I am lucky to be alive.
It was raining heavily after two fine days on an eight-day backpacking trek in the Highlands of Scotland. 10:30am saw me carefully descending the steeply incised, twisting track down the old drove road in Allt an Tomain Odhair between Glenelg and Kinloch Hourn. At the ford at grid ref NG906105 I was swept violently off my feet by a tributary of the main river.
I had to let go my pack with all my gear and lost everything except what I was wearing. Luckily much of that was my trusty Paramo gear: Cascada trousers, Velez Adventure Light jacket and waterproof storm cap. I firmly believe that this stalwart, effective gear played a big part in my survival on that day.
This is the story of that trip, the risk assessments I made, the decisions I took and the struggles I made to get back to safety.
|The site of the misadventures. Thank you to MemoryMaps|
In May 2020 I was due to take part in the annual crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east coast known as The Great Outdoors Challenge (TGOC20) which would have taken me just short of a fortnight. Because of the Covid-19 (C19) pandemic this had been cancelled. Other than odd day walks, I had not been able to have a ‘proper’ backpack in the hills. Having been stood down by work for 6 months, with no prospect of an end, cabin fever had set in. Come September I decided that when the midge season was over, I would take just over a week to walk the first sections of my TGOC20 route so I upped my training and made preparations for a mid-October trip. With increasing cases of C19 across the country, I knew that I needed to get out into the hills soon if I was going to have the break that I needed so badly before we got locked down again.
Starting from Shiel Bridge I had a glorious first couple of days, walking to the coast at Glenelg, then easterly up Gleann Beag, picking up the south easterly ‘powerline path’ heading towards Kinloch Hourn. This was what I had dreamed about all year. I took photos, dawdled to look at interesting archaeology and fascinating rocks. I listened to the stags roaring and searched the hillsides to find them with my little monocular. I didn’t mind that I had got a bit behind my planned schedule – I had all of next week to catch up. I was where I wanted to be, high in the hills.
On my second night, I had settled into the routine of walking and leave-no-trace wild-camping, so I slept really well, pitched high on the hills not far from a tiny stream. Overnight, while I slept heavily, a storm blew in. On Monday morning I woke (about an hour later than I had planned) to the tumultuous sounds of high winds and heavy rain. Not overly concerned, although disappointed not to have a fine day like the previous two, I breakfasted, struck camp and set off on my way, following the powerline path downhill.
Although the weather had deteriorated considerably, I was wearing my Paramo wet-weather gear, so I wasn’t unduly concerned. It was very wet underfoot, and lots of small streams had become fast flowing torrents. As I looked around, I could see white ribbons of water cascading down the hills around me. I knew I had rivers to cross in the next stretch and began to get apprehensive about the conditions I would meet.
As I dropped down into the glen of the Allt an Tomain Odhair I was more sheltered among the trees. The track, although loose underfoot, was obviously travelled frequently and bore the signs of off-road vehicles. It twisted and dropped savagely into a narrow incision. Hemmed in, I rounded a corner and was met by fast flowing water at a ford. I stopped and took a good look. The track continued quite clearly on the far side. Not good. Crossing water courses is the most dangerous thing we do as hillwalkers. I climbed back up the hill a bit to find a spot where it was flat enough to drop my rucksack and sit on it while I carefully considered all my alternatives.
I could wait for the water level to drop. Could I climb back up the hill to a point where I could find somewhere to pitch my tent for shelter? Undoubtably. I had food for another day. However, as I thought about doing this, I realised it was a non-starter. With foul weather set in, and looking to continue for some time ahead, I could be stuck there for days. With the current amount of water sloshing down from the skies, the rivers were going to continue to rise for some time, not fall. Even if I stretched out my food, I was due to spend a night at the hostel in Invergarry tomorrow. There was no phone signal. I could not let the hostel know about my delay. I did not want to be the cause of an emergency alert.
Before my trip I had spent a lot of time researching my route. I knew this could be a difficult area, and that any walk in another direction such as west to Arnisdale would take me across other waterways, which could be in an even worse condition than this one.
The glen I had just descended was very steep, with the sinuous track snaking downhill. The problematic stream was cutting in on the left, perpendicular to my track. Looking upstream all I could see was even steeper ground, with two sets of waterfalls marked on the map. Climbing upstream to find a better crossing place did not look like an option for a crossing. To the right was the junction with a raging river. It looked like the 'ford' was the best of a difficult bunch.
