Graham Bradshaw | The Coldest Night of My Life!

The Coldest Night of My Life!

December 21, 2016  •  9 Comments

This is probably more an exercise on what not to do when camping in winter, but I hope it’s an enjoyable read for you. 

 

In February this year I decided to buy a ‘proper’ mountain tent and hopefully get some nice clear summit night photography done. You may have noticed that I like photos of the night sky..... I managed to pick up a second hand (but nearly new) Terra Nova Ultra Quasar tent on Ebay for a decent price and then waited on a decent forecast coming along. I got my chance on Feb 13/14 when the forecast around Assynt looked promising. 5mph winds, clear skies, and sea level temperatures of around -1C.

 

So, I was all set, until I realized that there might be snow around and I thought I should really invest in some snow pegs. No problem, I’d swing by Tiso in Inverness and pick some up on the way. I was expecting to pay somewhere between around £10 and £20 for a decent set that would do the majority of the tent. However, turned out that Tiso were charging around £20 for 4 nice red MSR snow pegs. So I quickly decided that as the tent was geodesic and therefore self supporting, that I would only need 4 for the corners. It wasn’t going to be windy anyway……. Pegs bought, I then headed up to Assynt early afternoon.

 

     It was a cracking day, with clear blue sky and just a breath of wind. As the ground was frozen, from Culnacraig to the snow line, it was a pleasant crunchy walk too, without the usual bogginess of the initial stages. I took my time and enjoyed it, knowing that I would be killing time waiting for the sunset, then the moonset, then dawn. With night still being around 15hrs in February I knew it would be a long night and a new experience for me as I’d never camped in freezing conditions or the snow before. Still I had a decent tent, my Snugpack Chrysalis 4 sleeping bag, a self inflating foam mattress, a stove and meals. How hard could it be?

 

As I reached the snowline I saw someone coming down from the summit. A lady who had done Ben Mor Coigach and its ridge before walking back by the Fiddler. She was crunching through the icy snow and had had a great day, although she looked a bit dubious when I said I was planning on camping out. As I got closer to the summit, there were patches of deeper snow in sheltered areas that were a ‘surprise’ when you stepped into them and sunk 3 feet into a drift. Mostly though, it was just a couple of inches deep and nice crunchy hard snow. I had thought about putting on crampons, but never really felt they were necessary.

 

I reached the summit area just after 4pm, with sunset due just after 5pm. What had been a light breeze at sea level was now a pretty brisk wind coming straight from the north, so I had a walk around looking for a decent pitch for the tent. Eventually I settled on an area just to the south of the summit, which was sheltered from the worst of the wind by the summit and seemed like the best option. At this point I met another walker, who had been following in the footsteps of the first lady. He stopped for a chat, agreed it was probably the best place for a pitch, then headed off west to a lower top to wait on the sunset. I then set about putting the tent up for the first time outdoors.

 

     It wasn’t too bad. I pegged out the main inner with normal pegs which allowed me to get it up, then stretched the fly over, got the MSR pegs out and started pegging the corners. After 3 pegs, I realized I had none left, so went looking around the pack for the last one. Couldn’t find it. Hunted high and low, even looking under the tent, but couldn’t find it at all. Eventually I gave up, then chose the corner that I suspected would have the lest wind and stuck a normal peg in that. Easy! I also decided not to use the guy ropes as I was sheltered, and the normal pegs were pretty useless…..

 

Tent up, I then started on the mat and sleeping bag. I tell you what, I was not prepared for just how cold the ground felt through the tent. It was OK through the sleeping mat, but as soon as you’re off the mat on the floor of the tent, you know about it. It was like touching the cooling element on the freezer. Even through the sleeping bag it was uncomfortable, but the mat made it bearable. What a great invention!. As the mat wasn’t particularly wide, I suspected this may be an issue later on.

 

  Anyway, I was pretty much sorted now, with sunset starting to take hold, so I grabbed the camera and headed out to get some photos. I see most people who are on the hills in winter wear woolly hats. I’ve always been more comfortable in a fleece snood hood as it keeps my neck much warmer and I can pretend I look like a Jedi. A Jedi in a North Face down jacket from Go Outdoors. A fat Jedi….. It was also biting cold in the wind, so gloves went on whenever I wasn’t needing to press the camera button.

 

Any of you that have ever been to the summit of the Fiddler will understand when I say it’s one of the scariest places to stand that I’ve ever been. On 3 sides you’ve got a 1500 foot vertical drop down the cliffs, and a covering of snow with some wind fairly helps to focus the mind. The view north across Assynt is fantastic though. I took many photos as the light was changing, and also a few south and east capturing a few decent shots before the sun finally set.

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As the light faded and it got considerably colder, I started to have thoughts about just how wise my adventure was. All alone on a mountain for the next 16 hours in freezing conditions. Well, I was committed now!

 

It was then a case of waiting for it to get dark enough for the stars to come out. I knew moonset wasn’t until just after midnight, so wanted to be out taking photos around 10pm with the moonlit landscape. I decided to kill time in the tent, so crawled into the sleeping back and tried to keep as warm as possible. I made some Chicken Tikka on the stove, and tried somewhat unsuccessfully to get some sleep.

 

When I went back out around 10pm, it was considerably colder, and when I wasn’t in the shelter of the summit, was ridiculously cold. With night photography long exposures, and in camera noise reduction on, it means you are waiting for 1 minute between shots, all the while getting colder and colder. Some of the images I was seeing suggested I was going to get a good haul, but it really was chilly in the wind, so once I had all the compositions I wanted, I headed back to the tent to wait on moonset after midnight.

