Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 3

…continued from Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 2

I awoke on day three to find that the third night had not been good to me. One of the shock-cord tie-outs on the tarp had rubbed against the rocks in the night and eventually snapped allowing rain to periodically splash me in the face through the opening of the bivvy bag. I’d taken action by rolling over to point the breathe-hole toward the sleeping mat to prevent getting any more wet. But with all my clothes already soaked from the day before, and with the howling wind, it was not a warm night. I didn’t sleep well. And when I awoke in the morning I realised I’d made a catastrophic mistake in my choice of location.

On Dartmoor, you see, the wind invariably seems to change direction in the night. That was part of my reasoning for building the shelter I had: A lean-to against the rocks with no openings. The naturally formed corner in the rocks already protected me from the wind on two sides, and the tarp protected me from wind on the other two sides when it inevitably changed. I’d put a lot of thought into the wind protection and it had worked pretty well in that regard I suppose. But what I didn’t consider was the rain. Up against a tall rock formation the rain was hitting the rocks, then rolling straight down to where I was camped. And of course a tarp can’t be made flush against the rocks, so the water carried on down and into my camping area.

Worse still, the area I was in was flat with a raised lip all the way round. This should probably have been a warning to me: This area became a pond of sorts in wet weather. A pond with me sleeping in the middle of it. My coat was waterlogged when I woke up, as if it had just come out of the washing machine. So too were my “waterproof” trousers. And my socks, and my shoes. Imagine getting up in the morning, going to your washing machine to find your only clothes weren’t drained after washing and so are waterlogged. I don’t mean damp and I don’t mean wet. I mean waterlogged, with water pouring out of them as you pick them up. And imagine having to put them on. Outside, in the cold howling wind that’s so strong it hurts when the rain hits you. That was me on the morning of Sunday 3rd May.

My rucksack was soaked too, but that was the least of my worries. Getting into a sleeping bag with soaked clothes on isn’t ideal. Putting that sleeping bag inside of a semi-breathable bivvy bag is even less ideal, as the bag can only breathe so much water each night, and that’s not much at the best of times. But since the tarp had failed to keep me dry with rain water bouncing off the rocks and soaking me, the bivvy had been unable to breathe at all overnight, and all of the water I’d taken into the sleeping bag with me on my clothes was now on both my clothes and all over my sleeping bag. It too was drenched.

So there I was on Dartmoor in gale force winds desperately trying to fold my tarp up to put it away, and facing a big decision. Taking the quickest route possible straight back to the car (quickest, but not the most direct route) I had an 18 mile hike ahead of me. Or the alternative was risking hypothermia doing another night of camping with a soaked bivvy bag, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, tarp and clothes.

This seemed like a risky idea. Cutting my adventure a day short and hiking 18 miles seemed like the more sensible idea.

18 miles from High WIllhays (top left) to Top Tor (bottom right)
18 miles from High WIllhays (top left) to Top Tor (bottom right)

I looked at the distances I’d covered on the map on Friday and Saturday. Both days worked out at pretty much exactly 10 miles each, and each day had taken roughly 5 hours to cover. But then I’d not been in a rush either day and I knew I had more speed than that in me. But to cover nearly twice that distance in a day I knew I would tire, and I knew my pace would drop. And I was certain I wasn’t fit enough for an 18 mile hike really, and on top of all of that I’d already covered 20 miles over the past 2 days. The chances of me covering 18 miles before it went dark seemed slim. Very slim. But it was that, or risk freezing in the night.

I gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just waded in
I gave up trying to keep my feet dry and just waded in

So… I bit the bullet and set off at warp 9 hiking speed. I knew if I was going to make it before nightfall I was going to have to not mess about at any point, even when it came to crossing streams. At the first ford I made an executive decision: My feet were already soaked, and they weren’t going to get any wetter by walking straight through the stream, so I rolled my trousers up and marched straight through. I reached Hangingstone Hill in record time where I stopped for an energy bar snack, and with slightly better visibility than the previous day was then able to find the path I should have been following. I followed this all the way to Quintin’s Man where I stopped for another energy bar and some water. I gaped at the map and realised that, if I was able to keep this pace (which I knew full well I wouldn’t be able to) I’d reach the car by 6pm that evening: A good three hours before sunset.

