Ben Nevis and the Carn Mor Dearg Arete

My thoughts on Scotland

  • I support self determination of the people of Scotland.
  • I think it’s great that we can have an open and democratic conversation about it, in a civilised and peaceful manner.
  • I’m delighted by the level of engagement and thoughts people have on it, north and south of the border
  • If Scotland does become independence, I’m fearful about relations between the UK and Scotland. I hope these fears are unfounded, and I hope that, were it to happen, it would not become a source of conflict. I’m fearful because:
    • It’s really hard to separate without bad feeling:
      • was this deal negotiated in favour of one side or the other? (both will likely say the other)
      • did someone not play fair? (both sides will likely say the other)
      • it’s a very easy political manoeuvre to blame tough times, on another country – both sides may face those in the future
    • Very few countries have separated without violence, especially with a smaller unit devolving from a larger entity. Arguable the best example in recent history would be the Velvet Divorce of Czechoslovakia. I hope in the event of independence we can outdo them in peacefulness
    • I’m only afraid of bad feeling, aggressive posturing and violence. I’m hopeful that we enough shared respect and understanding for each other that this is not such an issue.
  • I’m excited by the referendum, because no matter what the result, it will have shaken up politics and engaged people in issues they care about.
    • I hope the interest and political engagement can continue to shake things up
    • I hope that each political group focus on positive ways to engage the people who are apathetic to the political system
    • I hope the quality of life in the whole of the British Isles continues to improve as fast as it has since the mid 20th century.

Really the referendum isn’t about you or me, it’s about how our children play together. I hope they’re free to play and enjoy a better life than the one we have.

Hiking Epic Rap : Hiker Tim

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Epic Hiking Rap : Hiker Tim

Lyrics / Q&A
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Inspired by Dan Bull’s Skyrim Rap

Hiker Tim on Twitter
Hiker Tim on Facebook

Unclimbed mountains by night, Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan

Hiking Epic Rap : The Background

So you’ve seen the Epic Hiking Rap, and now you want the background?

Are you serious or is this a joke?

I’ll leave you to apply Poe’s Law.

Where did this start?

For years, the University of Manchester Hiking Club had a tradition where a specific longstanding club member would write and present a poem at their AGM. In 2012, for the first time in a long time, that club member was absent, and so people were each egging each other on to write something. Originally, I parodied Dan Bull’s Epic Skyrim Rap, and included various bits of club folk-lore.

This looks like a skyrim screenshot, only even prettier.

Sometime afterwards, I cleaned up the lyrics, rapidly recorded it, took various videos of me rapping in Sweden & in Kyrgyzstan.

A friend saw one of timelapse stills from Kyrgyzstan, and mentioned Skyrim, and it started to come together. I finally finished the video editing, put it on youtube, and there you go!

How long did it take you?

Days, sporadically, over several years.

How did you record the track?

Poorly. With much difficulty. Ardour and some condenser mics were my friend, but gosh, it’s hard work. New respect was developed for people who can perform stuff well enough to record it easily. I’d say I’m good enough with audio editing to produce something that’s a thing out of what I can perform. That’s not a very high bar.

Where was the video shot?

Sweden, Kyrgyzstan & the UK. All mountainous timelapses are in Kyrgyzstan (with one of the mountains shown currently being unclimbed), there’s two shots of the peak district, and two from the lake district.

What was the video shot with?

I shot all but four of the shots on a Canon 5D mkII with the Magic Lantern Firmware. The remaining four shots were a Sanyo CA100 (I bet you can easily spot 2). I think they’re all with my f24-105 f4 lens except the timelapses, which were a 50mm f1.8, and all the shots in Sweden were taken with a Glidecam XR-2000.

It was edited on a Debian system with Kdenlive.

Who do you have to thank?

Dan Bull, for being a massively awesome and generous dude, for giving me the track to record onto, and always being so supportive – it really makes a difference! Anyone who’ve ever had me point a camera at them, or held a camera for me. (There’s a shot in there that my girlfriend Clara held the camera for on our first date!). Anyone who ever encouraged me to try something, or give it a go.

What are the Lyrics?

Who’s rapping?
Hiker Tim!
I’m in nature’s gym.

I’m sprinting like a shadow,
who knows I’m running right behind him.

My hike-shout-flow is sweeter than a post-hike swim
You won’t believe you eyes
I’m like an overload of adrenaline!