I thought about making my way back to Glenelg. Could I make it in time to ring the hostel? I could then let them know I was OK but not going to arrive? Considering the state of this ford, I thought there were others on the route back (which I had hopped over easily in the dry weather of the last couple of days on my way to this point) which would now be impassable. So, going back looked like a non-starter too.
What about making a crossing? The line of the ford was obvious. Because it was part of a track that vehicles regularly used, it looked, from what I could see, that it was fairly level under the water, comprising fairly small stones in the main. There was a fair proportion of the water which was clear enough to allow me to see the bottom, though some of it was breaking further over. Although it was too wide to jump, it was not a wide crossing. The exit looked straightforward, with the track leading directly out of the water. I had made some tough crossings before, through deeper and wider torrents. I was confident of the safety steps to take. I would take off my Altberg boots (which were still dry) changing into mountain sandals to protect my feet. I had my trusty poles. I would cross facing up-stream, moving sideways one foot or pole at a time.
I took a lot of time weighing up the risks but, in the end, felt that I had no alternative but to cross the ford and continue on my way. I dug my sandals out of the stretchy pocket on my Mariposa pack, then sat back down on it and stripped off my boots and socks. I stashed my socks, storm cap, mitts and overmitts in the ‘kangaroo pouch’ pocket of my jacket. I tied the laces of my boots together. Finally, I undid the long zips down the outside of my trouser legs, wrapped them round my legs and tucked the bottoms into the waistband. I realised it looked like I was wearing a big, navy-blue nappy! I hoisted my pack on, leaving the hip and torso straps loose, threw my boots over my shoulders and the pack, gathered my poles and carefully made my way down to enter the water.
The water was cold, but not as cold some crossings I have done. As I entered the flow, facing upstream, carefully placing my poles and feet, the stones underfoot seemed safe enough. Initially, the water was below my knees. I was moving from the left bank the right, one foot or pole at a time, pausing to brace myself between every movement. The water was running fast and had a huge pressure behind it. As I worked my way to the middle of the ford the water got deeper, over my knees, and more forceful, making it tricky to get my poles down through the water where I wanted to place them. It became more and more difficult to maintain my line straight across the track, and I was pushed slowly, inexorably downstream, with the water rising to mid thigh. Taking one more step with my right foot I felt my heel catch against a big rock. I tried to shift my foot forward, but it would not move. My heel wasn’t caught up between rocks. It was the pressure of the water holding my foot against the rock. I struggled with this, trying to kick my foot forwards and upstream into the flow, so I could get my heel past the rock and continue across the stream.
Suddenly I was whipped around so I was facing downstream, rotating on my left foot, fighting for balance. I got my poles down and found the rocky bed with my right foot again, teetering as the water now tried to fold my knees up below me. All my senses shrieked alarm. I knew I was in trouble. I tried to take a step further towards the bank … and felt my whole body, 90kg plus of pack and me, lifted off the bed of the stream by the water.
I was underwater. It sounded like I was diving in from a great height, and I opened my eyes to see grey and white water boiling around me. I bounced off big rocks, legs and arms taking a pounding. Water went up my nose and I coughed, swallowing water. Training kicked in. I pulled for the surface and broke through, but I was heading downstream headfirst. Bang! My head struck a rock – but at least I was stopped by it. Coughing and spluttering I hung there a moment, head downstream, pushed into the rock, wondering what to do. I tried to get more upright, to find the bottom with my feet and felt the water start to grab me again, so I relaxed back to my previous position. Oddly, I had a moment of calm lucidity. Would I drown or would I survive? What did I need to do? It was probably only a fleeting moment, but I looked around me. I could see the water rushing past me and the rocks, with the bank not too far away. I hadn’t lost my glasses. Amazing!
I wasn’t going to be able to save myself encumbered by my rucksack. I shrugged my shoulders, intending to hold it as it came off, but it was ripped out of my grip. It disappeared off at high speed to the left of my ‘anchor’ rock, and I went to its right, back into the maelstrom, like being vigorously washed in an old-fashioned upright washing tub. I suddenly went from what felt like high-speed shooting rapids without a canoe to a complete jolting halt, facing downstream as I banged into something across my torso. Thankfully, my ribs were cushioned by my pocketful of cap, mittens and socks. A tree-branch had caught me. Would it hold?
