Mistakes Made and Lessons Learned - A Cautionary Tale

Route: Sgor na h-Ulaidh and Meall Lighiche

Munros: Sgor na h-Ulaidh

Date walked: 22/10/2017

Time taken: 7 hours

Distance: 17.5km

Ascent: 1160m

I had not intended to write a report for this walk but under the circumstances have decided that sharing the mistakes I made may be a lesson for others, as well as for me. There are no pictures for reasons which will become apparent but the message is in the text.

The weekend started so well. I arrived at the Clachaig Inn on Saturday evening with Bear and parked my van in it's usual spot. The Boots Bar was full and eagerly anticipating Lucy and her Rò-hò band. She did not disappoint and soon the pub was rocking and the beer was flowing. As ever Bear and I made new friends as I exchanged stories and Bear was patted and generally spoiled with a plate of sausages all to himself. Even a drunken Liverpudlian dancing down the tables kicking glasses over as he went, didn't dampen the spirits, although the spirits did dampen us! It was at some point during this evening that my first mistake was made. I am not a heavy drinker but by the end of the night I had imbibed far more than I should have done. As a result, when later I was lying in my bed in the car park the van was spinning, my head was throbbing and I spent much of the night requiring regular trips to the loo.

The next I remember it was 10.00am and the rain was hammering down on the roof of the van. I peered out into the gloom and my enthusiasm for my intended walk which was not particularly high anyway, sank even lower. My plan, for no particular reason other than it was still a red flag on my Munro map, had been Beinn Fhionniaidh at the head of Loch Etive. This would entail a drive of half an hour or so. I was undecided as to what to do. I was not convinced that my blood alcohol level had dropped below the legal limit so wasn't prepared to move the van. Should I just have a restful morning or should I venture out? I had packed my rucksack, made my lunch and got my walking kit out the night before, prior to my visit to the pub, so decided to dress for a walk anyway. I wandered up to the reception and met some pals from the night before. They were heading off into the lost valley. I started to try to formulate a new plan. It was Sunday, so there would be no stalking, although the weather was hardly condusive for stalking anyway. I was in Glencoe, with my walking stuff on, and I shouldn't really be driving. I decided I would regret it if I didn't at least make an effort.

I am not triskaidekaphobic but I did have a nagging reluctance to leaving thirteen Munros remaining unclimbed for longer than necessary. In retrospect, perhaps a touch of triskaidekaphobia should have been a warning.

The weather forecast had promised a slightly less miserable afternoon than morning and the rain did seem to be easing off a little.

I returned to the van and saw that my phone charger lead had been knocked out of the adaptor. Bear had a guilty look on his face and I remembered he had been up in the cab earlier and must have knocked it out. This seemed of only minor importance at the time but turned out to have consequences later on as I only had a partly charged phone. This was probably Bear's only mistake of the day, unless agreeing to come with me could be classed as a mistake, not that he had much option.

I checked the SMC Munros guide and noticed that Sgor na h-Ulaidh (another red flag) was within walking distance from the Clachaig, the starting point only being about a mile down the main road. Another advantage was that the first (and last) part of the walk was on proper road or good track, about three miles in all each way. This is always an advantage when daylight might be an issue. I left a route plan at the pub with a rather optimistic estimated return time of 4.30pm, not really thought through and forgetting the extra mile each way at start and finish.

And so it came to pass that Bear and I set off, at 11.20am, me with a slightly sore head, with the intention of at least making a start and seeing how we got on.

We survived the walk along the edge of the busy A82 and then found the track up to the farmhouse at Gleann-leac-na-muidhe where we took the rather slippery path avoiding the private gardens before rejoining it at the end of the buildings, adding a little extra time to the walk in.

