Friday 18 December 2020

Dealing with the weather on a testing short trip


Sometimes stormy weather gives a salutary lesson, a reminder that life in the wilds, especially when camping, is not always easy and that it’s useful to have to put hard earned skills into practice now and again.

With no long walks this year I haven’t had to deal with bad weather when camping as I’ve only gone out overnight when the forecast has been good. Being self-employed and able to work whenever I like (as long  as deadlines are met) I can usually head out of the door quickly when the weather is fine. My last trip was not like that though. The forecast was for a sunny afternoon and evening but also strong winds overnight and rain the next day so I’d planned accordingly  - head up high, descend to a low camp, then walk out along the glen in the morning. 

At the car park the wind was already quite gusty and the tops were in thick cloud, not clear as forecast. I adjusted my plans. An out and back low level route now sounded attractive. The wind was chilly and I set off in a light insulated jacket and a lined windproof cap plus dark glasses as every so often the low sun broke through the clouds and I was walking directly into it.

The previous few days had seen a thaw of snow below the summits and heavy rain. The main river was in spate and the side streams were full and roaring. The first one I crossed on big stones just below the surface, getting the outside of my boots wet but keeping my feet dry. The next stream was much bigger and looked more challenging. Fording it would not be dangerous but my boots and feet would be soaked even if I put gaiters on. On a day walk with dry shoes and socks back in the car I’d have waded across without a thought. I did have dry socks to wear in the tent but my boots would be sodden the next morning. As I wasn’t going anywhere in particular there was no need for that. Changing plans again I decided to head up beside the stream rather than cross.

An old narrow, overgrown path led through the heather. The going was rough. Bursts of sunshine lit patches of woodland and hillside but never lasted long. In the mouth of the steep-sided, twisting corrie down which the stream poured I pitched my tent on some bumpy, grassy ground. Just a touch higher than the surrounding damp area it was well-drained. The wind sweeping down the corrie was gusty but not strong enough to do more than gently shake my tent. 

I filled my water bottles from the stream then settled in for the long hours of darkness – nearly seventeen of them at this time of year. If the skies cleared I would go out and look at the stars. Otherwise I’d stay inside. I’d brought a fairly large tent so I’d have room to stretch out and sit up, without pushing against the walks or feeling constricted. There was room for all my gear too and the porch was big enough for safe cooking even with the walls moving in and out in the wind. I had a library on my e-reader and my journal to write so the time would pass quickly enough.

I had just settled into what I hoped would be a pleasant restful evening when the wind picked up suddenly, turning from a strong breeze into a roaring crashing banshee that screamed down the corrie and smashed into the tent, shaking it violently. With the wind came torrential rain, hammering and rattling on the flysheet. The noise was deafening, drowning out the nearby stream. The time was just six pm. If this kept up I doubted I could sleep. I could be back at the car in a few hours and home before midnight. I was tempted even though the walk out in the dark and the wind and the rain would not be pleasant. I’d give it two hours I decided. After an hour and a half the wind eased and the rain ceased. I would stay. 

I was asleep before ten o’clock. I was awake at midnight as another violent squall hit the tent. Half past one it faded away and I did too. Three o’clock and I was awake again, all too aware it was still five and a half hours before dawn. That squall died away too. Seven o’clock and wind and rain again woke me. This time I would not go back to sleep. The fierce wind was really shaking the tent. By the light of my headlamp I started the stove, glad I had so much porch space as the walls were really billowing in and out now, and made a mug of coffee. I was not cold, I’d brought a winter sleeping bag and the temperature had only fallen to 2.5°C overnight. Now it was 4°. The hot coffee was very welcome though. Breakfast was a bowl of muesli. Often in winter I heat this and make porridge but not this morning. It wasn’t cold enough. As I ate I started packing up, glad again that there was room to stand my pack up while I did so. Outside the wind and rain raged on.

All my gear in the pack and wearing waterproof jacket and trousers I finally put my boots on and exited the thrashing nylon. A blast of wind almost knocked me over as I stood up. I lowered the pole that held up the tent, then went round removing the pegs, careful to keep tight hold of the fabric and gather it in bunches, so it didn’t get ripped out of my hands and blown away. Once down I stuffed the sodden tent into a large mesh pocket on the outside of the pack. That way it wouldn’t dampen other gear and could start to drain and dry if the rain stopped. 

After checking for any overlooked items and picking up a tent peg I’d missed I grabbed my trekking poles and set off. The wind was behind me but the walking was still tough. I was almost blown over several times. Many new pools and little streams had formed and I soon had sodden feet. I might as well have forded the stream the day before. The wind and rain kept up all the way back. My camera stayed firmly in its case. I took just one photo with my phone (this is waterproof, my camera isn’t) – a selfie to show how wet it was.

By lunchtime I was in a café warming up, dry shoes and socks on my feet. I’d been out less than twenty-four hours and I’d only walked around twelve kilometres. It had been an intense trip though, a reminder of what the weather can be like. Enjoyable is the wrong word. Worthwhile is a better one.

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