Searching for the Mountain Haggis
On June 14th 2011 I was diagnosed with the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa and given a worst case outcome of blindness in five years.
A prognosis like that makes you re-evaluate your life, and I realised that there were a whole lot of things I wanted to see before I couldn't see, including Yosemite Valley from the top of El Capitan. In 2013 I realised this dream, becoming the first visually impaired person to solo climb the 2300 metre face of El Capitan. What do you do when you've achieved your dream? You find a new one. I then turned my attention to para-cycling at the suggestion of a friend. Now I'm not one to do things by halves, and always keen to prove that ordinary people could do extraordinary things, I set myself the goal of competing in the 2016 Rio paralymics - a tall order for someone who had never raced a road bike, rode a tandem, or cycled in a velodrome before. However, not one to back down from a challenge, I returned from Rio with two gold medals, one bronze, and one world record.
For all the adrenaline and joy that competitive cycling at elite level can bring, it can become somewhat disconected from the isolated beauty found if you take yourself away for a few days and what ultimately keeps me sane. So in March, together with my friend and best man Ibrahim, I embarked on a five day bike-packing voyage through some of the wild places most precious to me. The stars aligned, high pressure was forecast, and my brand new Sonder Vir Fortis fat bike was ready to go. Leaving Contin just north of Inverness, we travelled off-road via farm tracks, forestry roads and mountainous footpaths. Thanks to the Scottish Access Code of 2003, people can travel all wild paths and land, as long as they do so in a responsible manner. A forward-thinking government bill and one that mountain bikers relish.
After the first day’s riding, we had seen three people in six hours, and this theme continued throughout the journey. We enjoyed clear blue skies and no wind, leaving the lochs like giant mirrors reflecting mountainous skylines. We rolled into small Scottish towns like Ullapool and Loch Carron to resupply. Friendly locals were overwhelmed by the size of our tyres and our plans to ride over distant mountains.
On day three we were joined by friends, old and new, and we chased each other down rocky single tracks, crossed knee-deep freezing rivers, swam naked in icy lochs, and shouldered our bikes up relentless mountain paths. When the load became a burden we stopped to take in breathtaking views. Our fat bikes monstered though the rough terrain, big tyres soaking up whatever the land threw at us. This was the most fun I’d ever had on two wheels. The evenings were spent in bivi bags or remote bothies.
The weather held for the first four days, before we woke high in Glen Affric. The visibility was down to twenty metres. We were back on the stoney single track before long, which then turned into Land Rover tracks, then forestry tracks. A sign our adventure was coming to an end as we headed back to civilisation. I’ve walked many of the hills and glens that we rode through, but to link them all as we did would take at least twice the time. This is likely to be my last big adventure of the summer as my focus turns back to racing and my search for a rainbow jersey, elusive like the famous mountain haggis.