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, out the door early 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 had been a great trip, although the Applecross road had been pretty busy with motor traffic and the hazy summer weather meant the views at the top of the pass weren’t as beautiful as I remembered. I had been surprised and not a little disappointed to see how much busier with people driving it had become since the last time I had ridden it, maybe seven years before. A side effect of the successful marketing of the NC500, I guess.
But clear, ice free days in winter like this one can’t be wasted, 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 lining 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 built 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 a renewable energy hub. Hard to believe now that 3000 people once 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 began to feel a little harder than normal. And from nowhere, suddenly that north east wind blasted through a gap in the rocks and sent me right across the road sideways. Then as the road switched direction again, it became a headwind. And my feet almost ground to a halt, fighting what felt like an invisible giant’s mighty hand pushing me back down! But, those hills, although mostly your enemy, can, sometimes be your friend. The twisting switchback would, I knew soon turn and the headwind would be gone, that giants mighty hand would be turned aside by those implacable, ancient rocks. Somehow, I managed a few more pedal strokes, to move me up the pass to a stretch of road in the shelter of the mountain, out of the headwind.
One second I was fighting a force so strong I was pretty sure I would have to surrender, my body’s strength no match, my ears bursting with the wild rush of it. The next second, I was turning the pedals again,slowly yes, but smoothly, in a the cold calm peace of the mountains shadow,
In the next mile or so there is maybe 700 ft of climbing. Out of that headwind. I would never have managed it otherwise.
Now I can see the very steepest section of the switch back. It’s pretty short, although it’s not the end of the climb. But it is wind free. Calm. Lowest gear. Still slowly turning those pedals and thankfully no motor vehicles behind me. Or ahead of me. Throughout the whole climb, only a couple of drivers had passed me, each with a friendly wave and smile.
Then suddenly, it felt a touch easier again. Back to the familiar gradient of most Highland passes. A few more feet to climb, then it seems 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. Tired legs just managed to get me up to the top. And then out of the shelter of the mountain, I rode straight into a world of wind that filled every inch of the wild space around me.
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! In seconds all that heat my effort had generated was gone. My teeth began to chatter, my bones began to chill. It was so hard to get my winter jacket out of my seat pack and even harder to get it on. The wind seemed to be determined to rip my jacket away, and batter the last scrap of warmth from my body.
I finally managed to zip up my Paramo. Then 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.
My original plan had been to drop down into Applecross, then head back via the main road. However, as I descended the other side of the pass, I realised a few things. Firstly, New Years Day meant nothing would be open in Applecross this New Years Day. So no warming cafe and hot chocolate! Secondly and most importantly, , the wind was largely in my face, bitterly cold, and was so powerful it was bound to slow me down even on a steep descent and my hands, even in liner gloves and the warmest winter gloves I had were already so cold I couldn’t feel the brakes. So after a couple of miles of the 4 or 5 mile descent to Applecross, 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 freeze. After the first two miles I couldn’t feel to brake properly. Thankfully, I had disc brakes and the road was absolutely empty of traffic. By the time I was halfway down my feet were numb in the pedals and I couldn’t feel my hands on the brakes.
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, in the end, but some of the best miles you can ride in this country, I think. Possibly my favourite New Years Day Ride.