Escape from Lochnagar

I’m in trouble. The last blog post included an unfinished account of being lost up a mountain in mist, trapped between steep cliffs on one side and miles of wilderness on the other. One of my daughters said, ‘You can’t leave us with a cliff-hanger like that!’ (Very ‘punny’.)

With a son and three daughters I’ve long since learned to refuse their pleadings. But this time it’s fair to make me complete the story. I don’t often explain how I got down the mountain because it’s always seemed strange. So please accept that while I can explain what happened, I can’t explain why it happened.

First, a quick recap to set the scene. Without telling anyone where I was going, I set off one bright morning to climb Lochnagar, a 1155 metres (3789 ft) mountain, about 50 miles from our home in Aberdeen. I was stupidly unprepared. Apart from boots and a jacket, the only sensible thing I had with me was a map. Without a compass, the map had limited use. I should never have gone to Lochnagar’s summit because, from lower down, I’d seen that it was shrouded in mist. But I hadn’t come that far to turn back, and I made it to the top. Getting down was the problem. Visibility was only two or three metres at best, and I knew from the map there were deadly cliffs off to my left, and miles of wilderness off to my right. Lochnagar’s summit perches on top of a plateau of rock, so there was no trail to follow. Twice I set off, was quickly lost, and sensibly didn’t keep going but returned to the top. (A summit is always ‘up’ so I knew which way to go.) My third attempt at a descent was worse. Again I was lost within minutes, then walked into a boulder, and fell over it hurting my leg. I knew that if I’d broken my leg I’d have died. No-one knew I was there; no-one was coming to rescue me.

This is the point when I stopped last week’s story. So, what happened next?

I was wet, cold and hurting. All these would only get worse if I stayed still. I had to move. Very carefully I took some steps, pausing after each one. The mist was so impenetrable I knew that if I walked at any pace I’d fall over the cliff edge before I could stop. Step by step I eased forward, with no idea at all which way I was going. The plateau of rock was near flat, so I didn’t even know for sure I was going down. And, if I was, going where? Towards the cliffs, or into miles of barren land?

That thought triggered my memory of an old hymn. No-one else was going to hear, so I sang out loud the opening lines.

Guide me O thou Great Jehovah,

Pilgrim through this barren land;

I am weak, but thou art mighty;

Hold me with thy powerful hand.

Exactly as I sang those words I glanced down and saw a footprint. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been walking on rock where there were no footprints. But right here – in one tiny patch of ground between rocks – was earth with a boot-sized footprint.

The tread of that climber’s boot pointed partly left from the line I’d been on (as if towards 10 on a clock). Surely whoever left that tread mark was also going down this mountain. I turned in the direction the footprint pointed and walked. After only two minutes something moderately large loomed out of the mist. I edged closer. It was a cairn, a triangular pile of stones. Cairns are built at the summit of mountains, but also beside trails so walkers can find their way in blizzard or misty conditions. Seeing that cairn was the best possible thing that could happen. I was going the right way.

I knew there would be more cairns, but the mist was unrelentingly impenetrable and other cairns would be at least ten metres away, further than I could see. I’d have to leave one cairn to find the next. But staying where I was wasn’t an option. I took about three steps, looked back and my cairn was gone. Another step, and another, another, another. Had I gone the wrong way? Then, through the mist, I saw a shape, got closer and found another cairn. So the descent began, leaving one cairn behind in the mist in hope that the next cairn would appear through the mist. As I moved off the plateau, the cairns stopped but now I could see a faint trail. I edged my way very cautiously because I was now on a severely steep slope and a fall would propel me over rocky ground down the side of the mountain. The result would be at least broken bones and unconsciousness. I’d be unlikely to survive.

But I made it down that slope. I stepped out of the wall of mist into sunlight. Over to my left I could see the cliffs and the loch below them, and to my right the track I needed to follow down the rest of the mountain. It was all the same as when I arrived, the highest third of Lochnagar blanketed with mist, but clear skies and good visibility below. Back on the main path, I made easy progress down the hill, back to my car, drove to nearby Ballater and called home to Alison. She was amazingly calm. ‘I was wondering how to tell the police my husband hadn’t returned from a walk. They’d have asked where he’d gone, and all I could have told them was somewhere west, and they’d have pointed out that everything inland from the Aberdeen coastline is west. They wouldn’t have known where to start looking for you.’

