This is it: the Holy Grail, the toughest and wildest climb in Britain.’ Not our words; the words of Simon Warren, hill climb aficionado and author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs.
In the book, subtitled ‘A road cyclist’s guide to Britain’s hills’, the Bealach na Bà is unique. Other leg-shredders such as the Hardknott Pass and Rosedale Chimney get the maximum 10/10 score, but only the Bealach na Bà gets the full Spinal Tap treatment.
This one goes to 11.
Road to nowhere
Just getting to the Bealach na Bà is a challenge in itself. It is hidden away on the Applecross Peninsula, which lies on the northwest coast of Scotland at approximately the same latitude as Inverness.
The nearest village is Lochcarron – a single street of houses with a couple of hotels, a pub and a Spar – which is a good four and a half hours’ drive from Glasgow and the best place to establish base camp for an assault on the climb.
This is one of the most remote places on the British mainland. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean much these days. There’s nowhere in this country that is more than six miles from a tarmacked road, but the most remote place is a desolate spot on the next peninsula over from Applecross, so this is about as wild as you’re going to get in Great Britain.
Fortunately the locals are well used to the sight of Lycra-clad strangers who set off from the village full of laughter and joie de vivre, only to return some hours later with the hollow-eyed look of war veterans.
From Lochcarron it’s a relatively gentle 10km ride to the turning off the A896, next to the Bealach Cafe, that marks the start of the climb. At first glance, the road ahead looks mostly flat and unintimidating, but the sign at the roadside leaves you in no doubt about what’s to come.
In fact, there are no fewer than four signs, just in case you didn’t get the message the first time. The first reads, ‘This road rises to a height of 2,053ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. NOT ADVISED FOR DRIVERS OF VERY LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS AND MOTORHOMES AFTER FIRST MILE.’
Below that, the second sign advises an alternative route. Sign three declares, ‘ROAD NORMALLY IMPASSABLE IN WINTRY CONDITIONS’. Then underneath, for good measure, is the fourth sign: ‘HIGH SNOW RISK’.
Of course, most of the messages have been obscured by stickers from cycling and motorcycle clubs, so it’s easy to scoff and ignore the warnings as you slip serenely past, still convinced that no British climb can really be that hard. Can it?
Into the valley
The average gradient of the whole climb is 6.4% – not the most frightening of stats – but the first couple of kilometres seem to barely rise at all, meaning that the remainder of the 9.7km will average something far more concerning.
Anyone who has sneaked a look at the profile chart will know the benign green section at the start is followed by a stretch of yellow that turns into orange by kilometre five, before morphing into ever-darker shades of red. This is not a climb on which to burn too many matches early on.
Shortly after the turn off the main road, a stone bridge takes you over the River Kishorn and the road swings southwest to trace the course of the river. The going is close to flat, and it’s easy to skip along the thin strip of tarmac as it skirts around the ominous mass of mountains.
Bealach na Bà translates as ‘pass of the cattle’, but the road is so narrow it’s hard to see how two cows could pass each other, let alone cars. Even cyclists have to pause in the passing places to allow vehicles past, which can be an impediment to establishing a steady rhythm or a blessed moment of relief, depending on your point of view.
As the river drops down to empty into Loch Kishorn, so the road swings up towards the mountains, the gradient creeping up to 6%. Down to the left is Kishorn Port, while up ahead lies a pair of towering rock walls that guard the entrance to a glacial valley.
The road appears to head straight into the valley, but after around 3.5km it veers left and climbs over the shoulder of the ridge to emerge into a neighbouring valley that’s even more intimidating.
Vertiginous cliffs of dark, crumbling rock loom on either side, and at the end of the valley is a wall that looks as impenetrable as a fortress. Metre by metre the gradient ramps up as the road clings to the right-hand slope.
Punching to the last
The attritional nature of the ascent is reminiscent of the Alps or Dolomites, but even the Continent’s famous climbs rarely deliver the knockout blow that the Bealach na Bà keeps in reserve until its final few kilometres.
As you reach the end of the valley the road starts to writhe and jerk as it searches for a path through the rock and scree. Sharp hairpins signal the hardest stretch and if you can spare a second to glance at your bike computer you may see 20% gradient appear on the screen.
Such is the steepness that on the day Cyclist tackled the climb we passed a 4×4 abandoned by the roadside with smoke pouring from its engine.
Then, just as the lactic acid build-up is threatening to overwhelm you, it’s over. Or at least the hard part is. If you’re not gunning for a Strava KoM, take a moment to stop in the layby and look back down the mountain, following the thin scrawl of road as it disappears towards the loch in the far distance.
Then mount up and tap the easy final half-kilometre to the top, where you can enjoy the views over to the Isle of Skye.
From here it’s only another 60km to skirt round the coast of the Applecross Peninsula and end up back at the signposts. Those warnings are sure to seem more serious this time round.