Yep, I have a horror story which happened to me just this New Years eve on Glaramara. I tell this story to warn newer walkers that its always possible to encounter difficulties even in apparently straightforward situations. Sadly I am at risk of criticism and ridicule, but as I deserve it, I’ll put up with it.
I went up to the lakes on Thursday 30th intending to walk all of Friday, a bit on Saturday, hangover permitting and maybe some of Sunday. My chosen route for Friday was a circular route from Seathwaite Farm in Borrowdale, up Allen Crags via Styhead and Sprinkling tarns detouring to Seathwaite Fell on the route and back down via Glaramara and off the Seathwaite-side flank.
I left Seathwaite at about 11.30 and had a thoroughly enjoyable stroll up to the stretcher box at Styhead via Stockley bridge and the West flank of Seathwaite Fell – I was in no particular rush. Despite the cool weather I found myself in T-Shirt sleeves as there was no breath of wind and I was too hot in my fleece. I think I put my jacket on again when I got to Styhead where it was a bit more breezy. I rested for lunch and set off for Seathwaite summit and Allen Crags about 1.00 or so. I figured I had plenty of time to complete the round, expecting dusk at about 3.30, but with 2 head torches and so on to help me out for the last bit if need be.
The going up to Seathwaite was a bit slow with lots of ice on the path to dodge, but I eventually reached Seathwaite top and summitted the highest bit, or so I thought. I noticed there’s a bit about 1m higher a little further onto the fell, so felt I must do this and thus lost about 30 mins, before setting off to Allen crags. Summitting Allen Crags was simple but I noticed as I trudged off to Glaramara that fog was beginning to thicken, where previously there had been only intermittent mist. The fog made going very slow as I constantly checked my compass for direction, Snow was thick on the ground up here and paths were thus concealed, except for occasional footprints where other walkers had been. Anyway, I eventually clambered up a rocky escarpment which seemed where the summit should be and I found a few cairns etc to confirm this. Unfortunately it was now almost dark and still thick fog, so I was ready to call it a day. Here’s where it got difficult. I took a bearing for the path down, and headed off but found that no matter how much searching I did I could not locate the path or the Ghyll it runs by. After a good couple of hours searching around in fog so thick I could only see about 10m, I found a set of newish footprints coming up from where I thought I should be going, so I followed them to their origin going down a Ghyll which terminated in a sheer drop after about 200m of descent. The scariest thing about this was that where the water in the Ghyll tumbled over the fall, there was a snow bridge above the water about 3 feet thick and wide and about 6 ft across – with the footprints walking straight over!! This put the wind up me enough to climb all the way back up the Ghyll, and try to find the summit and start all over again.
To shorten the story a bit, by midnight, I was still roaming around trying to figure out where to go, but the fog, snow cover and dark made this all but impossible, no longer being certain of where I was with any precision. Out of nowhere, I suddenly remembered that my Blackberry has a GPS feature which would give me degrees and decimal minutes, so I wondered if it might help in some way. I’d been aware all along that I had a phone signal up there, and had resisted calling mountain rescue as I never felt I was in danger of death – just horrible discomfort, but it meant that I might be able to find a website that could convert my GPS reading to an OS grid reference and tell me where I was with some accuracy. The theory was good, but the reality was that I couldn’t find a website that helped.
Then it started sleeting, so I decided to take shelter for a rest and found a clump of rocks and made a makeshift shelter with a plastic heat sheet weighted down with a couple of rocks. This got me out of the wind and rain but I immediately started to feel cold from sitting still. The plastic ripped after about 20mins because of the wind and I salvaged a piece big enough to lie on and got down low behind the rocks, surprisingly comfy and did my best to warm up, changing into dry socks, lining my soaking wet boots with pieces of the torn heat sheet, and putting my fleece, hat and everything on under my Paramo Jacket, ( also had Paramo trousers on too which are fairly warm). In the summer, I had some camera stuff nicked from my car and the robbers pinched my rucksack to carry it off in. It hadn’t even occurred to me that in taking the rucksack, they had taken my orange survival bag too, which I’m sure everyone just puts in their rucksack and ignores (hopefully) forever – of course, it had never occurred to me that it wasn’t in my rucksack because I’d forgotten I now have a different sack! Anyway, I rested on the ground like this for an hour but lost heat to the ground so much that I started to shiver violently and uncontrollably, and realised I had to warm up any way I could. I ate some sausage rolls I still had and packed up ready to walk again and got back on the move, figuring I could walk in circles if I needed to just to keep warm. This was effective enough and I was soon warm again, but very tired. Realising I would likely never find a certain path, I consulted the map and decided that even with an error of perhaps a quarter of a mile or so either way I could take a bearing roughly north and providing I didn’t walk off a cliff, should end up descending the mountain near Stonethwaite, so I started out. It was slow going and what looks like easy ground on the map is boggy and rocky away from a good path. Some bog was frozen solid like glass and extremely dodgy to walk on, some was slushy and messy, but I plodded on. I noticed the going was easier to the east so I favoured the east facing slope a bit and found the ground descending quite steeply, which suited me quite well. By 2 am I found I was in another bouldery Ghyll but the descent was steady and I decided to follow it realising I was now descending on the east side of the mountain. This tactic worked well until at about 4am I realised the ground fell away vertically past some trees gripping the crag, but I felt heartened that any tree was evident – it meant I was quite a long way down. I decided it was safer to wait until light rather than risk descending into uncertain darkness and hunkered down again, by now out of the wind, but still with light drizzle falling. I didn’t get so cold this time and lasted 2 hrs before I felt I needed to move around again. I knew by this time that dawn was only just over 90 mins away, so I decided to explore the horizontal contour option to the south, and after about 100 meters found that the down slope resumed steeply but safely. I carried on down and gradually as dawn came and some fog thinned out I could make out the valley floor and located myself easily by identifying the curves of the beck below. It was Langstrath Beck, which told me I’d estimated my start point as more Westerly than I actually was.