At the end of the track the path continued along the side of the river before turning south. The view of Sgor na h-Ulaidh promised in the guide was not forthcoming due to the low cloud. There was a constant drizzle so I donned waterproofs and continued up the muddy path. The slopes to my left disappeared steeply into the gloom as my path up the valley became more indistinct. I don't know if there is now a path up to the ridge but I never saw one. Instead I headed up the open hillside on wet vegetation. The going was steep but manageable and I had consideration that I would have to use the same way off later in the day. The climb was steady, although a little slower than I had hoped as I had to be careful with my footing as it was slippery underfoot. I set myself time targets of 2.30pm to be at the Top of Stob an Fhuarain and 3.00pm for the Munro itself and vowed to turn back if I didn't hit these. I disappeared into the cloud about a third of the way up finally reaching the ridge about 50 metres to the south of the Top. I popped up to my left to touch the top of the cairn and then returned and took the path along the ridge in the cloud and after a short drop climbed up fairly steeply to the summit itself. It was now just before 3.00pm so I was just before my turn back time.

Due to the thick cloud it was hard to distinguish the highest point so I spent a little time checking and then continued a hundred meters or so further west dropping down until I was happy that there were no further rises so made my way back up to what I was happy was the true top. As a result time was pushing on. I was conscious that I had left a 4.30pm estimated return time at the pub and realised that I was going to be long after that. I didn't have a number for the Clachaig Inn on me so thought it would be a good idea to notify Mountain Rescue that I was fine but they might get a call from the pub of my late return and just to extend my estimated return time. I thought I had the best chance of a signal from the top and might lose this as I dropped into the valley. All this became immaterial however as the lack of full battery charge caught up with me and the phone turned itself off as I tried to make the call. I don't use the phone for navigation, much preferring map and compass (and I do carry an altimeter) but it was my only method of telling the time. This was a mistake and in future I will always carry a watch. It did also mean I didn't have a camera but it was not a photogenic day anyway. I wasn't sure how much time I had wasted hunting for the top and messing with the phone but I knew it was after my return time and I was still right at the top.

I set off back down the steep slope and back to the col between the Munro summit and the Top. As I had hit the ridge a little too far south on the way up I decided to continue passed the top and head back to the valley on what I hoped would be slightly less steep slopes a little further on.

It was at this point that mistakes started to compound and lead to others. I knew I didn't have long until daylight would fade, but should just be OK to get back down to the valley and safety of the path in time.

I was therefore starting to rush a little. My map and compass were in my rucksack and I made the biggest mistake of the day in opting to use my own judgement of the way off to save time and effort in getting them out to check. As I was passing the cairn of Stob an Fhuarain for some reason I stepped up and touched the top of it again. I don't know why, especially as I had touched it on the way up. As a result I must have slightly lost my sense of direction (as well as my common sense) as I then continued a little further before starting to head down. A precipitous rocky gully appeared out of the mist which did surprise me as the map hadn't shown any crags on my upward route. I retraced my route a little and then headed down vegetation and scree covered slopes. I continued down, thinking I was picking up a path but this was probably where the scree had slipped away. I began to get concerned as it was steeper than I had anticipated and as I got lower, instead of steep but steady slopes the terrain became craggy and developing into rocky gullies.

I then finally did the sensible thing, which I should have done before starting my descent. I stopped and took my rucksack off, at least having the sense to tie it to myself as I didn't want it rolling away into the murk below. I got the map and compass out and, as soon as I orientated it I realised the mistake I had made. I was heading off the wrong side of the ridge. Instead of coming off west I was heading east into completely the wrong valley. The map confirmed the crags I was amongst were indeed marked. I didn't know what time it was and how much daylight I had left. I was on the wrong side of the ridge in fairly inhospitable terrain, especially in the wet cloudy conditions I was in.

It was at this point that I seriously contemplated that I might not get off the hill before it was dark and I might have to spend the night out. Whilst this would not have been disastrous it was not my favourite option. I did have a survival blanket, warm dry clothing, and plenty of food and drink but it didn't offer the prospect of a very comfortable night, especially as the thought of sharing my blanket with a cold wet smelly dog (who has a propensity to terrible flatulence) was not particularly appealing. I also had the concern that it might trigger an unnecessary Mountain Rescue call out. I didn't feel I was in particular danger but had no way of informing anyone of my possible intention of staying out and coming off the hill the next morning.

