Things you shouldn’t repeat for fun: When I nearly got hypothermia

I recently read about a group from MMU hiking club having to call out Mountain Rescue, (disclosure: I’ve hiked with MMU Hiking club once in the past), and I don’t want to dwell on what happened to them, but rather what’s important – they’re all alive, well, uninjured (perhaps except in pride!) and will live to climb another mountain.

Sharing stories of when things didn’t all go to plan is very useful, if you’re like me, you learn best by making your own mistakes but hearing someone explaining how they fucked up is also extremely useful.

I’ve been in numerous situations that I’d prefer to look back at and agree not to repeat, but there’s relatively few of those that I’ve written about in detail… until now.

This is the first of several blog posts to tell stories of when things didn’t quite, go to plan.


The background

It was the start of May 2013 and some friends and I had been planning to go camping in Glen Coe for part of a week, as the departure date approached, the weather forecast looked pretty poor, and they decided not to go.

Branding them “wimps”, I decided I wasn’t going to stopped by a bit of weather. As Pete Goss once said “it’s only wind and water”.

I wrote an enthusiastic blog post: I was going and try and do the Mammores & Grey Corries… and well, I’d make it up as I went along – I’d figured a good plan for the first day would be to do Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban, and then camp in a sheltered area on the ridge, near Lochan Coire nam Miseach.

I packed my bag with my standard fare of gear:

Overnight kit:

  • Tent: Vango Force 10 Helium 200
  • Mat: Thermorest NeoAir
  • Sleeping bag: Mountain Equipment Xero 550
  • Silk sleeping bag liner
Sron Dearg from Sron Riabhach
Sron Dearg from Sron Riabhach

Primary walking clothes:

  • Waterproof Paramo jacket
  • Helly Hansen semi-waterproof microfibre lined jacket
  • longsleeve light berghaus top (artificial fibre)
  • light t-shirt/vest (artificial fibre)
  • Berghaus Deluge waterproof trousers
  • cheap but warm Adidas tracksuit bottoms (quickdrying & double-lined)
  • Sensibly thick socks
  • Old Hi-tech boots
  • Ski-gloves

Nav kit

  • BMC/Harveys map
  • Ordance survey 2.5 inch map
  • Compass
  • Whistle
  • Petzl headtorch
  • Mobile phone + external battery
  • Hiking poles,
  • Cold food stuffs & no stove (due to hike light and stay light ideas)

The start

So on Saturday night, I got the coach up to Glasgow overnight, catching a whopping 2 hours sleep, then at 6am jumped on the bus from Glasgow to Fort William. From Fort William, I hitchhiked up Glen Nevis to the start of the walk, all in time and reasonably clear weather to make a start up the hill around 11am.

Achriabhach in Glen Nevis, I headed up through the forestry commission to Sron Riabhach. Upon reaching Sron Riabhach, it started raining. No problem! I popped my Paramo Jacket and Berghaus trousers on and headed on up to the first Munro: Mullach nan Coirean.

As got to the first Munro summit, the visibility dropped and the wind and rain increased.

Somewhere between Mullach nan Coirean and  Stob Ban.
Somewhere between Mullach nan Coirean and Stob Ban. Not pictured: strong winds.

As I soldiered on, rain started to find its way into everything, the gloves were the first to show signs of weakness and what were two warm, cosy linings, soon became a chilly, sopping fridges, whose only redeeming feature was that they blocked out the wind.

The Rain Continues

It was heavy going. The poor visibility made it hard to keep track of progress, and I kept estimating myself to be further towards my destination than I actually was. The rucksack wasn’t as light as it could have been and I had to rest periodically

And the rain continued to work its way in… creeping up from my ankles, attaching itself to my face and then running down inside my jacket, finding its way through zipped and snapped up ventilation zips and eventually, somehow getting in between in jacket and over-trousers. Before long, I was utterly soaked.

By this point, I could tell it was not a good situation to be in. My waterproofs were now mainly only for wind-blocking purposes, and my body temperature was not very warm.