As I regained my senses again, I realised that I was caught in a vee-shaped cleft between branches. As I turned leftwards towards the bank, I realised that some of the wood was moving past me. What was going on? It took a few moments for my shocked brain to work it out, but not only had I been caught by overhanging branches, but they had also caught another small tree which was floating downstream. Was it going to hit me as I dislodged it, wrestling to turn in the rescuing branches? Thankfully, the little tree halted before the roots reached me, caught up on something else. I scrabbled around with my hands towards the bank, and found muddy grass, then miraculously, a tough gnarly tree root. I clung on with my right hand and paused for a moment. Immediate danger averted I hung in the water, much like stopping at the rail in a swimming pool, catching my breath.
Out of the corner of my eye spotted the tip of one of my walking poles. Just a couple of inches, the tip and the ‘basket’ sticking out of the water. It was just beyond my reach. I shifted myself against the branches and made a lunge, grabbing it tightly in my left hand. I pulled at it, and it shifted, but seemed stuck. I pulled some more and suddenly I was looking at one of my boots, the lace wrapped around the pole. WOW! I pulled again, but all I got was a bit more of the lace exposed, but there was the knot to the other lace. Where was the other boot? The lace was tightly stretched – the other boot MUST be there. I gave a huge tug, and suddenly pole and boots came free, landing higgledy-piggledy all over me. Emptying the boots of water, I threw them as far as I could up onto the bank, and followed them, clambering up pulling on the tree root and using the pole.
Don’t ask me how I did it, because I can’t remember, but the next thing I recall was lying in the soggy vegetation on the bank a good 40 or 50 metres downstream from the ford. I was completely soaked to the skin, very shaky and glad to be alive. How long I stayed there I don’t know, but my next memory is of getting away from the water, unzipped wet trouser-legs flapping all around me, and boots banging off each other as I held them by the laces, lurching along the bank propped up by my miraculous pole. There was no sign of my pack. Heart in mouth I searched, but with the massive volume and rate of flow of the water my gear was gone. All of it. Somewhere downstream, leaving not a trace that I could see. It was gone. Years of saving and careful selection. What a mess. Although I hurt all over, nothing seemed broken. I had lost almost all my equipment, bar what I was wearing and one pole, but I was alive.
A lifetime of training, reading, films and experience kicked in at that point. First, I had to get myself protected from the elements. I found a rock to sit on, and after zipping up my soaking trousers, I wrung out my socks, emptied my boots a bit more and got them on my feet. My storm cap went on, with the flap down over my neck. My hood went up over that. Around my neck as well as my two ‘buffs’ I was wearing my compass. I emptied out my ‘Extremities’ overmitts, wrung out my knitted mittens, and put the left ones on while I continued to sort through my pockets with my right hand. My ‘day maps’ (printed A5 back-to-back strip maps) for today and tomorrow had come through unscathed. My camera, GPS, monocular and tiny fold-up cup had survived. I had one ‘Raisin Bake’ bar and one ‘Babybel’ cheese. Those would have to be rationed out. As well as my ‘hygiene kit’, I still had two very soggy cotton hankies, a facemask and two lipsalves.
Shock was kicking in quite badly as I set off along the valley, following the powerline. It didn’t take long to get to the point where the pylons hopped across the main river, the Abhainn Ghleann Dubh Lochain, which was much wider than the ford which had nearly killed me. I scoured the banks, looking for somewhere to cross, finding nowhere looking even remotely suitable. I decided to walk up-river, to search for a better place to cross. Raging water blocked my route again and again and turned me well away from my ‘pylon’ track to safety. I climbed up, and up and up. Eventually I stood high on the hill above the main river, looking down on the white ribbons of water cutting across the soggy brown land. I could see the pylons with the track twisting across the hillside on the far side of the valley and disappearing off into the distance towards Kinloch Hourn.
By this point I had warmed up, and was actually quite enjoying myself, despite my predicament. I took a short breather. Thinking through my options I decided that I was going to have to bite the bullet, drop back down to the main river and search out somewhere to get across, come what may. I didn’t have a choice. It was cross the river and walk out to seek help or give up. If I gave up, no one would even begin to look for me until I failed to turn up in Invergarry tomorrow night. All chance of calling for help had gone when my phone went with my pack down the river. With no phone I could not call for help, even if I could find a signal. By tomorrow night, soaked to the skin, I would be hypothermic. I could be dead. I had to negotiate this rough terrain on my own to seek help.
