In Photos: Rich & James Rothwell's Highland Trail 550

Hunt Beyond rider Rich Rothwell has split his riding time between his own adventures and time on the bike with his son James. James has developed fantastic bike handling skills and has demonstrated strong endurance abilities. Last year, the pair completed the Lakeland 200 together and also podiumed at a pairs 24hr mountain bike race. James is 11 years old.

This year was the year for something big. And it doesn’t get much bigger than the infamous Highland Trail 550. This incredibly rugged and often extremely isolated 556 mile long route includes 18,000m of climbing and some of the roughest trails in the UK. With large distances between resupply and some very exposed and treacherous ground, this route is not for the faint hearted. A completion is a massive achievement for a competent adult.

James and his father completed the route in under 12 days at the start of April this year. James is now the youngest person to ever complete the route. The pair didn’t have it easy either; between the clearer days, it rained heavily, the wind blew hard, and at times it sleeted.

We asked the pair to share their favourite 5 pictures from the adventure and give us some of their thoughts behind their selections.

James at the Ben Alder Bothy

Rich: Ben Alder bothy

Day one is a relatively easy introduction to HT550. The weather was nice all day and James was really enjoying himself. We covered 50 miles and arrived at the bothy just as the sun was setting. There was a clear sky, it was calm, and a virtually full moon was rising. There was firewood and the bothy was empty. Somebody had even left a beer. It was the perfect start to the trip.

James at Loch Orrin with the bikes

James: Loch Orrin

At day 3 after 2 days of relatively easy trails and tracks we went up the path of a thousand puddles, this was not an exaggeration, then descended into Contin. After going across this truly stunning view of loch Orrin. This view really gave the atmosphere a desolate and deserted feel as we merely just observed the spectacular glimmer of the loch, this was a change from earlier in that day as there were only thick dense clouds.

Rich and James selfie at Bealach Horn

Rich: Bealach Horn

This picture is from almost the northernmost point on the route. The Bealach Horn is very remote and hard to reach. It’s wild and rugged - it’s truly spectacular. It’s also a crux section. I had to think very carefully about if and when we would take this huge stretch on. There is no shelter, the ground is rough and wet, and it’s a long way from anywhere. It had hammered it down with rain the day before (we cowered in our tent and had a very cold night) and fortunately this had cleared the air for the next day.

The view to the north is otherworldly; it really feels like the end of the world with no signs of human life as far as the eye can see. It’s possibly my favourite view for this reason. It was really special to take James there and show him this incredible place.

James looking at the view at Bealach Horn

James: Bealach Horn

The Bealach was an amazing experience as it was cold but sunny weather. Luckily it stayed like that, much to my joy. The feeling of only seeing 2 people was surreal and almost other worldly as in normally we see masses of people every day and to see only yourself and the world was something special, to only be amazed and shocked is just something different. The Bealach horn was very hard but no part was particularly brutal, the hardest bit was just to keep moving all the time.

Rainy photo of Rich riding the Fisherfield causeway

Rich: Fisherfield

Besides the Bealach Horn, the Fisherfield traverse is perhaps the other most committing section on the HT550 route. If there is one place you do not want bad weather it is here.

We had arrived at Shenavall bothy late the night before and the forecast was not good. As we left the bothy, the rain arrived. Light at first, but as we crested the huge hike-a-bike beyond the wide river crossing, it had well and truly set in.

We descended the steep and loose trail towards Dubh Loch in torrential rain. I’m sure glad James is a solid technical rider! As much as I wanted to take pictures, I was worried my phone would get waterlogged. I finally got it out for a picture on the causeway. The lens was wet, creating this great effect. It looks how it looked to me at the time, with rain streaming into my eyes.

We endured heavy cold rain for 8 hours before finally reaching shelter at Poolewe. It was the sternest test of the trip.

James riding at Suilven

James: Suilven

This was day 6 and I was tired from the torment of the grass hill of doom up and out of the Bealach Horn, on day 6 morning we slept in the tent on a picturesque shore and up and out for the monster slog of the Ledmore travers under the almost crafted Suilven. It’s so unique and an honestly spectacular spot from any angle, as you can see it from miles away. To keep sane on these vast stretches of barren mountains we played guess who but we just did yes or no questions, it was surprisingly fun and got us through some mentally tough parts. That night was possibly our best night sleep as we slept in a bin-shed.

Rich hiking his bike at Glen Affric

Rich: Glen Affric

We arrived at the base of the very steep and rocky hike-a-bike at around 6pm. It was very cold, the wind was howling, there was rain and sleet in the air. The snow level was fairly low. I figured we could reach the safety of the remote Camban bothy just after nightfall but it still felt like a very committing move to head up there, into the dark.

Just as we reached the hardest sections of ascent, the wind started to calm, along with my nerves! We carefully and slowly navigated the steepest steps and I started to relax. We both loved staring up at the snow covered peaks that surrounded us and I was happy we had judged our pace and distance well. I knew we had again hopped from one safe place to another. This game of island hopping was the aspect of the challenge I was most enjoying.

James hiking his bike near Coffin Road

James: Coffin Road

We went into this section strong after having a delectable burger at Ullapool, we got cheered on before we started by Andrew, a Highland Trail 550 racer, much to my glee but was soon to fade as we made our way up the coffin road. The steep sections were very challenging but not slippery, fortunately. As we were approaching the top we had an easter treat, a cream egg… The view was pretty amazing as we saw the mountains with snow glimmering on the top of the peaks.

The bikes and tent setup at Loch Lochy

Rich: Loch Lochy

This one is a case of ‘the morning after the night before’! We had (again) been smashed by the weather. It had rained all day after leaving Glen Affric. We pulled into Fort Augustus way later than I’d wanted. I was frozen and soaking. I was suffering a mild virus and I really wanted to end the day there. James pointed out that if we had stopped, we would have struggled to complete the route in 12 days. I realised he was right. So we pushed on to the south of Loch Lochy as late as we could, and pitched on this rocky beach at 11pm.

Everything was soaking wet and it was very cold, but It was an amazing dawn scene that we awoke to. But we had got far enough south to make a 12 day completion possible, thanks to James’s resilience and sheer determination to keep moving.

James and his bike at the top of Devil's Staircase

James: Devil’s Staircase

At this point I was exhausted but didn’t feel too bad because of the adrenaline but that would soon start to fade later on. The descent of devils stair case was very fun to go as fast as possible down, barely making it round rubbly corners was fun! Looking off into a vast array of mountains covered in snow was just a beautiful sight to end of a huge ride and a lifechanging achievement!

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April 19, 2023 — Jacob Rubio
Tags: Beyond