Torridon's call of the wild proves too strong for Tristan Tinn
It takes a lot to lure a Lake District local away from his fells. But Torridon’s call of the wild proved too strong for Tristan Tinn.
Words and photos: Tristan Tinn
Big mountain dos & dont’s
- Stick to the path. Much of the mountain’s habitat here is protected.
- Understand a map and compass and how to navigate – helping you stick to the right path!
- Check forecasts daily. An average between BBC Weather, Metcheck, Met Office and MWIS produce the most accurate results.
- Take spare tubes. The path has numerous water bars and is predominantly bedrock.
- Take more supplies than you think you will need.
- Be afraid to call it off. Reaching the summit in cloud or rain isn’t the same, and is dangerous.
- Forget a camera.
- Forget a spare thermal/down/primaloft layer and hat. Any hiccups and you’re likely to catch a chill
- Forget to book a local guide if in any doubts
Hailing from the Lakes, I’ve ticked off most of the routes that lie on my doorstep – good, not so good and borderline impossible. Whilst the area can be bleak and unforgiving on the right day or at the wrong time; it is a chocolate box. A dense network of moderately testing trails, in close proximity to civilisation, and thus safety. It’s easy to get trapped here weekend after weekend and never leave home, so to speak.
Great though it is, when I think of UK big mountain riding, one particular part of the country springs to mind – Scotland. In fact on a clear day, from the many vantage points of the northern fells, I can see it taunting me from across the Solway Firth.
The land of St Andrews is a no-brainer, especially whilst MTB access rights remain restricted in England and Wales. A lifetime could be filled exploring the ins and outs of Britain’s northern reaches. Us mountain bikers love chasing the hype, and in my circle, Torridon is the Holy Grail; the most drooled over, big mountain mecca in the UK. Time, at last to leave the Lakes behind and make the pilgrimage. But would Torridon really deliver? And would the fuel bill pay dividends?
Seeking solitude from the hustle and bustle of the recently awarded UNESO Lake District, we packed the van and punched Torridon into the sat-nav. Roll forwards eight-hours of morbid motorway, maturing into vivid vistas and we arrived at Achnasheen, our base for the first two nights.
Our itinerary, a cocktail of Torridon classics with some more exploratory routes thrown in, based on word of mouth and careful examination of maps and their contours – remember those? Checked in, we rushed out to fill the remainder of the day…
We traversed concertinaed roads to the foot of Beinn Damph, for an out-and-back. A sharp climb threaded us through serene scots pine woodland, setting the wheels in motion. Eager glances were thrown over shoulders, examining the trail we’d encounter on our return. The excitement was brewing. Bursting out of verdant woodland, we were met by midnight purple blooms of heather leading our eye onto an eminent waterfall. Its precarious viewpoint hosted one hell-of-a trail. Onwards and upwards, the trail was intermittently rideable, before we slumped into the inevitable carry.
Harsh winds rattled our Gore-Tex cages, but it couldn’t contain our elation in watching the sun’s rays dance over the infinite landscape expanding before us. We huddled like penguins in a three-man emergency shelter, allowing the worst of it to calm, before continuing. Our original plan to summit Beinn Damph was abandoned, opting for the friendlier, northerly summit of Sgurr na Bana Mhorire – which commands far reaching views out over the isles of Raasay and Skye. Eyeballs brimming with west coast gold, we hit the descent. Retracing our steps with our tyres, the return proved every bit as rewarding as we’d hoped.
The following we day we set out to ride a variation on the classic Torridon circuit, with added bite. This was the route I’d heard so much about – so it was great to finally touch tyre to trail and try it for myself. A serene cruise along the Glen Torridon road was an ideal warm up. Improved only by a visit to the baristas of ‘Coffee Rescue’ – serving gold-standard caffeine, from a modified Land Rover Defender. Whisked along the Glen on a wave of caffeine we swung right for the Ling Hut before we began crossing contour lines, laying ground beneath our feet. Gradient seemingly increased exponentially, until eventually Coiré Grannda became Coire Làir. Atop this pass we were greeted by both a lapse in the breeze and millions of midges. A dilemma – rest and enjoy the glassy reflections or battle on to prevent becoming dinner? The group opted for the latter, but not before brief photographic documentation of the beauty at hand. Pace built along the trail, feeding us down the glacial valley between imposing stone faces. The trail flattened briefly, enough to bust our lungs, before firing us down its famous descent, stacked full of sedimentary sandstone slabs to Achnashellach.
