Getting Lost - We've All Done It

Dan Bailey makes an embarrassing navigational slip-up, then consoles himself that he's not the only muppet on UKH by inviting site users to admit mistakes of their own. We've all done it, and we'll probably do it again. To prepare for the next time you misplace yourself, see this skills article Six Navigation Tips - What to do When Lost.

I like to think I have a well developed sense of direction, a gut feel for the three dimensionality of landscape. Perhaps it's innate, this enviable spatial awareness of mine; or maybe it's something learned, a trait honed through years of hillwalking in all weathers, and kept fresh thanks to my ever so slightly smug disavowal of high tech aids. As a natural navigator I don't need a GPS to pinpoint my position on a hill. I generally have a strong opinion of my own. But however convinced I may be by my own marvellous ability, once in a while it turns out that I'm utterly, bafflingly, wrong.

The Map is Upside Down © tomvet2b
The Map is Upside Down
© tomvet2b, Mar 2011
Navigation is the key to get to the Cafe © Dan Goodwin
Navigation is the key to get to the Cafe
© Dan Goodwin

​We'd just trudged miserably over Cranstackie as a promising spring morning blurred into thick gloom, and icy wind sprayed us with an all-soaking mizzle. Now, damp to the underwear, we were on a very misty Beinn Spionnaidh, and keen not to be. It was a quick descent, Steve confidently declared; just pass right of the prominent cairn, bear off down the northwest ridge, and we'd soon be back at the car, and dry socks. He was a local - with some imagination and better weather you could almost see his house from the top - so we just put our heads down, hunched into our hoods and followed his disappearing heels.

The cairn was duly passed to our left and without bothering to stop for a bearing we began, we thought, to veer right as we should. Any time now the ridge would begin to take shape, out we'd pop beneath the cloud ceiling, and there would be the road and the desolate hills of Cape Wrath below. Each of us felt completely sure of it.

Soon the ground became more complex than expected, and perhaps a little less steep. But with some creativity the map could be made to fit the knobbles, and it seemed too much faff to locate a compass. Surely it'd all become clear if only we could lose this cloud. So onwards and downwards we ploughed for what seemed like miles.

Then, as hoped, we emerged from the mist. But instead of the familiar glen we'd left hours before, below was a huge stretch of steely water. It could only be Loch Eriboll, on the far side of the mountain. From the key cairn we had somehow managed to corkscrew the hillside, until we were happily striding off about 180 degrees the wrong way. Through lazy groupthink and a rush to escape the weather we'd failed to test our assumptions. So much for natural sense of direction. The only course now was back up into the cloud and rain - but this time with compass firmly in hand.

It seems I'm not the only navigationally challenged hill walker...

1960`s Silva Compass. © deepstar
1960`s Silva Compass.
© deepstar, Jun 2013

Kevin Woods

In 2009 I was 17. I had done maybe 40 Munros, and didn't really know how to navigate. I went to Fisherfield with a guy a good ten years older. We'd been on a good roll of mountains the past few days, and Fisherfield was the standard in "remote" - the place to go for difficulty-for-the-sake-of-it. I'd been flying around them on Google Earth for years and 'knew' the terrain very well.

The mist clears on A' Mhaighdean © Dan Bailey
The mist clears on A' Mhaighdean
© Dan Bailey

So 17 hours in, it was 11pm, on the summit plateau of A'Mhaighdean in the dark. All our sleeping gear was back at Shenavall bothy. Thoughts of doing the neighbouring Munro Ruadh Stac Mor were being abandoned in favour of finding the stalker's track at Fuar Loch Mor to get back to Shenavall.

"17 hours in, it was 11pm, on the summit plateau of A' Mhaighdean..."

We somehow got off the plateau in the right direction. My friend suggested we must walk off A' Mhaighdean direct to Ruadh Stac Mor on one bearing as "thats how you do it" - but there's cliffs in the way. I couldn't really use a compass, but I could use a sense of direction, and I knew he was wrong. We found a path and picked our way half-way down toward the bealach. We headed down a gully - got lost, again, and with cloud closing down to 700m, we ended up in a bowl of mountains. I felt it in that strange way you sense more than see. My friend was in complete "I'm lost...keep walking...don't care" mode. We'd pretty much fallen out, heads thumping with lack of sleep. Eventually we hit the water of Fuar Loch Mor, so I KNEW where we were. My friend thought the loch's water flowed out to Gleann na Muice - several kilometres out. He had the map, but wasn't interested. Somehow we split up (WTF) to look for the stalker's track (no success) and found each other by shouting.

We eventually slept out in the open at the loch, at 3am. There are most definitely some blanks in my memory, I haven't a clue where a couple of those hours went. Good news was, we woke up, we saw Ruadh-stac Mor, we knocked it off at 5am, and went home.

I slept for nearly a week.

