With white knuckles squeezing every last hope of control from the bars, one by one we careened through another huge rock garden, brakes burning and rocks spitting violently. The visceral noise from tyres and discs fell away lost into the sweeping void around us, the bulks of Coire Grannda, Sgorr Ruadh and Beinn Liath Bheag looming silently above. The rocky trail stretched out sinuously to the horizon and beyond, this was mountain biking at its rawest, this was Torridon.
When setting up our 2015 Enduro bike group test, as well as cumulative months of testing and analysis in the Tweed Valley and Fort William, we needed to find locations to put the bikes through their paces on big mountain terrain, we needed tough climbs that would force us to carry, rough descents that would expose weaknesses and challenging terrain that would push bikes and riders to the very limit. One location jumped instantly to mind, Torridon, deep in the Scottish Highlands. Even the name makes our hairs stand on end, rolling it around in our minds “Torrid-on”, it sounds equally magical and imposing. You can read about the full enduro bike group test here, but the small adventure we had in Torridon is a story worth telling on its own.
Despite the brutally early start from Test HQ in Glencoe, a beautiful drive over had left our experienced test team animated with excitement as we unloaded bikes from vans in the rising morning light. The group was filled with riding talent, Top 10 EWS racers, ex-WC downhillers, journalists and bike testers. Even though forecasts had been good we had arrived expecting the standard Scottish welcome of wild weather, we were all delighted to see the sun rising through a crisp, clear sky and mountains emerging from their brooding nighttime silhouettes. The suspension was perfected and pressures checked before we left Achnashellac station, in the group excitement was off the scale.
After riding Torridon on many occasions the loop we had chosen was a classic, rich in some of Scotland’s most remote golden singletrack, and home to the oldest stone in the British Islands. Towering peaks of Torridonian Sandstone tipped with sparkling white Cambrian quartzite pierce the sky and below lies one of the most rugged loops in the Highlands. Inaccessible and unspoilt, Torridon typifies the solemn beauty of the Scottish Highlands and chance sightings of Golden and Sea Eagles can sometimes be enjoyed by those who look up from the trails. Torridon is a magical place.
No sooner had we left the road did the feeling of adventure begin. As we wound up the increasingly rough track into a valley that seemed to have no exit we started to test the grip and traction of our bikes, trials hopping and powering up the short and highly technical climbs, all the time marvelling at the unfolding views around us. The Coulags Bothy (a Scottish mountain hut) proved a welcome distraction to explore the refuge and wonder at the explorers who has sheltered here before. As we compared thoughts on tyre compounds and spring rates, we all silently noted the trail ahead seemed to ascend a vertical wall on the horizon.
For the next hour, we dug deep, steadily climbing upwards through the ancient rock towards the Bealach (shoulder), suspension toiling to find grip from the loose rock below our tyres. One by one we rolled over the summit of Bealach na Lice and enjoyed the epic views. The name of the pass prompted us to an interesting conversation about a Scottish resident that we had thankfully not encountered, the infamous Sheep Tick. You will not hear about this wee Scottish parasite from any tourist board or holiday brochure; starting about the size of a pinhead they climb onto your legs and stealthily sink their proboscis in and start to drink your blood, slowly growing to the size of a substantial pea. You don’t often spot them until they have reached an alarming size and you will always remember your first. Not only do they look terrifying and potentially carry Lyme’s disease, but they also seek out warm parts of your anatomy – think about that for a second! While we were eating one of our party regaled us with the graphic tale of when he found his first ever tick in the last place you want to find a tick, and his impression of the freshly removed beastie had us all in fits of laughter, but rest assured we were all a little vigilant in the shower that night.
Here we said goodbye to two of our group after an injury on the trail had forced them to take the shorter (though fabulous) descent to Annat where we could collect them at the end (more on that later). For the next hour we spent some time on the bikes, but most on our feet carrying our bikes up the broken, rocky staircases, higher and higher into the mountains. As we finally reached the plateau with sweeping views over Beinn Eighe we celebrated prematurely reaching the top, before being confronted with the imposing bulk of the Corie Grannda. Looking more like a film set from Lord of the Rings the rocky buttress soared skywards, impenetrable and defiant. The line on the map said it would go and as we grew closer we started to make out a thin path cutting up the East flank, but one thing was sure, we would be carrying again. We knew this would be the last of the climbs before one of the longest big mountain descents in Scotland, and that knowledge spurred us on, shouldering the bikes one last time.
