I'VE never been lost in the mountains. Temporarily misplaced on a few occasions certainly, and sometimes momentarily confused, but never actually lost.
Most people have gone astray at one time or another, but although it can occasionally lead to tragedy, more often than not the worst that happens is that you end up a few miles away from their preferred destination.
Let's face it, you have to try really hard to become truly lost in this country. Unlike the vast forests of Canada and the USA, for instance, where one wrong turn can mean you are never seen again. Those who have become disorientated among the trees will recognise the perils where long views or distinguishing landmarks are lacking. In 2015, the remains of a hiker were found more than two years after she had gone missing on the Appalachian Trail.
Her diary showed she had gone into the woods for a toilet break and then began walking in circles to find the way back. Eventually she sat tight, waiting for rescue. The tragedy seemed even more poignant as it turned out she was only a few hundred metres from safety without realising it.
The philosophy of being lost is the fascinating subject of the book Wayfinding with author Michael Bond covering a wide spectrum from ancient navigation methods to the scourge of Alzheimer's and dementia, where sufferers become lost in their own minds.
He asserts that confidence rather than intelligence is more important when it comes to map reading and route finding, and that the ability to stay calm when things go awry is key. The suggestion is that you are only truly lost when you believe you are lost. Lone walkers need that confidence. When there is no one else to bounce ideas off, you have to be able to trust your decision making.
The wayfinder's biggest error, according to the author, is not paying enough attention to the landscape they have just passed through. Just like crossing the road, it pays to regularly look both ways. Maybe we should take a leaf out of the book of some Scandinavian schools where basic navigation skills are taught as part of the curriculum.
The first time it goes wrong in the mountains can be a shock to the system. You emerge from the cloud confident you are spot on and suddenly nothing adds up. It's time to sit down for a few minutes to take stock; have a bite to eat, study the map, figure it out.
I remember coming off the top of Fuar Tholl in mist and being presented with a view that made no sense. I took a time-out and within a couple of minutes the contours and features fell into place. I had been turned around in the mist and was looking up the wrong glen; it should have been on my left but was now on my right.
One of the most challenging navigational Munro routes in thick conditions is the ascent of Seana Bhraigh starting from Lael on the Ullapool road. The final section, which involves threading a way through complex terrain around the massive cliffs of the Cadha Dearg, can prove intimidating when visibility is zero.
My most extreme example of going astray was back in the early days, a night walk with a friend in the Cairngorms. We were aiming to bag Monadh Mor and Beinn Bhrotain from the west, a route from Glen Feshie over the featureless Moine Mhor.
The mist was down to the road when we started off and it clung on as we climbed. Our only guide was our bearing and with nothing to see, the walk-in felt never-ending. Then, at last, we started rising. The timing was off, but we put that down to the lack of visibility.
We passed a cairn then found ourselves at the top of what felt like a huge void, but there was now an obvious path running along the rim. We convinced ourselves that all we had to do was follow this despite the compass reading being out. At any rate, it seemed the safer option than stepping back into the pathless gloom.
We climbed steeply up the increasingly bouldery slope, eventually reaching a big cairn perched on a point. I didn't need a map to tell me this wasn't Monadh Mor. And just at that moment, the mist blew away to reveal all. We were on Sgor an Lochan Uaine, a good way off course. We had walked over the shoulder of Monadh Mor in the mist, and instead of turning right we had kept rising to eventually reach Carn na Criche on Braeriach.
It would be a long way back, but since we were here, we carried on to do Cairn Toul as well. Needless to say, we arrived late for work that day.
When asked what happened, I said: “We got lost.”
I should, of course, have said: “We got temporarily misplaced.”