Nowadays I do my own navigation and find it really enjoyable!

Paul Asbury (username Pasbury)

I can recall a couple of slight misplacements. Once on the Aonach Eagach in mist as party of two. We sat down for a brew and a bite to eat and then without discussion set off back along the ridge in the direction we had just come from - a 180degree error of navigation. There must have been some topographical peculiarity about where we sat as we were both sure we were going the right way and when, after about five minutes, things 'felt' wrong it took a serious cognitive effort to believe the compass and turn around.

How is your navigation? Brian in a whiteout walking towards the Shelterstone.
© hwackerhage, Jan 2008

"After another considerable loss of height we emerged from the cloud in exactly the same place as before. The third time we followed the compass religiously!"

Another time on Pen y Gadair Fawr in the Black Mountains, in a hurry due to freezing fog and serious windchill, we took a bearing and headed off. But we did not follow the compass. After considerable loss of height we emerged from the cloud into a valley that should have had a lake in it but didn't. Back up to the top, retake the bearing, follow it for a bit and then stomp off confident we were going in the right direction. After another considerable loss of height we emerged from the cloud in exactly the same place as before. The third time we followed the compass religiously! I think some landforms are intrinsically confusing.

Username Llechwedd

On a journey to visit all 300 of the 3000-foot mountains in the UK by bike and foot, I reached the Cairngorms by late May. On the 29th I pushed, grunted and cycled up Glen Feshie from Braemar, and eventually arrived at the bothy at base of Coire Garbhlach. A party of 16 arrived soon after. My energy sapping journey meant abandoning my plans for a push on to high camp at the plateau above the coire for an early start tomorrow. Serious consequences followed from this decision.

The next day the plan for walking the eight Munros west of the Lairig Ghru was abandoned en route. I reached Beinn Bhrotain much later than anticipated due to a combination of low energy, late start, poor vis, and extended map & compass time. I abandoned the plan to cross over to The Devil's Point direct via Glen Geusachan as the burn was roaring away unseen below in the thick clag and the risk of a difficult river crossing and steep reascent out of the glen and navigation over that route was offputting.

Pools of Dee, Braeriach © Kevin Woods
Pools of Dee, Braeriach
© Kevin Woods, Jul 2012

Instead I began the long traverse round the coire, hitting Lochan nan Stuirteag as planned. The length of the traverse that followed on the steep pathless terrain in thick cloud meant that I didn't get to the 'Point' until nearly 6pm. Not equipped for a night in the hills, I had no option but to drop down to Corrour bothy to await the dawn and complete the walk back to the Feshie bothy.

"I couldn't correct the clumsiness caused by shivering, and when I took the papers out of the waterproof map case, the wind plucked at them and the ink began to run in the rain. Things were a little desperate"

The completion the next day took nearly 12 hrs. I set off at 4:30, in cloud and strengthening wind. Braeriach was reached, but on the descent I became disorientated on the broken ground above Lochan na Cnapan near the head of Gleann Einich [it's a renowned navigation black spot, Ed.]. Having had little food or sleep, I was now cold and wet. Thinking clearly became a challenge and was confounded by the shivering which became difficult to control if I stopped to attempt map and terrain matches.

Because my entire UK walk covered (I think) 26 OS 1:50000 sheets I had instead printed out the relevant sections on double sided waterproof A4 paper. Unfortunately today the problem territory lay between sheets of A4. I couldn't correct the clumsiness caused by shivering, and when I took the papers out of the waterproof map case, the wind plucked at them and the ink began to run in the rain. Things were a little desperate. As the cloud parted momentarily, the only burn running north provided the vital clue I needed. Several hours later I was back on track for Sgor Gaoith.

navigating; cairngorm plateau
© Mac fae Stirling, Mar 2013

John Burns

We ran out of food yesterday and that one fact now dominates our existence. The reason we've run out is that we are now on the fourth day of a three day trek from Glenfinnan to Sheil Bridge. It's sometime in the seventies and me, and two other Pink Floyd fans, are heading up through Glen Dessary. In those days hair is in plentiful supply, in fact there must be a surplus. Martin, a gangly slim youth, sports shoulder length hair and a beard; Joe, my other companion, has an Afro. Even I, sadly bereft of the stuff these days, have long hair and a moustache. Between us we have enough to stuff a sofa. We do everything in threes, there's three of us in our three man tent on a three day trek. We carry three meals for each of us and three portions of soup, the rule of three goes on and on.

If you've ever run out of food you'll know that not having anything to eat focusses the mind pretty quickly. Food, or our lack of it, had been the sole topic of our conversation ever since the incident took place. There had been passionate debates on the quality of sausages, we'd argued over which types of biscuit contained the most chocolate, we'd gone dewy eyed about cheese sandwiches and no one dared mention fish and chips in case the thought of it alone was enough to kill. The danger of starvation was realistically small. One day without food never killed anyone but that's something your brain discounts instantly. There's a primaeval part of your mind that goes into overdrive at the merest hint of starvation and focusses your entire being on shovelling something half edible, wriggling or not, down your throat.