It didn’t take me long to drop back down into the valley. I was soon searching for possible places to cross the Abhainn Ghleann Dubh Lochain again. This had swollen into another serious river crossing, much wider than the one which I had been swept off my feet by. Once again, I could see the route of a ford. It was terrifying.
I trudged back and forth, looking at the flow of the river, at the condition the banks, considering rates of flow and depth and weighing up what I could see against what I know about river dynamics. I spotted a small area of ‘dead’ water, then realised there was a shingle bank where there must be reduced flow, to allow the bedload to be dropped. Gradually, by process of elimination I decided on one route to risk.
Preparing didn’t take as long as the first time. My boots, socks and trousers were already wet and I was short on alternatives! I took my glasses off this time, zipping them into my pocked wrapped up in my cap with my mittens before committing to the water again. (I made the crossing of the Abhainn Ghleann Dubh Lochain river at NG911101)
I can truly say they this was one of the most physically demanding experiences of my life. Every step was a struggle against the force of the water. I only had one pole to support me instead of two. There were times when this ‘Leki’ pole seemed to be bending like a banana by the sheer force of keeping me upright against the flow. Twice I almost fell, but my pole somehow saved the day. I took it very slowly, moving one foot or the pole at a time and making myself breathe deeply.
Although the flow of the river was immensely strong, I don’t think it was as turbulent as at the ford. Eventually, even though it was very, very difficult I managed to get to the far side safely.
Finally, on the correct bank at last, once again I could follow the pylons. I moved away from the river slowly to find somewhere to empty my boots out and to eat have half of the ‘Raisin Bake’ bar. Delicious nectar! (If rather soggy.)
The trek to Kinloch Hourn would, under normal circumstances, be a lovely walk. On that day it took an inordinately long time as my misadventure took its toll. It was not possible to rest for more than moments as there was little shelter from the bad weather so once I stopped, I got very chilled in my wet clothes. There were a number of smaller rivers to cross which were also in spate, whilst the awful weather continued, but nothing that posed any serious problems.
I noticed that as I ‘drained’ down my sleeves, that heavy puddles were forming inside my right-hand waterproof over-mitt, with the weight of the puddle threatening to pull the outer off my hand. I was having to stop to empty it out and wring out its partnered woolly mitten more frequently than the left. Until I started sorting what was left of my gear out at the hostel the next day, I had no idea that I had ripped open the shoulder of my jacket! I guess that with heavy rain falling, with my vision distorted by the rain on my glasses and with both my Paramo cap and jacket hood firmly cinched down, while experiencing shock, I was less peripherally aware than usual.
As well as the bodily injuries from being tumbled by the river against rocks and ending up caught-up in an overhanging tree, I think that, particularly during the late afternoon, I was close to hypothermia and exhaustion. I knew my thinking was getting muddied. I remember getting to a point where there was a fork in the path above Kinloch Hourn. I took ages working out which way to go, finding the map totally confusing, though looking at it now there is no doubt which way I should have gone.
Dusk was falling as I dropped down through the trees to Kinloch Hourn. I was drawn like a moth to a flame by the first light that I saw. Knocking at the door of this cottage I was fortunate to be greeted by the estate’s deerstalker, Harry. He listened to what had happened and then helped me hugely. He fed me tea and oatcakes, while I dripped copious puddles on his kitchen floor. Although I had a mask in my pocket, it was soaked through, making it really difficult to breathe. In the end I took it off. Harry rang the hostel in Invergarry where I knew I had a booking for the following night so I could ask the warden if I could arrive a night early. Luckily, the answer was yes. He then kindly took me down the long backroad to the hostel himself in his van, Highland hospitality at its best. The journey was made fascinating by the number of Highland cattle and deer we saw on and beside the road. The most memorable moment came when his lights caught a badger chasing a mountain hare along the road. (The hare escaped, and the badger disappeared stage left.)
I was completely soaked from the moment I was swept off my feet in mid-morning until arriving at The Saddle Mountain Hostel in Invergarry in the pitch dark.
The wardens, Helen and Greg, were fabulous. Although social distancing was a hinderance and the kitchen, drying room lounge etc were closed, I had access to a warm and comfortable room, shower and toilet. Heaven!
As I dripped my way into the hostel, they gave me a big plastic tub for my wet gear and loaned me some dry clothing. They even provided me with newspaper to stuff my boots, a handful of dry disposable face-masks, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste, and some shampoo to use in the shower.
