Cont’d from previous post: Part 3 of 3
Our 3rd wake up was never really a wake up as you need to actually fall asleep in order to wake up, and we all got very little sleep that night. Our shelter had provided us exactly what we constructed it for. It kept us dry, and protected us against the cold and wind but provided zero comfort. It was a hellish long night huddled together in our shelter lying on a 45 degree angle on the side on the mountain, it was a cold damp undulating ground but it was our bed for the night. We “survived” our first night in a make shift lean-to shelter; we were more encouraged and moral was the highest its been to this point. Not one of us complained once as it was what we signed up for. We all wanted to be doing this, oddly enough its hard for many people to understand this but some of us came from very far, across oceans to have this chance of a lifetime intrepid type experience and we made sure we soaked in every minute, and accepted every hardship. Where there is no risk, there will be no reward!!! every minute there was our reward.
Although a few days in now has us more tired with less energy it was a renewed sense of “survival” to wake up under our own shelter that kept us dry and warm. During the previous day/night a fellow team member felt sick and was prevented from sheltering with us for fear of a contagious virus as he was really lethargic, very pale and vomiting. The instructors felt it was in the best decision for the team that he stay alone and was provided a tent a few hundred feet away from us and he was gonna be assessed in the morning on his condition. We were concerned and felt he wasn’t in the position to finish the course as the most challenging final days were ahead of us. We descended down the mountain side to the Badger lodge along the river where the instructors were waiting for us and notified us our ill-stricken team member would no longer continue. Unsure of the cause we had seen him off and wished him well and that was it for him, he was immediately discharged and driven back to Bonar Bride (our initial rendez-vous point) by one of the associate instructors. We later found out he was hospitalized with an intestinal virus and later operated on and as far as we knew made a full recovery. Godspeed Mark.!!
With the team now a member less a somber mood had sunk in on the severity, danger and hardship of what we were doing and what we needed to do to finish the course and survive in good standing. We automatically focused on the first order of the day, checking our drop lines again in hopes of finding some fish that had been caught and could provide some energy for the days event ahead of us, as well as checking some traps we had set to possible catch small land mammals that populate the area. Bigger snares and traps were set for the rare possibility that deer would be on the menu of the day, but this was merely a snare-setting exercise that would almost certainly yield no results as the instructors had never seen one trapped in the area. We would be using rudimentary traps and snares effectively called TANGLE, MANGLE, or STRANGLE and focus on small hares, rabbits, squirrels, etc. Each name of snare is self explanatory in their effectiveness and the result they are aimed to provide. Figure 1.4 is called Mangle trap for obvious reasons. 😦
After checking our drop lines we were encouraged by finding out that we had fooled a few small brook trout into believing we were seasoned fishermen and ended up catching 4 that were no more than 3-4 inches long each…but it was something that made us happy, and further encouraged us and boosted morale. Any little accomplishment, achievement, positive outcome in a survival situation is huge for a persons mental state. A positive attitude can carry you a long way and is often what keeps a person going. One can be extremely exhausted, physically spent, injured, cut, and bleeding but if you have the will and positive attitude which creates a more clearer focused mind it will be the difference between survival and death if you are lost in any type of outdoor wilderness situation.
A huge surprise to the team following our river rewards was an actual Hare had been trapped as well. Often elusive and very quick it is usually very hard to trap and fool this animal. Four different types of traps/snares had been set at optimal locations along the river. Animals like humans will still always follow the path of least resistance in the wild to conserve energy allowing us to strategically place and set them in low growth vegetation areas and path like locations presumably where one would think smaller animals would traverse. It was where we would walk if we were to trudge through this area as humans. Through this scenario we hoped our luck would offer us some good fortune and much needed protein and the survival gods came through. Not only would this be a chance for a substantial food source but we had the opportunity to properly learn how to skin and carve up the Hare discarding of the innards and keeping the best most nutritious parts for consumption. This was a survival lesson we could have only obtained through “on the job training” and luckily our catch afforded us this. This was a bittersweet moment for me especially as i truly love all animals and would never want to see them suffer, and found this difficult for me as i was the one that engaged the Hare and first cut and skinned the animal(Figure 1.5). I do eat meat on occasion and understand in this situation the reason for it, as well i would never judge a person who is Vegan or had their own opinion about this. Nonetheless it was an added experience and our “wilderness breakfast” tasted amazing over a fire which set us all right for the day and gave us the energy we needed.
Figure 1.5-Richie Pencott lead instructor explaining to me how to properly skin the Hare.