When I was younger, I liked sailing and spent days sitting stationary in boats, whilst cold lake water was thrown over me… at least until it was blown off by the wind. I think it was from those years, that I developed the ability to be able to drop my surface body temperature and maintain my core body temperature.

And that’s what I was doing by this point. It wasn’t ideal – yes, my feet were cold, yes, my fingers were cold – any piece of skin you touched would have been wet and cold, but I was still functioning, and not super-uncomfortable.

I knew that at this point, the most important thing was to keep moving and move as fast as possible. The sooner I was in a place I could put my tent up, the better.

The Descent

Eventually I reached the top of Stob Ban, and after checking the map and taking a quick compass bearing, headed off down the only obvious path down the opposite side of the summit.

As I descended the scree path, I started to see the outlines of people that I hoped were walking up the hill through the gloomy mist towards me, only to feel deprived when every person turned out to be yet another cluster of boulders.

Stopping to check the map, I concluded it couldn’t be much farther anyway, and continued stopping down the hill with increased fervour.

I considered whether this was the time to call out Mountain Rescue, but figured if I could still walk, and could still get myself to my campsite, then wasting time and effort in such an exposed position, only to have to wait the amount of time it’d have taken me to keep walking, was a poor decision. The most important thing was to keep going – I could already tell that the wind was dropping, and with every step down the hill, I’d be a little more sheltered.

Eventually, I stopped and had another look at the map – the path really wasn’t very clear, and I felt I should have been seeing signs I was arriving at the col, with its sheltered tarn and good campsite prospects…

The Realisation

I took a compass bearing. The compass said that downhill, was south west… “That’s strange – it should have said I was going easterly?”

The compass doesn’t lie, clearly I wasn’t where I thought I was. I looked carefully at the map to see where I might actually be.

I guessed I was somewhere around Coire na Sleubhaich, and I walked easterly slightly, and quickly saw a big scar-like cliff emerge from the gloom which somewhat confirmed it.

My initial thought was that I was going to have to walk back up to Stob Ban – unappealing at the best of times, but given how wet I was, very unappealing.

However, then a second though came to mind – the descent so far hadn’t been that bad – if I wanted to descend all the way to the valley below, I probably could do it. However, if I kept walking in the exact direction I was walking right now, I’d walk over a cliff.

I took a West-South-West compass bearing and headed at a stronger angle into the corrie, eventually coming to the remains of a fence and following it, and the sound and outline of an angry brook further down the hill.

Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap
Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap

See full screen

The Discovery

Eventually, as it started to level out, I found some bumps and humps which created some boggy areas flat enough to pitch a tent.

I needed no second invitation. Down went the rucksack, up went the tent, up went the thermorest. Woo. Now I could sit down on a insulated, rain-free piece of ground and consider my next problem.

For some reason, I’d not wrapped my down sleeping bag in a binbag/plastic bag, and as a result, it was about 50% wet.

If it being wet isn’t bad enough, down sleeping bags in particular are things you don’t want to get wet – the feathers that work so well when dry stick together when wet and provide minimal warmth (unlike conventional-foam-padding sleeping bags that are largely equally effective wet as dry).

There was something else to consider: conventional wisdom says to change into dry clothes at this point, however, I’d seriously skimped on spare clothes and, apart from some spare underwear, socks and a pair of thigh length shorts, I didn’t have very much to change into anyway.

In the end, I took my waterproofs and sopping wet socks off, took out my [dry] silk sleeping bag liner, and piled into the damp sleeping bag. The only thing that was likely to dry any of these things out was my own body heat, and so I might as well start as soon as possible.

As I lay down, the exhaustion hit me, and I managed to warm up to a much more enjoyable temperature… and quickly fell very deeply asleep.

The next morning: after the mist lifted.
The next morning: after the mist lifted.

I spent most of the next day lying in my sleeping bag continuing to rest eating some of the food I’d brought and reading a book I’d brought.

The day after was sunny, and I packed up, walked down to the West Highland Way – busy with foreign Tourists only 100m below … and well, that’s another story for another blog post.

The things to think about:

The navigation error:

The most obvious mistake is the navigation error that took me off a side of a very spiky mountain, which compounded with other issues. I could blame the environment – from aerial photos, it appears that the path is not as well defined as the route I took, which looks like a path at the top, even though it’s not.

