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In Praise of Risk Assessment – by Edward Chapman

I completed my adventure hiking the Scottish National Trail from Milngavie (near Glasgow) to Cape Wrath, the most north westerly part of the UK mainland. The last part on the Cape Wrath Trail was tough and made even harder by bad weather. At times I was in a very hostile environment and it is no exaggeration to say that on several occasions, had I not made the right decision, I would have died.

This is not as dramatic as it sounds as I was, in effect, programmed to make the right decision thanks to risk assessment and experience. That doesn’t mean that I filled in lots of forms to make sure I did not trip over the tent’s guy ropes. You soon learn not to do that.  Having minor accidents and learning from them is all part of the process of dealing with risk. Far better to find out in the playground that falling off things hurts than leaving it until you are half way up Everest. I’ve learnt over the years I’ve been running what clothing works in the wet and cold and what doesn’t. Sometimes that has been the hard way, but getting home from a local run freezing cold isn’t as bad as being in the middle of nowhere freezing cold. I’m glad to say my kit selection was spot on.

How important risk assessment was on my trip can best be illustrated by what happened on the day before I reached Cape Wrath. Early on that day I had to cross a river feeding into the loch I was walking alongside. When I reached it I could see that it was in flood because of all the rain there had been in the previous weeks. It was too deep and too fast flowing to cross safely. My reading of route descriptions and other people’s accounts of hiking the trail all stressed how dangerous river crossings could be. There were even warnings printed on the Harvey’s maps I was using.  I had crossed a large number of rivers already on the trip, some with wires to hold onto, so I knew how strong the flow could be and how easy it can be to get swept away. This river was the fastest flowing I’d come across, there was no wire to hold on to and it was wide. If I tried to cross it there would only be two outcomes.

  1. I’d get swept off my feet; I would not be able to get my heavy rucksack off and would drown.

  2. I’d get swept off my feet; I would get free of my rucksack and make it to dry land. I’d be wet and cold with no dry clothes, no shelter and no food. With no help for miles around I would die of hypothermia.

I walked upstream hoping that I would cross streams feeding the river and by the time I’d crossed several the flow would be less and I could cross. There were no streams, the river was fed directly by a loch higher up in the hills. I could see from the covered vegetation that the loch was 9-inches to a foot above its normal level.  The map showed a number of interconnected lochs and I hoped I could find a way through. Unfortunately my route was blocked one way by another impassable river and the other way by an insurmountable crag. The only option was to return to where I started.

When I reached the site of the river crossing again this was a danger point; I knew that I would have to retrace the whole of yesterday’s hike to get to a road that would eventually lead to where I wanted to be. In total a 2 day detour. The temptation was to reassess the crossing and say ‘yes I’ll risk it’, but nothing had changed, the original risk was still there, it was just my desire to cross that had changed. I turned round and started to walk back along the loch retracing my steps from before.

There was one glimmer of hope; the map showed that there were no rivers flowing into the loch on the other side, if I could cross the river that feeds into the top of the loch I could get through on the other side. It was a steep slope, but the part I could see was doable and the contours were the same all along the loch so I should be able to get all the way along to the end.  When I had reached the top of the loch the day before I did not pay the river much attention as I wasn’t going to cross it, so I did not know whether I could or not. I gave myself a stern talking saying ‘if it is not safe to cross don’t do it, much more preferable to take a day’s detour than get swept away.’ Fortunately, I found a spot to cross and was able to make my way along the other side of the loch. By the time I got to the end of the loch I was five hours behind schedule.

Being behind schedule gave me another problem. I had planned to be at the London Stores on the outskirts of Kinlochbervie by lunchtime so that I could restock with food before the final part of the journey. I was now likely to get there after 6pm and the shop was likely to be closed. Fortunately I had enough main meals to get me to Cape Wrath and back because I had carried extra on the previous section to allow for delays either due to difficult terrain or bad weather and hadn’t needed to use them. I was low on snacks, but I could cope and I’d been told that the café at Cape Wrath is always open. I had planned to camp at Sandwood Bay, but I’d never reach there before dark. I knew there was a bothy (mountain shelter) just off my route about 3 hours before Sandwood Bay. I could get there in time so that was the revised plan.

The track I needed to take turned off just before the London Stores, but I carried on until there just in case it was open. It was; it closes at 9pm in the summer. I bought a couple of bananas and some flapjack. As I was making my selection I chatted to a customer who asked me where I was headed. I explained that the ultimate destination was Cape Wrath, but that I was hoping to make Strathan Bothy that evening. “Oh I was there last weekend, it’s a lovely bothy” he said “it will take about three to three and a half hours to get there so you will make it before dark.” It gets dark very late in north Scotland in the summer. He left the shop wishing me a good journey. As I was paying for my purchases the shop owner explained that the person who had just left was the chairman of the John Muir Trust (a charity that protects and enhances wild places in Scotland). That filled me with confidence about getting to the bothy in time.

I knew that the track would soon disappear and I would have to navigate across the moor on compass bearing. Unfortunately fog had closed in so I could not navigate by aiming for features I could see on the map. There were several changes of bearing to make, to avoid peaks and some bad bogs. This meant I would have to navigate by compass and estimating distance travelled before making a turn. This was something that popped up on my pre-trip risk assessment; I was not very good at that sort of thing. That is why I went on a navigating by compass course before I went and practiced what I had learnt on the first part of the trip. I am pleased to say that when I got close to the bothy I was only 200 metres off course after three and a half hours walking.

A day that could have gone so very wrong ended well because of good risk assessment and taking the appropriate action.

I was reminded of that river crossing several weeks later when I was back on Dartmoor. As I walked from Okehampton towards the moor I came upon a sign on a bridge (see photos below). The water looked very gentle in August, but I can imagine that when there is a lot of rain on the moor the level can rise dramatically and it would be fast flowing.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, but it can so easily end there unless you asses the risks and take the appropriate action.

Dartmoor Bridge
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