OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: The wonders of winter below glorious Assynt mountains
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It was an ambitious trip to try at the beginning of January, but the settled forecast was too good to miss.
After leaving home at 6.30 and a drive of 100 miles through the dark with temperatures down to -6C, the first sun was just glowing on Cul Mor as I set out from Ledmore junction on the e-bike for a ride around Assynt.
The first miles passed quickly, but I needed to muffle my face and wear my warm jacket against the icy air. The road to Achiltibuie had been salted and I enjoyed the ride under the sunlit peaks of Coigach with blue lochs below and the steep slopes of Stac Pollaidh ahead.
The tiny road to Lochinver was still white with frost but little real ice. The route twists and turns, climbing up onto moors strewn with lochans and fine views of the Assynt peaks capped in snow.
Then the road would dip steeply into deep, shaded glens, the temperature falling away to well below zero. The low sun shone all day from cloudless skies, accentuating the orange of the moorland grasses.
Here the road skirted the shoreline, barely wide enough for one car between the stone wall and steep slopes. Then up the next little glen by rushing water amid bare winter birches, over the top and down again towards Suilven, framed between narrow hillsides
The gritter had come out as far as Inverkirkaig, where the big car park for the walk to the falls was completely deserted. Some very fine houses have been built between here and Lochinver with the most amazing views of sea and mountain.
It would be a push to get back to Ledmore before dark so there was no time to stop in Lochinver, even for the famous pies.
I pedalled along the shore through the village and up the hill, turning off onto the long coastal road which was the only section of NC500 I’d never cycled. It was good to able to enjoy the route without any tourist traffic, just the postie and a delivery van who kept passing me, and the very occasional local driver.
Almost the whole of this 20-mile road had been recently re-tarred, the only potholes I met on my 65-mile ride were so minor you wouldn’t even notice them in Caithness.
This road via Stoer and Drumbeg is one of the hilliest in the Highlands and is ideal for an e-bike, though even then the hills are not without effort. Up onto the moors, down again to the coastal crofts and villages, views out across the ocean to islands and rocky shores.
It became a blur of glens and hills and steep descents, watching out for ice. Ahead, growing closer, the snowcapped peak of Quinag, almost a mountain range in its own right.
Towards Drumbeg on a long hill I felt the electric assist get less and less, then it clicked out altogether. I would never have made it back to Ledmore on such a heavy bike but was well prepared with a spare battery, which was quickly slotted into place. Battery range is quite a bit less when it gets below freezing!
The sun was getting low, as was the temperature, by the time I rejoined the main road and began pedalling up the big hill over Quinag, very glad of electric assist at this stage of the day.
Emerging from the shadows at the top of the pass into dazzling horizon sun, I could hardly see anything and pedalled as fast as I could, hoping that any traffic from behind was not also dazzled. But the road was empty, and soon I was hurtling down into the shade of Quinag with Loch Assynt and the ruined castle ahead.
To the left rose the high snow-capped peaks of Conival and Ben More Assynt. I passed the Assynt Field Centre, now known as the Explorer’s Lodge, a great place to stay.
Even with the e-bike the last miles up a long, steady hill proved a bit of a slog, now getting cold and tired. The sun was just setting as I reached the car, the temperature minus four, and only eight miles left on my second battery. And the school mini-buses from Ullapool and Elphin came past, this was just an ordinary day for local folk.
It was nearly three hours' drive home through the very dark and wintry Highlands, slow in freezing fog on that long single-track road from Ledmore to Lairg. But it had been well worth the effort to make the most of a glorious January day just a week after New Year.