Smooth tarmac blessed our behinds as we chased the remote railway down the valley to Coulags, a stubby inner-city diesel train seemed a foreign object to the Glen. A fireroad eased us into our next Glen before crossing Fionn-abhainn. The trail would lead us beside and beyond Coire Fionnaraich bothy – an inviting proposition with so many miles in our legs. The aforementioned extra ‘bite’ would come from the next ascent – almost 400m of hike-a-bike up Bealach a’ Choire Ghairbh (at least Lakeland locations are easier on the tongue).
We were wilting at this point; sandstone grit grinding beneath our soles, akin to the tension between our teeth, as we carried sharply upwards. Halting only for a quick photoshoot on the quirky white stone. However the extra portion of trail was worthwhile, and provided the best scenery of the ride, with An Ruadh-Stac towering off to our left as we descended past lochs hanging in the valley. As we hugged the slopes of Moal Chean-dearg, a vast U-shaped valley opened to our left, framing the coast and Black Cuillin on the horizon. Bounding through ever grassier meadows we reached a small verdant lochan – time to get a boil on, for a final caffeine fix. Suitably boosted, we flew along the trail with Annat in our sights just as the sun hung low.
Day three was a double dipper, with a morning spent stepping relentlessly up to Coire Mhic Fhearchair – an utterly stunning corrie, one of Scotland’s finest. This is an out-and-back that doesn’t venture too high, or too far, making it a comfortable half day. The scenery was breath-taking. The Coire offers a great lunch spot by the waterfall, along with some fun off-piste slabs on the way up. The descent was hair raising; stop-start tech at the top, blossoming into a high-speed blast further down.
Bitten at the bothy
The afternoon was spent resting our legs in the VW, while we meandered back down the west coast away from Torridon. Our final excursion was to be split across two days, not because it was an extremely demanding route, simply because we couldn’t come all this way without a bothy experience. Breaking the ride into two allowed us to experience some type II fun, with a kip in one of Scotland’s many remote residences. Admittedly we frequented a free house prior to our departure to the bothy, soaking up some of the local ale along with a hearty helping of haggis, neaps and tatties. At the time this felt like cheating, given we had purchased a bothy feast for the evening. Little did we know we would become the feast.
Suitably revived and somewhat sedated from the large meal, we saddled up with more than we really needed – amateur overnight mistake number one. We departed Morvich and chased the watercourse towards its source, up behind the five sisters of Kintail. The sun was steadily sinking on another fine Scottish evening, shadows grew taller as light surrendered the valley floor, eventually vanishing beyond the peaks. Regrettably lights were left behind in a quest to save weight from our already overloaded packs. This resulted in a race to the bothy – which was far more remote than we envisaged. Staggering upwards, bar bag flopping over my shoulder, I passed magnificent waterfalls, hummocky moraine and boggy terrain. Much to my dismay many images remain uncaptured owing to our haste.
As blue hour began to fade we finally reached our sanctuary. We were not alone. The bothy was already busy with with people and swarming with midges. The other group took pity and gave us a sleeping platform to share. Suddenly the sit-down dinner was no longer a regret but a blessing, we did not have to bare the onslaught of critters outside, huddling over the stove. Instead we kindled the fire and mused the day behind us with a Merlot in hand – priorities sorted.
Repeated awakening by the rustling of synthetic sleeping gear, meant none of us were well rested. Deciding to cut our losses and make an early break for back to civilisation we rose around 6am. Boiling water for a morning brew, became a hot tub for our blood thirsty companions, the coffee infused with midges provided a nutritious breakfast. We bog-trotted through desolate glens eventually reaching Loch a B’healaich, at this point Pete was hanging back. I turned to see him revisiting his breakfast, sick from exhaustion, a low point we had never sunk to back home in the Lakes. With no bars on our phones and no plan B we had to battle on. Reaching the high point of Bealach an Sgàrine meant it was all downhill now. With spirits raised, some of the finest singletrack I have ridden, ever, traversed Tolkienesque valleys back to the coast. Words fail to do this descent justice – go find out for yourself.
Even for someone blessed with a backyard as spectacular as the Lake District Torridon had delivered. The landscape was so expansive, and the peaks more widely spaced, even though the altitude is on par. But because you drop down to sea-level with every descent, the grandeur is boosted considerably. Torridon’s sandstone inspires confidence and all-weather grip, whereas the slate of the Lakes is slick and treacherous. There are also huge slabs of rounded rock, which are both spectacular to look at and inspiring to ride on. And the epidemic of stone pitching that plagues the popular paths of the Lake District is nowhere to be seen in the remote Torridon hills. People were few and far between, and those we did meet were much friendlier. The stifling undercurrent of conflict often found in England and Wales was nowhere to be seen. Is Torridon’s hype justified? Yes, no doubt about it.