I was definitely lost. Pitch dark, low cloud, didn’t even know what hill I was on – just that it was full of peat hags and wasn’t too dry in the spaces in between, either.
And the only thing keeping me going was the 10kg bag of coal tied to the top of my already overloaded rucksack.
Because it was Hogmanay, and somewhere, somewhere near here, was a bothy full of friends and drink, and a fire to burn all that coal on, and I was damned if I was spending New Year camped on a boggy hillside, on my tod, with 10k of useless coal lying beside me.
So. When the going gets tough … It’s time to stop fannying about and get serious about the navigation.
Have you ever stood on the hills on the north side of Glen Clova and looked northwards? Or looked south-east from Lochnagar? Seen anything to tempt you?
Thought not. Not unless you like a rolling plateau of peag hag and boggy burns with the odd lump or two masquerading as hills. It all looks the same – and it still looks the same when you’re in the middle of it, regardless of which direction you look in.
Even in a cloudless sky in daylight I’ve swithered about navigation in these hills – and a well-experienced friend with a full tick-sheet of Munros behind him swithered with me.
But in the dark?
The plan was for a few of us to meet upto see in the New Year at Sheilin’ o’ Mark, a bothy nestled into the hills the other side of Glen Muick from Lochnagar. While everyone else was heading up in daylight, I couldn’t get away until later. I’d never been there before either, but was armed with directions: follow the path up the side glen that left Glen Muick at the visitor centre, then at the end of the path walk about half a mile over a pathless hill on a bearing I’d committed to memory and had preset on my compass.
I’m dreadfully lazy about getting map and compass out, but in the pitch darkness of an overcast December night, at the end of the path I got the compass out, checked the bearing, and set off. I could see the vague sillhouette of the hill in front and it matched what I reckoned I should see, so I trudged on, slightly uphill, dodging peat hags and tangling with knee-deep heather.
Of course there’s no depth perception at night, and by the time I decided I should have reached the brow of the hill by now, and it seeming still just as far away, I was beginning to wonder. But then it’s hard to judge how far you’ve travelled at night as well, especially when you haven’t been counting paces or timing yourself or any of those clever things that real navigators do.
In short, by the time I finally gave in and accepted that I wasn’t on the hill I thought I was on, I had made so many changes of direction, and had so few visual clues in the darkness, that I had no idea what hill I mght be on.
With full benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I later realised that, in the dark, I’d thought the path was ended when in actual fact it had just jinked a bit to the left to avoid a boggy patch. I’d compounded that by reckoning that paths usually go on a wee bit further than marked on the OS map and adding a wee bit of south to the bearing I’d previously fixed, which meant that I was well south of the bothy and heading further away with every step.
But hindsight only works in – well – hindsight, and in the middle of an overcast, drizzly night on a sucking bog all I knew was that I was lost – and to make matters worse, one of my more favoured scenarios was that I’d actually walked too far before turning off the path.
Time to get serious though. I had a signal for my mobile, so texted one of my friends asking him to go up the hall at the back of the bothy and shine a torch around. That was a forlorn hope – I couldn’t get through by voice – but worth a try.
Then, keeping an eye out to all quarters for a light as I did so, I aimed for the most prominent-looking hill in front of me. Once I was almost at the top (and enjoying the marginally dryer ground) I started traversing round it to get the shape, and found a steep slope dropping down to the east. That was the steepest slope the hill had, so I went to the top, sat down at the wee cairn and studied the map. Eventually, given that it sounded like there might be a substantial stream down at the foot of the steep slope, I narrowed it down to one of three hills as my most likely location: it could be the ‘right’ hill, it could be one further south, or it could be one further north. If it was the right one I should see the bothy as I descended. If it wasn’t, then I should follow the stream either north or south – no clues yet which dircetion was right.
So down I went and found the stream, which was flowing in the right direction to be the Mark. No bothy in sight, so it probably wasn’t the ‘right’ hill I’d been on, so I considered the size of the stream: not too big at all, and if I was downstream from the bothy it would have had a good mile’s worth of tributary streams joining it and would most likely be wider. I opted, rightly, to follow the burn downstream, encouraged as features around, within torch-range, at least, started to match with the map, and eventually found the bothy, complete with a string of battery-powered fairy lights strung along the outside of the gable wall as a final aid to navigation. A good hour to go before the bells too.
Postscript: Remember the coal? Turned out everybody had decided to be on the safe side there. That night we had 60kg of coal and 20kg of logs – and one hell of a blaze.