Dawn arrives late up here in the northern highlands, in the days between Christmas and New Year. But can be so clear, bright and glorious, you just have to make the most of the precious sunlight. A change of wind overnight had driven off the rain clouds. A north east wind always seems to bring a drop in temperature and clear skies in wintertime.
So, good gloves, a few layers plus one for the saddlebag, warm socks and boots, and what better than to head further north and higher up.
And on a bike, in this part of the world, you can’t get much higher than the Bealach na Ba. From Lochcarron it’s 18 miles to Applecross. In early summer I had done a round trip of the Applecross peninsula. Twice. Once in each direction. Camped at Applecross, Shieldaig and stayed at Uags bothy over several days and did a bit of off-road in the area. It was a great trip, although the Applecross road had been pretty busy and the hazy summer weather meant the views at the top of the pass weren’t as beautiful as I remembered. So, I decided to head up there again, from Lochcarron this time.
There’s a climb out of Lochcarron, a small village, one house wide skirting the edge of a sea loch between the water and the steep hill behind it. Then a decent easyish stretch of riding through moorland until you dip back down to sea level and Loch Kishorn. You may think this landscape feels remote and unchanged but the remains of a huge construction yard and dock for the production of oil platforms are still clearly visible to the west. By 1977 over 3,000 people were working here. The 600,000 tonne Ninian Central Oil Platform was built here. It needed seven tugs to tow it to its operating position in the North Sea and was at the time the largest movable object ever created by humans.
The yard went out of business as oil production fell. However, some buildings remain in use, for boat repair and renewable energy hub. Hard to believe now that 3000 people worked here.
Another mile or so of easy riding and you’re at the junction of the main road with the Applecross road. I’ve ridden past this point many times over the last forty years. But have only turned up the road to the Bealach on a handful of occasions. Weather and time have more often meant the main road was the wiser choice. But today, the winds were gentle (at sea level anyway) and though the weather was getting colder, the roads were snow and ice free, the sky was clear.
The first three and a half miles feel like your usual highland pass. Find a gear low enough and you can turn the pedals fairly smoothly. I don’t do fast any more. Even if I wanted to race up, I couldn’t! Anyway, the views as you climb are terrific and you need time to appreciate them. That’s my excuse. And then you’re about 1000 feet up from sea level, with a terrific view behind you and another 1000 or so feet to climb.
Then it begins to feel a little harder than normal. And from nowhere that north east wind blasts through a gap in the rocks and sent me right across the road sideways. Then as the road switches direction again, it becomes a headwind. And my feet almost grind to a halt, fighting what seemed to be some invisible giant’ mighty hand pushing me back down! But, those hills, although seemingly your enemy, can also be your friend. Somehow, I managed a few more pedal strokes, to move me up the pass to a space in the shelter of the mountain, enough to get me to the next switch of the road out of the headwind. In the next mile or so there is maybe 700 ft of climbing. Luckily I’m out of that headwind. I would never manage it otherwise.
Now I can see the very steepest section of the switch back. It’s pretty short, but it’s not the end of the climb. But it’s wind free. Calm. Lowest gear. Slow turn of the pedals and thankfully no motor vehicles behind me. Then suddenly, it feels easier again. Back to the usual gradient of a highland pass. A few more feet to climb, then you feel like you’re at the top. But you’re not, not quite. A brief swirl downwards, then the Bealach kicks back with a little last hurrah and my tired legs just manage to get me up to the top. And the wind is back with a vengeance!
But, no matter, because I’m there! And the best view I’ve ever managed to see up here! Plus a biting wind. You really understand the meaning of that metaphor at times like this. I had done the whole ride in two merino layers and a jersey. And hadn’t realised till now just how cold it was! It was hard in the wind to get my winter jacket out of my seat pack and even harder to get it on. All the while my body temperature was dropping really quickly and in seconds I had gone from feeling comfortably warm to absolutely freezing.
I finally zipped up the Paramo and got my phone out for the obligatory photos. Unfortunately I had to take my glove off to use it. Again, in seconds, my fingers were painfully cold.
Then I went for a little walk. It was absolutely beautiful up there and no picture I’ve ever seen, much less the ones I can manage to take myself, can show you just how beautiful. You just have to experience it yourself.
The original plan had been to drop down into Applecross, then head back. However, as I descended the other side of the pass, I realised a few things. Firstly, I had no money or cards. Secondly, even if I had either, nothing was open in Applecross this New Years Day. So no real point in going there. Most importantly, and what had made me consider all this in the first place, the wind was largely in my face, bitterly cold, slowing me down even on a steep descent and my hands, even in liner gloves and the warmest winter gloves were already so cold I couldn’t feel the brakes. So after a couple of miles of the 4 or 5 mile descent, I turned and started back, to head down the way I had come.
It was still one of the coldest descents I’ve done. Even with the wind behind me for most of it. With every few feet, my hands got colder and colder. My toes also began to get painfully cold. After the first two miles I couldn’t feel to brake properly. And my feet were completely numb in the pedals.
Eventually, I was down to the last mile or so. Still cold, but some feeling returning to my extremities. Someone on a road bike was approaching from the opposite direction. I could see he was in road kit, shoes, no winter jacket and didn’t seem to have any kind of bag where any winter kit could be. I called out as I passed that it was freezing up there. I envisaged him decending back down in that Lycra shell and wished him all the best.
A few minutes later, he greeted me again, riding up behind and saying that he hadn’t intended to ride the pass. Just the first few bits of the climb for the view. Knew he wasn’t kitted out for the top.
I saw no other riders. A few vehicles, but nothing like the crazy volume of motor traffic I’d experienced last summer. More like the numbers of cars in the springs and summers of the seventies and early eighties.
The easy climbing back up from Kishorn felt much tougher than I expected. I think my legs must have thought it was all over once I was down from the pass. The last little descent back in to Lochcarron was very welcome.
Only thirty miles or so, but some of the best miles you can ride in this country, I think. Possibly my favourite New Years Day Ride.