Cont’d from previous post: Part 2 of 3
Ardgay is small Scottish town just about 2 hours north of Inverness and was to be our rendezvous point. Set in the Scottish countryside it’s a very picturesque sleepy town with a population of around 400. The people of Ardgay were just as warm and friendly as anywhere I had been in Scotland. Bonar Bridge hotel is where our first official meeting with the team took place as we introduced ourselves had a quick lunch and loaded up the expedition equipped Land Rovers for another 2 hour journey into the Highlands and our base camp for the first few nights. That would be our last prepared decent meal for the next 6 days…..
The team was comprised of the 7 who signed up for this adventure and 3 expert survivalists who were there to teach, train and guide us on this expedition. Most were from various countries in Europe with myself being the only overseas member from Canada. The drive to our base camp was basically an off road adventure in itself as the road was just a rock covered path created by the very few vehicles that traversed through the huge swaths of barren land between the valleys.
From the moment we entered into the Alladale Wilderness Reserve it felt like we had went back in time. The place was wild, raw, archaic and around every valley turn it was the unknown that stirred our senses and peaked our curiosity. The drive was surprisingly quiet as everyone seemingly wanted to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildlife viewing opportunity. Deer was the most numerous of all animals we seen as they were everywhere, with no natural predator the population in this area was abundant but with the area being used for seasonal hunting they were mindful of humans and kept their distance.
Arriving at base camp in the late afternoon after a long day of travel we were shown our tented camp where we would sleep the first night. Nestled in the middle of a huge valley beside a running creek(Our water source), it was the picture perfect setting and couldn’t have been in a better location. With virtually no light pollution in this region the sky seemed to light up with the billions of stars creating huge white bands across the sky. The milky way was more visible to me that first night as it had ever been in my life. Already the first night is what all of us hoped we would be getting to experience coming to the Highlands. We had another briefing about course outline , specifically knife safety and further detailed content of the course and what was to be expected. We were then provided with some ration packs in the event things got extremely bad this would help in grave situations. Mainly items like life saver candy, first aid kit, and purification tablets for our water. Some further discussions about each other and getting familiar with why would we embark on such a challenge finished off our first night in the Scottish wild.
It was suggested we create a daily journal at the end of every night to log our daily activities and learning experiences for future reference. A water proof notebook and pen carried with us allowed us to detail the course’s daily survival information and techniques provided us the information to remember in case of emergencies, or simply as a reminder for the awesome experience we were gonna get. Most of the following information will have come from my daily journal entry at the end of each day.
Our first wake up day on our survival challenge started with some physical training. Early morning get the blood flowing type of training, I believe a way for the instructors to gauge our fitness level and to see what they have to work with, or who to monitor closely if need be. We started out with some sets of burpees, sit ups and 30 minutes of jogging and finishing up with push ups being done in freezing cold creek water. The crisp cool morning air was really an eye opener for us but it was a great feeling to be where we were and doing what we were doing. None of us to this point showed any regret. The physical training part of this wasn’t expected as we thought it would sap our energy, but it was an activity to get our adrenaline going that would help throughout the first few days to keep moral high and keeping the team from getting lethargic. When your body is tired, your mind is tired and a tired mind in a survival situation can be fatal.
First order of business was a specific outline and detailed information on fire starting. Clearly vital to survival in the wilderness we were shown the basics on how to start a fire in such a damp, wet often rainy harsh environment. Examples were provided on what can and what will start a fire using the availability of resources in our surroundings. Following the morning work out session and fire starting session we were given a course on Knot & Rope safety. The many different kinds of knots and which ones to use in what situation, and more specifically mountain ascent and descent as it would come into play later that morning, i.e. Bowline, Clover, Loop, binding, etc…Map reading and compass navigation would follow our knot & rope session, and all would tie into together for later use that day. Understanding the importance and how to use a compass and map is often the line between life and death in the wilderness when there isn’t any man made structures or markers to gauge your spatial awareness. Topographic maps and using the elevation and contours to your benefit will give a person the easiest route in the desired direction. Choosing the path of least resistance in the natural world is vital to conserving energy, one can never tell the length of time you can possibly be in a “survival” situation and preparation is the most important aspect to giving yourself the best possible chance. Typically your survival priorities should be in this order, SHELTER, WATER, FIRE & FOOD. Effectively known as the CORE FOUR(C4). This premise is loosely based on the 3 rules where a person can survive 3 hours without Shelter, 3 days without water, & 3 weeks without food.
