Sarah: DO NOT try this at home!

The water’s fast and furious but it never even crosses my mind to turn back. It’s not that I decide it’s too far: it just never occurs to me. As anyone who’s followed our Americas journey will know, I’ve crossed a ford or two in my time. That said, this is maybe the scariest looking one I’ve been faced with. The boulders are large, the water high and turbulent after a whole day of incessant rain. It’s coming down fast off the mountains. Nevertheless it never occurs to me to wonder whether I should be doing this – only how to.

I decide to make a preliminary crossing without my bike to check depth. I take off shoes, socks and waterproof pants,
and venture across carrying them, my bar bag and my front roll. It’s nightmarish. The water’s strong and fast, the ground uneven and bouldery. I have to force myself to stop and stabilize every step and am surprised when I reach the far side without a dunking.

Damn. I have to cross twice more. I don’t want to but here I am on one side of this raging madness while my bike’s on the other. I look up and downstream for a better option but there isn’t one. Better the devil you know? I’ve done it once…

What’s challenging with bags proves impossible for me with my bike. Slip of foot on wet boulder, a rush of water and we go down… And down…. Washed away in freezing Cairgorm water over a series of rapids. I’m bashed against rocks, fully submerged and thinking this is bad, this is really bad, clutching my bike with one hand now and wondering just how far downstream this river will carry me before it spits me out.

No point yelling for help; there’s no-one to hear.

More rapids, a small waterfall coming at me fast… I let go the bike and frantically grab for the shore… Watch helplessly as it plunges downstream.

Imagine me: soaked to the skin and barefoot in the pouring rain, one contact lens gone, standing on the edge of a rushing torrent surrounded by the wild hills I loved for their loneliness only minutes earlier. There’s no traffic coming through here, that’s a given.

I go back upstream, gather the rest of my things, put my boots back on, find time to think thank God I still have my credit card/passport/phone. Then follow the river, searching desperately for my bike. Oh no I can’t have lost another bike, not like this, how embarrassing, how will I admit it to anyone? Some stories can’t be told.

I’m only too aware of the risk of hypothermia. I’m soaked, it’s still raining, the forecast was for a whopping 5degC max and my tent and any dry clothes I have are in the river on my bike in the still-attached saddle bag. This is not a good situation to be in. 16km to town, you can walk that in 4hrs, move move move. You’ve got yourself in some daft scrapes over the years but this may well be the worst. Keep your wits. Don’t get cold. Think straight. Keep moving.

List of potential losses is playing in my head: one Rocky Mtn ETSX (well I’m planning a new fat/29er tour bike, it will now definitely have be the One Bike To Rule Them All), Porcelain Rocket framebag and seat pack (Scott will feel sorry for me and give me a good deal on replacements), Terra Nova Laser Competition tent (I don’t like it anyway), Neo Air thermarest, fuel bottle, water bottle, down jacket, cyclocomputer, pump, spares…. (oh well…). Honestly. I really do think all of this as I’m limping along the road, peering one-eyed over the banks of the river where it’s disappeared in a wild rush-n-tumble down a steep gorge.

My map tells me it’s 800m from the unsuccessfully negotiated ford to the next one (oh no not another ford!?) I limp and whimper them and suddenly I’m there and: Oh blessed sight! There she is stranded on a shallow gravelly island in the middle of what is a much broader, shallower ford.

Plunge across grab the bike reach the safety of the far side and pedal like hell for town (the bike goes! Can’t shift to inner rings and there’s some pretty bent cabling but she goes). Total losses: one water bottle, one fuel bottle, one cyclocomputer. A much more palatable list. Total injuries: much bruising and scraping from knees to feet.

I pedal the next 15 km like crazy, nearly sob all over the kind B&B owners who take me in and lend me dry clothes while they wash and dry mine, and sink into the best bath I’ve ever had.

Do not try this at home.

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14 comments

  1. Yikes! Scary stuff. I had a similar incident in Copper Canyon many years ago. Your tale brought back memories of that. Be safe!

  2. Holy Smokes!!! Now that’s a story!! I’m sure you’ve given those nice inn keepers something to talk about for a while.

  3. Wooah! Sounds scary!
    We met an Italian guy in Patagonia who was carrying a packraft in his panniers – maybe you should take one next time?
    take care
    Neil

  4. Hi Sarah

    I’m one of Tom’s old paeds contacts in the north east. Wow.

    You should seriously think of submitting this story to the guardian travel writing competition that is open for entries at the moment. It would need a bit of an edit but it’s more interesting than most. You could have died for gods sake!

    Also I think you have inspired me to do the Scittish C2C route next year. Sounds fab.

    Andy Mellon

    • Neil, I am definitely keen on the pack rafting idea, actually was just discussing it with a friend who has one. Andy – thank you! Though I should have thought I was more likely to put you off than inspire you… Sarah

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