I returned home, penitent, relieved and angry. Penitent about my utter foolishness, making Alison worry whether I was hurt or lost, and not knowing how she could help. Relieved, of course, because I hadn’t died and had come back to my family. And angry for the utter mess I’d made of climbing Lochnagar. I was so angry that within a couple of days I decided I had to climb it again – which I did exactly one week after the first expedition. And that ascent also ended in a wholly unexpected way, but that story is for the next blog post.

So, what wisdom comes out of this story?

First, know when to cut your losses. My near-death experience on Lochnagar was completely avoidable. I’d told no-one where I was going. I didn’t have the experience or the equipment to climb a high mountain. And I should never have gone to the summit.

On that last point, there was a moment of decision when I made the wrong decision. I stood on ground overlooking the loch and gazed up towards a summit I couldn’t see because everything above me was in thick mist. I thought, ‘I’ve come this far. I’m not turning back now’. That thought could have killed me.

There’s a name for a mistake like that: it’s called the ‘sunk cost fallacy’. A cost is ‘sunk’ when it’s already been spent. The ‘fallacy’ is when it’s clear that stopping the plan or project at mid-point is best, but you carry on because of the large investment already made.

Close to where I grew up large amounts of money were spent creating a new mine. The talk was of 100 years of coal being dug out of the ground. A major ‘new town’ was built close by to provide homes for the workers. But miners from other local pits warned that a colliery in that place would flood. But a huge investment had already been made, so construction went ahead. The mine did flood, and production ceased after only five years. Those in charge had moments when they could have stopped, but they didn’t. So much had already been invested.

I should have stopped, and walked back down Lochnagar as soon as I saw that the summit was shrouded in mist. Determination to keep going was not my friend. It could have killed me. Wisdom lies in knowing when to stop, when to cut your losses. Danger lies ahead for those who won’t rethink their plans.

Second, we can’t always explain or define our experiences. What exactly happened that allowed me to live? The obvious facts are easy: I tried to descend twice and got lost; I tried a third time and got lost again, but started singing a hymn about God’s guidance, suddenly saw a boot print, followed its direction, found cairns, and got on the trail that took me to safety. At one level that’s what happened.

But at another level I don’t know what happened. Many Christians would say I experienced a miracle. God heard me, and in his mercy gave me a sign that pointed me to safety. I believe in miracles, so that could be true.

But I hesitate to claim that. Why? I have two reasons.

First, my escape felt miraculous but I’ve never been sure if that’s the right word for what happened. There were certainly remarkable factors: singing that hymn, and immediately seeing a highly unlikely boot print which pointed me to a cairn which led me to other cairns and to safety. Each of these is ordinary, but what’s extraordinary is how they came together at my moment of greatest need. Was that just a coincidence? I can’t say it was, yet I still hold back from calling it a miracle. I didn’t see a vision. I didn’t hear a voice telling me which direction to take. If I had, I’d be thinking in ‘miracle’ terms. I’d have no other explanation. But there are other explanations for a boot print in earth and a cairn on the mountain. So – without in any way denying God’s mercy to me – I want to be cautious in my language about the experience.

Second, many others who climb Scotland’s mountains get into trouble but no miracle saves them. They slip and fall, or get buried in an avalanche, or get lost and die from hyperthermia. But I didn’t die, and I can’t think of any reason why I should be saved by a miracle and they weren’t. I didn’t deserve it, for if miracles are a matter of deserving, there’d be none. No-one is good enough. And I wasn’t especially spiritual or trusting that day. I was frightened – the most likely outcome was death. In short, there’s no reason why God should show me any special favour more than others, so I’m slow to use the word ‘miracle’ about my escape.

These thoughts also remain with me:

I am immensely grateful to have lived that day. We should be thankful for every good thing whether we understand it or not.

I lived, and that allowed me to do more with my life. The next day is never guaranteed to anyone, so the time we have should be lived well and used well.

Bad experiences teach us important lessons. I’ve climbed many mountains since, but never again without letting others know where I was going and carrying the right equipment. (I even bought an ice axe – that’s taking things seriously!) The old saying that the one thing we learn from history is that no-one learns from history doesn’t have to be true at the personal level. We can learn, and we probably learn more from tough times than easy times.

Next week the final story about Lochnagar and what (or who?) I brought home to Alison.