07 May 2023 – The Bealach na ba!


It’s the summer of 1972 and I’m in the back seat of a black Austin along with my brother, sister and dog. My Dad is driving us the final few miles to our holiday destination near Applecross, while my Mum is screaming with her hands over her eyes. Those are my memories of the Bealach na ba, or the pass of the cattle as we knew it then. In the meantime, I believe the perilous switchbacks have been widened, and crash barriers installed, to make it safer but no less awe inspiring.

I have never been back, although since taking up cycling, it has loomed large as one of the bucket list challenges that we should try. But us getting older, and the advent of the NC500 (meaning that the narrow singletrack road is now busy with tourist traffic), have conspired to push it further back, to the extent that I believed we would never actually attempt it.

Then our son Oliver declared that he wanted to ride the Bealach. I accepted the challenge with some trepidation, while Colette politely declined. The plan was to go up on the day before, stay somewhere overnight, then get going bright and early next morning before the traffic built up.

That seemed like a reasonable plan, so we booked a B&B at Strathcarron a couple of months in advance, to coincide with a bank holiday. Only when it came to it, the forecast for the ride day was awful and the day before was good. So we switched it around, and got going early on the Sunday morning, arriving at Shieldaig around 11am. We drove on a wee bit till we found somewhere to park then got ready to tackle the ride.

I got ready before Oliver, so just set off and let him catch me up, which he did just as we arrived at Tornapress, at the foot of the big climb. We turned right, and I wished Oliver good luck as he set off, hoping to post a good time. I pulled in to let a camper van past, then set off much more sedately, passing the big blue sign that states all of the very good reasons that you should NOT be attempting to drive along this road.

After crossing the River Kishorn at sea level, the road took a left and began gently to climb. I soon passed the turnoff for Kishorn Port, which was developed to construct rigs during the oil boom of the 70s, and despite lying unused for a number of years since then, there is clearly something quite large being constructed there now.

The road then turned more inland, and it would be impossible not the be impressed by the majestic rocky peaks that appear in your view, especially on such a warm and sunny day. After about a mile or so, I caught up with a couple of heavily laden touring cyclists just as we came to a viewpoint. I decided to stop and take a few pictures, as well as take on a snack to keep me going.

By the time I got going again, the woman tourist was pushing her bike. It was going to be a long walk, but still doable in a couple of hours or so. Her companion was fairly far ahead, making good progress, and I very gradually caught up on him as I progressed and the gradients got gradually steeper and steeper.

I could see a bend in the road ahead, and once I finally reached that corner, the notorious switchbacks came into view, at the top of a long, straight and very steep looking section of climb. I was now into my very bottom gear, and wishing for a few more easier gears.

In fact, I had attempted to fit an extra small granny ring to my chainset, but when testing it, it had a tendency to drop the chain when shifting down from the middle ring (I use a triple). Reluctantly, I went back to the standard one, but at least it would shift reliably again. Triples can be tricky to get working right, while doubles are a doddle!

Anyway, about maybe halfway up the steep grind, I caught up with the male cyclotourist, who was tiring, and soon had to stop and push. I knew my number was up too, and decided as soon as my heart rate reached 180, I would start pushing myself. That didn’t take long, so I dismounted and began walking the bike uphill.

As I was pushing, I saw a figure in the distance at the top of the switchbacks looking down. I wondered if it was Oliver, and yes it was, as it happened. He had long since reached the top of the climb in a time of around 34 minutes, which sounded amazing to me, although he was expecting to do a little better. 

My heart rate gradually dropped as I continued to walk, and where the road flattened off a little leading in to the start of the switchbacks, I climbed back on the bike and got going. The rest really did me good, and I felt strong enough to negotiate the hairpins, but only by taking the flatter outside line. That did confuse one oncoming car when I moved over to the right side of the road on one of the bends, so I made like I was stopping at the crash barrier to look at the view till he was past me.