The eventful dramatic morning was to be followed by an exciting Mountain Training section in an area with the surrounding Munros to learn a variety of mountaineering technical skills. Which would include traversing techniques across extreme ground, ascend, and descend rugged difficult terrain. Some exciting/dangerous Tyrolean line traverse, classic abseil techniques, commando crawls, and river bank jumps were the order of the day. Most of these learning techniques were new to the entire team, we all faced them head on and this may have very well been the most “fun” day of the entire survival course. Jumping off cliffs 300 feet above ground across a gully harnessed in using tyrolean traverse was daring and edgy but put smiles all on our faces.(Figure 1.6)It was who we were…. we wanted this adventure adrenaline type travel and we were getting it!. Trusting the ropes on Abseil, or Tyrolean crossing, mountain descend is vital for friendship and brotherhood within the team and really brings together camaraderie. All the rope work here was done by Richard “Richie” Pencott a world renowned expert in ropes and we wouldn’t have trusted anyone more than him. He was our lead instructor and our life was in his hands and we knew we were safe.
This day was completely exhausting!!!, excitingly dangerous and amazingly fun…. running on virtually no sleep while maintaining a high energy level throughout the mountain training exercises it had emptied out our tanks once we were done in the late afternoon. Thankfully we were able to fuel up in the morning on some wilderness protein allowing for the experience to be that much more enjoyable but for the first time once we were done while we sat and watched the sun set over the Glen; the entire team was speechless. The simplicity of life at that time superseded anything physically demanding. By that i mean, no stress of work, hustle bustle of the daily grind for anyone trying to get through life… it was outdoors, it was fun, and it was focused on the task at hand… truly enjoying ourselves. While we soaked it all in it was eerily silent and getting cold, we could see our breath , we all knew each person was digesting their own thoughts about what we had done all day and we all knew each person absolutely loved it. We were still quite a ways away from base camp as we rested trying to gather some energy after the final river jump(figure 1.6) so we can head back and prepare for our the monumental last 36 hours of the course which was a separate challenge all in itself.
Arriving back at base camp just as the sun sets it was time to get some rest as we were informed in a few hours just after midnight we would be woken up and taken to the “the island” some 5-6 hour journey through the highlands to the west coast of Scotland. Told to pack light and efficient and the remainder of our gear would meet us when we completed the course. The last 36 hours would be spent on a remote uninhabited predetermined small island to fend for ourselves and utilize all the skills were learned the previous few days in order to “survive”. We would traverse over land in expedition equipped Land Rovers(see figure 1.7) for about 3-4 hours reaching the shore of the mainland just as the sun rises over the horizon. There we had met up with a rough looking seasoned Scottish fisherman, someone that looked like he’d been on the water since he was a teen, definitely someone we could trust to take us wherever we were going on the early morning rough water of the cold Atlantic Minch.
“The Minch, also called North Minch, is the strait in north-west Scotland, separating the north-west Highlands and the northern Inner Hebrides” this was geographically our location as a reference point to where i started my journey way back in Inverness. Felt like i was already a million miles away at this point.
There was a heavy dark and cloudy overcast, cold rain had just started, the water looked extremely rough as im told it usually always is in this area. It was black, with 4-6 feet swells just a few feet out from land. Our hearts were racing just thinking about what was to come and the voyage on the sea to reach what was being told as the toughest part of the course. The team including the instructors loaded up on the Hovercraft/Zodiac speed boat and started out. It was rough, wet and bumpy ride. We were cutting through huge swells at considerable speed, our captain wasn’t wasting anytime and seemed to be very secure and confident in his boat, its ability and the direction we were going. He probably grew up on these waters and drove them like any person would drive a bike. About 45-60 minutes had past on the water, my ass was completely numb and it was freezing as we were soaking wet through before we started to slow as we approached a small island. Thankfully the water seemed much calmer at this point cause we all knew what was coming next. Just was the engine stops abut 100 meters off shore lead instructor tells us all, “ok boys see ya on shore”. Simple as that i guess, jump in the freezing cold dark water of the North Atlantic and swim to shore. :|. without hesitation the entire team got down to our underwear, sealed our nap sack as best we can and threw it in the water and jumped in and followed it. (Figure 1.8)
It was instant shock… very very cold water…reaction to this played a part in the speed of which we all raced to the island. Initially my thought was- the quickest way from point A to point B is a straight line. This is the path i choose but quickly realized that making an attempt to climb onto shore in a direct line from the boat was impossible. Getting onto the island was only possible in a very few spots. This was almost certainly done on purpose by the Academy to display hardship and to bring out our strength and will power of the team. We needed to find a place where it would be possible to mount an attempt, it wasn’t gonna be a smooth beach “walk on” to the island. It was very slippery, rough rugged rocky shoreline almost all the way around it seemed. We ultimately followed our lead instructor and he choose a way on that would still be difficult but at least to a degree, safe and possible. Using our nap sacks as part float device and safety tool(in the event we swan into jelly fish) we pushed them in front of us to the point that was chosen to make land. The swim seemed like 45-60 min due to the conditions and changing directions , but in reality it must have not been more than 20 min. It was hard, and further depleted our tank in terms of energy.