I put on my grim “it’s-time-to-get-out-of-here” face and carried on back through the streams at Little Varacombe, enjoying the cold of the water on my sore feet and knees, up Sittaford Tor hill, down to The Grey Wethers again, back to the bridle path that Mr and Mrs OS had drawn so badly, and then realised quite suddenly that my feet were getting very sore from blisters. Marching through each stream with no attempt to keep my feet dry was, clearly, not proving to be the greatest idea ever. I stopped for some lunch thinking that might help my feet settle down a little. My knee was hurting pretty badly by now too, having covered 10 miles in less than three hours.

Back across Hanginstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill and Quintin's Man
Back across Hanginstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill and Quintin’s Man

After lunch I stood up to carry on, but neither my blister nor my knee felt much better. I took two steps and then a stabbing agony in my foot told me the blister had just burst. I stopped again to administer first aid, only to discover I’d never included any blister patches in my first aid kit. What the hell? How could I make such a massive oversight?! I started knocking back painkillers instead. I was over half way now, and I’d done it in just over a third of the time I had estimated! I couldn’t give up now, so I limped on.

The next mile felt like three: I simply couldn’t work out which leg to limp on. The ruptured blister on my right foot made me limp to my left leg, where my knee would send an electric shock of agony which would make me limp back to my right leg. I took more painkillers in the hope of dulling the accumulating aches and pains, but at twice the maximum stated safe dosage for both paracetamol and ibuprofen I was already seriously pushing the limits.

I found myself stopping more and more often for water, snacks and painkillers.

At Postbridge I picked up the road to Widecombe In The Moor, then at Lower Blackaton I made my way back onto a bridle path with a steep 100 metre climb up followed by a 170 metre descent into Widecombe In The Moor. Every single step was agony, my pace had been slowing ever since I’d stopped for lunch and I’d lost count now of the number of times I’d had to stop and thought I’d not be able to go on. But on I’d gone as there was nowhere to stop for the night now: I was in a rural part of the moor.

When I finally limped into Widecombe In The Moor I cursed the fresh-faced tourists who’d simply stepped off a tour bus to wander around the village, which was completely closed, being a Sunday and all. I wondered what the hell they were doing there. But then I saw the hill I needed to climb to reach the Top Tor car park where the car would, hopefully, still be waiting for me. My heart sank. It was another 160 metres up a 20% incline on a main road with no verges.

With no alternative available I set off up the final obstacle Dartmoor had put between me and my car. I can tell you now that hill went on forever. Every step was excruciatingly painful in both knees and both feet. I’d hit rock bottom and had enough. Dartmoor was clearly trying to kill me, but I wasn’t going to let it. Eventually, with sweat pouring off me, I saw the car park and my heart leapt. I’d finally made it! Except, where was the car?

Where was the effing car?! And come to think about it, wasn’t there a sign at the entrance to the car park when I arrived? And there was definitely a path leading off to Top Tor on the other side of the road. And, wait, the car park was definitely on the crest of the hill. I looked up the hill and realised this wasn’t the same car park. There was still plenty more hill to cover. The realisation was crushing, but I had no choice but to carry on. Up and up and up thinking about nothing but the agony in my legs and feet.

When I finally reached the car, which thankfully hadn’t been stolen, set on fire, or otherwise incapacitated, I nearly cried. It had been a very long, hard day. I praised myself for having had the foresight to leave some dry socks and shoes in the car, so I climbed into the back seat of the car and started peeling wet layers of clothes off me as the wind battered the car. And then I checked the time: It was exactly 6pm. I’ve still no idea how I’d made it back on time, but I had. Quite broken, but back safe.

Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 2

…continued from Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 1

Dense fog
Dense fog

The morning of day 2 on the moors saw a transformation in the weather. Friday had been clear and sunny with a bracing wind, but Saturday saw the moors covered in dense mist, rain and gale force winds. How all three of those weather patterns could somehow exist at the same time, to me, defies all logic. Then a problem became very apparent: My jacket was not waterproof. At all. Not even a little. The rain was landing on the jacket and being actively absorbed by the material. That’s not what wet weather gear is supposed to do. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s quite the opposite of what wet weather gear should do.

I’d obviously made a serious mistake while reproofing my gear the day before heading out. I must have used the Tech Wash bottle rather than the Wash-In Direct bottle and, in my haste, not realised.

I pondered this for about 3 seconds and then decided not to worry about it. It was just water! I’d survive. I’ve been surviving for over 30 years in the presence of water, why should it be any different this time?

The map showed a suspiciously straight bridle path heading almost exactly due North just a little way to the West from Stannon Tor where I’d camped, so I marched out into the fog with a visibility of about two to three metres following a bearing on the compass to direct me towards the path, passing through the remains of a settlement. As expected this bridle path didn’t seem to exist in anything like its rigidly-straight form shown on the OS map. Mr and Mrs OS had clearly cheated on this area of moor: It seemed they were aware of a path, but presumably not bothered to send anyone out to actually trace it onto a map. In reality there were 3 paths all heading off on slightly different bearings, none of which were quite the bearing shown on the map. I picked the one that seemed most appropriate and puffed my way up the hill.

The Grey Wethers: Easily mistaken for sheep
The Grey Wethers: Easily mistaken for sheep

Eventually I reached The Grey Wethers stone circle, a pair of restored stone circles within sight of Fernworthy Forest. Folklore tells us that the locals here once sold a drunk farmer a fine flock of sheep that, in the sober light of the morning, turned out to be the stones of the Grey Wethers. After snapping a few photos I carried on up the hill of Sittaford Tor, then down the other side to Little Varacombe where I stopped to collect water. Here I saw two other hikers, the first people I’d seen for over 12 hours.

I may have fallen in a bit while crossing this one...
I may have fallen in a bit while crossing this one…

They were even more surprised to see me than I was to see them: They’d already covered 10 miles that day and hadn’t seen a single soul along their route. Given the weather this wasn’t so surprising, I suppose: They could possibly have passed within a few metres of another person and not seen them in the fog. They warned me that the hill I was heading for, Quintin’s Man/Whitehorse Hill/Hangingstone Hill, was thick with fog, howling wind and horizontal rain with absolutely no visibility. They painted a grim picture.

You don't need to be drunk to appreciate the Grey Wethers
You don’t need to be drunk to appreciate the Grey Wethers

After watching them disappear into the mist, almost as if they’d never existed, I pressed on up the hill to Quintin’s Man and set out North West following the path to Whitehorse Hill. Or so I thought, at least. In fact the path vanished and I am now convinced I had mistaken a sheep path for the path I wanted. I was trying to head North towards Hangingstone Hill but the path was getting sparse. Along the way I stumbled across a hut circle that wasn’t even listed on the map and took the opportunity to make lunch. I didn’t see anyone while I was there. In fact I didn’t see anything, just fog. Fog and rain. And wind. How can all three things occur at once?!

The Grey Wethers up close
The Grey Wethers up close

After lunch I went to head off and realised I’d completely lost track of which direction I’d even arrived from. With no visual cues it’s easy to get disoriented. It’s a good thing I carry a compass as a matter of course or I’d have been royally screwed on this trip. My clothes were soaked by this point with both my “waterproof” trousers and “waterproof” coat soaking up every drop of rain that landed on them. Fortunately my warm gear is synthetic meaning it does a good job of retaining heat even when wet, so I soon warmed up despite the wet once I started walking.

