Solivagant – (adj) wandering alone, a solitary wanderer. A person who revels in the act of wandering alone–preferably in destinations and locations they have not previously visited
2003 - The sun was beginning to set; the light was changing before my eyes. It was that time of day known as the golden hour, the light turning redder and softer. The last few people on the fells were making their way back down to the valley, perhaps looking forward to a thirst-quenching pint, and a warm by the fire in the pub. It was autumn time, and the temperature was beginning to drop, I pulled on another layer to protect myself against the cold. A raven squawked and circled above my head, my tent was pitched, I had some water on the boil and soon I would be alone in the fells, under the stars for the night.
2018 - The sun shone through the gaps in the leaf canopy, the leaves themselves dancing in the wind. Deer passed through the bottom reaches of the forest, unaware of my presence, stopping every now and then to smell the air. My hammock was set up, I had lit a small fire and perched myself on my sit mat next to it. I could smell the pungent odour of wild garlic, damp leaves and earth on the forest floor surrounding me. There was no one else around, I closed my eyes and breathed in through my nose inhaling the fresh crisp early March air. The light was beginning to fade, soon the birds would begin their final territorial proclamation before nightfall and I would be alone in the forest, under the tree canopy, for the night.
Two of many, very beautiful experiences I have had, wild camping in the “Great Outdoors”. I have loved being outdoors since I was a small child. I have fond memories of walking in forests and the countryside with my Mum & Dad from a very early age. My Dad would point out different plants and trees, naming them as we walked past. He could even identify a bird from the song it was singing. I remember picking blackberries from the hedgerows with my Granny and returning to her kitchen to make jam, these experiences filled me with awe, firing my curiosity and passion for the natural environment, eventually leading me to seek a career working in the outdoor environment.
I can still remember my first walk in the mountains. It was with school; I must have been around 11 years old. We were staying in Snowdonia for a few days, camping. One of the days involved a walk up Snowdon, it was pleasant day weather wise, I can’t recall the route we took. I sat by a small waterfall, watching the water flow over the rocks, glistening in the sunshine as it made its journey downstream. I can remember a helicopter flying below, as we approached the summit and the cafe. But, the one thing that sticks in my memory above everything else, was walking away from the groups gathered at the summit and finding my own space to sit down and eat my sandwiches. I looked down into the valley and could see a car weaving its way down the pass, it looked tiny. I looked at the fields and mountains stretching out into the distance; they looked like patchwork, the different shades of green and brown. I was so mesmerised by this view that had opened up before me, I had never seen anything so amazing before. I could feel the breeze on my face and for a few minutes I was truly in that moment in time and nowhere else.
It is very easy to look at the romance of the mountain and forest experiences I recall above, picturing the perfectness of both situations. Let us now return to the first experience in the fells and press play to continue.
I was woken by the sound of the wind; my tent was moving as the wind hit the side. The wind had most definitely picked up. “I’ve had worse” I thought to myself, recalling times when I had been rudely awakened by the top of my small two-man tent hitting my face as it was compressed by the force of the wind being funnelled up the gullies from the valley floor. I unzipped the tent door to investigate further. Angle Tarn which I had pitched my tent by, was partial concealed by a blanket of low cloud whirling around in the wind. “At least it’s not raining” I thought. I had backpacked along the tops from Ambleside the previous day, taking in the Langdale Pikes and a few other Wainwrights on the way. This was my first solo backpack; I was getting experience under my belt for my Summer Mountain Leader training. The plan was to continue over the tops, bagging some further Wainwrights and finish off dropping down into Elterwater, walking back up the valley to the Great Langdale Campsite and head to the Old Dungeon Ghyll for some well-deserved refreshment.
I got dressed and packed the tent away, the low cloud had now clagged in and I could not see the opposite side of the tarn. The path I was heading for ran up from Angle Tarn to Ore Gap, where I would re-join the main path to the summit of Bowfell. I had walked up the path before, but back then it was a clear and sunny day. This time my navigation skills would be very much put to the test. I looked at the map locating my exact position and then took a bearing in the direction of the path, it was not a major path, in this clag it would be less obvious, I needed to be precise. I set off following the bearing, the wind had started to get up slightly and droplets of rain started to hit my face. I pulled my hood up and eventually located the path.
