Wet, Cold, Lost & Rescued


Wet, Cold, Lost & Rescued


Walkers running short of daylight on Skye take the shortcut over the mountain ridge, but then get lost...

Wet, Cold, Lost & Rescued 

Skye Cuillin - August 25th 2000

Story by Paul Hooper


I had been hill walking for about 10 years mainly in Snowdonia and a little in the lakes, almost all of which was done in good weather. I had a basic map reading skills, had just completed my first mountain marathon and felt a trip to Skye was overdue. I immersed myself in books and maps and magazine articles, and decided to head for Skye for the August bank holiday 2000.

On our arrival in Sligachan campsite on 25th August we pitched up and the scenery was incredible, if a little foreboding.

Day 1, 26th August 2000 Bruach na Frithe

This was my introduction to the Cuillin and proved to be wonderful great day in great weather with amazing views to the Western Isles, with tomorrow being our "big day", and we enthused about it over a pint of Black Cuiliin ...or two.

Day 2, 27th August 2000

Today's route was a little more ambitious, we were to walk 9 miles down Glen Sligachan, rise over Druim Hain, and drop down to Loch Coruisk. Easy, then we would push up over the main Cuillin Ridge at the Bealach Na Glaic Moire, which was was considered easy in one of my books. It lies at close to the 2,500 ft contour.

It was later than I wanted when we eventually set off to walk down the glen, but was pleasant enough with a stiff breeze and a dull low cloud. It was mild and dry and spirits were high. We carried with us only small bum bags with a days provision of a few fun size chocolate bars a small drink, map, compass, and one of those stupid orange plastic emergency bags that no one ever uses.

At about the 7 mile mark we rise up Druim Hain, about 1000 feet, it was a steady plod and at the top of the pass the view to loch Coruisk was amazing, the time was almost 14.30 pm. We hurtled down the heather slopes, a 1,000 descent foot in minutes, like extras from braveheart. At the loch side I was surprised to see, or not to see actually our route for later in the day. We then realized that we'd descended to the wrong Loch, as this was loch Na Creitheach. A schoolboy navigational error. In fact this was reacting to a mental image as there was no navigation involved, just an assumption that this was Coruisk Damn. This mistake was going to make it a long day.

Unlike some of the Tarns in the lakes and Llyns in North Wales, almost all the lochs in the Cuillin are at sea level so it was almost 2 hours until we extracted ourselves from our navigational error and stood on the bonnie banks of Coruisk.  It was now 16:20hrs and a decision had to be made about the route back to the tent. Should we hoof it out back down glen Sligachan, almost 9 miles of rugged, ankle twisting path, or just take those 3 miles over the ridge as planned. The other problem was that it had become quite dark even though it was an August afternoon. The huge bowl that was Coruisk looked scary, it looked as though someone had put a dustbin lid on it.

The cloud base was about 1,500 feet and the top of the peaks were shrouded in mist. We were tired and the prospect of another 9 miles down the glen with the deteriorating weather was not what we wanted, so a decision was made to push over the ridge as we still had time on our side we would probably be in Glen Brittle in a couple of hours.

As we walked along the edge of loch Coruisk there were a few rain drops in the air and the wind was picking up, it was chilly and I put on my paclite which helped keep the wind off. The lower part of the rise to the ridge was a scree slope with shattered boulders as big as footballs, which made progress slow. As we climbed higher, the rain was becoming more sustained and the wind was picking up. It was cold. We started up the higher, smaller scree at about 18.45 to 19.00 and it was close to being totally dark, but I felt happier in myself that we must be nearing the pass. It was raining so hard at this point that progress was very slow, in fact the scree had become mobile with the amount of water flowing beneath. One step forward, two steps back. We were exhausted and the weather continued to deteriorate. Many of the tiny streams that seemed like ribbons of silver from the valley floor had become raging torrents moving larger rocks and stones.

At approx 19.30 we arrived at the pass.  It was dark, cold, raining very hard, but I felt safe. We stood on a flat plateau, visibility was almost zero and I was keen to get off this place as soon as possible as it felt dangerous, looked dangerous, and to be honest a bit of me was frightened. We had one small Petzl head torch between us.

The map had become an illegible pulp of paper and although I knew exactly where I was, the route off was not so obvious, so instinct told me to ease myself down the craggy head wall. I climbed over chock stones in gullies and lower myself on to a small ledge , I felt the path would open up to me , but I had stood on a ledge about the size of a patio slab covered in pea gravel and looked into a misty chasm. Very scary, so I pulled myself back up and realised that it must be the next gully. My hands were bleeding and my over trousers were ripped thanks to the sharp Gabbro rock of this area, but it does give good grip thank god.