I was disappointed to realise I would have a 4-5 mile walk back to my car basically walking all the way around the foot of Rosthwaite fell, but I knew I was in the final section. The last part of the descent took about an hour and I plodded painfully slowly back on the flat via, Stonethwaite, Seatoller and finally Seathwaite Farm. My toes were all numb and ragged from being wet for so long. In fact, as I write a few toes on my right foot are still a bit pins and needles, so I wonder if I slightly damaged them when they were cold - not in the sense of frostnip/bite, but maybe kicking snow off my boots too hard and not realising.
So, in the end a bit of an adventure, and an embarrassing lesson in how easy it is to underestimate the conditions, and over-estimate one’s experience. On the other hand, I have learned many useful things from this experience that I would never learn from books.
For one, I am not as good at basic navigation as I thought. I think some of this is because with good visibility and recognisable landmarks, mistakes have little impact. If you are heading for such and such a peak and you head off course slightly, a brief glance up will correct it. Dead reckoning in fog is totally different – you have to be rigorous and really use your instruments precisely. Also, we tend to rely on paths, which in snow don’t exist effectively.
Secondly, some simple cheap survival equipment could have altered my story a lot. I have now invested in a 2-man bothy bag which would have probably meant I could have stayed put in one place until light, and maybe even got a kip. I have also replaced my survival bag. These simple things make jobs like changing socks easy instead of a nightmare.
Thirdly, attitude is everything in an emergency situation. There is one thing I am proud of in this story – not panicking, and not despairing. I knew I must focus and make reasoned decisions, even if they were ultimately a bit off, and I knew I was getting off that mountain, sometime. I was never frightened for my life in the whole episode, although strangely when I was down and plodding back to my car I was overwhelmed with relief and felt a bit choked if I’m honest. Its something I’ve always been able to do in a crisis though – focus now, panic and worry about what might have been when its over.
Everyone has asked me why I didn’t ring mountain rescue. My main reason is that I didn’t think I could give them an accurate location for where I was, and I wasn’t going to endanger someone else hunting for a needle in a haystack. As it turns out, I had an extremely accurate way to locate myself, but didn’t know. The GPS coordinates that I thought were useless would have got me off the mountain in probably an hour or so. I have now found that OS maps not only have OS Grid marked on them but also, degrees and decimal minutes printed at the edge. In fact, I noted the original coordinates down, and having now checked, I was within 50m of where I thought I was the first time I took them. Had I known this, I could have paced out a bearing to the path which was about 2 mins walk away and found my way down easily. I’m not pleased I didn’t know about this, but maybe I would never have found out otherwise. Perhaps this combination of paper map, compass and simple GPS are actually quite a strong reason not to fork out £500 on a fancy GPS and digital maps etc, which I was wondering about. Despite my meagre skills, I still think GPS would be little extra use to me than what I now know.
So, there we have it – a story that doesn’t flatter me, but might act as a warning to anyone who is tempted to underestimate how dicey things can be. To be honest, I can’t wait to get out there again fighting for the advantage against the weather and the hills – all my mistakes are plain to me, and easily fixable, and most of all lessons learned first hand, which means I’ll learn them better.
When I left my Guest house on Sunday fully recovered, fed, rested and warm, I bought two jars of marmalade from the landlady who donates the takings to mountain rescue - you never know eh?