An ice-axe in one hand
and a scared hiker in the other

I’m the last of the Hiking Kings!
There’s no other my brother
don’t run for cover!

If you’re going up-dale
then I’m on your tale
and I will NOT fail

like a half-crazed freesoloer
I’m off the rails
I walk the trails
through awful gales
and storms of hail
til all your ramblers
are racing for the bottom

I’m not stopping, til you’ve all gone home
and I am alone
in amongst the peaks
there’s silence for weeks
until I’m disturbed
by the sound of your shrieks

And I walk with this bloodthirsty hound!
She follows with a growl and a bound!

I’m draining my force, so chemistry comes into play with retorts and recipes.
Ceildih dancing like a DJ

My legacy,
written in heavenly bodies
and buried
with every hiker
that ever did bother
to mess with me
Deading them

I’m a celebrity!
You’re a wannabe!
I’m a prodigy!

The suggestion you’re better than me at being a hiker?

It’s a gift to me, I don’t just bag peaks lyrically, but literally
and the OS maps are scripts in which I’ve written your obituary

I am the Hiking King
I’m risking life and limb!

I’m Hiker Tim,
known globally
you’re nobody at all!

Bidean Nam Bian's snowy top

Aonach Eagach in pictures

As I wrote I might, I traversed the Aonach Eagach ridge in Glen Coe on Saturday.

We were on the ridge it in ideal conditions and it was every bit as exposed, long and committing (there are no escape routes once you’re on it) as expected. I was glad to be travelling with a group of experienced friendly scramblers whom I know and trust a great deal, with great visibility.

Here are some photos:

The ridge ahead
The ridge ahead (path sticks to the ridge)
The Aonach Eagach requires a good head for heights
The Aonach Eagach requires a good head for heights
Giving advice...
Giving advice…
Up up up up!
Up up up up!
Looking back along the ridge - can you see the path?
Looking back along the ridge – can you see the path?
Pose for a photo here?
Pose for a photo here?
People taking the highly unpleasant and unwise 900m scree descent from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh to the road
People taking the highly unpleasant and unwise 900m scree descent from Sgorr nam Fiannaidh to the road
Looking down over Glencoe...
Looking down over Glencoe…

Long weekend in Glen Coe

It’s a bank holiday weekend. Rejoice!

Umm, yeah, I’m spending the weekend in Glen Coe at Red Squirrel Campsite! Yay.

I’ve been to Glen Coe a number of times, some more successfully than others, and blogged about how to get there (even hitchhiking).

Glen Coe isn’t too far away from Ben Nevis, and its 24 hour, painfully dull tourist path:

But Glen Coe has many more exciting (perhaps less easily accessible!) things to do – the Aonach Eagach – serious and committing ridge scramble, not for the faint hearted, Bidian Nam Bian, probably one my favourite mountains of the area thus far, Ben Nevis’s non-tourist route – ascent via the Càrn Mòr Dearg (CMD) arete.

Aonach Eagach, The Mamores and Ben Nevis, from Bidean Nam Bian (2012)
Aonach Eagach, The Mamores and Ben Nevis, from Bidean Nam Bian (2012)

Bidian is a jolly fun mountain, but having already done it, the Aonach Eagach is what draws my attention. When I first came to Glen Coe some three years ago, my dad warned me not to go anywhere near it, and not to let anyone drag me to along it. I think that was probably good advice at the time, but with much improved climbing skills, I think it’s probably accessible as a scramble on around a Mod/Grade 3. Good visibility and good conditions are obviously important (and add to the enjoyment!).

The weather is reputedly quite nice on Saturday, rainy with poor visibility on Sunday and Monday, but little chance of strong wind, yet a bit chilly. The last SAIS report (over two weeks ago) showed snow on the tops, and a glance at the Glen Coe Ski centre webcams shows this is still the case – they’re still operating 3/7 ski lifts!

Anyway, I’ll go well prepared with kit, be sensible, and take a few books to read if it looks too grim. ;)

Aonach Eagach (May 2011)
Aonach Eagach (May 2011)
Gorse blooms in Glen Brittle

Looking back at our trip to the Cuillins in Skye.

On Saturday, after a blistering 12 hour minibus journey, I arrived back  in Manchester from a week in the Black Cuillins of Skye.

