A Day When it All Went Wrong

February, well over twenty five years ago; I found myself the reluctant organiser of a walking party at one of their annual meets.

I was standing in for my father so these people were, at best, acquaintances and many of them were bordering on being total strangers. They were a mixed group ranging from fit young mountaineers through to venerable fell walkers who were nearing the end of their fell walking days.

The usual plan was to have two routes to suit the weather and the fitness of the walkers. My proposed “A” route was Sca Fell Pike from the Wasdale car park and my “B” route was the Corridor Route through to Sty Head and back down the valley.

First mistake; I’d walked the Corridor Route in beautiful conditions and treated my memory of the walk as my reconnoitre. But on this particular day we were dealing with full on winter conditions and I totally underestimated how serious an undertaking the so called “B” route was going to be. Poor route planning on my part then.

When we arrived at the car park the weather was foul with heavy rain being blown by a strong wind and my instinct was telling me to call the whole thing off. Had I been with my usual walking mates it would have been a no-brainer, go straight to the Wasdale Head and sit by the fire!

But this being a group of relative strangers who’d travelled a long way to get there I felt guilty in calling it off at the last minute. Corridor Route it was. Second mistake; I should have had the courage to say that it was too risky and to save it for another day without feeling any shame.

Off we set, and quickly the group got really strung out along Lingmell Gill with the rear guy being a few hundred yards back. While we waited for him he fed a message up the line that he wasn’t going to attempt the walk but would “stroll on a bit further and then go back to his car”. Third mistake; We shouldn’t have left this guy alone in such bad weather, we should have buddied up.

Upwards and onwards, with a sinking feeling in my heart that the start of the Corridor Route was much higher in altitude than I remembered. If I’d chosen to look at the map and understand what it was telling me then I would known better. By the time that we got to the top of Piers Gill we were in a howling blizzard. The way forward was blocked by compacted snow and only a few of us had crampons and ice axes.

Enough! This was getting too dangerous so we decided to have lunch and then to make our retreat. So there we sat in low spirits eating our butties.

The first sign of trouble was a cup from a thermos that went whistling past me and then disappeared into the mouth of Piers Gill. This was followed swiftly by one of our party and we watched in horror as he slid uncontrollably towards Piers Gill and his potential demise. He was stopped abruptly by hitting a rock with a thump and we heard a heart wrenching scream of agony.

For a sickening few minutes we were confronted by an unconscious person in a howling blizzard without any basic first aid knowledge and nowhere to shelter.

To our unimaginable relief this guy woke up. The pain of hitting his coccyx on the rock had caused him to pass out and other than a severely bruised bum he was OK to walk. (Well? actually limp).

Back to the cars then, with the sobering knowledge that we’d “dodged a bullet”………but it wasn’t over.

Remember the bloke that was going to walk on for a bit and then turn back?.....he was missing! His car was there but he wasn’t. We had a missing elderly gentleman, it was dark, the weather was horrendous and we had no choice but to dial 999.

I can’t believe that we dodged a bullet for a second time. The police had arrived and the Wasdale Mountain Rescue team were well on their way when the call came in from a farm in Eskdale that he had turned up.

His “stroll” had taken him to Mickledore where he’d got his compass reading 180 degrees out and he’d descended into Eskdale instead of back into Wasdale. Eskdale is a long valley so it was a long time before he could report himself safe.

A roller coaster day of high and desperately low emotions. I can’t say that my mountaineering skills saved the day, we were just lucky, but what did I learn that’s indelibly imprinted on my mind?

  1. There’s no shame in going for a coffee and saving a walk for a better and safer day. And, to have the courage to say so.
  2. Check the weather forecast. (Had I known that the weather was going to deteriorate then that would have given me all the moral support that I needed to say “this isn’t on”).
  3. Plan your route with planned escape routes and understand what your map is telling you.
  4. Carry a first aid kit at all times and know some basic first aid skills.
  5. Carry a group shelter at all times.
  6. Always buddy up in bad weather and never leave a friend or a stranger, no matter how slow, alone.