Sunday, January 7, 2018

Lost in Scotland

It was the international winter climbing meet in Scotland in early Feb, few days before my birthday. I had landed in Glasgow, where I was representing India for the meet. They invited the top two ice climbers from each country’s climbing federation. We were housed in a beautiful manor of stone and woods with all modern creature comforts; that we welcomed after a hard long day of harsh climbing. The climbing mostly occurred around Ben Nevis National Park and the primary ridge of Cairngorms.

In winters, Scotland is truly a mad crazy ice climbing paradise or hell depending upon your attitude. Scottish winter climbing grades are still highly revered and can only be applied to Scotland winter conditions since these are so specific and specialized. I was a real bad ass climber in those days, hanging from the edge of my fingers type and took rather masochistic pleasure of attempting to kill myself in the most challenging manner. That I didn't succeed proves that I wasn’t good enough.

During the week long meet, one day I decided to venture alone beyond the designated climbing area in search of something unknown. Predictably I hadn't told anyone where I was off to. I had a friend’s car, 4x4 with chain traction tyres. And with some food and my ice tools I took off into the mountains. 

The climb, free soloing of a 600m ice wall, was spectacular and exciting for sure but from the top I spotted the great Moors beyond the summit ridge and wanted to explore further. And that's where I committed a tactical error. Moors are very easy to get lost even in broad daylight with clear visibility since they are mostly featureless and there are wild dogs roaming around, more so in the winter. 

But as you well know I kind of disregard these kinds of things. And as I descended into the Moor, suddenly a thick fog swirled in from the Northern Sea. I saw it coming in from the top and descended right into it. It was a fantastic feeling. Like being gulped down by a giant mouth. If my sanity had prevailed I would have surely retraced my track and got back to the car asap, but then sanity never prevails until it is too late.

Soon I could see nothing and the day was dwindling. The car was parked far. My backpack was light, so were my down but I had waterproof layers so the wet fog clinging to my outer didn't bother me. I kept on going deeper and deeper. The sun sank and so did the world around. Darkness and fog without any light is a strange combination. I saw fleeting ghosts and shadows appearing disappearing all around. It was spooky for sure. Moors also have bogs and many have disappeared before without a trace.

But I was enjoying it. Anything could happen any moment and this scary prospect only excited me further. In couple of hours I was totally lost. And my only hope was that the fog would lift and I would be able to find my way back to the vehicle.

My headlamp was unable to penetrate into the fog more than few meters. I don't know till date what I was doing there, or what I was trying to find. But I kept going, realizing soon that I was going in circles and had absolutely no clue which direction to head. 

It was late evening and I was sure they would be missing me back in the hotel over dinner. Among my thirty odd climbing friends back in the mansion someone would surely notice my absence. So I presumed. Now having completely lost my bearings I did the first thing one should do. Stop moving. 

My watch compass gave me a general idea of the four cardinal points and adding the correction with the winds I kind of figured where the main road should be where the car was, but I had no idea how far or what lay between me and the road. This place is also full of streams, lakes and brooks, all of which would be frozen and walking on thin ice could be fatal. Yet I had no choice.

My body had by then cooled down and with temperature plummeting I started shivering. We never wear heavy insulation for short speedy ice climbs and I didn't have adequately warm down.

I soon realized I could well freeze to death with hypothermia or falling through the ice surface of a frozen lake or might become food for the animals. All equally grim prospects. Yet I believed someone will come looking for me and would find the car and would know that I'm somewhere in the area. Scottish Mountaineering rescue team is among the best in the world, I was hopeful. 

Night deepened my body started going into shock raptures. I had no more water or food. I had put on every bit of layers I had. I kept walking in the general direction of the road. I kept going for hours since I had no other option. I would die of cold if I stopped. Visibility didn't improve, fog didn't lift. 

Seconds passed like eternity. At some point I started singing then screaming then running just to maintain sanity and body heat. All I could think was survival and my mother.  Eventually my hope of rescuing evaporated. I realized nobody was coming for me. 

I was alone completely abandoned within the mountains with almost nothing to survive, just my wit, experience and will power. I'm sure anyone with less of any of these would have died that night. I kept going. There is a fine line between hope and despair yet it is the most profound line that can keep us alive. Many a times that night I tottered towards despair, yet some unknown force reeled me back to the side I was and I never gave up hope or the will to survive. Moving seemed pointless yet move I did since there was nothing else to be done and only through action, by actually doing something, anything, can we alter the dynamics of life and death.

The deep snow would further slow my steps. I kept stomping and stamping the ground. Real cold cuts like knife with the pain of blood oozing out. My body was being slashed merciless. I would howl and yell and bang my hands together. I was slowing down weakening as well as losing hope. My mind body soul was focused only on surviving through the night. I had to drive away all other thoughts from my head, thoughts like: fear, future, past, grief, regret, memories, everything. 

And so I continued. It was one of the greatest nights of my life. It taught me so many things, so many possibilities, so many roads, so much about human endurance and Will. 

The night finally ended and I eventually hit the road and found the vehicle. When I drove back, others were already out climbing. No one had noticed me missing. All my friends had presumed that I was somewhere around. And it was with a shock I had also realized how easily I could have not returned and no one would have known.


This incident I had nearly forgotten, but last evening, I took a post-dinner walk (as I usually do) through an impregnable curtain of fog. I could barely see past my outstretched arms and nothing moved at all. There was deep silence, even the street lamps fought hard to throw the feeblest of flare. The still air was redolent with the woody smell of fog. And suddenly in a flash my mind travelled back to that night of Scottish winter when it could have been my last.

This is just an incident from my life and serves as nothing else. There’s no moral or lesson here, neither any claim to any bravado or stupidity. It is just another day from my life of adventure. Neither here nor there it just shows that life serves us what we seek and ask for. Sometimes a bit more or less than sought but that’s no reason to stop living or seeking.

Getting lost is as much an art as getting found. And without being lost how would we ever find.

So is in love. We lose our heart to another only to find that our heart is within the other. The other may or may not acknowledge or realize or reciprocate yet the fact is that when we lose something there is also something else that fills up the void.


Next time when you get lost or lose something, do not fret my friends. Rather rejoice, since now soon enough you would either be found or find. 

1 comment:

  1. moral of your story is that you will never be lost, S ;-)

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