"We knew where we were, but there was a problem. There was a lake, stretching for miles, right across our route. The map denied all knowledge of it. The landscape itself had made a mistake"

I want to make it clear right away that we were not lost, we knew exactly where we were all the time. No navigational errors had been made. The only problem was that we weren't't where we were supposed to be. That's something completely different. Halfway through the end of our third day I had crested a ridge expecting to survey the remainder of our route out over the hills and down to the flesh pots of Sheil Bridge where we eagerly anticipated pints of cider in the little hotel. I had stood frozen in shock for several minutes, the only movement in my frame was the wind ruffling my fourteen inch flared trouser bottoms. I looked at the map, then back at the landscape, then back at the map. I turned the map through 90 degrees, squinted at the compass, scratched my head. There was no doubt about it, we were where we thought we were. But there was a problem. There was a lake, stretching for miles, right across our route. The map denied all knowledge of it, refused its right to exist, turned its back and refused to look at it. Clearly geography, the landscape itself, had made a mistake.

Loch Quoich - who put that there? © Dan Bailey
Loch Quoich - who put that there?
© Dan Bailey

After a while another explanation began to form as we gathered in a hairy huddle around the map. In the years since our old cloth map had been drawn men in hard hats with diggers, whistling inane tunes and reading the Sun, had arrived in the glen. These men, without any thought for the likes of us or, as far as we knew, without telling anyone, had built Loch Quoich. This is a great long mass of water that, despite the fact that it obviously had no right to be there, just sat there looking at us and refused to budge. It was a long walk round the broken shore of the loch, during which time we ran out of food.

On our last day we were down to a few chocolate biscuits for which I was responsible. As I explained, we packed everything in threes so it was with considerable consternation that I upended my rucksack and only two chocolate biscuits tumbled out onto the heather. A biscuit or two matters little when you are slumped in front of the telly on a Sunday afternoon, but if these are the only biscuits for miles and you have nothing else to eat their importance escalates to a height that even the Roux brothers could only marvel at. In my defence, all I can say is, I know I didn't eat the missing biscuit. This knowledge and my pleas of innocence, however, did nothing to assuage the suspicion of my ravenous companions. Even now when we meet up, thirty years later, thicker of waist and thinner of hair, I know that in the back of their minds they harbour a dark suspicion that I, in an act of betrayal as foul as cannibalism, had surreptitiously devoured the third biscuit.

Ever since then I've learned not to trust the landscape. Just when you are heading home and your mind has turned to armchairs and warm dry feet, the geography plays tricks on you. It removes bridges, moves paths to different places, puts forestry in your way and, of course, fills glens with water. Don't trust geography, it's tricky at the best of times.

What to do when lost 4 © Sandy Paterson
Making doubly sure, Photo: Sandy Paterson

Sean Kelly

One February gave me a stern navigation test high on Geal Charn, above Drumochter. I was by myself, and the sky was threatening snow. A severe frost and frozen hand brake delayed departure prior to setting out, but a good stalker's track led quickly up to the bealach. A quick check of the map and some easy compass work found the summit cairn, accompanied with large snowflakes, now falling heavily from a gloomy sky. I was not unduly worried as I knew the good path was just below the bealach, so I reset the compass and set off down. As I approached the col, the landscape didn't look too familiar, but all peat hags look similar, so I pressed on regardless. But no stalkers' track materialised, only more peat hags in the murk. I pushed on in the vain hope that something would materialise, prospecting along both sides of the col. Eventually, I had no recourse but to return to the summit and reset my compass bearings. At least it would be an identifiable landmark. It was with some relief that I quickly located the summit cairn on what was fairly flat and featureless terrain.

So with abundant new confidence and fixed compass bearing, a course was followed, hopefully back by the way I had originally intended. Then, with some dismay, it slowly dawned that I had repeated the same navigation error, and had descended to the wrong bealach yet again. There was nothing for it but to descend low enough below the cloud ceiling to check my position. If at the wrong bealach, Loch Ericht would surely come into view. I couldn't miss that, as it was fifteen miles long! Suffice to say Loch Ericht did appear, and that my original plan for the traverse to A'Mharconaich was postponed to the following day. A sensible decision as it transpired, with cloudless blue skies, the sun glinting off new snow, three Munros traversed, and nobody encountered during the entire day.

Ben Alder hills and Loch Ericht from Beinn Udlamain © Dan Bailey -
Ben Alder hills and Loch Ericht from Beinn Udlamain
© Dan Bailey -, Feb 2013

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23 Sep, 2014
Oops ;-)