Oliver was waiting above me and shouted “get out the saddle” so he could get a better action photo. After I caught him up, he suggested we get some more photos at the viewpoint, but my Wahoo was telling me that if I continued, I could get a sub 1-hour time for the climb. So that’s what I did, pushing with what little strength I had left and Oliver urging me on, it was just like our Sa Calobra day earlier this year.

We paused at the car park at the highest point of the road and took some photos. Then it was time for the descent to Applecross. Oliver disappeared ahead of me again, while I took it easy, as my rim brakes weren’t as effective as his hydraulic discs. There were quite a few blind bends where you might need to scrub off a lot of speed very quickly if a car suddenly appeared coming towards you.

Then I felt a bit of a worrying side wind, so played it safe. I had to shake out my left hand a couple of times, as my fingers were beginning to cramp up on this very long descent. At last, I came in to Applecross and found Oliver waiting at the T-junction at the bottom.

The Bealach na ba was over and we’d survived! There was plenty of traffic to be negotiated, but it all went off without incident and we had some great weather to admire the scenery. If we’d decided to do the pass in wind and rain the next morning, there would have been fewer cars for sure but the fun factor would have been a lot less and the fear factor a lot higher!

Now we started the return leg around the coast road. This was constructed in the late 70s I believe, and it certainly wasn’t there during our 1972 visit, or else my Mum would have insisted we use it! It doesn’t go above 500ft, so being blocked by snow is less of an issue compared to the Bealach. However, it does go up and down a lot, and most of the day’s climbing was going to come from this section.

Oliver asked whether he might get lost if he went ahead, and I told him no, so he went haring off again. There was a decent tailwind here, so I felt like I was flying at times, apart from when hitting those steep little climbs, where you just went slower and slower till you needed to get into the bottom gear and grind up to the top.

The scenery was nice though and I was really enjoying the ride, despite the odd period of trudging, as it would inevitably be followed by a whizzy fun descent. I went on like this for an hour or so, then stopped to try and check in with Oliver, where I found my message wouldn’t send due to lack of reception.

A slightly longer climb took me to a picture postcard view over Loch Torridon, and just as I was stopping for a photo, Oliver called. He’d just got back to the car, while I was still about 9 miles short. I suggested he pack up and drive to Shieldaig for some refreshments, and I would join him there. I liked that, as it would shorten my ride a bit and I was getting tired.

A minute later he phoned again to say the car had a puncture. Oh no, so it was back to plan A. I would join him at the car and in the meantime, he would get the spare on.

Soon, I got to a bend in the road with a good view of  Shieldaig Island, making me feel that the end was in sight. However, the amount of up and down packed into the last mile or two of this little road was unbelievable. I was beginning to flag, so having to stop for a moment to let a mother duck escort her ducklings across the road was a welcome break.

A creaking noise from the cable guide under the bottom bracket was beginning to annoy me, and it was starting to have an affect on the crispness of the shifting at the back, so I stopped just before the T-junction at the end of the road to sort it out. If anyone had seen me turn the bike upside down and spit on it, they would have thought I’d gone mad! It did the trick though.

Next, I turned right and started the final leg back to the car. It was into the wind and mostly slightly uphill, so the last few miles seemed to drag till I finally caught sight of Oliver’s car with hazard lights blinking. Luckily, he had managed to get the spare on without any issues, so I just needed to help him get the wheel with the puncture stowed away in its place underneath. 

After that, it was off to the B&B to get showered and then a short walk to the Strathcarron Hotel to enjoy some beers in the still warm sun at the tables outside. There we could reflect on the day’s adventure, comparing it with our experience of Sa Calobra earlier in the year. 

The Bealach na ba and Sa Calobra climbs are very similar in terms of total distance and total elevation, and even the amount of time we took to climb them. However, Sa Calobra is fairly steady, while the Bealach is fairly easy to start and much steeper at the finish, which makes it by far the harder of the two.  

We ended the day with a gentle constitutional walk to ease our leg muscles, while admiring the mountains surrounding us. As ever, this part of Scotland, while the weather is kind, is very hard to beat.





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