Another gully, another ledge and the same answer. I was totally exhausted, spent, and now worried. I was shivering uncontrollably, as was my mate, so we decide to open the big plastic orange bag that no one ever uses, and get out of the wind. I knew enough about hypothermia from my first aid course to be aware that shivering is ok, it's when that stops you have to worry. What was concerning my friend though was my inability to admit that this situation was spiralling out of control and I insisted on another look down the crag to try and get off. It took me another 40 minutes until I realised that this situation was futile, we were both cold beyond anything I had ever experienced, and both bloody scared.

Realisation

It was at this point we admitted to ourselves that we were in serious trouble.The weather had continued to deteriorate and we were now in the teeth of a storm, so we made the decision to use our mobile phone to call the police. I dialled 999 and was amazed to get an answer. Our predicament was explained to the police and immediately we were assured us that help would be forthcoming. He took my grid reference and told us not to move. The spiral of doom was stopping, and I felt as though we might make it. The time was 21.30. We had been on the ridge trying to find a way off for over 2 hours!

About 23:00 hrs we became aware of torches below and at 23:45 hrs I became an acquaintance of the Skye Mountain Rescue Team, and boy was I glad to see them. We were given a hot drink and some toffee, and after a brief check to see if we were fit to walk, we were taken off the ridge.

Reflection

I have since found that I was attempting to down climb Tuppeny Buttress, which is a very serious scramble even in fine weather.

The difficulty in route finding was amplified by fatigue, poor weather, inexperience, and a bullish nature. However, in some respects the experience has served to enhance my mountain walking, and have since completed my summer Mountain Leader qualification, attended countless navigation courses, and gained the confidence to turn back if conditions dictate. I've have also climbed in the Dolomites and have a healthy number of Munros under my belt.

I returned to Skye in 2005 and laid a ghost to rest. I did the route in reverse and made it a 2 day event with a wild camp, and am planning to go to Skye again this summer and despite my experience with the Cuillin, I cannot wait. I have more respect than ever for "our" hills and I shall always turn back if the weather closes in.

In summary, the 9 mile stroll back down Glen Sligachan would have been a much better choice, and on that occasion we were lucky to make it. We are also lucky to have teams of men and women willing to come out to help people like me, who get caught out by the mountains. 

I am now a regular financial contributor to a number of mountain rescue teams.


Comment 

Paul and his friend were lucky indeed, and this is a classic story that forms almost a perfect storm of things going wrong, which collectively meant that they had to be rescued. There are a number of things from which we can all learn from this story.


Good Points

  • Carried waterproofs, survival bag and a mobile phone
  • Knowing when to get into the survival bag and out of the rain
  • Recognition of hypothermia and symptoms
  • Made valiant efforts to be self sufficient


Learning Points

  • Late setting off. Maybe the route should have been changed at that point, although the weather was said to be good
  • Descended into the wrong valley due to lack of navigation. Always keep a check on your location and check navigation decisions before you make them, especially if the route is to be expensive in terms of energy if you get it wrong. A simple map to land bearing would have prevented the error, although the Cullin is notorious for magnetic anomalies, causing compasses to point elsewhere than north
  • Cloud was at 1,500ft so navigation was likely to be a challenge given that the route included part of the UK's most difficult-to-navigate ridges. Make decisions on route based on actual ability. Paul and friend had only basic navigational skills. The more appropriate route back is already acknowledged to have been the 9 miles return trip down the valley, which would have been a good escape route
  • Map turned to pulp. Always use a waterproof map case, even if you have a 'active' or laminated map to prevent it blowing away
  • Could have done with an additional mid layer of clothing, and/or an emergency jacket. Stopping muscle use means that the body generates less heat, thus getting cold when you stop
  • Small quantity of food taken meant that once depleted, energy levels could not rise, and food enables your body to generates heat. Always carry some emergency food, and consider taking high energy drink sachets, which are lightweight but packed with energy and ideal for situations such as this
  • Only one small torch between two. Always have a torch each to avoid stumbles when walking, and at least one person in the group should have a torch with sufficient strength beam to be able to route find in the dark.
  • Possibly raised the alarm earlier. A difficult one to gauge, as most of us strive to prevent being rescued


Comment from Paul

"...all the comments are relevant and to be honest I shall be very happy if just one person reads this and thinks about route choice."


Links



Picture above is of Paul's return to the area, and sight of Tuppeny Buttress, that he'd mistakenly tried to descend in the dark.