Finally climbing onto shore we quickly pulled out our clothing and hoping they remained dry or it was gonna be a long cold wet night. Surprisingly our Bear Grylls issued nap sack had a sealed compartment that indeed kept our clothing dry- thank God!.Thank Bear! From our entry point it was another 2-3 mile hike over land to the location we would call final base camp. During this time we were shown where to get fresh water as the island has a small pool of fresh water that would be fine for us along with the Purification tablets it was all we needed. We came across patches of wild Blackberries that would prove to be a wonderful treat (these may have been the best tasting Blackberries ever :)). we stocked up on these and pushed on. It was basically crossing the island to the other side, this is where we thought we would finish the course.
First order of business once we decided on where we would make our shelter was to start gathering as much material as we can find in and around the shoreline. The island had zero trees and no natural barriers so as to protect against the elements. we simply make a surrounding type shelter of rocks and covered the roofing with vegetation that we were able to lay on top of an old fishing trawler net we pulled from the water as the tide went out. It was gonna be a challenging night particularly if it got windy and cold but to this point the weather was actually holding and the miggies were out in the thousands. These were small mosquito type bugs that were relentless in their attack and gave us no reprieve. We started a fire to create smoke and hope it would blanket us from being eaten alive. We almost hoped it got colder and windy to eliminate the swarms that were around us. They probably haven’t tasted human blood too often on this remote island so we must have been a real treat for these blood suckers.
While part of the team secured our roof and shelter the other handled foraging for mussels and limpits(Figure1.10) on the rocks exposed as the tide was out. Accumulating so many that it would be more than enough to go around for the entire team. Surprisingly the island had started off well for us once we made land. The weather was co-operating, we had fresh water, the sweetest tasting blackberries, fresh mussels and limpits and the rain hadn’t started. What was told to us would be the toughest past of the course to this point seem to be the easiest part. Partly knowing in the morning we would be heading back to civilization may have played a role in our positive jovial mood that afternoon. Many laughs and for the first time we had moments to spend around a fire a discuss our personal life to the other team members, getting to know them personally on the final day was only fitting i guess. Stuart, Danny, Marek, Alessio and myself is all that remained not including the instructors, and each person was very different while at the same time alot alike. Our similar interest of adventure, outdoor intrepid type travel is what brought us there together in the first place. Each person had their story and were really great guys to share this experience with. Danny from England was a ex Premier League professional soccer player and had started for England in the 2002 World Cup, very humble person that never revealed his past until months after through some email communication. Alessio was from Italy and is a world traveler/adventurer/actor photojournalist and animal activist. Stuart from England was the youngest of the group who was an adrenaline junkie adventurer and an aspiring RAF Pilot. Marek was the eldest and an avid outdoorsmen, family man who was an engineer from Slovakia.
The instructors were all well seasoned avid outdoorsmen adventure type people. Not much is known as we spent a lot less time with them but they were the kind of people you can put your life in their hand with full trust. Matt Bragg an associate instructor was ex-military and i believe a policeman in the south of England. Dom Garton as well was an associate instructor in training to this point as well as a photographer. Lead Instructor was Richard Pencott, an ex military with a long past in uniform, extreme outdoorsmen, mountain climbing rope expert. Again, not much is known personally about our instructors, not because they wanted it like but circumstances of what we were doing didn’t allow for much time generally speaking with them. They were really great friendly guys and they made the course enjoyable, exciting safe and unforgettable. Im not sure we could have chosen any better instructors to guide and teach us.
We had woken up warm and dry and if i remember correctly all of us had a clam sleep. Our last night seemed to be our most relaxed, plenty of food options, good weather and the relieved feeling of accomplishment knowing we had done it. We had survived in the Scottish Highlands on one of the worlds most demanding survival courses. The sun was out and we sat around a morning fire until our instructors came to our camp to notify us about our exit strategy and point. It was almost over but not quite yet. The plan was to set an S.O.S smoke fire to signal to the rescue fishing trawler some 10 miles away out in the Minch to come and “save us” Up on the highest point rock outcrop we gathered as much fresh vegetation an wood burning material as we can and set it ablaze. It created so much smoke that other boats in the area had come over to see what was going on. after about 30-45 min we had noticed our trawler and once the horn blew we knew it was nearly over….so we thought…. once he arrive to our shoreline instructors informed us that we couldn’t board from this location as there was no docking point. Immediately the team thought it was back in the water and another cold morning swim to the boat, but even more exhausting was being told the trawler will go to the complete other side of the island where there is a dock and we needed to meet him there. It was a very difficult hike over land and rugged terrain which was a few miles but seemed like a marathon for us at this point. The final push to safety and rescue was made to be difficult and to use any possible energy you had left. it was about an hour over land before we got to the trawler and finally got off the island and had finished the course. WE SURVIVED!!!!!….
Stay tuned, more adventures to follow……..
Thank you Bear Grylls – Team BGSA Scottish Highlands