Gorse Bushes in full bloom!
Gorse Bushes in full bloom!

It was a memorable trip, and by the second evening I thought it was all over – I was in great pain and could barely walk.

In my socks, I’d excitedly tried to run to otherside of the hut, and had managed to kick my little toes on my left foot on the leg of a wooden bench. Hard. About 3 of my toes on my left foot hurt like hell, and instantly I could tell it was serious.

As I hobbled to bed in pain, I wondered what one does if one breaks one’s little toe, and concluded that most doctors would prescribe rest, painkillers, and would helpfully suggest perhaps not repeating the experience if possible.

The next day, I woke up and found I could barely walk. Swallowing Ibuprofen and warding off suggestions of herbal potions, I asked our friendly medical doctor whether the intense pain meant it was broken – to which I got a shrug and a smile.

Fortunately, it turned out not to be broken, and the subsequent day, I took myself up Sgurr Dearg, to look at the Inaccessible Pinnacle. The cloud level was about 3-400m and hadn’t risen significantly since we’d arrived, however it didn’t seem to be raining significantly, and the wind had dropped to manageable levels.

Before I left for the Cuillins, I wrote this (new emphasis added):

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

The Black Cuillins stand out for me, as one of those mountain ranges that deserves significant respect. A navigational error of 10m in the Peak District, possibly might mean wet feet but realistically is consequence free. A 10m navigational error in the Black Cuillins stands a good chance of meaning you try and scramble down a 30m cliff.

My GPS and OpenStreetMap generated map showed the “easy”, “path”, up Sgurr Dearg. At least, what little existed in terms of path, was available to me in relation to where I was. I picked the route up Sgurr Dearg, specifically because the route was relatively well traced on OpenStreetMap, and should be easy to find (up the ridge on path between Eas Mor and Loch an Fhir-bhallaich).

Kick steps down this snow in a gully of death? I say no!
Kick steps down this snow in a gully of death? I say no!

And off I went! Several times when I felt like I’d lost the path, I pulled my Garmin out, walked 15m in one direction and found the faint ‘path’ I was supposed to be following.

The descent was a bit more hard work (to Belach Banadich (easy) and then down to Coire Banadich(complex)), the route/”path” finding was more involved (Q: Do I walk around this sketchy-looking snow, or do I risk kicking down-steps into it without an ice-axe if I fall? A: Walk around) but after several attempts at following the GPS down different parallel gullies I was able to scramble myself to the path in the valley without too much faff.

When I got back, I took off my boots, sat down, and almost straight away, I heard a call over the walkie talkie radios.

The late group's route card
The late group’s route card

Another group, with several friends in it, had been climbing Amphitheatre Arete (mod/diff) near the Cioch Buttress in Coire Lagan. The time they originally expected to be back by was rapidly approaching, and, as they told me, they were still abseiling down (having turned around at ~3pm).

It was 7pm. They told me they expected to be back by 10pm but if they weren’t, it might be time to call Mountain Rescue.

With nightfall expected around 8pm, tentatively, I asked whether there was anything we might be able to help.

“Well, if anyone was really generous and wanted to walk up here (the visibility is really bad) and help us work out where we are, then that’d be really generous and we’d be grateful – currently we’re above a big cliff that’s longer than our rope so we’re going to try and find a way around it.”.

Two of our group had been climbing in that area a few days ago, and we agreed to walk up there and try and find them. I wrote a note documenting the radio call, wrote a route plan, grabbed a walkie-talkie and briefed the other members of our group the situation, whilst the guys somehow grabbed a stove to make tea and a large quantity of food.

They also grabbed their climbing gear, by as we turned on our head torches, 45 minutes into the walk-in to our destination, we agreed that 5 climbers stuck up a cliff was worse than the 3 that already were. We would go to the bottom of their crag and help try to guide them down.

It was dark by this point, with thick mist that reduced visibility to 10-20 metres, and bounced headtorch beams straight back at you.

As reached a reached a point roughly parallel with the climbers, we took a bearing on the GPS for where we thought they might be, and left the safety of the path into the thick mist.

See full screen

We headed across the valley on a faint path, then started up the hillside where we though they were. After a while, (we could hear and see nothing), we decided to shout and see if they could hear us. An echoing shout came back… to one side…. so we traversed that way. We knew from the radio that they were still descending, and so we periodically shouted until it sounded like they were directly above us, and then headed straight up the hill.

