Self-rescue in wild Scotland (or “Crying is not silly”)

I spent last week in Torridon, a wild and remote mountainous area on the west coast of Scotland where high, difficult mountains are separated from one another by lonely, windswept glens. With unusually fair weather for the time of year, everything went well. Long days in the hills passed by with members of the party completing Munros of Slioch, Liathach, and Ben Eighe, as well as a host of lesser peaks. Evenings in the pub, drinking a beer or two together were convivial.

For our last day, I picked Beinn a’Chearcaill, an insignificant summit (a mere 725m) to the north of Beinn Eighe. My Cicerone guidebook describes it as constituting “a high moorland walk offering a dress-circle view of the great Torridonian backsides“. It also says: “An excellent expedition for a fine day … … the terrain is an extensive rough and complicated wilderness“. And so it was. For the first few hours we took a nice walk along a stalker’s path, and then up heathery and rocky slopes; first to the subsidiary summit and then on to the main summit. All the while the views were fantastic, with peaks climbed earlier in the week especially prominent.

Spidean Coire nan Clach on Beinn Eighe
Climbed earlier in the week, Spidean Coire nan Clach on Beinn Eighe

The summit plateau of Beinn a’Chearcaill itself is flat, smooth exposed Torridonian sandstone, strewn with small boulders dropped there at the end of the last ice age, as the overlying glacial ice melted and vanished. Quite spectacular to walk across, towards the summit cairn and providing moments of photo opportunity for everyone in the group.

Flat and smooth summit plateau
Flat and smooth summit plateau of Beinn a’Chearcaill, with Beinn an Eoin in the background

Turning for home after lunch we negotiated a series of more or less horizontal sandstone terraces, boulders, heather, small lochans and remains of snow. Ptarmigan, still in their winter plumage strutted their stuff, taking to the air and flying a few yards to what they considered to be a safe distance from human presence. Wallowing in delight of the landscape and the warm sunny day (albeit with a cool breeze), we stepped around, and over and down, each treading our own path. Some with almost a lifetime of experience of such terrain; others newer to it and more innocent of hidden dangers.

And then it happened. Step down, left leg first, then the right, body twisting to turn left. Woosh! Right heel slides forward. Foot keeps going. Body starts to unbalance. Legs cross. Left knee bends as upper body descends. Balance is lost. Don’t know what happens next but the left foot bends in a direction it’s not meant to go, twists, and CRACK! Roll over, face down – only a few feet forward and down but the damage is done.

Elbow on the mud and moss. Right hip on the mud and moss. The world closes down to pain in the left ankle. Foam sit mats appear and get slipped between body parts and the wet. I sit up slowly. The world is swimming before my eyes. I’m feeling light headed and faintly sick. Later I learn, I turned white as a sheet.

I sit there for several minutes, with friends all around, concerned. They ask “is it broken?” “No idea” I say. “It went crack.” “I heard it” says one. “Can you stand up?” they ask. I try with the aid of two friends to support me. I put weight on the foot. It hurts a lot but I can just about stand up. They give me trekking poles. I limp a step or two. That really hurts but I think I can manage. My friends divide up the contents of my rucksack between them so I don’t have to carry anything. We get going. One step at a time.

Briefly I want to cry. Not because it hurts but because my friends are being so supportive and my body is full of emotion as the adrenaline eases off. At worst I’ve got a fractured ankle and it’s only a couple of miles back to the car. It doesn’t warrant calling out the Mountain Rescue Team. Weather is fine and dry. Not too cold. It’s better and quicker to get going than to sit there for two hours waiting to be rescued. And it’s not life or death.

Slow going over rough terrain
Slow going over rough terrain

That two and a half miles turned out to involve almost 1600 feet of descent. It was rough and slow going. Every step consisted of planting two trekking poles in front of me before moving my good right leg forward and then cautiously lifting, moving and placing the left foot. I had to learn how to place it. Toe first or heel first or together. Inside edge or outside edge. Much more uncomfortable if the foot unexpectedly sank into a bit of boggy ground. More painful if the ground was steeper with bigger steps down. Some friends scouted the way in front to find the easiest route. Others walked just ahead of and around me to guide me towards the easiest bits. One phoned for two bags of frozen peas before the shop shut.

Frozen peas with pink bow to keep them in place
Frozen peas with pink bow to keep them in place

Eventually, with rests and a bit of chocolate I made it back to the stalker’s path and down to the car. It took 2 3/4 hours. Long story short: Was driven back to our log cabin. Took my boots off and put my leg up, ankle packed in frozen peas. Dose of paracetamol. Dinner with beer, wine and a wee dram. Uncomfortable night. On way home via A&E at hospital in Inverness for an X-ray. In and out in an hour! No breaks; just a bad ligament tear and sprain which will heal itself in 4-6 weeks.

What lessons did I learn from this? (there are always lessons to learn):

  1. Always watch where you’re going. There are small dangers of many different kinds in the world, not only in the mountains but everywhere. Most times, when you encounter one (and you always will) it’ll be uneventful. A small slip on wet moss here, or a momentary loss of balance on loose stones there. Occasionally it will be a bit more serious – like this occasion, leading to a minor but not life threatening injury. In 40 years of hill-walking and mountain climbing (ignoring small cuts and grazes) I’ve only hurt myself 2 or 3 times. And that is probably true for most people I know. Just occasionally the outcome can be very much more serious but provided you look where you’re going it’s unlikely.
  2. Have at least one pair of trekking poles in your party. If it hadn’t been for poles, getting off that mountain would have been much harder work and much slower. The support provided by the poles, which I don’t normally use was essential to my progress.
  3. Understand what happens when you injure yourself. Adrenaline kicks in to help your body deal with the immediate injury and pain situation but it has several after-effects that can take you and your companions by surprise if you’re not ready for them. These include: tunnel vision and hearing, which means that you may not register things you see or hear. You most likely will experience shakiness, fainting and/or feeling sick; and emotional release leading to crying. These are all normal. Crying is not silly, even for men! It is a natural response to being out of danger, no longer being frightened and any threat receding.
  4. Final lesson is that nice friends look after you and give you nice things. They carry your heavy rucksack. They give you cups of coffee, squares of precious chocolate and wee drams of whisky in the evening! They enquire after you and show care and affection. They can be relied on.

That last lesson is the best lesson of all.

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