One of the many pretty streams up on the Kinder Plateau
Yesterday, while hiking alone in a remote area of the Peak District I found myself in a potentially life threatening situation.
As authors we often put our characters into dangerous or frightening situations. We try to imagine how it would feel, and how they would react. But unless your life is a lot more exciting than mine, it’s very rare that you actually find yourself in such a position.
I’m coming to realise that on the rare occasions I do find myself in a pickle, it seldom feels the way I might expect. This seems a valuable lesson to learn, so I’m going to explore it a bit.
But first, what happened?
If you’re reading this in the UK you will know that we’ve just had possibly the most glorious week of the entire wretched 2012 summer. Taking full advantage of this, I drove 90 minutes into the Peak District, put on my boots and set off up the moors.
I often hike alone. I enjoy both the peace of solitude, and the freedom of making snap decisions to go out without having to mobilise a group. The only times I feel vulnerable when alone in the wilderness are in thick woodland, or if dusk is falling and I’m not where I’d intended to be.
Yesterday I drove to Edale. I walked up Jacob’s Ladder (a very long, very steep path leading to the Kinder Plateau). It was a glorious day. I’d been out less than an hour, but could feel that I was already getting sunburned (yes, I’d forgotten my sun cream. There was kind of a string of mishaps yesterday…)
I had been intending to follow the beginning of the Pennine Way along to Kinder Downfall. But since it was so hot, and had been all week I decided to take a chance on a notoriously boggy section of moor in the other direction, towards Mam Tor.
Shortly before the incident. If only the whole stretch had been stone flagged*
The area of moor between Kinder Scout and Mam Tor is so godforsaken it doesn’t seem to have a name of its own. It encompasses Brown Knoll, Horsehill Tor and Colbourne. The rough paths take regular detours around areas of sinking black bog. I’d been across there once before in summer when it was fairly firm underfoot; once when it was miserably boggy, requiring a painstakingly slow and circuitous route, with much jumping from tussock to tussock; and once in midwinter, when it was easy, because the ground was frozen.
Unsurprisingly, the boggy areas tend to take the pattern of water courses. So you will find a boggy depression about a metre wide, running down to join another boggy depression. The ground on the other side might be grassy and solid. It might be muddy. If it’s too wide to jump, and too deep to wade, you will regularly find yourself doing long detours to get around each boggy rill (this can also contribute to getting lost, as it is hard to hold a straight line while taking constant detours).
Why bother with such a miserable area at all, you ask? Well, there are really nice places either side of it, that’s why. I enjoy the thigh-tremblingly exhausting march up Jacob’s Ladder. I also enjoy the ridge over Mam Tor, Back Tor and Lose Hill, with its beautiful panoramas. Also, being such a beautiful day, the Pennine Way was predictably crowded. This path – for reasons which should be obvious – was not. I thought it’d be nice to avoid the crowds for a bit.
I met a couple of old guys coming across to the Kinder Plateau from the direction I was heading in. I asked them what it was like underfoot. ‘Not bad,’ they told me. They showed me how clean their boots were. Okay, I thought, I’ll do it.
They were right. The ground was mostly firm. But peat bogs can be very deceptive. The path was strewn with the usual flat expanses of black mud (being more liquid than solid, the mud always resumes a flat surface sooner or later). It is pocked with foot prints, and from the depth of these you can gauge how deep the bog goes – sort of. Sometimes the boot prints stay in place for a long time. Sometimes the bog gets soggier than it was when that last print was made – you sink deeper than whoever left that print.
How deep can the bogs go? Who knows. On Kinder Scout the rills can be 10 feet deep or more – but they are generally much more solid. I’m 5’8”, just so you know.
So yesterday was hot and sunny; it had been all week. The boot prints were all baked in to fairly solid mud. The going was easy. I got complacent. Which is how I strode straight into a deep, wet bog, sank, and stuck.
If you’ve ever sunk deeper than your boots into thick mud, you know how hard it is to pull yourself out. Bogs of course are this concept writ large. They are like quick sand. The more you struggle, the deeper you sink.
My left leg sank up to the knee, my right, over the boot. I found myself sitting on the surface of the bog, gradually sinking. I tried to pull my left leg out. Nothing happened.
If I was writing this scene in fiction, and trying to imagine myself in the situation, I expect there would be a lot of internal monologue; a lot of self goading, split-second contemplations of all the ways this could play out, and what the consequences would be. There might be tears, either during or after the event.
I’ll tell you how it actually was.
I knew right away I was in bad trouble. But I don’t recall actually thinking a single thing. I don’t mean I was in a blind, stupid panic. I just mean, I acted instinctively. I saw no options about my actions, and absolutely nothing else was important. So there was nothing to think about. I did two things: I screamed for help as loud as I could, and I began to dig at the sucking mud around my trapped leg.
I had seen a group of walkers off to my right only a minute or two earlier. I could no longer see them, but I hoped they might be within shouting distance. I knew that they might very quickly walk out of shouting distance, and so I didn’t wait before screaming. Pride did not come into it.
So I sat there, frantically scraping peat bog away from my leg. Of course, the mud kept oozing back into place, and all the time I could feel my other leg sinking deeper. While I dug, I yelled, ‘HELP!’ three times, pausing a little between each shout. Finally I managed to dig my leg free enough to pull up, but I was still floundering in wet mud, sinking and splashing as I tried to manoeuvre my way back to solid ground.
Slowly, inching my way, I made it to the grassy tussock I’d so recently stepped from, and crawled out. I was caked in black mud, from my boots to my waist, and all up my arms. Only then did I begin to tremble and mutter profanities.
Absolutely purposeful while in danger, as soon as I was safe I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to touch any of the things in my rucksack. The only dry place to wipe my hands was my vest.
While I stood there, the group of walkers I’d seen earlier ambled past about 50 yards away without giving me a second glance. A couple came down the path, the same way I had. I waited til they drew close, then asked if they had any wet wipes. Thankfully they did, and I was able to at least clean my hands.
I stood talking to them for about ten minutes. It turned out they were lost, and had a rubbish map. I showed them where they were; it wasn’t where they wanted to be. I told them to retrace their steps, and which direction to take when they reached the top of Jacob’s Ladder.
Before they left, the guy said, ‘I think you helped us more than we helped you!’ He was wrong. I needed that human interaction just then; that breathing space of normality. I needed to talk about what had just happened. And I needed to know that there were other people on that path. That if I hadn’t been able to dig my leg free, someone would have come along. Someone would have found me – before it was too late.
I considered heading back with them, and returning to my car. But instead I carried on. By the time I reached the edge of the bog I was mostly dry – filthy, but dry. I walked a further six miles or so, my black-streaked legs attracting a few curious glances as I passed. I even enjoyed myself once I’d left the bog behind and strode up on to Mam Tor.
I didn’t feel particularly thankful to be alive. I felt a sick, squiggly feeling in my stomach at the thought of drowning in porridgey mud. I still do.
I will continue to hike alone, but I have no desire to ever visit that particular stretch of moor again.
* Unfortunately my iphone (with which I was taking photos) was in my back pocket at the time, and didn’t thrive on the experience. It’s spent the remainder of the weekend dissassembled in a bag of rice, and seems to have dried out sufficiently to recover – phew! I only have a handful of photos from that day though – I couldn’t take any after the dunking.