For comparison: 'good' misty visibility in daylight!
For comparison: ‘good’ misty visibility in daylight!

This was probably the most difficult point. In daylight you can look 10-30m away and choose the easiest possible route up a scrambly hillside. In thick mist, with head torches bouncing back off it, you’re stuck with what you can see – and so the scramble went through bits of streams, through boulder fields, up scree-ish slopes. It was unpleasant and with every step I was making a conscious thought – can we reverse this in these conditions?

Eventually, we got the bottom of some wet slabs, and very sensibly, the lads reeled me in and suggested it’d be unwise to go further. If we turned off our head torches, we found we could occasionally see sweeps of a powerful torch, high, high above us.

We setup watch flashing headtorches up in that direction – we could see their lights directly yet – just the light of their torches occasionally as it swept above a rocky outcrop.

We radioed through to our base (who’d setup a listening post) with our position from the GPS, explained we thought they were several hundred metres above us, and that we had limited audio and visual contact. If they did call Mountain Rescue at this point, at least Mountain Rescue would know exactly where to go.

And we waited – the guys made tea, we watched their headlights slowly bob into view, and counted them off one by one. Communication between our team was really important – we’d put on all our layers, and drunk the now tepid tea we’d made for the others, and tried various ways of staying warm (including dancing).

Finally, we got a call from the group above us letting us know they thought this was their last abseil (we’d heard those words before) but we strained our eyes up and tried to imagine figures attached to the bobbing lights through the dark mist.

Eventually (around 11pm), one by one, they made it down the abseil to the bottom of the wet slabs where we were. The guys had made some more tea and so (expecting them to be frozen), we pushed the tea into their hands, and questioned them about warmth. They gratefully accepted the tea, but apart from being varying degrees of exhausted, none of them were showing any signs of hypothermia.. Certainly they appeared warmer than we were!

We radioed through to base that they were safe, but at this point our radios were running out of battery, and so whilst the most important basic information got through, our longer plans for our return did not.

We didn’t know what was below us on the slope, we only knew the route we’d come up was safe, so rather than taking a GPS bearing for the path, we were forced to micronavigate back along our GPS trail from the route up. If you want an idea of something that isn’t fun, micronavigating down scree-ish/bouldery/steep scrambles, with 30 metre legs between where you are and when you have to stop to configure your next GPS waypoint (take a bearing).

Being up there without a GPS would have been terrifying – it was definitely the conditions when you could quite easily almost walk off the edge of a cliff without seeing.

Eventually, we made it back onto the path – and just a 40 minute walk to the hut… arriving back at 12:40ish or something. We’d been able to radio through some ETA’s to the hut once we were on the path, and like super-legends, they had amazing hot food ready for the tired climbers and rescue team when we got back.

All’s well that ends well, and we were all happy with the result – most importantly everyone home safely – but also reducing the risk of a prolonged ordeal for the climbers, a great deal of worry for everyone else in the hut, and, potentially, a spurious call to MRT.

What the climbing guidebook said...
What the climbing guidebook said…

If it were to happen again (and to be clear, I don’t want to have to navigate in those poor visibility conditions again), I think I could have communicated better with the hut team (they weren’t aware that hypothermia had been fully ruled out).

The climbers maintained that they weren’t actually in trouble, just the descent took much longer than they anticipated – even given they started 5 hours before nightfall, and estimated they abseiled ~10 pitches on their 60m rope. Possibly they went off route, or possibly they were closer to the top than they thought when they turned back – we’ll never know for sure.

What I do know, is that calm and professionalism of everyone involved – including the bravery and teamwork of the two guys (whom I had only known for a few weeks!) – and the patience and responsiveness of the hut team, contributed massively to making sure everyone got home happily.

Several days later, I decided to see if the main Cuillin ridge from Sgurr Banachdaich to Sgurr a Mhadaidh was possible in the weather conditions. This is a Grade 3 scramble – and is one of the trickiest and most committing parts of the ridge.

I set off with a less experienced group of 4 (including me), via Coire Eich, to the Sgurr Banachdaich summit. This is supposed to be the easiest Munro ascent in the Cuillins, and I can well believe it – it’s largely a slog up scree. In our case, in thick mist above ~400m.

Looking down Core Eich with the best visibility of the week!
Looking down Core Eich with the best visibility of the week!

