Lost in the Mist & Rain

Lost in the Mist & Rain

The walk from Stonethwaite to Grasmere became a battle with the mist and rain
Lost in the Mist & Rain 

Story by Matthew King

I sat on a rock and cried for my mummy. The rain was sheeting down, visibility was zilch and I couldn’t be entirely sure where I was – not that I could have seen through my misted up and droplet-covered glasses anyway.

To be fair though, maybe I wasn’t quite as much in the poo as I was 5 minutes ago, but things were still far from rosy. On the rock, I vowed that my next kit purchase would be a GPS – this was the second successive walk that I’d had conditions like this, and the novelty of being lost was starting to wear off. As was the feeling of being soaked to the skin.

Sensibly, I stayed perched on the rock for a few minutes whilst I recovered some composure. Even in my befuddled and bedraggled state I knew that panic wouldn’t get me anywhere, and I also sensed that this was a decisive moment for my nascent walking career. Images of the day so far flew through my mind as I stared vacantly at a curtain of rain, momentarily unable to move from the security of something solid – seemingly the first solid thing I’d touched for over an hour.

This was supposed to be a relatively straightforward walk from one valley to another on a well-defined route. But the rain had started soon after I staggered under the weight of my stupidly heavy pack from Stonethwaite up to Greenup Gill. The rain wasn’t too bad in itself but got decidedly worse when the cloud base was reached and visibility plummeted. Now water was running down my face, making it difficult to see and the mist was hiding whatever there was left to see anyway. But even this shouldn’t have presented a major problem if I’d simply crossed the depression between Ullscarf and High Raise and headed straight down into the valley the other side.

But no, I had to attempt to summit Ullscarf as I was passing. And here the day started to go wrong, setting off a chain reaction of misery that would last until I collapsed into a bus shelter in Grasmere several hours later.

The path up to Ullscarf such as it was, consisted mainly of teasing glimpses of solid ground with occasional boot prints emerging mysteriously from the sloping bog that is the way up onto the fell. Visibility was so poor that thigh-high rocks assumed the stature of major outcrops due to the foreshortening effect of the mist, making matters worse by luring me into thinking I was close to the summit, and persuading me to push on that little bit further in consequence.
At no stage did my compass leave my rucksack and consequently my route was all over the place. Eventually, with no sign of the summit, sense prevailed and I turned around to attempt to find the way back down to safety. Fortuitously I soon came upon the line of ruined fence posts that is the only real navigational aid on that fellside, and these helped me get back to the col, rather than falling off the side of the mountain.

Now just the theoretically simple matter of dropping down into Far Easedale. Again no apparent path and I ended up heading for the lowest looking point in the east and hoping that this would funnel me into Flour Gill. It did, but now the horror cranked up a notch. As I dropped lower, the rain became harder, my glasses were covered in raindrops and I trod gingerly after the slippery nightmare of two days ago on a similar descent from Dalehead Tarn through the abandoned quarries.

Luckily slipping on wet slate wasn’t the issue today – simply finding and keeping the path was the problem. The gradient flattened out as I approached Brownrigg Moss and nowhere within the limited visibility could I see where it started going down again. All there was in front of me was bog. Even down in Stonethwaite the path had turned into a river after several days of relentless rain, so imagine what it had done to ground that was soft anyway and where the path was not always distinct.

I slipped and slid several times, my stream of curses getting longer and louder each time. And then I was in the midst of the bog with no path and it not being very clear how I got there. I waded around in circles a few times, not helping me get my bearings and then stood still in the swirling ooze to think and to attempt to work things out using my (fortunately) waterproof map. I could vaguely see the line of a beck on the right. It didn’t matter which – it was clearly one of several coming down off Tarn Crag. Keeping the stream, whatever it was, on my right I waded through the bog and 30 seconds later found a suggestion of a path. And moreover, some ground falling away in front of me. The way down.

I staggered onto the path and a short way further on spied a convenient rock. I squelched over to the rock, hugged it for several seconds and then sat on it, while I let it all out.

Of course, I couldn’t stay there forever. It was still tipping down and after a while sat there I was starting to feel a bit cold. And my sodden boots felt like they had half the bog still in them. So I got moving again, but took it slow and steady and focussed totally on each step and a mantra of “one step at a time”.

