Lessons Learnt – A Night to Forget

Route: The Loch Mullardoch Munros

Munros: Carn nan Gobhar (Loch Mullardoch), Sgurr na Lapaich

Date walked: 04/01/2019

Time taken: 24 hours

Distance: 22km

Ascent: 1494m

Lessons Learnt – A Night to Forget

My “journey”, in writing Walk Reports for each Munro outing has taken vastly more time and commitment than I anticipated back in 2015. I often wonder if setting this as an objective so early on has made doing the Munros in some sense harder. Does taking the easy route make for a less interesting walk report? Hypothetically of course, let’s not get into that debate. In reality for me it is probably more down to my personality in enjoying making it as difficult as safely possibly.

Also, I can’t think of any concrete examples, but I would imagine that there have been occasions where I have written these Walk Reports instead of getting out walking because the weather has been uncertain. Either way I have come to the conclusion that I will continue to have a love / hate relationship with Walk Reports until I reach the “end”, but more often than not I look forward to writing them, sorting out the pictures and messing about for an obscene amount of time with BBCodes from Flickr!

This on the other hand is the only Walk Report I have been dreading. Literally losing sleep over it.

I did consider not writing the report, fuzzing over the details, or making it up completely – as it was a solo outing, who’d ever really know?

Effectively, this is my account of me making 3-4 mistakes in a row which, as I am writing this clearly didn’t lead to a disastrous ending. One thing is for sure, I won’t over dramatize or glamorise – I will stick to the facts, at least as best as I can remember them.

It all started off with a weather forecast rumouring the potential for a Northwest Highland cloud inversion. Jackpot, I thought. I shall head to Loch Mullardoch and hopefully wake up above the clouds.

I am not entirely sure why I picked Loch Mullardoch, maybe because I had already attempted the route but had to bail out early due to injury of my walking partner, so at least I knew where I was going and took away most of the stress of getting there.

My plan was originally to do the 4 on the north side of the Loch and camp on the summit of one of the first two depending on my progress.

It was the 4th of January and I arrived about half an hour later than I planned, mainly because I just couldn’t get out of my bed in Aberdeen. This didn’t seem like a big issue, but it probably was a contributing factor. I set off from the car at 14:00 and made reasonable progress along the windy side of the Loch.

Loch Mullardoch

I was already aware that the trundle up towards Mullach na Moile was a bog-fest and unrelentingly steep, but I hadn’t remembered it being this physically demanding. Possibly the after effects of eating and drinking in excess for the previous two weeks.

The sun was already getting low

Moody, Carn nan Gobhar just in the cloud – taken from Bealach an Tuill Ghaineamhaich

I had reached the summit of Carn nan Gobhar, my first Munro of 2019 by 16:39 – this took more than 4 days longer than 2018!

Obviously by 16:39 it was starting to get dark. The summit of Carn nan Gobhar was perfectly flat and I am sure there would have been many great places to camp but it was only 993m. Sgurr na Lapaich, only a short distance away was 1150m. I somehow managed to convince myself that that 157m difference could be the difference between opening my tent in a cloud to opening my tent above the clouds.

Summit of Carn nan Gobhar

Loch Tuill Bhearnach

Broken camouflage

Now, I honestly can’t remember timings but I do remember making good quick progress up Sgurr na Lapaich but it was getting increasingly dark. As my eyes adapted to the continuously reducing light it almost meant I didn’t notice how dark it had truly become.

On two or three occasions I started to feel a bit uneasy and thought about pitching the tent. There were a few flat(ish) snow patches that would have worked well. I stuck by my original decision that the 157m could make the difference, I should have admitted defeat.

As I reached the summit of Sgurr na Lapaich I was now under headtorch and the wind had picked up massively. I barely touched the summit before retracing my steps by about 20 meters in the hope of pitching my tent.

This is where I started to realise I had made a few bad decisions. The ground was soft(ish) on Carn nan Gobhar, but that 157m had indeed made all the difference, a bad difference!

I knew, but had somehow forgotten, that my tent needed to be well pegged in, it was super lightweight and not remotely freestanding – Terra Nova Laser Photon 1 (belter of a tent (in summer!)). I took my winter gloves off and tried to get the groundsheet pegged in. Unsurprisingly the pegs wouldn’t go in more than 1mm. Duh, the ground is obviously frozen, it was the 4th of January after all. I did try and get a rock to try hammering in the pegs, but again all the rocks were frozen together.

I think this is where I began to lightly panic. From looking at the ground to try and peg the groundsheet to looking up it had turned pitch black, I was in a cloud, it was windy, cold and I knew I would need to get down a good few hundred meters before I could even reconsider pitching my tent.

Annoyed, I rammed my camera and tent back into my bag and decided I would try and descent to Bealach Toll an Lochain rather than retracing my steps any further.

I took a bearing, one I was completely confident would take me safely down and began to follow the, now glowing in the dark compass. My hands were too cold, and I didn’t want to waste any time double checking my bearing on my GPS device of phone, which in any uncertainty I normally would have done.

I’ve always carried a map and compass and I am confident in using them (before the map & compass brigade begin their attack). This was quite possibly the first time I felt my navigation was pressurised. No matter how often I had taken bearings or how many navigational refresher training courses I went on, nothing could replicate this pressure – I’d liken it to taking a penalty in the World Cup vs the training pitch.

Anyway, for some completely unbeknown reason I lost my faith in my own navigational skills. Not entirely sure why because I have 20+ nights alone in the hills and countless hours of night navigation.