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I was pretty pleased to climb into my sleeping bag. I kept my down jacket on and shivered for a while before my body heat made it more comfortable. I also noticed that there was little flakes of snow falling on me and the floor of the tent was getting an amount of little specks of snow building up. Just like big flakes of dandruff apparently (I've seen photos) This seemed to be from my breath which was freezing against the tent walls and then dropping off.

 

Getting a bit hungry again, I decided to have some more food. Pasta and meatballs. This time, the condensation from the stove flame seemed to be blowing directly into the tent and making it ‘snow’ even more. Every time one of my feet came off the sleeping mat and rested on the ground I soon knew about it. Although I was a bit uncomfortable, without the mat it would have been hell! Anyway, I finished my second dinner, tried unsuccessfully again to get some sleep, and waited for my alarm to go off at 1am in order to get outside and get the really starry photos. It’s amazing how you justify time to yourself overnight. For example, at 12am I was thinking, ‘Right, I’ve been here 8 hours. In another 8 hours, the sun will be up and I’ll be heading down the mountain. I’m halfway there! Just the same again’.

 

My alarm went off at 1am, and I started the painful process of extricating myself from the sleeping bag, getting my boots and gloves on, snood up, jacket zipped, head torch on. I unzipped the tent door and stepped into complete darkness. After letting my eyes adjust, I was happy to see a myriad of stars in the sky, so set about taking some photos again.

 

It’s quite unnerving standing in complete darkness at the top of a 1500 foot cliff waiting for a long exposure shot to finish. Switching the head torch off and pressing the shutter button leaves you in utter darkness, with eyes unadjusted and unable to see a thing. There’s a fair bit of sensory deprivation and I typically kept my hand on my camera strap, both the ensure it didn’t go tumbling over the edge, but also to ensure I didn’t become disorientated and topple off….. The night sky in Assynt is some of the least light polluted in western Europe, and although the lights from Lochinver and Ullapool were visible, the night sky was still spectacular. There was also a faint auroral glow over Lochinver which would have been nice if it had come to something.

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If anything, it was even colder than it had been when I had been out a few hours previously. As soon as I took the gloves off to get a photo my fingers felt like they were about to break off. In hindsight I wish I had taken more photos, but at the time I was desperate to get back into the tent, so I finished up as quickly as I could and went back to the tent to see if I could get some sleep before the sunrise.

 

I couldn’t sleep, and before long I became aware of the wind getting up a fair bit. There were strong gusts hitting the side of the tent from the northwest and they were getting a bit worrying. I kept putting my hand on the wall of the tent in an effort to stabilize it. By this time it was almost 4am and I was thinking, ‘Only another 3 hours. I’ve been here for 12. No worries. I’m past the worst of it.'

 

Then it happened. A gust of wind got under the center of the tent and flipped it over with me inside. I remember letting out a girly scream as I thought about getting blown down the mountain like an out of control gazebo. I threw myself against the side that had blown over and managed to wrestle it back down. Something seemed different though. After a bit of confusion, I realized that one of the main poles had broken.

 

I thought about sitting it out for another couple of hours, but realized that it was likely to just continue pounding me, so decided that it was time to call it a night. I started packing up. Everything in the tent first, staying in the sleeping bag as long as possible, with it being the last thing to get packed. Then outside into what by now was a pretty blowy gale to get the tent packed away. After getting it into the stuff sack, I had a look around for the 3 red MSR tent pegs and could only find one. You’d think with them being red against the white snow they’d stand out in the head torch light, but no. Couldn’t find them and didn’t want to hang about so set off down the mountain in complete darkness. Initially I was following footsteps in the snow, but I soon lost them. That’s where the GPS comes in handy, and I could follow the track I’d laid down on the way up. Even so, I drifted off course quite a few time and had to course correct quite a bit. Goodness knows where I’d have ended up without it.

 

Once below the snow line I met up with the path again and it was starting to get lighter. By the time I got back to where the car was visible I was feeling a real sense of achievement, and a fair bit of luck that I’d got through the night unscathed. I made plenty of mistakes and learned a lot but at every stage I was pretty sure that I would have been able to cut my adventure short and escape. Which is what I eventually ended up doing.

 

When I posted a few photos on Facebook the next day, a friend contacted me to say I was hardy and that his mercury had dropped to -15C during the night. I wasn't particularly surprised. It had felt a lot colder than -1C......

 

It was painful at the time, but an absolutely incredible  experience to look back on. So much so that I have a 5 season sleeping bag, some of Chinas finest snow pegs and a better sleeping mat all ready for a similar adventure this year!!

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this as much as I have enjoyed reliving it!

Graham_Bradshaw

 

P.S. – The pegs – I was back in the area a month later to walk the Ben Mor Coigach ridge.  I decided to go see if I could find my pegs now that the snow had gone. Find them I did! And it seems that I had 4 all the time, but had just pushed 2 in together. They were sticking about 5 inches out of the ground so fairly easy to spot. I also ordered a replacement pole from Terra Nova, lots of Snow Pegs from Ebay and was out again summit camping on Ben Tianavaig in Skye 2 weeks later J

Graham_Bradshaw

 

Comments

Morgan Law(non-registered)
This is terrific. Enjoyed your photos on FB and made out your web address off the bottom of one of the star photos there. Delighted to find this little treat and reminder of my time in your stunning country during 2014 - 2015.
Gavin Ross(non-registered)
Some of the best mountain photography I have seen. Great story well told, really enjoyed reading the blog and put the effort required to take these amazing photos into perspective. More 'Storm' trooper than Jedi...
Keep the blogs and photos coming.
Ivaniss(non-registered)
Really enjoyed reading your adventure! Amazing pictures!
Charles MacQueen(non-registered)
Great blog Graham and even better photos. Weather is always fickle and you withstood more than I could.
tony cave(non-registered)
Amazing photographs.
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