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