Backpacking is not always fun – tales of woe

by backpackingbongos

I really enjoy reading other peoples backpacking blogs but have become a little bit concerned recently about the amount of fun everyone seems to be having.

Backpacking is great but for some reason or other I sometimes find myself in a situation where I wonder to myself, “why do I do this for fun?”  Often the answer comes ten minutes later when the rain stops and the mist clears to reveal a majestic mountain landscape.  There are also many times when the rain does not stop, the mist gets thicker and I get to the edge of the map just as the wind picks up.  Why is the mountain I’m climbing always on the edge of the map?

Those uncomfortable days are all part of backpacking in the UK, but sometimes things can get really tricky……………………..

Electrically charged

In June 2005 I did a backpack from Aviemore to Blair Atholl via the Feshie and the Tarf, a great wild route.  On the fourth morning I left the high bleak valley of Tarf Water and climbed to the summit of Carn a Chlamain.  The weather was really close and although the clouds were off of the tops visibility was pretty poor on the summit.  Most of the surrounding hills were lost in the murk and the temperature was uncomfortably warm even at this height.  The plan was to descend west off of the hill and climb Beinn Mheadhonach on the other side of Gleann Mhairc, however upon reaching the valley floor I was totally knackered.  After some deliberation I thought about collecting water and going for a high level camp on the summit and calling it a day.  Walking up the valley a little way I came to a perfect grassy knoll above the river that screamed ‘pitch a tent on me’, being of weak will I gave in and pitched my tent.  A decision that may have saved my life.

I spent the afternoon and early evening lazing around reading and eating, generally enjoying my isolated position.  The camp was spoilt slightly by the large numbers of adult ticks, there was obviously a reason why the grass was so cropped in a large area of rough ground.  Every time I Leant out of the tent to pick up a pan etc one would attach itself to my arm.  A big downside to camping in the highlands in the summer.

As evening turned to night the air became ever more humid and it was a little uncomfortable in the tent.  The hill tops started to mist over and in the far far distance I could hear a small rumble of thunder.  On top of my sleeping bag I soon nodded off to sleep.  It was dark when I woke up to the first bang of thunder.  The storm was some way off as I counted the time between the sky lighting up and the thunder clap.  Each minute it got nearer and nearer, then suddenly the heavens opened.  With the exception of being in India at the tail end of the monsoon I have never experienced rain like it.  It sounded like it would rip the tent apart.  Suddenly the storm was upon me.  There were instantaneous flashes of lightening and claps of thunder and I could feel my teeth tingle.  Poking my head out of my tent I realised that I was in the storm cloud which lit up as another burst of thunder broke.  Panicking I pulled on my clothes, but now what?, what good would running into the darkness do me?  The only thing I could think of doing was throw my walking pole as far away from my tent as I could.  I sat a nervous wreck as the storm raged around me, smoking roll up after roll up trying to fight the impulse to run.  Slowly but surely the storm drifted away to the north.

Relieved I got back undressed and lay back down hoping to catch some sleep before getting an early start.  My stomach tightened as in the distance I heard distant thunder.  Lightening flashes and claps of thunder yet again got closer and closer until they were again directly overhead.  The hillside was cascading with rivulets of water and I was a nervous wreck again!

This scenario was played out all night, one storm would move off only to be replaced by another one less than an hour later.  By early morning the small stream which luckily I was a few metres above was a black raging torrent.  I packed my tent and legged it down to Blair Atholl.  The vilage had lost all of its power due to the storms.  When buying a paper the shop keeper said that it was the worst thunder storm he could remember, he said they were fairly rare up there on that scale.  The local paper was reporting people being rescued by sudden rising flood waters on campsites and general chaos.  I spoke to a bloke in the campsite later on who had been wild camping that night in one of the high coires of Beinn a Ghlo, he really thought that at one point he was going to be fried alive.  He too had been ready to flee his tent but realised that a descent in the dark could be just as dangerous as the storm.

I used to love thunderstorms but now get really nervous when I hear thunder.  When wild camping in the summer I am not as keen as I used to be to camp on the summits unless there is an easy escape route in the dark.  Thankfully I did not camp on the summit of Beinn Mheadhonach!

More tales of woe to come!

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9 Responses to “Backpacking is not always fun – tales of woe”

  1. Huhu, that sounds scary. I think staying in the tent is the safest bet in such a situation, and happily you pitched it high enough above the stream. On the other hand, I enjoy thunderstorms, but a safe position is a must for being able to enjoy them.

    One question, by tick you mean these lovely fellows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tick ? Are they really that much of a plague up in the hills?

  2. Indeed the ticks I refer to are those lovely little fellows. They can be a bit of a problem in some parts of the UK hills, especially the Highlands of Scotland. They seem to really like me for some reason. Mostly a problem when wild camping lower down as they tend to hang out where animals graze, hence a nice green grassy spot by a river can be full of them. Usually no problem higher up where you can escape the midges too!
    Are ticks a problem in Finland?

  3. Not really, we have very few of them here where I live. Also, they are more in some specific trees here. But we got mosquitos and other biting insects, so I guess that evens the count again 😀

  4. A great post. I too have experienced thunderstorms from hell when out in the Scottish Hills – there’s not a lot of advice out there – but you are best off in your tent in a seated position, preferably on your mat insualted from the ground. Certainly dump the walking poles as they conduct electricity incredibly well, whether vertical or horizontal. Not a good idea to lie down either as this increases your risk.
    Sit it out in the dry!

  5. Cheers Alan, I really had to resist the temptation to run away in a panic. Just really glad I had not pitched on a summit…………………..

  6. Never experienced fireworks in the Scottish hills but there was this time In the Spanish Pyrenees when my Tarp was attached to a lightning scorched pine………

    • Was your tarp attached to the pine at the time it was struck? I am assuming not or you may not be here today!

  7. Fortunately the pine was struck before or maybe it just died a more natural death but my tarp line was attached to this timber when things became interesting – my first morning thunderstorm over there,did not think that phenomena was possible.

    First noticed clouds racing across the moon at 5am and thought that’s not good – by first light all hell broke loose.
    The Tarp was covering most of a sheep shelter so I thought I was covered but the sheer weight of hail on the tarp was uncomfortable and also when you can’t count the seconds between the light and the sound……….

    If you are truly interested in my foolish escapades – particularly this monumental mistake you can check my face book thingy where I have recently posted a little flick entitled Bivy bag nights “Tarps, bivvies tents,bothies,cabanes,hobbit holes , refuges and other assorted accommodation”
    It is a experimental porno movie with no sex just joyless pain and anguish.

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