Harness fixing, carabiner mechanics and mountaineering safety procedures concluded our morning theory session which would prove useful for the afternoons adventure of mountain ascent to one of the highest peaks in the valley. The ascent started around 11am with beautiful conditions. Clear skies, sunny with no wind it would be an amazing opportunity with clear views of the entire surrounding region, and give us some of the best vantage points throughout the highlands and unimaginable photo ops. These were the images I had in mind when I always thought about the Scottish Highlands. This place was real….. Finally!!!!.
After taken in some of the sights and grasping the scope and vastness of the surrounding region we would start our descent. Through compass reading and navigation we would determine the easiest possible route on our descent would be via the northeast face using abseiling and rappelling techniques. Our harness, rope & knot safety lessons would serve us well during this late afternoon return from the summit.
Our chosen path of descent was through a carved out dried up water run off valley in the mountainside. Making for a more technical return it was a cautious but focused and careful return. Safety was always of primary importance especially in the wilderness survival mode, and this would perhaps be our most dangerous part of the week with the real possibility of potential catastrophic injury. Thankfully the entire team made it back to basecamp around 9pm that night. It was a long eventful day that really tested the strength, stamina and will power of each person, and this was just the beginning……..
Our 2nd wake up started bright and early with a military style physical training fitness session. Similar to our first day it was complimented with a self-defense, self preservation instinctive style course. Effectively a Defense with response type self-defense fighting form. Immediately following was our move from basecamp to a new location a few miles up the Glen along the mountainside which would be our overnight location and our first attempt at shelter building. Along the way we would be shown how to collect, filter and purify water. Forage for the different types of edible insects and vegetation and collect wild berries. Burning up to 3000 calories per day and eating less than 500 would begin to take its toll and anything that offered energy and protein would be crucial. Another vital opportunity at sustenance would be through primitive traps and snares along with very basic drop lines for fishing. No opportunity would be squandered as we exhausted every avenue to give ourselves the best possible chance at providing some type of food.
Arriving at a spot we chosen as our overnight location which seemed to be the perfect site to build a shelter away from the elements. It was half way up a mountain nestled in among some foliage and tree growth giving us a natural barrier against rain and wind while offering a spectacular view of the Glen.We were giving a brief lesson in shelter building and away we went. With keeping in mind the C4 survival priority our shelter was critically important to us and we had constructed one that would withstand any inclement weather we got that night. Our efforts and cautious construction of the shelter would pay dividends for us that night. Although an extremely uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night we did all remain dry and warm which is paramount in wilderness overnight shelters. This kept moral high and created a really cohesive team. The smallest accomplishment in this setting always feels like a huge conquered obstacle.
With Shelter done that day we had returned to the valley gorge for some very challenging river crossing exercises. Learning how to properly navigate through waste deep rapidly running water is actually more difficult than it looks and flowing water should NEVER be UNDERESTIMATED!!!! Moving water ankle deep can easily knock down a man of over 200lbs and without the joined forces of our small group these river crossings wouldn’t be possible. Essentially it is where one person is facing upstream with 1-2 even 3 other people join hands and form a circle and slowly move sideways together in unison to combat the force flow of the water. The circle acts like a barrier where water will path itself around the circle of conjoined people making for a more easier movement across the river. The person facing upstream will be the guide watching for out big objects and calling the start of each move so to make sure the group moves in sync. Running water is cold water, and this time of year in Northern Scotland had the water moving fast and bitterly cold.
It was also a time to learn in detail certain water filter/purification techniques. While set on location in the very wet Scottish highlands it wasn’t to the point where if in the dry desert purifying our urine would need to be an option, although that was briefly explained and can be in play if required. It was simply a matter of filtering the river water(already considerably clean) through a mix of rocks, weeds, and grasses to get the best possible cleanest water you can. Even in colder wet climates dehydration can easily set in and we always needed to be mindful of keeping hydrated. Hydration regulates body temperature and even if a person doesn’t feel thirsty it is still imperative to make sure to stay hydrated.
Examining our drop lines for fish, and prey stalking and trapping were the order of the rest of day in hopes we would ultimately get some food before we headed back up into our mountainside shelter. Enroute we used some night time navigation techniques also known as Astro-navigation. Using the stars as reference points for guidance had been used for thousands of years and still today the practice hasn’t changed for various cultures around the world who still use this method today. Being able to distinguish between north and south without the use of a compass can mean life or death with no cardinal points as directional bearings in the wild, the stars will offer you that.
Upon return to our shelter after another long day full of unique survival lessons we really started to experience the effects of burning energy all day while not replenishing our intake. The team was exhausted no doubt, but it was what we signed up for. We had used our fire lighting skills to good use as we made a nice fire for warmth in front of our shelter and sat motionless while we slowly morphed into a daze watching the fire and taken note of the days accomplishments. To this point absolutely no regrets from any of the team. The experience we were getting was well worth it despite what we were feeling at this time.
To be Cont’d……