WE had just waded the river and had entered the trees heading for Beinn a’ Bhuird when we were overtaken by a cyclist.
Nothing unusual there - the first few miles of the route up Glen Quoich are track and it makes perfect sense to use a bike.
As we moved further on to where the track changes to a path, the cyclist had stopped. We assumed he was now chaining up his bike and getting geared up to continue on foot.
But about five minutes later, as we ascended the path up the An Diollaid spur, he appeared again on the horizon, still on his bike. It must have been hard going - we stayed ahead of him all the way to the summit - but he eventually made it about five minutes after we did.
I admired his strength and tenacity for managing to cycle all the way to the top, a constant uphill struggle. But part of me also felt a bit uneasy. I don’t have any problem with bikes on approach tracks but when it comes to using them on some mountain paths, ridges and plateaux I‘m not so sure.
Maybe I’m just being selfish. After all, one or two bikes are not going to make much difference. The mass walks undertaken for charity, for instance, far outweigh any damage caused by cyclists.
Beinn a’ Bhuird’s path is a great example of good restoration work. For many years, the Land Rover track extended almost all the way from the car park to the mountain summit. But in recent years most of this ugly scar has been replaced with a good, well-drained path.
There are too many mountains where paths have been reduced to swamp-like conditions with the passage of so many feet. When I saw this guy cycling up on the path, the image flashed into my head of thousands of others eventually doing the same.
There are many mountains where this would not be an issue, Mount Keen for example. Or the old track up Beinn a’ Bhuird. But the fragility of the newly restored path was at the forefront of my concern.
I’ve always been a great believer in the long walk in. To me, that’s part of the joy of a day on the hill. Sure, sometimes I am left cursing the long walk out, but I decided long ago that was the way I would do the mountains.
I wanted to do all the Munros on foot from start to finish first time round. Now that I’m heading for round four, I don’t have the same qualms about using a bike to save time on some of the longer approaches. Using a mountain bike to go all the way to the top of a hill is not for me, notwithstanding the fact that I probably couldn‘t manage it anyway.
Despite the growth in mountain cycling, it’s still a rare sight to see someone biking all the way to a summit. It’s unlikely we are going to see our wild plateau resembling a street in Beijing anytime soon. Many of our peaks are simply beyond the reach of a bike. Skye’s Black Cuillin, for example, are unlikely to be conquered despite Danny MacAskill’s best efforts.
There are far bigger problems to worry about. I was on the summit of Creagan a’ Chaise in the Cromdale Hills when a guy appeared on a dirt bike, revving and churning up the ground before doing an about turn and heading back down. The increase in recreational all-terrain vehicles is also a concern. And, of course, we have vandalism on a huge scale with the uncontrolled march of wind farms and hydro schemes, where promises are made to restore the land and then conveniently ignored after the work is completed.
Ironically, the track up Glen Quoich has been the victim of extensive damage by Mother Nature. The floods of last autumn washed away huge sections of the track. There are massive gaps on the banks where the land has slipped and twisted, fallen trees and debris everywhere. In one place the track is left hanging in the air after the river changed course.
This meant a few diversions on the way up through the pines, often on to steep heathery slopes, so it made our cyclist’s feat even more impressive. He overtook us on the way down and we expected that would be the last we would see of him. By the time we reached the car he would be well on his way home.
But no. We came upon him not much further down, one wheel off the bike, puncture repair kit out. He didn’t manage to catch up again until we were just 15 minutes from the finish, his repair unsuccessful, the tyre flapping hopelessly. Maybe it is just as quick on foot after all.