In December 2022 Steve Bate attempted to ride the Highland Trail 550 in some of the most challenging winter conditions we have seen in 13 years living in Scotland. In 2011 Steve was diagnosed with a condition that is slowly reducing his eyesight. He has now lost most of his vision. As the condition is degenerative, he will go blind. Due to frostbite on his toes he had to finish his ITT in Lochinver early. We spoke to Steve, who has also joined us at the Dorset and Dunoon Dirt Dash in recent years, about his ride, his kit choices and the lessons learnt from failure.
Looking at the Highland Trail 550 route – What was your rough plan for the ride, and how was the weather affecting that schedule?
My plan was to try and ride 100 miles (160 km) a day. However, the weather certainly played a big part in this. 100 miles a day doesn’t sound a great deal, however with a loaded fat bike in winter conditions, it was a massive challenge covering that amount of varied terrain. Any sections above the snow line were really slow going with the volume of pushing required. Lower down with everything frozen solid, I made good time, even with my 4” studded tyres.
Looking at your gear list – If you were to attempt another ride of this kind, what are three items you would swap, and why?
Obvious number one would be footwear. My boot choice cost me the ride. I rode 45NRTH Ragnarok tall shoes which are great, but I should have gone with my 45NRTH Wölvhammer, as they are insulated boots. I had no idea how much snow had fallen high up and how much I would have to push my bike, meaning my feet were in the snow a lot more than anticipated. I was worried about wet feet with the river crossings, but it turned out most of them were frozen! Isn’t hindsight great?
Secondly, I’d change out a water bottle for a flask as a water carrier. I rode with two insulated bottles and a flask for hot drinks or soup. But with the temperatures being below freezing, the bottles froze. Having an extra flask would have prevented this, especially on the long high sections of the ride, where all water courses were frozen. I’d still take one bottle, but with two flasks.
Thirdly, I probably wouldn’t run SRAM AXS wireless shifting again. The batteries are small and suffer in the cold. The other issue was recharging them. When they were cold, they wouldn’t draw enough current from a battery pack to recharge, so that was problematic. I’m a fan of the AXS system, but it has its limitations in subzero conditions.
Aside from the above, there wasn’t much else I’d change, I was pretty happy with my kit choice on the whole.
Reading through the lines of your very interesting blog, would riding with another rider made a difference to the ride, or possibly to the outcome?
It’s a good question. Yes in terms of: I could have shared the effort of breaking trail through the snow, and keeping morale high when it got super challenging. However, going into extreme conditions like that, I only know one or two people who could manage themselves, and continue to ride. Riding the HT550 in full winter conditions isn’t just about riding bikes. You have to have big mountain experience in winter conditions as well. I think this is the reason why we haven’t seen many winter attempts, and out of those only two have been successful. I’ve had lots of people say they want to join me for another go, which is nice, but there is a reality to that. When it’s 3am in the morning on day three, and you’re pushing through knee deep snow, in a blizzard high on a plateau going through the night, few people are really up for that intense level of adventure.
Finally, what is the most important lesson you have taken away from the ride?
I never thought frostbite would catch me out in Scotland. I think the biggest lesson is self care on a journey like this. I should have realised earlier on in the ride that my ambition of 100 miles a day wasn’t possible in those conditions. If I had let go of that earlier, I wouldn’t have pushed so hard, which was probably my downfall. In saying that, in pushing that hard, I found another gear, both mentally and physically, which I never knew I had. I’ve found those lessons are only learnt by going beyond yourself, walking the fine line of adventure versus misadventure. This time I got it wrong, but there is still value in that. I’ll be wiser and better prepared for round two.