Three hours after heading down into Flour Gill, I limped into Grasmere and collapsed in the bus shelter until the bus came to whisk me to the safe haven of Ambleside.

So goes the tale of what was probably my worst ever day hillwalking – a day when the weather really had it in for me, and I found myself alarmingly close to my limits. The lessons learned that day, and on the rest of the trip leading up to it, have stayed with me ever since.

On Reflection...

First and foremost, I learned on that trip to get more in touch with my capabilities and thereby avoid getting into “situations” in the first place. For me this means things like being sensible with the load I’m carrying and adapting the walk to reflect it (I’d stupidly assumed that my pace would be similar to on a day walk); how to read the weather forecast so I can judge whether it is likely to be a problem; and measuring my progress on a walk so I know when to call it a day whether it be due to me or approaching sky-borne nastiness.

Secondly, when I plan a walk now I actively consider possible escape routes in case the walk might have to be cut short, and am much more aware of those parts of a route which are likely to have less people on them, and therefore more problematic for me as a solo walker if I were to hurt myself. And that’s important as I know that I’m a clumsy walker.

I did buy a GPS soon after that walk, but it really is no substitute for being able to read a map and use a compass. My compass would have got me out of trouble faster that day, and doesn’t sit in my rucksack any more: now it lives in a shirt pocket, even though I tend to only use it when the visibility is reduced or the terrain is confusing. But I do at least use it. For normal use I find a combination of the map and my altimeter is sufficient to keep me on track, especially in the Lake District where a certain amount of experience and knowledge of the fells has been gained, but I have the backup available if I need it. I might only need the compass for 20 yards to regain an indistinct path or find the right way off a murky summit, but it could save an hour of floundering around in mist. Not bothering to look at a compass once saw me descend into the wrong valley. That doesn’t happen now – if I descend into the wrong valley it’s intentional and because I realise I need to get off the hill fast.

An example of this arose in the last few months. A ferocious wind and poor visibility on High Street made me decide to descend early, and find somewhere to camp for the night in a different valley to where I’d planned. But the difference was marked – I descended confidently and calmly and found a pitch by the tarn, although not a particularly sheltered one with the result that I spent the night with the weather trying its hardest to flatten my tent. That’s something else I’ve learnt – the importance of the right gear for my needs, rather than what’s fashionable or looks good in the shop.

The thing that has had the biggest impact on my safety and confidence in the hills, however, is my sports watch. I always work out my route using digital mapping beforehand so know the distance, amount of ascent and a reasonably good estimate of how long it will take. The watch tracks the distance covered, tells me what height I’m at and how much I’ve climbed or descended. All of this information allows me to keep a constant check on how far still to go, how long it will take etc. Several times, just knowing these things and being able to calculate the rest of the walk has ensured I’ve caught the last bus home, or has enabled me to make a judgement call to cut the walk short. It’s not an expensive watch – it cost £100 from Decathlon – but it’s repaid the cost many times over in the security it’s brought to my walks and the ability to make sound judgements on the hoof.

And judgement is really at the root of all of the lessons I’ve learned on the hill. Judging when to walk and when to have a day in the pub; judging an appropriate distance and terrain for a walk; knowing when to call it a day whilst out on a walk; making good decisions about what to carry; buying the gear I need for how I walk rather than just what everyone else does; and understanding that staying calm and trying to think clearly is the best way to dig yourself out of trouble.

Matthew King (@hillplodder)


A keen hillwalker , backpacker and amateur artist, Matthew climbed his first mountain (Helvellyn) in 1992 and then left the hills alone for another 13 years, while he started a career in finance. By chance a work event saw him back in the hills, he realised what he’d been missing all this time, and he’s not looked back since, finding the hills the ideal place to offset the strains of professional life. Walking mainly in England and Wales, Matthew is nearing completion of the Wainwrights, which he is attempting to do solo and without the use of a car, despite living in the south east of England. Matthew is planning to walk the Cambrian Way in 2013, wild camping the majority of the route, and recording the walk in sketches and watercolour.

Matthew has a blog, at http://hillplodder.wordpress.com