After catching our breath and taking in the new vista, we flipped our shocks into descending mode and one by one dropped into what must be one of the finest descents in the UK. The top of the trail was loose and sketchy, and as we rallied as a train down the open mountain flank every sense was focussed on traction. Big holes, steep rock filled chutes and drops punctuated the flowing trail, this was no man made trail centre, and with arms pumped and burning it seemed to go on forever.
As we dropped through the elevations the environment changed too, from loose rock and rubble to smooth pump track-esque sandstone slabs that are unique to the area. The final Coire Lair descent was fiercely tight and eroded by generations of walkers, but the grippy sandstone slabs opened up the trail into a natural flow line, rich in cambers, berms and jumps. Tired minds made snap judgments, after such a long day it was insane, hedonistic fun, catapulting from one feature to the next. Feeble arms hanging on, muscles sore but running hot on adrenalin. The terrain was fiercely technical, big steps and tight switchbacks, our nerves never dropped out of the red.
One by one our nine strong fun train started to thin, tyres losing their battle against the lazy lines and square edged hits, sprays of sealant marked the end of both rubber and rim. At one point there was a rider visible on every turn above us, frantically pumping away. Bags were emptied and crusty old tubes were dug out from the bottom, but somehow we all made it down to the forest floor below. Good job too, as the sun was dropping below the horizon, and those familiar with the Scottish environment knew what was about to happen, THEY were coming!
There a bit of a rule in Scottish mountain biking, in every accident, mechanical or time of need it’s essential to help your fellow rider; unless of course there are midges (small biting insects) then you are allowed to promptly ride away screaming like a child. That is exactly what happened when one of our Kiwi testers punctured just a kilometer from the car, first we laughed as they homed in around us, then we spluttered and danced laughing at the drama such small things can cause; then we left him…. maybe he’s still there?
Arriving at the cars we were broken, tired and elated. It had been more than a bike testing day, it had been an odyssey to a place untouched by man, but ravaged by time. We had become captivated by the wonder of the place, and as we talked we made promises that we knew would be hard to keep, “let’s make this a regular thing”, “let’s do more big mountain epics”, but we meant it at the time. We said our goodbyes and I left to pick up our two injured riders from the other side of the ridge line, I wondered how far the journey would be? It was only one valley over so it would not take long surely? The round trip took three hours!
Getting to Torridon
The Torridon mountains lie on the North West coast of the Scottish Highlands and are certainly not the most accessible place in the UK, but when driving to Torridon, the journey is just as important as the destination. Any trip to the Highlands of Scotland will see you travelling past remote lochs, incredible castles and amazing whisky distilleries. The nearest international airport is Edinburgh or Glasgow and Torridon lies around 4 hours drive North. There are a number of classic rides but the one in this story started at the tiny Achnasshellach Station on the A890.
Where to stay in Torridon
There are many B&B’s scattered around the area, but the most popular with bikers are The Torridon Inn which serves great food and beer, and has great facilities. If you would like to investigate a fully guided trip we can highly recommend speaking to Andy McKenna at Go-Where.
What bike to take
Torridon and the surrounding trails are tough and rugged and we would highly recommend a full suspension 130-160 mm travel bike with tough tyres. The many water bars make punctures likely if you don’t have great bunny hop skills, and as you will be travelling far from civilisation without any easy escape routes so a good jacket, tools, food experience in mountain terrain and excellent map reading skills are a must. If you don’t have experience riding in the Scottish Highlands we would highly recommend speaking to Go-Where about a guided trip.
What else to ride
If you are travelling to the Highlands, then we would recommend taking a week and also checking out the incredible riding available on the Isle of Skye, Fort William and Kinlochleven. A week filled exploring those trails would be a nirvana for the enthusiastic natural singletrack hunter. Oh, and be sure to try the whisky.
Words and photos: Trev Worsey
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