Riding north for winter
Words and photography by Mathijs de Graaf
“We are very sorry to inform you that this train will not be able to travel on the High-Speed line due to Storm Ciara.”
I’m on the early high-speed train service from Amsterdam to Bruxelles, when I hear this announcement and I’m worried I’m gonna miss my connection from Bruxelles to London. Even in terms of travel logistics, this plan might just be a bit too ambitious.
Months ago I made the call and ordered a gravel/adventure bike from a small bike shop in Manchester. At that time I was new to the world of bikepacking but after a couple of overnighters on my old hardtail, I was hooked and fell in love with the idea of a dedicated adventure bike. So when Shona from Keep Pedalling told me the bike would be ready in the New Year, I began to form a plan. I was gonna pick up the bike in the midst of winter, take it up north to Inverness and attempt to ride the Badger Divide. In order to deal with my carbon footprint conscience, I decided to complete the whole undertaking by train.
So there I was, on my way to the UK, in a cramped train with a flight bag full of bikepacking bags. I spent weeks getting all the gear together and stuffing it into bags I would then attach to the bike once I reached Manchester. Weeks of staring at the Mountain Weather Service and reading frosty reports from fellow explorers is not very helpful if you want to pack lightly. I packed all of my winter kit, and a bit more.
From Bruxelles, I would catch the Eurostar, shoot through the tunnel 75m below sea level, switch stations in London and ride the train to Manchester. Pick up the bike, load up the bags and hop aboard the Sleeper by night to reach Inverness the next morning. Kindly, Shona opened up the shop just for me because I arrived on a Monday when they are usually closed. With my current High-Speed train restricted to low speed, I risked missing the whole chain of connections, and have Shona waiting in vain. Being all 21st century I emailed her out of the train and promised I would make it to Manchester before 5pm. Hours later I finally found myself rolling into London St. Pancras station with only 20 minutes spare to make it to Euston station and catch the service to Manchester. It must have looked weird, tall dutch guy running through the tube with a bag full of other bags. But I made it, with 2 minutes spare. On the approach to Manchester, the sky turned red and from my window I could see the Peak District, snowcapped.
After a warm welcome from Shona, I took out my bags and within no time we transformed the showroom model into a mean looking expedition mobile. I stuffed the Outdoor Provisions bars that were given to me generously in every available little space. Ready to head up North I thanked Shona and made my way back to the train station. A couple of hours later I rested my head on a fresh pillow and fell sound asleep to the rocking motions of the sleeper.
A gentle knock on the door of my tiny couchette room wakes me up. Breakfast is ready. I open the curtain and stare into a snow dusted landscape passing by in front of the window. A lot of snow. What a way to wake up. A different world. We arrive at Inverness, the end of the line. I grab my bike and step onto the platform. With Inverness being at sea level, the snow was gone and sleet came down from the sky. I cocooned myself in rain gear and pedalled away from the station.
I made my way out of the city, along the banks of the river Ness. The departure from civilisation was gentle; the river park, people walking their dogs and the gentle trails made for a stark contrast to the harsh weather. I felt good, my wheels were in motion and I could see the hills looming. Soon the trail had me breathing heavily. I climbed out of the valley, lugging up my load on a steep path. With barely 200 metres climbed the ground became covered in a fresh pack of snow, cracking pleasantly under my tires as I progressed into the big firs.
The higher I got, the more covered the grounds became. Snow all around, but still very rideable. Up was a struggle, but down was sheer joy. I cruised down snow covered trails like I was coming down a freshly prepped slope in the Alps. The snowpack slowed me down just enough not to have me use my brakes. I followed the line of the Badger Divide on the Garmin for hours. Through forest, crossing rivers, down valleys and up many hills. The weather cleared up for a bit, and on an exposed section I could see a tiny spot of blue sky and big Highland Mountains. That was enough to raise the spirits high, and keep cranking out the kilometres. The objective for the day was to reach the bothy before the notorious Corrieyairack Pass, but by the time darkness fell I was nowhere near the bothy. I was not even close to the end of Loch Ness. I could feel the tiredness in every bone of my body but I was determined to keep going. With Fort Augustus in sight I left the comfort of the trails and opted for a bit of midnight road cycling along the A82. Apparently drivers in this part of Europe are a lot less used to sharing road space with cyclists and I feared for my life when fully loaded timber lorries would come up honking from behind, flashing their high beam.
