May 6, 2019

Alone, Alive.

Making a solo adventure across a vastly remote area of the Scottish Highlands.

Underneath the UK's tallest mountain is Glen Nevis, stretching between Fort William and Corrour; it is a place that was sitting among the top of my list of Scottish locations where I wanted to ride a mountain bike. And so, I set to do just that when I had a day off recently.

I've never been further than a few miles into the glen's western portion, as what's laying further east is very isolated. At one point, there are no settlements or paved roads in a radius of 6.5 miles (10km) of mountains, which means there is hardly any traffic at all. Together with the picturesque character of the place, it worked like a magnet to me. A map indicated that there should be a hiking trail going through, but a Scottish hiking trail can consist of anything from a well-graded wide path to nothing at all. I didn't research this particular one and went for it. After all, exploring unknowns is a satisfying thing to do.

A satellite image of the Glen Nevis and its surrounding.

The Plan. (Image by Copernicus – The European Earth Observation Programme)

To magnify this sensation, I didn't have any fancy tracking services this time because my phone died a few days before the trip (after four years of service), and I didn't gotten a replacement yet. So I went analogue this time. "How will that go?" I thought as I sat on a bus to Spean Bridge, where a road towards the glen begins. "Well, there's a way to find out."

I hit the narrow road to Corriechoille, where it turns towards a mountain pass that leads to the glen. At the point when it started gaining some elevation and turned from pavement to gravel, there's a sign telling that "you are entering a remote, sparsely populated and potentially dangerous area." The thrill began.

Road towards the Lairig Leacach Bothy.

There is an excellent dirt road almost all the way up, so it's an easy climb. The further one goes into the saddle, the more scenic the surroundings are, and the rougher the track gets.

Stob Coire Easain

And the further I went, the better I felt: In the beginning, I thought about my last week, what I need to do tomorrow, all kinds of things. But by this stage, I focused only on the present.

Besides the scope of my thoughts, my inner voice vocabulary also declined. Once the track diminished to a narrow trail, any sophisticated sentences changed to simple shouts like: "Wow, so nice! Wow, that [creek] was deeper than expected! Wow, no traction! Wow! Excitement!" The joy reached new heights.

Some other folks must've had the idea to bike here, too, as I saw the mud around being cut by tires at a few places. But I didn't see anybody. I had the whole thing for myself.

At the top of the pass, I took a break to have lunch and enjoy the views. What scenery to be in! The downhill path to the glen also gave me a reason to grin, so it didn't take long, and I released my brakes – off for a blast!

Towards the end of the descent, I knew that I should turn right somewhere. However, I spotted a few trees in the distance sheltering an old structure that begged for a closer look. So I kept straight until I got to a river, separating me from the ruin:

The Luibeilt house

The stream was too deep to smash it through on a bike, so I took off my shoes and utilized the crossing as refreshment and an opportunity to clean mud off the bike.

The structure is the Luibeilt house. It looked like it used to be a likeable dwelling at some point, but there's only a set of weathered stone walls with multiple fireplaces nowadays. Arranged in the barren environment in the middle of nowhere, with nobody in sight, it formed a mysterious mixture of romanticism and spookiness. Who knows what it has witnessed...

My contemplation about the house's history got interrupted by a strong wind from the west, pushing a storm directly in my way. "Better keep moving to stay warm!" I thought and set off into the cloud. It turned out to be a hail storm, but what was worse, I couldn't find anything that would hint at a trail: no bicycle tracks, or any footprint whatsoever, nothing. Just vast grassland edged by mountain slopes towering to the low-hanging sky.

Storm rolls in.

Cycling on this surface, um, let's say it is rather difficult. Everything looks the same; you try to go forward, and suddenly your front wheel disappears in a deep bog. I ended carrying the bike on my shoulders, time was dragging, and I had to give up on keeping my feet dry. While I had extra socks with me, there was no point in changing them now. When I got to another river I had to ford, I didn't bother to take my shoes off. It made no difference.

Binnein Mor

After passing through the inhospitable but stunningly beautiful land of no one, the clouds unveiled a skeleton, still bearing some flesh on the bones. It added to the atmosphere from Luibeilt and reminded that one should know their limits.

Sheep skeleton in Glen Nevis

Still, this wasn't a place for gloomy thoughts. "Keep marching, keep looking; the trail can't be too far," I was trying to convince myself. And sure enough, it appeared out of nowhere. Oh, yes! Please!

Not that it would be smooth, but it's fine. A rugged path where you have to constantly shift your weight to maintain traction and think about line choices to avoid pedal strikes, that's mountain biking! Finally, I was making progress again. Even the clouds cooperated: just as I passed a small waterfall, they momentarily made room for the sun. Snack time!

From here, the trail improved with each mile. Suddenly, I saw a familiar view. "Ha, I know this; I was down there before!"

cycling into glen nevis on a mountain bike

I also spotted a convenient tripod-like rock nearby, so here goes a selfie:

MTB Selfie in Glen Nevis near Steall Falls.

Starting with this point, I knew what was ahead of me: a gem of Glen Nevis, the Steall Falls, and a maintained trail back to civilization.

Steall Falls, Glen Nevis

Steall Falls, gorgeous as always.

The Steall Falls are only a mile from the nearest parking lot, so the last section of the trail was a tad busy. But as it goes downhill, it is immense fun to cycle. It gave me a second breath, shaking off the exhaustion that started to creep in after the day in the saddle.

Trail to Steall Falls

One just has to focus on staying upright; gravity will take care of the rest. So good! And so I passed the parking lot straight into another off-road trail parallel with the paved road, prolonging the delight of wilderness and mountain biking.

Rugged Glen Nevis

Eventually, I got back to the road, around which are a few other neat waterfalls:

Due to their accessibility, they were pretty crowded. It made me think that those people who drove here could say they had an outdoor adventure – and how's that a loose term like the hiking trail. I concluded with gratitude that I could go out like I just did. Then I utilized the accessibility myself as I joined the road, which took me to Fort William.

Glen Nevis Road

Usually, I tend to avoid pavement as much as possible while cycling. But when it looks like this, I don't mind.

In Fort William, I got fish and chips, refilled my water bottle, relaxed in the sunshine a bit..

..And joined some designated cycling paths north, back towards Spean Bridge. They proved to be a good choice, keeping me entertained with the remains of Inverlochy Castle from the 13th century and the Nevis Range diversion, where are some fab bike trails to end the day in style. The evening light wasn't bad either:

A cake with ice cream in Spean Bridge before the home-bound bus departure was then a well-deserved celebration of a fantastic day out.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like my articles featuring mountain biking, the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, or my other solo-travel adventures, such as these:

Anhui, China

Hongcun: an enchanting ancient town in China.

Colorado

Colorado Road Trip: across the US' colourful state.

Alternatively, browse my Blog Archives for more topics and categories. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

Comments