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03/05/2015

An unexpected turn of events

Yesterday morning my alarm clock went off at 5am, I slowly came round and started to pack my gear together for my planned photo excursion to Back Tor in the Peak District for sunrise. I had checked the weather conditions meticulously, both short and long range, and conditions looked favourable to shoot in. As with any location I visit I always familiarise myself with the terrain and possible pitfalls of the geology or limitations of accessibility or light. On this occasion I had walked the Mam Tor ridge dozens of times in varying weather conditions so knew what conditions I could potentially be up against.

Little did I know that an unexpected turn of events would change how I respect nature for ever.

When I pack for a trip, be it to a known location or a new location I always make sure that I have basic measures in place and essential equipment packed. I always let someone know where I am intending to shoot and roughly what time to expect me home. I pack an emergency whistle, a compass, a basic first aid kit, a phone (fully charged) and in extreme locations an emergency blanket and storm shelter. Yesterday was no different, even though it was on a popular well marked and often busy route.

I arrived at Mam Nick car park at around 6.45am before first light. The weather was a pleasant 4 degrees with a little chill to the air and a slight intermittent drizzle. Nothing unusual. I started to climb the flagstone path up Mam Tor with high hopes of some good light and a pleasant day out, just me and my camera.

As I reached the Trig point the wind suddenly came out of nowhere, almost as if someone had positioned a jet engine 10 yards away from me and put it on full thrust. This didn’t surprise me as I’ve experienced strong gusts of wind on Mam Tor before and I’ve walked in Glen Coe in winds of 70-80mph before, not pleasant conditions especially in a white-out but certainly achievable if you keep your wits about you and you have a firm idea of your location. I walked probably 20m past the Trig point along the ridge towards Hollins Cross and suddenly a gust of epic proportions blew me clean off my feet, not an easy task considering the combined weight of myself and my backpack were around 100kg. I decided at that point that realistically any chance of shooting on my tripod would be close to impossible so took the decision to head back to the car park and travel to a new location on slightly lower and less exposed ground to get out of the wind. It was at this point that the wind came at an unimaginable ferocity. I couldn’t stand upright at all and managed to struggle hunched down back to the Trig pillar where I decided to take some shelter until the wind had subsided and then head back down.

I’ve always been fascinated by extreme weather conditions and the raw power of nature and initially in the first few minutes I was in awe of the winds power but always expecting it to blow through as it often does on the ridge. At this point I decided to film myself on the ridge with my iPhone, just as a record, as I knew I would find it difficult to describe the conditions to people on my return. You can see the video here: https://vimeo.com/121274496

After 15 minutes of sheltering the wind had actually increased and I found myself literally clinging on to the Trig pillar for stability. I made the decision that I would try and make my way to the path and try and get down off the ridge. After only a couple of laboured steps my glasses were blown clean off my face and I was sent flying down the slope feet off the floor as if hit by and invisible cannonball.

Time to think again.

I crawled back to the Trig pillar and decided to reassess the situation – surely these winds can’t last forever? I decided to hunker down and sit it out rather than risk potential injury trying to walk down. As the minutes passed I was being pelted by hail stones that at 100mph+ feel like bullets. The situation wasn’t looking good, but I’m no lightweight walker and I remember having attended a 3 day SAS survival camp in the Brecon Beacons that being mentally prepared for any situation is often more important than being physically prepared. I stayed calm and waited. A few minutes later my basic medical training had taught me to recognise that the involuntary shakes my body had gone into were the onset of hyperthermia and feeling colder and colder I decided to take the difficult decision to call for help. Luckily I had full signal on the top of the hill and managed to call Mountain Rescue, although the noise of the wind made it nearly impossible to hear the operator and in turn make myself legible.

I should add at this point that I have walked extensively all over the UK and further afield so I am no stranger to extreme conditions. I always dress accordingly and often overdress as it’s much easier to cool down by removing layers than it is to warm up. I was wearing a tough pair of Berghaus trousers, an Icebreaker merino base layer, a merino Smartwool PHD winstopper fleece and a Smartwool PHD down jacket, all more than adequate for the conditions forecast.

By this point I had been pinned down behind the Trig pillar for over an hour when I eventually saw two figures emerging from the haze of hail, both walking at an impossible angle of 45 degrees against the wind and fighting to stay upright and occasionally being thrown back towards the edge of the ridge. I asked if they were mountain rescue and they replied that they were just walkers who happened to be in the wrong place (at the right time for me). I explained my situation and that I had called out the Mountain Rescue and we all decided that we should try and head down and with their extremely kind help I felt a little more confident that as a group we could achieve this.

We eventually made it down off the ridge and to the eerie calm of the car park – it seemed that we had experienced two completely different worlds within the space of a few hundred metres. By this stage I was feeling spent, exhausted and shivering uncontrollably. A couple of minutes later we spotted the flashing lights on the Edale Mountain Rescue Landrover and managed to flag down one of their vehicles.

At this point I feel it only fair to give praise where praise is due and thank the two walkers who saved my bacon up there. I was sadly so relieved and in shock that I shook their hands and didn’t manage to get their contact details so if anyone out there reading this knows of their whereabouts please let me know.

After a brief discussion with James from Edale Mountain Rescue they decided it would be best to get me to their base, dry off my gear and get some hot drinks inside me for which I’m eternally grateful.

Later on that evening I mentioned what had happened to my fellow landscape photographers on Twitter and found out that I had already made the news through a website called Grough, an outdoor related site that some of you may know of. I checked the story on their Facebook page which can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/grough.outdoors/posts/10153087696697770?comment_id=10153088439202770 and I have to say I was saddened by some of the comments that were posted on there regarding the incident. If I’m honest if I had read that morning that someone had got in to trouble on Mam Tor in early March then I would have probably had a similar ‘how is that possible’ attitude. I think that what saddened me more is the fact that some of the posts were by experienced walkers and climbers who should, more than anyone, know that sometimes conditions can be unpredictable. I have read countless stories of extremely competent mountaineers that have been caught out by a sudden extreme change of conditions. I’m sure we all have very little pity when we here the stories of folk being stranded on Ben Nevis in winter wearing shorts and UGG boots, but sometimes nature decides to teach us a little lesson in humility and it’s how we deal with those adverse conditions that make the difference.

Looking back on this incident I don’t think there is anything I would have done differently. It’s why I love the outdoors and it’s unpredictability. I remember a few years back when a fell race in the Lake District was hit by incredible conditions and a lot of highly experienced fell runners got in to difficulty, I’m sure that all of them are still running over fells, only this time with those conditions at the back of there mind. We live and we learn. I’ll still be up at the crack of dawn wherever I am and I’ll be out trying to capture what tried to kill me with my camera.

My respect goes out to Edale Mountain Rescue, for continually putting their own lives at risk so others can enjoy our wonderful landscape that surrounds us, and I didn’t take the decision to call them out lightly. I’ll be making a donation to the team and I would ask that anyone that reads this would also consider making a donation, after all, if it wasn’t for them and the two mystery walkers I wouldn’t be able to bore you all to death with my landscape images!!

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