Finally, I rolled into the sleepy town of Fort Augustus. The idea of climbing up to where the bothy was for another couple of hours was just too much. I bailed. Found a sweet little hotel, where the kind owner showed me her smallest room. “I’ll take it.” She didn’t seem to be too impressed by the fact I came by cycle when I asked her if she had a place I could store my mud covered bike. “It must be tough going up there”: she said a bit reluctantly. On the bike I had envisioned myself in the comfort of a Pub with a piping hot dish of Haggis in front of me, but when the waitress pulled away my plate, I had barely taken three bites. So hungry, but just too exhausted. I crawled into my room, feeling like a bear before hibernation.
The next morning was a different story. Marion, the hotel owner, made me a scrumptious breakfast and clear skies showed through the windows. Fort Augustus locals came dropping in, talking over coffee and with BBC Scotland blaring in the background. When I pitched the idea of going over Corrieyairack Pass they shook their head, “Impassable”. I figured they were right, the snow depth was already substantial at 400 meters, never mind the exposed top of the pass at 700 meters plus. Change of plan. I’ll just bomb it down to Fort William along the gravel tracks that line the Great Glens and see where to go from there. I had prepared for this. Winter travel is basically just adjusting. Adjusting constantly and obeying the weather.
So with a fresh set of legs, I set out on the side of Caledonian Canal. Only to discover a big sign after a few kilometres stating; 'Towpath Closed'. I looked at my GPS and figured I had two options. Follow the A82 until Loch Oich or head into the hills and follow what looks like a forest trail. Given my experience the previous night with Scottish A roads, my decision was quickly made and I found myself with a smile on my face heading under the cover of the trees again. I climbed up from the valley once more and snow greeted me once again. The path was rough, and snaked its way through steep hairpins up to higher grounds, but doable. The air was crisp, and with the snow and pines around it brought back fond memories of winter in the Alps.
I was quite happy with my improvised route until the path ended abruptly in a fast flowing stream. I looked again at the Garmin, the display clearly showing a crossing in the form of a bridge. But when I looked up, no bridge. Just fast flowing icy water. Beautiful, but quite wide. Like a double lane road wide. Again, I consulted my options. Ride all the way back and ride that horrible A82. Or cross this river. Somehow. The thought of the A82 had me shivering enough to take off my shoes, roll up my pants and step into the water. Definitely colder than what I had expected but not too slippery. I pushed the bike into the water and moved deeper. A couple of metres in the riverbed deepened and water came up as high as the top of my wheels. The stream pushed hard against my frame bag, that was now acting like a rudder in the wrong direction. My feet became numb and I was only halfway. Bad idea I figured, but no way back. I made it across, with my heart pounding hard in my chest.
With an invincible feeling, I rolled down to the banks of the lake and continued along beautiful gravel following glen after glen. Some parts of the route were on a former railroad track, and I was cruising through small Victorian tunnels. By the end of the day I reached the rather bleak town of Fort William, with big snow covered peaks looming over it. The site was surreal, grey housing blocks with a glimpse of the mountains in between every row. The detour took much longer than I had envisioned and I was wondering how to reconnect with the Badger again.
All routes out of Fort William required going over high altitude passes. Just before I felt completely stuck I passed the railway station and remembered Corrour Station. Legendary Corrour station. I bought a ticket for the 17:30 service to Glasgow, stopping at all local stops. This train would be my hyperdrive to rejoin with the Badger Divide, as the route passes this remarkable roadless station on the Rannoch Moor. New plan, new energy. Happy I would get to spend the night out in the hills and not in the city, I set my Garmin to closest Bothy from the station. 10 kilometres, should be doable.