With the OpenStreetMap maps I had loaded on my GPS, we found the winding paths through the scree and got to the summit without incident.

So we decided to give the ridge a go – and here the OSM coverage ends – the ridge is just too narrow, too rocky, to even attempt to mark a “path”. In addition, simply routefinding through scrambly bits of boulderfields becomes a challenge – given the thick mist.

At one point, we had to skirt below an icy old snow field on top of a scree slope, but above a steep misty gully. For every step between the boulder stepping stones on the scree, we sent small rockfalls into the vertical gully below. After passing that somewhat terrifying section (clearly Grade 3), we made it to Belach Thormaid.

From here, we tried to find a route to Sgurr Thormaid. I can read now, that I made an error and followed a ‘false path’ and tried to skirt round down on the left side, rather than somehow going up to the right. Fortunately, we made the wise decision, given the conditions, ability levels and difficulties in route finding, and retraced our steps (not without drama – the rockfally bit was twice as bad the second time round) and made it back to Sgurr Banachdaich, and returned back down Coire Eich.

I think (in complex and scary situations) I’d prefer to hike on my own, than with less experienced people whom I’m effectively responsible for making sure are within their ability zone.

Window Buttress and the direction of Belach na Banachdaich with Sgurr Dearg in the mist behind, from Coire Banachdaich
Window Buttress and the direction of Belach na Banachdaich with Sgurr Dearg in the mist behind, from Coire Banachdaich

The Cuillins are mountains with such a complex and unforgiving topography, that to navigate safely, you need to have studied the route incredibly thoroughly. Guidebooks, different flavours of maps, asking people, photos, crag diagrams can all massively help you – but given the distances are so short, yet the mountains so spikey, this is what one needs to do.

Being able to navigate visually only is likely to make things slightly easier – at least you may be able to route find more easily, and there will be fewer opportunities to misnavigate, but these mountains should be given a lot of respect, even in good visibility.

OpenStreetMap definitely meant better navigation abilities and GPS+OSM is a winning combination in mist made my life considerably easier and more enjoyable.

I think I prefer the solitude of solo hiking when that much is at stake, because my own mistakes don’t impact others in the same way, and I had a better understanding of what I’m not capable of.

Eas Mor with Sgurr Dearg and even Window Buttress covered in cloud....
Eas Mor with Sgurr Dearg and even Window Buttress covered in cloud….

It was a jolly fun trip – despite the dramas and relatively little time on the mountain, I had a very relaxed time(!) which was just what I wanted.

It’d be nice to go back in better visibility, and perhaps (with the right people) in full winter conditions with good visibility – I’m sure there would be several fun routes within our reach.

I thinking of maybe going as soon as the midges die off, or perhaps later in the year.

Where will the footprints lead next?
Where will the footprints lead next?
Eas Mor, Glen Brittle

Destination: The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Black Cuillins are probably the longest sustained alpine-style ridge in the UK, found in Skye, Scotland, they’re very spiky and dramatic.

In 2012, in March, our trip to Skye was beautifully sunny and hot. So much so that we went swimming in the rivers and sea.

Last time round, I still thought of myself as very unfit, and inexperienced. I’d only say my confidence has increased since then, but I’ve also demonstrated my fitness to myself and grown my confidence in travelling over exposed ground. Last time, the only Munro I summitted was Sgurr a’Mhadaidh via An Dorus – and I distinctly remember being on the top of this narrow ridge of rock, looking down at everything else. I remember looking around and noticing there was a lot of empty space between us and anything else.

Path to An Dorus - the scree slope
Path to An Dorus – the scree slope

This time, we’re going to stay in Glen Britle for 6 days, and the weather conditions are unlikely to be anything as like last time. MWIS doesn’t cover the Cuillins in a great deal of granularity, but I’m looking and hoping for reports of relatively little wind and precipitation. I’m also looking for a greater than 50-60% chance of cloud free summits – the Cuillins are one of those places where visual navigation is really the only way of doing things safely, and everything else are just aids for if/when you get stuck in cloud and need to return. The local regional medium term weather forcast looks damp, but ok.