Unlike Stonehenge you can interact with these stones
Unlike Stonehenge you can interact with these stones

As I continued North the path went from sparse to non-existent to difficult terrain to outright bog, and then almost-impassable. I found myself wading through water that came up to my shins, cursing Dartmoor with every step and wishing I could get off this wretched hill. People have died crossing the bogs on Dartmoor, and who could help me if things were to go wrong? There was no way a helicopter could land up here, no way anyone would spot me, no way anyone would hear me in the fog, no way my phone would work with so much water in the air, and with wet gear that absorbs water and high winds I’d not have long before hypothermia got me… I tried not to think about it.

The hardest part of the walk
The hardest part of the walk

The map showed I was too far West so I tried heading North East to get out of the bog. I eventually gave up on that idea, set a course due North and powered my way through; I made a decision I was getting out of there as fast as I could knowing there were good paths after Whitehorse Hill, and my goal of reaching the southernmost point of my previous Dartmoor adventure was now within spitting distance.

I found myself on Whitehorse Hill all of an unexpected sudden. A small military hut was just visible through the mist, so I headed toward it to try and get out of the wind for a little while, and found myself face to face with a group of guys with dogs who’d had the same idea. We chatted for a while about what lay before them before I carried on North on the now, thankfully, well-defined path. The path became a track, and suddenly I was at the fork where, 6 months earlier, I had opted to stop walking South and start heading back in a loop towards the northern edge of the moor. The map showed there weren’t many good spots for a good night’s sleep, other than to retrace my steps from MA#3 and head for Yes Tor or High Willhays

After MA#3 I’d been slightly disappointed that I hadn’t slept on High Willhays – the highest point in the moors and even southern England, instead opting for Yes Tor for various reasons of practicality. The height differential was a mere 18 metres, and I’d had a fantastic night on Yes Tor, but the lack of bragging rights had really got under my skin. Maybe this would be my opportunity to set that right? It was still a long way to High Willhays, on MA#3 it was taking me – in a roundabout way – back towards my starting point and thus shaving a few miles of walking off the next day’s hike. But this time it was merely leading me further and further away from the car. But at least it was on proper tracks rather than through bog.

Half way between High Willhays and Yes Tor
The wind kicked up into the fiercest gales I’ve ever experienced

The final scramble up the torturous hill from New Bridge to the point half way between Yes Tor and High Willhays all but destroyed my now very tired legs. My right knee was twinging with every step. I could feel small blisters on both feet. I was soaked to the skin and the wind was beginning to have a real cold bite to it. I’d brought with me a tripod for my camera which I’d used on this journey a grand total of, oh, never, and I cursed myself for being so stupid as to bring something so heavy. I’d covered ten miles and gained and lost a total of at least 640 metres of altitude and I’d carried those extra kilograms the whole time for no reason at all.

Now, as the path curled South onto the summit of High Willhays, the wind kicked up into the fiercest gales I’ve ever experienced. The only thing that comes close was when I took a catamaran ferry to Ireland: Standing on the deck the wind was so fierce that the water-spray hitting me in the face felt like sand in the wind. At the top of High Willhays it was windier and wetter even than on the catamaran and the rain felt like hail. I was contemplating going back to Yes Tor but my legs, feet and shoulders all hurt and I was exhausted, I wanted to sleep and the sun was not going to be up for much longer. I dropped my bag and started scouting for a place to pitch the basha where I would be out of the wind.

The perfect spot was eventually found in a naturally formed corner on the main rock of the tor with a perfectly flat area of ground beneath it. This was the only place out of the wind, and the only place with a suitably flat area of ground. After the previous night’s success with a lean-to setup I thought I’d repeat the experience. It took me a long time to get a structure in place, and I was never entirely happy with what I’d built, but as the sun began to dip and my thoughts turned to my empty stomach I eventually decided it’d have to do.

I quickly cooked, ate, and set up my bed for the night. This time with a bivvy bag, with the rain travelling horizontally it would have been madness not to. I fought my way into my sleeping bag with my soaking wet gear on and placed my coat, “waterproof” trousers, socks and shoes all next to me under the tarp to dry out overnight.

That night was not a good night… Continued in Microadventure #8: 3 Nights on Dartmoor, day 3