I began descending with near zero visibility in the thick cloud following the bearing pretty uneventfully, until the clear and obvious path went in a more westerly direction than I had expected.

My decision was to follow the clear and obvious path as it was always going to lead safely down somewhere, rather than getting the map back out and double checking my bearing.

What a mistake.

A screenshot from OS maps depicting my eventful evening

I went off my green line which was my intended route and ended up on the orange route. Within a minute or less the path required some scrambling, I realised the clear and obvious path may actually have been a frozen stream and I needed to get back onto the more gradual slope.

Instead of taking it slowly I tried to rush, when in hindsight as long as I was moving I was warm and getting down in 30 minutes or 3 hours wouldn’t have made any real difference.

It was insanely icy, and that was when I slipped.

I fell onto my back and slid down on my back for a solid 5-6 seconds. It was steep, so I have no idea how I didn’t end up flipping over or jarring a knee or worse, but those 5-6 seconds felt like ages. It may not sound a long time, but it is amazing how quick your mind travels.

My two thoughts were, my parents are going to be so annoyed if this doesn’t end well and I wish I had bought my girlfriend more flowers instead of complaining that they are a ludicrous waste of money (which maintain that they are) – what a bizarre thought!

I managed to grab hold of a solid rock and stop myself, before taking a seat on a giant sturdy boulder and took my bag off. I wasn’t sore but was massively annoyed with myself, truthfully quite scared and really just wanted to be safe in my tent.

I decided I would tempt fate for some good luck and promised if this all ended well, I would go against my better judgement and get some flowers on the way home.

Raking through my bag I got out the GPS and confirmed I was exactly where I expected I was, which made me even more annoyed that I had doubted my original bearing and realised I had managed to fall an impressive distance and now had a pretty big mission to get back to safety. I did consider if it would be better to spend the night here, but I had no phone signal and I hadn’t taken emergency shelter.

This was another lesson learnt. I always take emergency shelter, you know the £4 bright orange bag, unless I have my tent. My assumption has always been even with broken bones, I could somehow pitch the tent. I think from now on I will just carry the bivvi bag as well as the emergency shelter anytime I am alone.

I made the decision to carry on and took the blue line in the above photo which wasn’t too steep but there were a few very nerve-racking minor slips, my legs were exhausted and jelly-like – I was worried I was actually injured but just unaware because of the adrenaline.

Eventually I reached the bealach and was delighted to find the ground was soft enough to get my tent pitched.

I very slowly pitched the tent and got my mat and sleeping back out. It seemed remarkably peaceful in comparison to the wind at the summit and it was quite a comfortable pitch on the half frozen boggy ground.

As I got into my sleeping bag I was more relieved than I had ever been, until I started to shake. I was warm and my brain was unexpectedly pragmatic in realising I was probably having some form of panic attack, or the adrenaline was beginning to wear off. Either way I also did contemplate it’d be pretty naff to have a heart attack after all of that…

I slept right through until my alarm at 06:00, a quick look out I realised I was underneath the thick clouds – even more annoying!

Still exhausted both mentally and physically I went back to sleep until 09:30. The question of completing the other two Munros were well and truly out of the question, I had already decided before falling asleep I just wanted off the hills and would follow Allt a’ Gharbh-choire back to the Loch side.

The morning after the night before

Allt a’ Gharbh-choire

A well balanced rock

Looking towards An Riabhachan

It didn’t take long to get down to the Loch but my back was beginning to feel ever so slightly uncomfortable and the route along the side of the Loch was awful. It seemed to take forever!

The walk felt like a walk of shame, I was annoyed and disappointed that I had made so many errors, some small, some big, to end up in that situation – I had always been confident it’d never happen to me, I’m sensible. Maybe that is the biggest lesson.

Thankfully Allt Loch a’ Choire Bhig was easily crossed

The walk along the side of the Loch took hours and I can’t remember exactly when I got back to the car, but it was the only car in the car park.

I now still have a number of Mullardoch Munros remaining, so I guess I will end up back in this car park at some point in the future, but hopefully for a more successful and less eventful outing! Maybe I will try a complete Mullardoch round to defeat this.

Driving back was uneventful, and yes, I did stop for flowers and tentatively explained why they had been bought – obviously didn’t want to risk fate for my next outing.

In the weeks after this walk my thoughts are still mainly annoyance at myself. I have lost an astonishing amount of sleep considering I sleep like a log normally pondering “what if”. Thankfully everything worked out okay in the end, I managed another night out in the hills, all my kit survived (phew!), and my girlfriend got some flowers!

I hope that finally getting around to writing this Walk Report will “put it in the past” and I can forget about the event but continue to remember the lessons learnt, which I guess are:
1) Winter doesn’t necessarily mean snow.
2) I need a 1 man freestanding tent… (haha, more kit!)
3) Carry emergency shelter regardless
4) Adjust plans for late starts, especially if on own
5) Be careful chasing the perfect weather / photographic scenario
6) Trust navigational skills!
7) Take time out to gather thoughts instead of rushing

One decision I made that wasn’t a mistake was going alone. My outings have ranged from being with a variety of others to walking alone, and I have realised the importance to every so often get out alone. With, or without others have a unique set of pros and cons but walking and spending nights out on the hills alone is, and will always be one of my favourite type of outings.

As a bit of spoiler thankfully my next Walk Report will be from a successful high winter sunrise camp from Beinn Dubhchraig near Ben Lui! :D

Until then!

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