Continuing along the path which weaved between rocky outcrops and boulders, I looked around and visibility had now dropped to around 15 metres in all directions, I just remember thinking how grey everything looked, all the rocks were dark and shining with the rain. My waterproofs were holding up well, the rain had started to come down heavier. I had my wrists through the hoops of my walking poles, they helped with the weight of the rucksack when walking. I knew I was not too far from the summit now; the terrain was rugged, and the rocks were becoming increasingly slippery with the amount of rain falling. I placed my pole and went to step forward, I slipped slightly and due to the weight of my rucksack fell sideways, at this point I realised my pole had become jammed between two rocks and as I fell, my arm twisted quickly and awkwardly behind me, I heard a snap and paused, waiting to feel pain, but it must have been the walking pole that had made the sound. I could not release it as my wrist was still through the loop. Luckily enough the rucksack protected the bottom of my back from the pointed rocks I fell on to and I managed, eventually after a minute or so to release my arm from the pole. I breathed a sigh of relief, as I had fallen various thoughts rushed through my mind. What if I break my arm, hip? The weather is deteriorating, it will be a while before someone will get to me, do I have a signal on my phone? What have I got in my rucksack that would help? I wish I were off the fell and sitting by the fire in the Old Dungeon Ghyll…
I stood up, dusted myself off and took a moment to compose myself, it had certainly given me a shock. There was no one around at all, I continued to walk up the path and eventually got to the summit of Bowfell. Visibility had not improved, the rain continued to come down heavily. I looked at the route I was planning to take. I felt cold and located an extra layer in my rucksack to pull on. I began to accept the inevitable, I was not going to complete the challenge I had set myself. Anyone who knows me, will know at that moment in time, how disappointed I was. “Maybe it will be fine, I’ll just carry on…” I knew that before crossing the Crinkle Crags I had an option of an “escape route” down The Band back into the valley. It seemed the sensible thing to do, although my ego was screaming for me to continue, I looked out from the summit. The skies were grey, and the clouds were passing quickly overhead as the wind speed increased, the rain was sheeting down. The decision was begrudgingly made, I would head back down to the valley.
It was not until I got to the Old Dungeon Ghyll later that afternoon that I began to reflect on my experience. As I sat with my pint by the fire it dawned upon me, just how horribly wrong it could have gone up there, on my own. I had been lucky, worst case scenario, I would have still been up there, with no phone signal, undiscovered and injured. If I had focused on the what ifs, I probably would never have set foot in the mountains again on my own, and that would have been a great pity. I then began to think of all the positives, I had gained valuable experience that I could not have acquired any other way than just being out there in the mountains. I had learned some valuable lessons, all of which, as with other situations and adventures have added to my own experience as a Mountain Leader. I also learnt a lot about myself too, and how I react in challenging situations.
I love being in the mountains on my own, it gives me space to think, time to just be in the moment, with nothing else to focus on other than getting from A to B safely. The risk, for me, most definitely does not outweigh the benefit. I have, as have many of us, been in some hairy situations in the mountains over the years, a few most definitely where I have wondered if I was going to make it down alive, but that has never stopped me from donning my rucksack and heading to the hills.
“To refuse the adventure is to run the risk of drying up like a pea in its shell” George Mallory, Mountaineer.
The British Mountaineering Council states “The BMC recognises that climbing, hill walking and mountaineering are activities with a danger of personal injury or death. Participants in these activities should be aware of and accept these risks and be responsible for their own actions.”
Why do we take risks? William Glasser, an American psychiatrist specialising in behaviour management, believed that all our behaviour, is the best we can do at the time to meet our five basic needs. So, if one of the five basic needs is survival, then why do we take risks? Is it to satisfy our four other basic needs? Is it the freedom, is it to do with power, is it for fun or the need to be accepted? Or is it to be the person we believe we are meant to be? Whatever the reason it is important to recognise that, every time we go into the mountains, whether that be alone or in a group, we should be accepting and aware of these risks and individually taking responsibility to do everything within our capability to minimise them.
In 2019, Heather Morning, mountain safety advisor for Mountaineering Scotland - one of the most respected and experienced figures in her field. Stated that since 2013 there had been 114 deaths in Scotland’s mountains, with only 10 of them women.
“Research over the past seven years shows that the number of female fatalities in the mountains is a tiny percentage compared to the number of male fatalities,” she said. “This low percentage is not reflective of the number of females who are out enjoying the Scottish Mountains. Therefore, it would be too simplistic to suggest these numbers reflect the numbers of participants. In my opinion the reasons are multiple and complex. There is no doubt that women tend to be more risk averse in the mountains, will often even underestimate their own ability, and be over cautious. Whereas men generally will take a more ‘gun-ho’ attitude towards risk and perhaps also be more influenced by peer pressure and the drive to succeed at all costs. Women may often be more prepared within a group to share their feelings of reservation, rather than be blinkered to the dangers around them.”
She finished by stating “A really important thing any mountaineer can do to help mitigate risk is to be humble.”
“Risk taking is not only critical to the learning process, but it is also essential to the maintenance of the human spirit” (Liddle, 1998. p61)
“But when I say our sport is a hazardous one, I do not mean that when we climb mountains there is a large chance that we shall be killed, but that we are surrounded by dangers which will kill us if we let them” - George Mallory, 1924
Risk is the potential to lose something of value, while competence is the collection of skills and abilities that are applied against risk to result in a positive outcome. It is therefore vital that we seek to gain competence in the collection of these skills, to make sure every time we step out, we have done everything within our power to encourage a positive outcome. So, what can we do?
