Tales of the Lost Witch of Bleaklow, The Novice Hiker in the Snow, a B29 Super Fortress and Sheep’s Skull Wardrobe in a Bothy
Ok no Witch or Wardrobe but sounded better!. But definitely a Lost Novice..!
When it comes to walking in the hills I can only be described as a novice still – being just short of 2 years in total since discovering the fantastic wonders of the glorious peak district in what started out as a Sunday walk up Mam Tor. I think I have pretty much been back every week, primarily doing circular walks from various guide books and loading up the odd GPX file into the GPS.
I think like most people who visit the Peak District, the beauty of the place can have you going back for more and certainly the hiking bug can easily kick in and grab you away from those things you might normally get up to in your spare time (in my case, either some DIY thing, house chores or simply just doing nothing but getting fatter and watching that silly TV screen!). So now I’m frequenting Sports Direct or Go Outdoors more often than B&Q and new things have started to hang in the garage including rucksacks and muddy boots and even a Garmin GPS and not to mention the GoPro.
An early quest was to get up to Higher Shelf Stones to the 1948 wreckage of the USAF B29 Superfortress bomber named “Over Exposed” and this little circular wander would take me via the Lady Clough snake plantation then up to the wreckage site via Doctors Gate and back down via a remote Bothy (shooting cabin on the O/S map).
It wasn’t until February 2015 that that I had my first encounter with hiking in the snow. I’m almost embarrassed to say, but driving up from the green Cheshire plains on that day, I was unaware of what was in store ahead ! I really didn’t expect to find much snow. Herein lies Lesson 1. Always check weather reports.
Then, parked up and boots on. Perhaps the heavily snow flanked and empty car park at Birchin Clough should have told me something. Instead I though what a beautiful crisp sunny day and breath-taking scenery this white stuff ads! Excitement does rush in now and clouds a few brain cells. I’ve planned a walk and will complete it, so let’s get going..
Lesson 2. It takes longer to walk with snow up to your knees and sometimes the waist (or even arm pits!). It’s now early afternoon and where I should have been at midday. Hmm, the blue skies now disappearing and fog rolling in across Bleaklow too.
Lesson 3. Do the math – your now heading across a terrain you have never seen or done before [not even on a sunny hot day] and at this pace you’re not going to get back to the car by night fall as the days are short. So ok – you could go back the way you came ( the way back is now familiar to you .. and you can even tread your own footprints if the fog comes down – but that would be too simple huh!], but no, you’re not a quitter are you? So let’s just potter about here, take a few more pics and have lunch and before you know it, it’s now 3:30PM before you’re continuing on the heading indicated on the GPS across the moor tops.
This route looked so tame on the Birdseye Map on the PC didn’t it ? – but those 66 little brown meandering dimples from Higher Shelf Stones through which the course of your ruler straight red plotted GPS track are something called Peat Groughs – each 10 -30 feet deep, that require careful negotiation (and some flying on the seat of the pants literally) as most are now filed with deep frozen snow and underneath, freezing water and sludge and ooze – the peaks very answer to quicksand.
Lesson 4. Know what to expect – bog, Mud, water, Ice, Snow, Rocks (and Groughs full of the same + Deep Glue). So it is now 5:00PM and your thinking, hmm.. not got very far when having to prod several feet of snow at every step with your walking stick and that straight GPS track is impossible to stick to. The fog is now thicker, the snow drifts are deeper & darkness is falling fast, the wind is getting stronger and temperature dropping below zero plus your hands are already frozen whilst fumbling about finding your torch at the bottom of the rucksack because, well, you wasn’t going to need that today was you? So now you got your socks wet too!
Lesson 5 Carry a good torch and spare batteries and maybe dry socks, maybe a snood and hat and how about that Vodafone Sim card too in the survival kit – if you have a survival kit that is.. as with 2 x network sim cards, one of them might work on higher ground (actually I haven’t since found any network to work up there but have yet to try one of my older phones with a pull out aerial! ).
At this point I think a little fear and doubt creeping in. Surely I am not where the GPS says I am? There are no footprints and no visible trodden path. Did you think there would even be path across the moor tops on Bleaklow! It is incredible to think that in a straight line I was probably not more that 30 mins walk ( on a good clear day ) from a path or road but is seems there is no human life within a thousand miles – a wilderness with no signal on the GiffGaff phone and now you know some people will be wondering where you are.
Lesson 6. Who knows the rout you are taking and what time are you expected back. Bleaky Log time is now 6:30 PM and you now have a low battery warning on GPS. I hate to think of what would happen without the GPS. I would not have had a clue in the dark in thick fog. So why did I allow that nice new GPS to stop me learning how to use that compass.. and where is my map? Lesson 7. Don’t be so reliant on GPS, carry even more spare batteries yes – but do keep an OS map and compass at hand and importantly, learn how to use them.
So by this time I have knocks and bruises sore ankles and a knee that’s feeling a bit twisted and getting exhausted with all the scrambling in an out of those Groughs. Lesson 8. First aid kit is a must as well as some energy bar and drink. Yes I know, you would have been home sat by the central heating by now after a hot shower and roast dinner wouldn’t you!
Then there is Lesson 9 as I am thinking that even ‘invincible me’ might break my leg again or twist an ankle whilst stepping into those snow filled rocky holes – not had any broken bones since the groceries van ran over in the 60’s, because yes, you are really that old now and not as fit as you used to be (not so invincible then ehh!) and here lies Lesson 9 – know you limitations.
The photo shoot was now over and the quest was to continue over the Groughs and Bleakly terrain in the dark and fog.. one step at a time. It was a relief to reach the little bothy in that it kind of confirmed my location and was then mostly as good as home – although Oyster Clough in the snow, fog and darkness was not such an easy trek!
Finally back at the car at 9:15PM. By this time the ice and snow on the car park at Birchin Clough was frozen and would take several attempts for the barely 2 wheel drive jalopy to make a run for it off the car park, followed by a 2 hour journey home in bad driving conditions.
Next time I would be more prepared. Actually I am looking forward to it. But will always ‘Think Twice’ and go prepared from now on.
Having been back in good conditions on a longer daylight day, I can confirm that Peat Groughs are still just as difficult to get out of when the sides aren’t frozen – but you can at least see the bottom of them before you slide in (not recommended in the snow!).
What would your number 10 survival tip be?
More to check out :
Thanks to Paul Besley for the brilliant piece called Survival upon which the spirit of this blog is written since it resonates with my mini experience – except that Paul has first-hand experience of being rescued and knows what he’s talking about. I can recommend a further reading of Paul’s Blog Dark Peak Moorland in which the Peat Grough experience is described impeccably.
As Paul Besley points out “You do not have to be a novice to get into difficulty, there are numerous reports of well-equipped walkers, climbers and mountaineers becoming stranded either through injury, bad luck, weather, error or as often as not a combination of all of these.”
Superfortress Wreckage – check out the video and blog for my brief story on this incredible piece of engineering as well as more on this actual walk, more pics (not in the fog and dark!) and a map…