Creeping up Behind You

Knowing when to turn back

We’d planned a good solid loop track. No retracing of footsteps. No having to reinvest in the landscape we’d already seen. The three of us often spent a good portion of our trip planning looking for loop tracks and this time we’d found a good one: two nights, a vertical climb, a decent ridge crossing and then the final night in a snug hut by a river, one with a rustic fire place we could roast marshmallows on.

We set out early. Dense cloud whipped through the hills and it was raining steadily. We were keen to get the ridge section behind us before it got worse and we made good progress for a couple of hours. The route was staked with markers about 50 metres apart and we managed to follow them without too much trouble. And then we couldn’t find the next one. We hunted around, doing loops and coming back to where we started. Nothing. We’d only been looking about 20 minutes when John made the call. We should turn back. I wasn’t keen. Surely if we found the next one we’d be off again and at the next hut within an hour? We might, he said, or we might walk a further few hundred metres then lose another marker. And then what?

Sometimes the hardest thing for anyone to do, in any situation, is to give up on the plan. It’s natural to be hopeful and think that just around the corner everything will be okay. It is difficult to pick that specific point where it’s not worth carrying on. It helps if you have a plan B from you start, something that stops you feeling like you've completely given up, but that’s not always possible. In the end, with all the planning and experience in the world, it still takes someone with true courage to turn back.

It was grimly cold by then. Our shorts, our boots, any part of us not covered by our jackets, were wet. We set off at a hard pace back up the ridge and before long, we realised we needed fuel to get us through. We huddled under a rock, trying to keep clear of the wind, and scoffed handfuls of salted cashews and dark chocolate. I considered putting on some more thermal underwear, but that would mean opening my pack to the rain and taking off my jacket and shirt. I decided not to.

The ridge went on forever. Occasionally a strange pile of non-rocklike material appeared through the gloom. We hadn’t noticed these before, and as we got close we discovered that they were the heaped and rotting entrails of a hunter’s deer. We pushed on even faster, blisters starting to bloom in our sodden boots.

Finally we reached the hut. We replaced our wet clothes for whatever we had left that was dry. The hut had a limp gas heater with a button that had to be pressed every 20 minutes to keep going. We made tea to speed up the warming process and to get rid of the awful aftertaste of cashew and chocolate. Before it was even dark, I had climbed into my sleeping bag.

After an hour or so I still felt cold. Thom whipped up a great feed, bangers and mash with peas and dark gravy. Our favourite tramping meal, and yet I couldn’t face it. This was strange. I was usually proud of my ‘circulation’ and my ability to eat anything, anytime. I shivered in my sleeping bag and tried to shove the creamy spuds down. This wasn’t right, but then, maybe not that unusual. It had been cold out there and that chocolate had been rich. My teeth actually chattered. They’d never done that before. I tried to sleep.

Later that night, once we’d eked something out of that heater, I started to feel warm again. We had made the right decision on that ridge. Although, without knowing the difference we could have easily made the wrong one, and it was only later I realised how close we’d been. Not close like stepping out in front of a bus close - those kinds of sudden threats can happen in the outdoors too - but close like something creeping up behind you, waiting to catch you off guard. These are the dangers to look out for.