SAIS doesn’t have an outpost in Skye either, but the latest Torridonian reports are positive, and the reports for the rest of Scotland also show a low risk. Obviously, conditions change, and we’re probably best placed to observe them. Significant new snow, or significant rises in temperature at altitude, are probably the biggest obvious atmospheric things we can be aware of that could cause problems. When it comes to actual avalanche avoidance, there’s a lot one can do on a snow slope to predict whether an avalanche is likely. From the SAIS observations in Glencoe and Lochbar, I think the conditions are likely to be snowy at altitude – mainly icey wet snow that has refrozen. Somewhat slippy to walk on, but ideal for crampons and not prone to movement.

If only the snow would freeze all the scree slopes solid please, and not exist anywhere else – that’d be lovely. ;)

Obviously all excursions and outings are weather dependent, and I’m travelling very well prepared for the conditions I’m expecting – Scarpa Manta B2s & G2 crampons, Ice Axe, down jacket, are packed.

I’m hoping the weather allows us to get up Sgurr Dearg/In Pin, Sgurr Alisdair, Sgurr Nan Eag, Sgurr a’Mhadaidh, Sgurr Banachdich seems straight forward, but the standard route looks boring, so it might be an option for the first hike.

I think my climbing buddy would like to have a look Am Basteir’s tooth so we’ll take a look at that and maybe Sgurr a’Ghreadaidh too.

I might see (conditions permitting) if I can do a camping excursion from Glen Brittle up to one of the high corries… Probably one of the 3 closest ones. *shrug*

The Black Cuillins of Skye
The Black Cuillins of Skye

The Cuillin range is particularly interesting, as it one of the places in the UK where the 1:25,000 Ordance Survey maps just aren’t adequate. The 1:12500 Harvey’s map enlargements of the ridge, are considerably better, but no use alone. I’ll also be taking the excellent SMC Cuillins guidebook and the Skye Cicerone guide.

I’ll be taking a Garmin GPS with me – not for navigating (we want to be navigating visually), but for returning in poor visibility and avoiding navigation errors. The narrowness of the cuillins, and the slightly magnetic Gabbro they’re made of, means that compass bearing can’t ever be fully trusted, and so the GPS will give a lot of confidence.

However a GPS device can only tell you where you are in terms of a long/lat reference – if you don’t have a map for it to overlay that position on, then it’s useless.

Thus, over the past few months, I’ve been working to improve the OpenStreetMap coverage of the Cuillins – from the various data sources available – 6 inch maps from the 1800s, Ordanance Survey open data releases, and Bing aerial photography, and thanks to the kindness of some guy in Germany, this data is now available for your Garmin GPS (and is loaded on mine!).

Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain
Scree Slopes of Coire Lagan, below the cliffs of Sgurr Sgumain

Like when I went to Kyrgyzstan, I’ll be taking my Spot satellite pager device and will periodically fire off A-OK’s which will go out via Facebook and twitter. It’s not the same level of remoteness though, and though there will be mobile signal on the top of the mountains, we will also be carrying walkie talkie’s.

Spot will tell you my GPS position at the time I fired off the A-OK and I’ll mark the exciting and tricky bits of scrambles, and summits with custom alerts, saying they’re exciting.

I figure you might like to see where I am, but SPOT uses Google maps which are a bit rubbish in that area, so you’ll have to find a way to use the SPOT co-ordinates with this rendering of OSM: perhaps you can hack the URL?

For next time I go away, I want to use the Spot API (go look – you may be able to hack something? *shrug* that pokes the co-ordinates auto-magically into the umap-osm thing – or at least, provides neat links to show where I am on a better map.

Anyway… Time for me to get packing! I’m excited! I hope to return with stories, and photos! :)

The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background
The bridge in Glen Brittle, with Sgurr Alisdair in the background
Landscape Tiles © Gravitystorm / map data OpenStreetMap

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

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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!


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.

Which is best? My 20 favourite photos of 2013.

Last year, I did a round up of my favourite photos of 2012, this is my roundup of my favourite photos of 2013.

In 2013, I took just over 18,000 photos, with the vast majority (and all of my favourites from this year) being on my Canon 5D mkII, with either a 50mm f1.8 lens or a 24-105mm f4 lens.

Which do you think is best?

