10 June 2014 by Helen Todd
The outdoors is a great setting for adventures. You don’t have to act like Bear Grylls to get a thrill from stepping outside your usual comfort zone, and into the unknown. Swapping the daily routine for a night spent wild camping on a deserted beach, a day climbing your first Munro, or a blustery walk pitting yourself against wild winter weather can be a life-affirming, inspirational experience.
Adventures raise the element of risk in our lives – but hopefully we still come home safely at the end of the day. To increase the chances of a positive outcome, we all need to gain (a) experience and (b) skills.
Unfortunately, experience cannot be gained without first going through a series of outings over a number of years during which you feel cold, scared, wet, hungry, confused, frightened, exhausted, dehydrated, mildly hypothermic and lost – although hopefully not all on the same day!
These feelings tend to prompt the realisation that you need to learn some skills, whether by going on a course or by asking your more knowledgeable mates for help. These skills will be learned and put into practice over the years, building up your experience so that while mishaps can still occur, you massively reduce the odds of having a disaster. But even if you do, you’ll be better equipped in responding to it.
Hopefully none of us will ever have to cope with the realisation that we need to self-amputate our arm if we want to survive, as happened to Aron Ralston, a canyoneer in Utah in 2003. Watching the film of this incident, 127 Hours, I was struck that it wasn’t simply luck, but Aron’s own skills and ingenuity as well as the equipment he was carrying (including a knife), which saved his life. There is much we can all learn from this.
Navigation is one of the most important skills we can learn. Having grown up reading maps for pleasure, I thought I could navigate pretty well. Then came a day in the Cairngorms where the cloud descended and I realised that to get off the hill, I couldn’t follow a single bearing but would need to go in 3 sections around a set of cliffs.
Not knowing how to pace or time myself, I had no idea how to measure the distance I was travelling to get around safely. Fortunately, the cloud briefly lifted to show me the way, and my companions never realised my confidence was a bluff! – but this incident did send me off to Glenmore Lodge a few months later to get a thorough training in these skills.
There have been plenty of other occasions since then when I’ve been pleased to have had that knowledge, but knowing how to deal with errors is also important. Last autumn, I was walking alone in very remote country, climbing the Munro, Maoile Lunndaidh. Disappointingly, the cloud was well down by the time I reached the higher levels, and I knew the actual summit was a small cairn on a large, featureless plateau.
Following a bearing for a long distance when you are trapped inside a small bubble of cloud, with flat, mossy ground under your feet, is difficult. After about 15 minutes I realised I was going downhill, so I’d obviously gone wrong. I carried on a bit longer to make sure it wasn’t just a small dip – no, definitely downhill – and decided to stop and take stock. I checked the aspect of slope and pinpointed exactly where I was on the map. I had very slightly veered off my line, but was able to correct this and soon the summit cairn loomed out of the mist. Very satisfying; and yes, a GPS would have been very helpful in times like these, but they cannot be relied upon since batteries can go flat.
I learned another very useful tip from a magazine article, written by a walker who told the tale of how he had tripped and fallen down a slope. Once he came to a stop, feeling bruised and battered but not broken, he immediately sat down and had a drink and a sandwich, realising that he was in shock and needed to steady himself. He was then able to climb back up to the path and get back home safely.
I had a similar situation this winter when I slipped on wet grass which was covered in slushy snow. As luck would have it, I’d just put my ice axe down so I could use both hands to manoeuvre myself through a steep, rocky section, so I had no means of checking myself. I rapidly picked up speed on the slick slopes while my husband could only look on with growing terror. Luckily I managed to stop my slide before any harm was done, but I was clearly shocked by the experience; my legs were shaking and I had temporarily lost my nerve. Moving to a safer position nearby, we sat down and got out a flask of tea and some cake and then managed to descend safely, a wise move since one accident can often lead to another.
To go into the outdoors is to challenge yourself and leave behind the trappings of your comfortable, daily routine. Some of us enjoy being able to push our physical limits after a week spent sitting at a desk.
We respond to the wildness of the landscape, the silence, the huge skies above us, the ruined remnants of human activity in distant glens, the glimpse of shy wildlife, and the inspiring trees and plants.
These adventures remind us of the real world outside our office windows, and the fact that our bodies were built to be active. Learning the skills which help you come back safely is time well spent and that feeling of self-reliance hugely improves each experience. Just don’t ask me to skin a rabbit – I’ll leave that to Bear and go hungry!
Helen Todd is the campaigns and policy manager at Ramblers Scotland. Read more about Helen's adventures or follow her @helenrambler.