On Friday we took a group of Silvers out for their Practice Expedition, starting at Bridgehaugh, going through Glen Fiddich to Suie, then over to Tomintoul and finishing at Mains of Inverourie. It was a wet day and we had concerns about a couple of the burns that the group had to cross, not least because DofE groups are not supposed to ford. As there were only the two of us to supervise the group, David as main and me as support, we were also bothered by the lack of phone signal for the entire route on day one and the need to do a car shuffle as we had one vehicle between us. It was decided that after moving the car, I would walk further than originally intended, not just to the first night camp, in order to meet the group at the first tricky burn.
I have no photographs to post as my camera stayed buried in my pack.
The walk in from the Allenreid car park seemed to take forever. I reached the intended camp in a little over an hour, then walked on to pass two the derelict cottages and on to Morton’s Way. It was quite a dreary, wet, miserable walk, so I plodded on, pondering the burns and our plans. I met a few smaller burns that I had to consider my way across, but it wasn’t until I met the Back Burn that I realised we were not likely to get the group into camp that day. I had to do a full boots off, sandals on crossing, which wasn’t going to happen with the group. I was concerned that I needed to meet David and the group at their first crossing so I could tell them they would have to turn back.
It seemed to take quite some time to reach the zigzag path that takes walkers up to Corriehabbie Hill, further on I passed the Elf’s House (a hidden cave) and then an odd little lunch hut, all shut up against the elements. In places the path thought it was a river bed as the burn took the route of least resistance, but it wasn’t impossible. When I reached the River Fiddich, I checked my watch. The route card said the group would meet this check point at 14:30, just as I had arrived. There was no sign of them. I waited a while, fretting just a little as to what had held them up. It also occurred to me it had taken me three and a half hours to get here, covering over 8 miles and I still needed to get back to return to the start point, I could not hang about. I had a snack and a drink of water, but I was now getting a bit cold and needed to get moving. I wrote a message to David in the muddy track at the edge of the burn, “GONE BACK”, then, feeling anxious, I turned and left. Every so often, all the way, I looked behind me, just to check there was no sign of David’s orange Paramo (knew that colour would come in handy…) but he never appeared.
It was a long trudge back, not forgetting the boots off fording, but slightly quicker on the return trip as obviously I only had to remember each crossing, not figure each one out. After three hours and twenty minutes I was back at the car, taking off my wet kit and taking getting behind the wheel to return to the beginning.
A few minutes after setting off, my mobile rang, thankfully it was David, asking where I was as they had returned to the start. What a relief. Soon I was back there myself, and with the help of just one of the parents, we got all the group safely back home.
They learnt some very valuable lessons that day, so I can not consider this expedition a failure, especially as it was fully intended as a training exercise. Often groups complete these expeditions without being really tested by the conditions, without having to make any serious decisions beyond left or right path, or whose bag of Jelly Babies they open next. This group learnt how to look after each other, how to spot if a team member was maybe suffering in some way due to the conditions, the wet or the cold, from hunger or simply being tired. They learnt that the timings they put on their route cards are a really important safety feature, it turned out they’d reached the River Fiddich an hour before me, so were ahead of the route card. They learnt how to make difficult and important decisions. If there is risk, you turn back. It is always, always the right answer, to be safe at all times.
The best thing was arriving back at the start to find the group had taken shelter by putting up the fly sheet of the larger tent, all getting inside and having some food. Best of all, was they were still in such high spirits, still laughing and having fun and so pleased to see that I was safe too. What a fab group!
We’ll get them out soon, just for a quick overnight camp, then, their Qualifier in August. I cannot wait.