tomorrow’s weather. Dave does his usual scouring of all available forecasts until he finds one he likes; but it’s clear to all that the day would start well and tail off after mid afternoon. That’s fine with us as we calculate we should almost be back to the hotel by then, safe in the knowledge we have our warm and comfortable beds just waiting for us to collapse into after some quality refuelling.
We duly retire to those beds that evening, bellies full with plenty of calories on board ready to be burnt off the following day. I am asleep before my head hits the pillow. Saturday morning dawns dry and still, as promised by our familiar advisers at the Met Office. It’s a morning full of promise and as I awake, I’m very glad I wasn’t camping. My passion for Scotland will never wane but where insects have such an affect that they give rise to a verb, take notice.
I’ve been “midged” more than enough in my time. One look at the campers outside gives me confirmation, if ever it was needed, that we’ve made the right choice of lodgings. After a good stint of solid grazing, we assemble our bikes and various accessories for the day. Our route will be 38 miles of varying terrain off-road biking along the WHW, from its northern most point in Fort William back to our hotel.
We may have spent the night in very comfortable accommodation but we’re all well aware that today’s ride has large sections of seriously remote trail. So we make sure we have plenty of kit, both in terms of clothing and bike tools, between the four of us. Our group is the usual mix of abilities, lifestyles and wallet sizes, and that’s all reflected in our gear.
Chris and I are pretty similar with “old school”, perhaps the best description. Dave is a hill runner, and fairly new to off road biking; he’s still having some teething problems with the transition.
Then there’s “bling-tastic” Gav – “the more expensive the better”. I’ve no idea what many of his tools are supposed to do but I have faith in him that they’re all needed. Anyway he can carry what he wants in his rucksack which seems to have compartments for every day of the year.
We all have a mid morning latte just to check the engines are started, and then make the two-minute cycle to the train platform. We casually chat to a very friendly Dutch chap who is keen to know what we’re doing. We tell him our plan for the day and he seems very keen to join us next time.
His enthusiastic nods seem to be in perfect timing with the chugging of the train as it arrives into the station. “All the best Hans”, we shout as we board.
Our train journey is part of the world famous West Highland line. What a superb start to our day’s adventure. Eyes glued to the window, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scenery as we glide over Rannoch Moor. The train noticeably lurches as its passengers move to its left side to take photos of the magnificent Loch Treig and the snowy peaks above it.
We then head westwards and on to Fort William. As we arrive, the legs tingle knowing that there’s only one way back, for us at least.
A final quick check that we have everything that we need and we’re off. Ben Nevis looks on invitingly but she’ll have to wait on this occasion as we head up Glen Nevis on a wide smooth track, through the forest and south westwards. There are lots of walkers heading towards us on the path, no doubt having seen the forecast and keen to finish their day by early afternoon, but there’s plenty of space, and it’s a very friendly place to be today. As we get out of the forest, the route opens up and the mountains provide an impressive grandstand as we pick our way through. The riding is superb with a real mix of terrain.
It’s more or less all bike-able but does require attention. As usual the trickiest bits seem to be saved for the biggest audiences. The pressure’s on but we all cope well. We reach Lairigmor (the Great Pass) at 900 feet. The mountains now seem to tighten their grip around our corridor.
This is certainly remote country. The walkers have gone now and it’s just us. Last night Gav had been telling us about the descent into Kinlochleven, we all know he likes his technical terrain so there’s a certain sense of trepidation as we see the right hand turn.
Just as Gav promised, the track narrows up and the brain turns on. A quick check to make sure we’re in the correct descending order – that’s long been established by now – and we batter down. Gav’s off and doesn’t seem to be using his brakes.
“Speed’s your friend”, he shouts as his voice fades with him into the distance. Hmm, heard that before. The track zigzags down with plenty of wet slabs of rock to keep you focused. We all manage it at our own pace. I arrive at the bottom to see Chris, elbows on handlebars and head slumped.
As I arrive he looks up and smiles approvingly. I look back as Dave arrives, his face puffing and shaking his head. “I’ve never biked anything like that before”, he says. Gav starts to yawn having been here for a while. But we’re about to get our own back.
The climb out of Kinlochleven is the steepest of the day. As we ride, the chat lessens and the breathing gets heavier. Our descending order is now reversed. Gav’s no longer his chatty self. Dave isn’t even sweating. Chris and I are somewhere between the two. Eventually the route begins to level.
We can see and feel the weather beginning to close in on us. We’re not far from our base but there’s still some testing riding to be done. The route here has plenty of short stretches which are right on the edge of my riding ability, and there are precious few soft landing areas here. Conscious of the need to push on, we enjoy a banter-less section. It’s my favourite part of the day.
As I take a quick pee I gaze around over Rannoch Moor. We were only there a few hours ago in the warm comfort of a train carriage but at this point it seems like last year. Luckily I hear some voices before they see me – I don’t want to be caught literally with my pants down – and I hop back on the bike.
The other three have stopped to regroup and Gav turns to me with a grin that I know can mean only one thing – descent time. There’s a good clue in the name of this section – the infamous “Devil’s Staircase”. I’ve done plenty of satanic named sections of trails and I know what’s in store here. Descending order re-established and down we go, at varying speeds. Once again, it’s supreme off-road biking at its unbeatable best. Suitably jolted, we re-gather and head along to the Kingshouse Hotel.
On another occasion we might have stopped here for something to eat but the rain has now started and we know the end is in sight, almost literally. Up and over the Black Mount, we see the twin peaks of Beinn an Dothaidh and Beinn Dorain which brings smiles to all our faces, knowing as we do that our hotel is tucked in below them. The rain is now set in for the day but it only adds to the experience.
We’ll be warm and cosy soon. The trail is now wide and it’s easy riding. We’re making quick progress. Energy levels are waning and it’s very much “head down” time. We reach the tiny settlement of Inveroran. Only two miles left. In order to preserve the track itself, bikers are asked not to use the track from here to Bridge of Orchy, and instead take the single-track road.
No complaints from us whatsoever with that. We whizz along the now wet tarmac. We’re quickly on to the bridge itself at Bridge of Orchy and we’re back. What a day. I’d been thinking of dinner for some time now not to mention a few aperitifs. We head off to shower and change then quickly reconvene in the hotel bar to relive the day.
The body’s aching nicely – I know I’ll sleep well tonight. We all agree that the ride has been one of the best we’ve ever done. With its very varied mixture of terrain, it very much has the feel of having something for everyone. On a day filled with so many likely candidates, it’s difficult to agree a particular highlight.
But strangely enough when pushed we all agree on a part which involved no biking at all – the train journey to the start. We muse over alternatives. You could certainly continue south along the West Highland Way the following day to Crianlarich which is 13 miles away.
We agree that thereafter the trail becomes a bit stop start and boggy. Dave knows as he’s run it several times. Another round of drinks quickly raises a new angle – could you run it?
Dave frowns as Chris and I insist on adding an overnight stay at Kinlochleven if any on foot plans were confirmed. Gav kindly offers bike-based support. One thing’s for sure, we’ll be back!