Ideally, I’d have had a map with higher resolution, taken more compass bearings, or had a GPS.

I’ve gone down the route of doing all three – I now have a Garmin eTrex 30 GPS with inbuilt compass, am actively editing OpenStreetMap so I have a good idea of my location in relation to my surroudings, when I put the data onto my GPS.

GPS’s aren’t flawless, and if I was travelling in unmapped terrain, or hand completely exhausted the battery, then it is important I could micronavigate in mist off the map with a compass.

The Packing Error

Arguably, you might say that down sleeping bags aren’t appropriate for above 0C temperatures where there is a potential for moisture.

I think that might be a little over-cautious, but not putting your sleeping bag in a big bag, or preferably, a heavy duty rubble bag, is a newbie mistake, and I am idiot for not doing it. I ‘always’ put my sleeping bag and dry stuff in rubble bags and I’m not sure why I didn’t that time. Clearly, that’s not going to happen again.

The Clothing errors?

My preferred setup with gloves at the time was to wear fingerless cycling gloves, with ocean-going sailing gloves on top of them. This means that you have a degree of hand protection (not much, but some) if you need use your fingers, but all the layers of gloves should provide warmth, even when wet. For some reason, I couldn’t find my sailing gloves before I left, and so I took some ski-ing gloves. (These days, I prefer a three layers of gloves approach in the worst conditions).

I’m somewhat unconvinced that different clothing would have significantly slowed the approach of the water. I am disappointed with the performance of my Paramo jacket and I now have a yet-to-be-seriously-tested Mountain Equipment Gore-Tex jacket.

Ultimately, in sustained rain and wind like that, waterproofs are only going to delay the inevitable.

It could be argued, that I should have been carrying more than a very minimum of spare dry clothing. If that’s argued on the basis that I smell, I’d happily agree and cast the argument aside. If argued on the basis that I needed something to change into, I think I’d be unable to agree that’s a very worthwhile approach. If you have wet clothes, and you’re on a wet mountain with no way to dry them off your body, risking getting a second pair of clothes wet is not very wise. In my opinion, the lesson here, if there is one, is on the importance of quick drying clothes. Had I been wearing cotton, things would have certainly been different.

The Conditions Misjudgment?

Based on the conditions, I think maybe I should have re-assessed the situation on the top of the first Munro. I’m not certain, in that situation, I’d have done anything different to what I actually did, but I think I should have noted that it was borderline.

I know my limits, physically, psychologically and with that in mind, I’m very happy I was alone and wasn’t in a position to put other people at risk. If I’d been walking with someone less experienced, I’d hope we might not have soldiered on after the first summit, but if we had, I would have been very nervous. It’s one thing to have to push yourself through uncomfortable situations, it’s another thing to push yourself and someone else. If I’d been walking with someone more experienced, I’m worried that communication problems might have caused people to push themselves or each other too hard.
Many people prefer walking in groups – and it can be fun, but for incident, I’m glad that I made the mistake on my own.

On the plus side, I have now a much greater awareness of what wet and windy situations are like in exposed places. I don’t seek to replicate the experience for fun anytime soon!

Tiredness?

It’d be stupid to leave out the observation that I’d only had ~2 hours poor sleep on a coach the night before. It’s hard to pin down exactly how that might have affected my decision making processes and physical and psychological state. All I’ll say is that it probably wasn’t ideal given the circumstances.


The Final Word

In the world of technology where I’m from, it’s relatively common for people to publish detailed postmortems of things that went wrong (especially if it affected any other people). These are often well worth a read (even if you’re not a customer), and also give a good indication that the provider is happy to be open and honest about their weaknesses and has learned from it. Not everything is realistically preventable, and the people who say so are the people you should trust the most – at least they’re honest and know what calculated risks they’re taking and why.

It’s somewhat rare to post detailed postmortems of trips, (probably for fear weekend-keyboard-warriors will descend on the comments section to give them perfect 20/20 hindsight), but this way, everyone can learn from the experience, rather than just me.


To be continued.

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