Lost on the Cruachan horseshoe

Most of the Munros I have done to date have been blessed with uncommonly decent weather. But as the seasons change so do the hills, and I’m beginning to learn there are different factors that have to be considered.

The weather forecast for the Ben Cruachan was for reduced visibility, rain, with the snow melting over the weekend. 12 degrees translating to 1 degree actual temperature at height.

So, paraphrasing the above: cloudy, with a chance of frozen balls.

It would be the last munro circuit of the year for us, so we were happy to slug it out in poor weather. We packed, or so we thought, for adverse weather.

Most of the kit you buy from outdoors stores say things like “waterproof, windproof, breathable”. They omit the caveat “up till a point”. You have to go to a whole new price bracket for “absolutely will not let in a drop of water, ever”.

Here’s my gear for the day

Bottom half: pants; technical full-length leggings; thigh-length over shorts; sports socks; harris wool hiking socks; Asolo three season all-leather boots; Trespass waterproof trousers (technical-zipped, rubber lined).

Top half: technical vest; my favourite black long-sleeved technical top; Craghoppers double-zipped three-quarter-length waterproof & windproof jacket. Also in pockets were over-sized leather gloves, and a Thinsulate hat.

I packed in my (waterproof) rucksack: Trespass fleece-padded waterproof jacket; spare technical trousers; spare technical top; fleece jumper; spare hat, waterproof Endura gloves; Landranger map of area; print outs of route from Walk Highlands; compass; whistle; Iphone; 3 litres liquids; two meals-worth of food; plus emergency rations (jelly babies). I also packed micro-spikes in-case of icy rocks.

The trip

Visibility poor!

We set out at 9.25am yesterday morning. At 6.40pm, every single item listed above would be completely waterlogged. The weather found every weakness in our gear, and in our mountain skills.

With visibility was 50-75 metres at all times, gaining Ben Cruachan was an effort. The exposed boulders were  slippery, and the grassy sections put me on my arse time after time. That’s when your trousers ride up and catch at the edge of your boots & 10 minutes later you feel a trickle of water running down the inside of your socks. Nice!

After gaining the summit, I changed my wet leather gloves for dry, added my second jacket to my many layers, and got some tea and sandwiches inside me.

Negotiating the slabs was impossible – the wind would have chased us off. The bypass route was equally sickening. A slip here had the potential to release you to a leg-breaking tumble. Better that than the slabs though!

The ascent to Stob Diamh was a case of ‘head down arse up’. By this time the wind had real power over us, and we didn’t stop at the cairn. With only 2 or 3 hours of daylight left to complete the circuit, we agreed to pick up the pace in our jelly legs, and marched ahead.

This was our big mistake. And it could have seen us caught overnight on an exposed ridge, hoping that my wife had called Oban Mountain Rescue. We didn’t take a compass reading!!!

At 3pm we assumed instead that the path in front of the cairn was the right one. For 40 minutes it would take us unknowingly to Bein a’chochuil, and almost to the point of exhaustion.

Here’s where we went wrong (in yellow).

Our unplanned diversion shown in yellow

As the great hulk of an unexpected mountain came into view, I realised we had fucked up.

The map gave me two possible options for what this hill could be, but I didn’t know which one. With no visible landmarks to triangulate, I tried try the GPS. Nothing. And no phone signal!

It was now 3.40pm and we were lost. I switched off my phone at 28% battery life. It would start to get dark at 6pm. Had I packed my torch? Shit, I fucking hope so.

Our best chance was to pick our way back to the summit of Stob Diamh and use the compass to get us down. We ran-walked-ran the ascent, stopping only to catch breath. We regained Stob Diamh in 20 lung-busting minutes.

I checked my watch. 4pm. Just two hours max of daylight. This was now a race, and the weather was getting worse.

It was compass, compass, compass all the way. Crossing the river was tough. In spate it had no easy crossing point. It was fast and strong and threatened to take us by the knees.

At 5.30 we found the relief of a dirt track, and then, only the final worry of traversing the steep boggy descent through the trees. By the time we hit the main road it was 6.30pm. We had been very, very lucky.

We had made only one navigational mistake & we had discovered it early enough to correct it. We had the stamina to walk almost non-stop for 9 hours against the elements. We were fit enough to be able to ‘double-time’ our pace by jogging, when required. And we were lucky enough that in the many slips and falls we had sustained no lasting damage. Well, bruised pride is easily nursed!

If we had realised our navigational error a little later on, chances are I wouldn’t be writing this from the comfort of this warm kitchen.

Ten alterations I’ll be making before next year’s set of hills…

  • 1. Acquire kit that is truly impervious to water.
  • 2. Buy an inner dry bag for my rucksack.
  • 3. Ask Santa for a decent GPS device.
  • 4. It’s all in the details. ALWAYS take an OS Explorer map. NEVER EVER rely on a Landranger map!
  • 5. Go on a navigation course.
  • 6. Pass navigation course.
  • 7. Work out my average hiking pace.
  • 8. Add extra journey time in case of losing way.
  • 9. Allow extra journey time for bad weather.
  • 10. Don’t panic.

About RennyRambles

Running, rambling, cycling, swimming and scrambling to my heart's content. Happiest on a trail, with some jelly babies in my pocket.
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