A very young programmer, Manchester Raspberry Pi Jam, Feb 2013
A very young programmer, Manchester Raspberry Pi Jam
Looking up Low Pike, Lake District, UK
Looking up Low Pike, Lake District
A sticky ascent up Beinn Eighe, Torridon, Scotland, March 2013
A sticky ascent up Beinn Eighe, Torridon, Scotland
Search & Rescue Helicopter, Stuc a Choire Dhuibh Bhig, Torridon, Scotland
Search & Rescue Helicopter, Stuc a Choire Dhuibh Bhig, Torridon, Scotland
Climbing Beinn Alligin, Torridon, with Loch Maree in the background, Scotland, UK
Climbing Beinn Alligin, Torridon, with Loch Maree in the background, Scotland
Avoiding mud, Buttermere, Lake District
Avoiding mud, Buttermere, Lake District
Scale Force, Buttermere, Lake District
Scale Force, Buttermere, Lake District
Scrambling up Haystacks above Buttermere, Lake District, UK
Scrambling up Haystacks above Buttermere, Lake District
Buttermere, Lake District
Buttermere, Lake District
Aeoniums,  St.. Agnes,  Isles of Scilly, UK
Aeoniums, St.. Agnes, Isles of Scilly
Troytown Beach, St.. Agnes,  Isles of Scilly, UK
Troytown Beach, St.. Agnes, Isles of Scilly
Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Mountains by night, Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Mountains by night, Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Camping in Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Camping in Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Unclimbed mountains by night, Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Unclimbed mountains by night, Jiptik Valley, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan
Shepherds tend to their flock, Near Karavshin, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan, October 2013
Shepherds tend to their flock, Near Karavshin, Batken Province, Kyrgyzstan,
A Seal, San Francisco, USA
A Seal, San Francisco, USA
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco at Dusk, November 2013
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco at Dusk
Zhelyo grapples with a tough hold, Manchester Climbing Centre, Manchester, UK
Zhelyo grapples with a tough hold, Manchester Climbing Centre
A misty boxing day walk, Winchester, UK
A misty boxing day walk, Winchester

Moaning, Brits and the Weather: How does it all fit together?

Every July or August, whenever there’s a moment of cloud or rain, all around the country, conversations like this will spark between complete strangers:

- “Not much of a summer this year is it?”

– “Oh, it’s just going from spring straight to autumn this year”

I mean, it’s almost like people are reaffirming their Britishness – because without moaning about the weather, they’d instantly be deported.

The strange thing is, Britain has different weather every year. We have a coastal, temperate climate, influenced by the gulf stream, that means we have relatively mild summers and relatively mild winters. This is not a new thing.

As much as the population likes to believe that the British Isles were formerly located in the Mediterranean, and then forced into the Atlantic because we couldn’t stand the smell of the cheese from France when a Northerly wind blew, this is not the case. For thousands of years, our islands have sat in more or less the same place, with more or less the same weather.

But the British don’t just get their knickers in the twist in the summer – that’d be far too seasonal – weather-related-moaning is a year-round-sport, coverage of which appears to keep half the BBC in a job, as demonstrated by this search. Come winter, working out the most dramatic ways to announce the impending doom, brought by the annual 2cm of snow, is a challenge that every rolling news channel must spend months preparing for.

However, variability of British weather is of no surprise to anyone who has lived here – it rains, it snows, it’s sunny – all in an afternoon. The Independant even momentarily stopped its salacious statistics stories long enough to most the most insightful headline: “Predictably unpredictable weather set to continue

Now being British, I wouldn’t actually have a problem with this nationalistic yearlong moanfest, if people didn’t take it to heart, and assume that “winter is winter, summer is summer and neither twain shall meet”.

The thing that the Independent gets right is that you can’t predict the weather – summer may involve snow, it may involve rain, winter may involve sun or snow, or rain – or perhaps all 3 – in the same day.

When I look back at my photos albums from the past year, a very small number involve encounters with rain, so rather than try and fit Britain into a Sahara-shaped hole, or waiting for the one day of the year when the weather forcast prophecies “sun and only sun”, I’d encourage people to opportunistically take advantage of the weather, and see how it goes!

If it’s sunny, in March, in Scotland – don’t whinge later in the year – go swimming! If it rains, in August, put your waterproof jacket on. If it snows in May, get out your gloves and warm coat, and launch a snowball into the face of the next person to complain about it!

There’s an old Scandanavian saying that goes “There’s no bad weather just bad clothing”.

Don’t just take it to heart, live it.

The Isle of Skye, in March 2012 - Hot enough to swim!
The Isle of Skye, in March 2012 - Hot enough to swim!