I thought the best thing to do was at least get back onto the ridge so I would be on my planned route, and then try to get as far down into the correct valley before darkness arrived when I would then find somewhere to stop. I apologised to Bear and we headed back up the hill as quickly as we could, pretty much scrambling up on all fours, which was much more natural for Bear than it was for me. When we got back onto the ridge I carefully checked the compass again and this time headed off the correct side of the hill.

I had no idea how long the light would last. It was pretty dismal visibility anyway in the cloud and I anticipated that when dusk came I would probably get about fifteen minutes warning when I should find somewhere to stop,
although finding anywhere flat would not have been easy.

I pressed on down, trying to lose height as quickly, and safely as possible, my knees complaining as I slipped my way down the steep wet grass and rocks continually trying to judge if the light was fading into darkness or staying constant.

When I finally emerged out of the cloud I could at least see my way down to the river which I reached an estimated half an hour or so later. The path was muddy and at times indistinct and I would not have wanted to navigate it in the dark so kept pressing on as the light was now starting to fade quickly.

It was with great relief, and a very boggy final couple of hundred meters, that I reached the gate at the end of the track just as the light gave up the ghost and left me in the dark.

The three mile walk out was carried out by torch light without too much difficulty. I was tempted to take the direct route and miss out the path round the farm, as I was unlikely to have been seen, but chose not to, so this part was a little tricky in the dark but I survived it and reached the ever improving track back to the main road.

On the way out I did try to turn the phone on. It kept flashing on but turning off a few seconds later. By warming it up I managed to keep it on for long enough to get a signal and, after several attempts managed to phone my wife back at home and quickly said "Hi, don't worry I'm fine, can you call the Clachaig and tell them not to call out Mountain Rescue, I'll be back in a bit". I was conscious this might have caused her some concern but the phone had turned itself back off and wouldn't turn on again however much I tried.

After the dubious pleasure of the walk back along the A82, this time in the dark with cars racing passed, I made it back to the pub nearly three hours after my stated return time. I humbly checked in at reception and found out they had not received any message but would not have contacted Mountain Rescue for a while anyway. I spoke with my wife and she told me the only thing she heard from my call was "Hi...." before the line went dead. At least she wasn't worried about why I was considering calling Mountain Rescue.

So, I survived the day. I never felt I was in any imminent danger but I certainly made plenty of mistakes which compounded to give me potential problems.

Mistakes made (probably not a comprehensive list):

Too much to drink the night before and decisions made with a slightly muddled head.

A late start leaving me with not enough daylight as a safety margin.

Leaving an overoptimistic estimated return time on my route plan.

Not having a fully charged phone, or at the very least a method of telling the time.

Not taking a compass bearing before coming off the hill due to it not being in my pocket and not being ars*d to get it out of my rucksack.

Relying on judgement of descent route in very poor visibility.

Being too superstitious of only have 13 Munros left to climb!

Lessons learned:

Don't have too much to drink the night before so you are clear of head the next day

Leave enough time for a safety margin of daylight

Make sure phone is charged and have a standby method of taking the time

Use the b****y map and compass. What is the point of carrying one if you don't look at it?

Things I did right:

I would class myself as reasonably experienced and have done much of my hill walking solo and quite a bit in poor visibility. I used this experience to correct my errors and get myself off the hill.

I can read a map and use a compass (yes, I know you have to look at it for it to be of any use) and I do not rely on GPS, or indeed use it. As soon as I did check the map I worked out where I was.

I was well equipped for bad weather, had a survival blanket, torch, plenty of food and water and could have spent the night in the hills if necessary.

I did realise I was off route and corrected my navigational errors before getting into terrain I could not retreat from.

I had left a route plan before setting off so had things not turned out so well rescue services would have known where I was (and probably think my estimated return time was unlikely to be achieved).

I therefore throw myself at your mercy and expect a ribbing for being stupid or at least a bit daft but by confessing my errors it gives food for thought for others and there was a happy conclusion to the day, and I now have only twelve Munros on my 'to do' list.


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Location: Sheffield/Laide
Activity: Mountain Walker
Pub: Clachaig Inn
Mountain: AMhaighdean
Place: Gruinard Bay

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