Luckily a resupply parcel of my own food was waiting for me at the hostel, meant for the remainder of my trip which was due to continue until the following Sunday. After I had a long, hot shower I was able to eat some cheese and biscuits and drink a mug of tea, then I collapsed into bed.
The next morning, I had to make sure I looked after myself in the hostel despite being very unwell. I was too exhausted and too sore to do much of anything. I made myself porridge (pour boiling water on a premixed bag of oats, dried milk, dried fruit, let it soak, then eat) then crawled back into bed. Sleep is a great restorer. As I rested, regaining some of my strength, the bruises started to surface. I had massive bruising, particularly around my elbows and all over my legs, and some abrasions. I had bumped my head, wrenched my back and neck, and hurt my left knee quite badly.
I started to sort out the soggy bucketful of clothes and oddments from my pockets and was surprised to find what I had not noticed during the whole of the previous afternoon and evening: I had torn the shoulder out of my Paramo Velez Adventure Light waterproof jacket during the accident.
The wardens kindly took some of my clothes to wash for me and I festooned my room with other things to air-dry, while I repeatedly stuffed my boots with newspaper.
At this point I had still not been able to speak to anyone at home. Our landline there was out, taking down the internet too, because workmen cut through the cable while replacing a gas main in our street, and I couldn’t remember mobile phone numbers. Greg helped me find the number for my husband’s work, and finally I was able to speak to him. We made arrangements for him to drive up to collect me from the hostel after work the next day as I was not fit to travel on public transport, and I had no money, cards or phone to make arrangements or pay.
Even though the hostel was usually closed during the day Helen and Greg kindly let me stay and sleep for most of the day on Tuesday. There was no way that I could have left the hostel. I was in too much pain. To help with this Helen lent me a wonderfully comforting hot water bottle for my aches. She also found a big flask which they periodically refilled with boiling water. Because I was struggling to move I could not go out to seek food from other local providers, but by digging into my resupply parcel I was able to make my own (instant) tea through the day and rehydrate my breakfast and evening meals. I had more Babybels and pepperoni, oatcakes, dried fruit and nuts and other edibles as I would on the trail.
I felt slightly better by Wednesday morning, and borrowed a book on an Everest expedition which I read for much of the day in between further snoozes. I was delighted to receive a message that Ron had been given the afternoon off work, so he could set of earlier to pick me up, as it was a seven hour drive each way.
In the afternoon I tried getting my limbs moving again with a bit of gentle Tai Chi. I was determined to put a brave face on things when Ron got there, but kept getting flashbacks of the moment when I was underwater when grey and white water was boiling around me as I bounced off big rocks. I knew it would take some time to process the trauma. I was nervous and excited as I waited for Ron, but at the same time ashamed and sorry to have put him to all this trouble. I should have known him better after nearly forty years: he took one look at me and knew he would be doing most of the driving home.
I got myself back into my own clothes when they were dry, and collected together my meagre belongings. I had more food than anything else.
With great thanks I said goodbye to Helen and Greg, very grateful for the kindness and help they had provided. I bent Ron’s ear with my de-brief most of the way home! Above all, I was glad to be alive!
Sharing my story with a friend (also an experienced solo walker, who had taken the same route herself some time before) she said: “I don’t even remember the burns probably because in good conditions they were unremarkable.”
It has surprised me how much knock-on hassle there has been: contacting the police and various insurance companies, trying to get hold of the Paramo repairs department and having a locksmith in to change the front door lock. (The key was in my lost pack). It took me over a week to get my (insured) phone handset replaced, (although SIM cards were sent out to me 24 hours after I contacted the provider.)
The most mind-boggling part of it all is the gear I have lost. I have Trek BMC Insurance, but never dreamt that the gear would be worth more than the sizeable sum insured – I had never tallied it up before. And then there was providing evidence for everything. From now on I think I am going to become even more obsessive about the records I keep – not only how many grammes each thing weighs, but also keeping receipts and labels when I buy new gear.
A month after the accident the lesser bruises have gone, and the worst ones are fading. Likewise the skin on my legs, shredded through my trousers, is healing. If I am careful my back doesnt hurt too much, and my left knee will just about take my weight again if I don't turn too suddenly. I have got a new phone and replaced most of the contents of my wallet. I have managed to contact Paramo, to put my jacket on their 14-week waiting list for repair. I am still waiting for the BMC Insurance claim to be resolved.
Of course, I will, just as soon as lockdown eases and I replace some of my gear.
I can already hear the hills calling...