And today’s blog is brought to you by the letters ow, ow, ow and the concept of hubris.
The plan for Sunday was to meet up with Delightful Kay, Big Facilitator John and Enchanting Linda at Kay’s house for a roll and sausage. Any amateur taxonomists out there should note that a roll and sausage is different from a sausage roll. Friendships have been lost through failures of distinction like this. Kay cooked bacon and square sausage (nothing but the finest pigs’ eyelids and anuses bound together with health-giving salt and fat) and we put them in a bread roll. That, my friends, is breakfast à l’Ecosse, and flipping good it is too.
We were preparing for a leisurely drive out to Loch Affric which we would then walk round in about 4 or 5 hours. Twelve miles in total, and a good first walk of the year. What could possibly go wrong?
And at that point a skilled film editor would cut to the same gang of four pals, but at eight o’clock that evening, ridiculously lost down the wrong end of Glen Affric, squatting in a bone-chillingly cold bothy, trying to get a fire going and trying even harder not to think of The Blair Witch Project. There’s an explanation of course, albeit not a particularly good one, and we will get to it later.
The most important point to make is that all of the sensible precautions Mountain Rescue and similar organizations recommend are staggeringly good ones. Take a map. Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. I hadn’t done any of that, and as the extent of our error became apparent in the afternoon and the sun began to set it turned out that nobody else had either.
We aren’t novices though. We were dressed properly and had food and water. We’d seen the bothy as we passed it earlier on in the day and figured we could get back to it and hole up there til morning at which point we could retrace our steps to the car. If we could make it through the night, mostly dependent on whether or not we could get a fire going, then we would be fine.
Splendidly John and Linda both brought fire raising skills to the party. Linda’s approach was exemplary as she sang “Firestarter” by Prodigy during her stint at kindling. Confusingly once the fire was roaring she started singing Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire”, but as I was warming up by then I didn’t feel moved to question this.
Warmth is relative of course, and last night was still the coldest I can ever remember being. John and Linda kept the fire stoked all night and Kay had a vast silver space blanket we could all huddle under sharing bodily warmth like baby dormice (but cuter of course). So it could have been a hell of a lot colder but we still all had spells of uncontrollable shivering and not much sleep during the night.
What really impressed me was how calm my pals seemed to be, at a time when I was starting to feel very scared indeed. There was no sense of impending crisis, just a continuous rational assessment of what we could do next, one step following another.
Once we had settled into the bothy and the fire was going we started to relax a bit, and the good humour I find in so many people came fizzing up out of everyone. We started to construct hypothetical narratives about who would miss us first, and at what time we could expect the helicopter to the point at which any extraneous noise (of which there weren’t too many) could sound like rotor blades. No helicopter came of course, and I’m quite glad now. I’ve never been in a helicopter and I wouldn’t like my first journey in one to be spoilt by a Mountain Rescue person berating me for being such a knob-head as to have got into that predicament.
No sleep, but no despair either, and then at quarter to eight this morning we started the long march back to where we thought the car was. The terrain was recognisable from the day before so there was a palpable sense that each step was taking us nearer home. As any remaining misgivings dissipated I began to enjoy the early morning countryside. The lung-achingly clear air. The black implacable mountains. The massive flat slabs of clear ice deposited on the river banks, shunted effortlessly aside by the irresistible force of the water flow.
At one point we saw three extravagantly antlered stags thunder across the moor, splash recklessly across the river and then turn to watch us as we watched them, only turning and going on their way when we turned and went on our way. I have no words to describe how this made me feel. It was good.
What wasn’t lost on any of us as we tramped home was that whilst we had had an uncomfortable night at worst we were heading home to houses which, likely as not, would still be standing where we left them. This is not the case for an awful lot of people globally who would be quite happy to trade up to a bothy from what they are living in at the moment.
As we got back up to the right end of Glen Affric we bumped into the first people we’d seen for a day and it was a sight which is pretty normal in the Scottish countryside, but in context anywhere else would look like something out of The Yellow Submarine. It was a titchy green eight-wheeled Banana Splits-type buggy with two game-keepers also dressed all in green. I thought they looked quite well-suited to each other and wondered, in my atypical hypoglycaemic state, whether or not I was detecting a sexual frisson between the two of them. The only thing that stopped me from asking if they’d had a civil partnership ceremony was the fact that they were both carrying guns.
As we explained that we’d been out all night they explained gently to us that there had been nothing about us on the radio, and the dismaying realisation settled on us that we hadn’t been missed at all. It’s possible that a few of my Facebook friends tutted at not getting their daily Mafia Wars energy boost from me, but certainly nobody was worried enough to have rung 999 about it. That was quite chastening, and I think our friends can now expect that none of us will leave the house to do our weekly grocery shopping without announcing our intention and the estimated time of our return.
The game-keepers were incredulous that we’d got lost in the first place, but pointed out the turning we should have taken. One of them quite sportingly mentioned that it had been quite misty the previous day and that it would be easy enough to miss. That’s the self-justifying myth I’m clinging to.
Shortly after that we stumbled across a cottage full of St. Andrews students up on a mountaineering weekend. They gave us coffee and tea and made me realise how wide of the mark my assessment of “young people today with their downloads and their hoodies and their txt msgs” really is. Bad sampling I guess. Anyway these guys were a credit to their recombinant DNA.
By the time we got back to the car we had been away for twenty-six hours and had walked twenty-four miles.
I have spent the afternoon shaking uncontrollably, jamming anything that looks edible in the flat down my throat, massaging my cramping legs and sleeping strange deep sleeps with troubling nightmares.
Business as usual tomorrow.