Self-Awareness. To be self-aware is to recognise what you might be feeling, what you might be thinking, what might motivate you to act a certain way. If you become aware of how you act in different situations, then you can decide what the motivation is behind any decision regarding risk you take in the mountains. Is the decision motivated by ego and if so is that the best course of action, at that precise moment in time? When I was younger, I often struggled with ego and the need to carry on, driven by peer pressure at times, but often by my own standards I set myself and trying to be the person that I believed I was meant to be.
Be Humble. Have an awareness of your own capabilities and limits. We all have limits, whether they be knowledge, experience or ability based. We should be assessing ourselves constantly. Where are the gaps in our knowledge and ability? Navigation & Map reading skills, knowing exactly what to be putting in a rucksack every time we head to the hills? If we are leading a walk with the club what are the expectations kit wise for individuals, is this discussed. Is it taken for granted that when out on a “group” walk that the person leading is fully competent to deal with an emergency should it arise, or that everyone has the appropriate kit? What if something happens to the leader, or you are separated from the group, are you capable of getting yourself off the hill? Do you have the knowledge of what to do in an emergency? Do you carry your own map and compass, and can you use them?
Over previous years, it became apparent to me that, I had for some reason, began to struggle with exposure. I knew I needed to address the situation, so I went out with a trusted friend who was also an experienced mountaineer and scaled Crib Goch early one morning, I then continued to seek out routes that would help me to work with and address the struggle.
Personal Development. Do you rest on your laurels (rely on one's past achievements or accolades to remain relevant or successful) or do you actively seek to continue to learn and develop? Personal Development consists of activities that develop a person's capabilities and potential and enhance quality of life and the realisation of dreams and aspirations. I am lucky to have a job that takes me out into the hills, which also means I need to keep my skills up to date and relevant. I certainly cannot afford to rest on my laurels when taking individuals out, as I once discovered years back, luckily it only resulted in mild embarrassment and a lesson in the relevance of “pride before a fall”.
Safety Precautions. If you do venture out on your own, do you have the skills and experience to do so. Have you let someone know your route and an estimated time as to when you should be back down off the mountain? What safety kit are you taking in your rucksack? First Aid kit? Survival Blanket? Extra layers of clothing and Emergency Rations? Sufficient water and a Hot Flask? A Map and Compass and knowledge of how to use them? Do you know if you can get a mobile signal in that area? Have you checked the weather forecast?
All the above-mentioned points add to our competence levels and ensure that when we do head to the hills that all the skills and abilities available are applied against risk to result in a positive outcome.
Way of the Wild is a provider of the Mountain Training Association Hill & Mountain Skills courses.
The Mountain Skills course is an ideal choice for people interested in exploring mountainous terrain and wanting to develop their confidence and skill set in the mountains. Also, a great refresher for those who want to sharpen up their skills. Participants should have some basic hill walking experience and a reasonable level of fitness. A Mountain Skills course is a great way to learn the essential skills you will need, to enjoy the mountains in the UK safely. Whether you would like to feel more confident using a map, you have ambitions to climb Everest or become a Mountain Leader, a Mountain Skills course is a great first step. You will be introduced to the skills and techniques required to enjoy mountain walking in your own time. Throughout the two days there will be plenty of opportunities to practise these new skills as well as learning more about the environment and how to manage the risks associated with mountain walking.
Do you want to improve your confidence and skill levels. Do you always head out on a walk led by someone else? Would you like to have the confidence to go out and enjoy the mountains personally without having to rely on others to lead? Or do you just want to refresh your skill set and keep relevant? If so, then Mountain Skills could be the ideal way forward. Please see the calendar on the web page for up and coming dates.
For any enquiries please email firstname.lastname@example.org
I will leave you with this:
Two woodcutters were in a competition to see who could cut down more trees by the end of the day. The first was an experienced woodcutter older in years and the second was a younger, stronger man eager to prove his ability. Both men set out to chopping. After about an hour or so the more experienced man paused, sat down to take a break and invited the other to join him. The younger, stronger woodcutter replied, “No way! I’m going to keep chopping and I’m going to beat you.”
“Suit yourself,” said the experienced man. This pattern repeated itself several times throughout the day. Every so often the experienced man would pause his chopping to rest, while the younger stronger woodcutter kept chopping away.
At the end of the day when the two woodcutters compared to see who had chopped more wood, the younger & stronger woodcutter was astonished to find that the older woodcutter who kept taking breaks had chopped a significantly greater amount of wood. He said, “How is that even possible? You spent far less time chopping than I did. I am stronger and never once stopped cutting down trees. What is your secret?” The experienced man said, “every time I sat down, I was sharpening my axe.”
When was the last time you sharpened your axe?
Hope to see you out on the hills soon.
Christy. @Way of the Wild
Liddle. J (1998). Risk Management: Walking the tightrope. Journal of Experiential Education 21 (2), 61-62
Glasser. W (1984) Control Theory. New York: Harper and Row