As the train leaves Fort William, darkness had encroached and only lights flashed by the window. There was only a handful of passengers on board and I was pretty sure I was the only one getting off at Corrour Station. After a short ride a voice calls out my stop, the doors open and I step onto a platform that is completely covered in snow drifts. A narrow shovelled path leads away from the platform into the darkness. The train doors shut again, and the diesel engine revs when the train pulls out of the station. I stare for a moment into the red rear lights fading away and become very aware I’m the only soul on the platform. I gather my courage and set out into the pitch black.
I’m surprised to find a pretty wide track, with the snow being sufficiently compressed that I can ride on it. My light kicks in as I pick up speed and I cruise off under a blanket of stars. The air is windless and although my thermometer reads -4°, it's very pleasant out. I follow the line on the GPS and envision myself in front of the stove in the bothy when out of nowhere the line makes a sharp turn into the snowbanks. Optimistically I steer into the snow but within seconds I find myself waist deep in the powder. This wasn’t right, it had to be a snow drift blocking the trail?
I left the bike behind, which just remained standing upright because of the deepness of the snow and set out on foot to see if the track continues on the other side. However the snow kept on being waist deep, and I realised I had to give up my Bothy dream. Luckily I brought a sturdy 4 season tent and I scouted the map for a good spot. I found a place that looked like to be on the shores of the loch and protected by a pocket of trees. I set out on the original trail, cycled for 15 minutes more and lifted my bike into the snow on the side of the path.
With the snow being just as deep as before I was left with no option but to make myself a plateau. So I spend the next hour levelling the ground like a steamroller, with my feet close together, compressing the snow to a hard pack. It was quite satisfying and after a while I had a rectangular footprint cut out in the snow with a path leading back up to the trail. I pitched the tent and pressed the stakes as hard as I could into the snow. They were nowhere near solid ground, so all resistance was coming from my compression skills. I dimmed my headlamp and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Thousands of stars lined the sky and reflected onto the waveless lake.
I fired up the stove and prepared a dehydrated meal. Posh Baked Beans, because this place was just pure poshness. With a warm and full belly I zipped into my sleeping bag and fell asleep to the sounds of the small waves tickling the shoreline. I was rudely awakened by a howling wind that had picked up and was now having a go at my little shelter. With every gust yanking at the guy lines, I prayed I had pushed those stakes deep enough into the snow. I managed to fall asleep again, my dreams a mix of passing herds of deer and visions of me sliding together with my tent into the loch.
When I peeked my head out of the tent at first daylight I just realised how beautiful it was outside. That's the beauty of arriving at night, a giant surprise awaits you in the morning. I had pitched my tent on a small outcrop into the lake next to a couple of big pine trees. Across from the lake big, barren mountains rose up from the shores, their ridges visible as dark lines in white world. What a place to wake up, I made a strong cup of coffee and was in no rush to pack up. I sat down next to the tent and took in the serenity. The tent had survived the nightly storm and as I survey all the corners of my little outcrop I started to feel at home.
It actually took me quite some time to leave the spot, just because I was enjoying it so much, but eventually the reality of my outbound train leaving that night from Bridge of Orchy kicked in and I packed up. As I rode away from my spot, over the hard packed trail, I was overwhelmed by every turn. As far as the eye could see there where white mountains and above that blue skies.
I was back on the Badger, but not for long. I reached the place where I had come down from the station the night before and it made a fork heading in two directions. One was back to the station, the other to the Loch Ossian Youth Hostel. My direction, the Badger direction, appeared only to exist on my Garmin. In reality, there was just a big dump of snow.
A bit clueless I rode down to the Youth Hostel where I was welcomed by a friendly group of Scottish Mountaineers and the friendly caretaker of the hostel. This man had the best job in the world, he was stationed for months at the hostel to take care of the place in winter. And he assured me there was no way I would be able to reach Bridge of Orchy, let alone cycle. My only option was to pick up the same train I had taken the night before and drop off two stations further along the line and wait for the Caledonian Sleeper to pick me up.