Archives for December 2014

Almost an MRT callout!

dartmoormrtlogoMRT stands for Mountain Rescue Team. These are usually made up of volunteers and they are the folk that come and rescue you when you are lost or injured in the countryside. They spend a lot of their free time training for both physical fitness, as well as search and rescue technique, first aid skills and how to use specialist kit for when you really get stuck somewhere.

Last night I found myself in a situation where I was a goats fart from having to call them out.

I had decided to go for my evening run. It has been a tough few weeks with my Dad’s brain tumour and my wife’s battle against her stem cell transplant side affects (www.theleukaemiaconclusion.co.uk for more info on that.) This has all been mixed in with a nasty flu that has been going around the family, and I had barely run in four weeks. It was a clear night so I decided to grab my head torch and head up on to Dartmoor to see if I could get a glimpse of the Milky Way.

My brain wasn’t so distracted that I forgot to carry my usual safety gear. Phone, Reflective ID band, flashing red LED that I wear on my lower back at night. No need for a waterproof as it was a clear night, and off I went, into the darkness.

After half an hour I was in the pitch black, ascending around the back of Western Beacon. I had stopped several times to turn my torch off and stare at the stars. It was simply beautiful and I could indeed make out the shadow of the Milky Way, streaking across the night sky. I also saw the largest and brightest shooting star that I have ever seen. It is hard to describe just how big it was in the night sky, but it made me stop and stare as it burnt itself out above me. With the torch off I could see absolutely nothing of the terrain around me, and I dare not take a step with it off. The terrain on this part of the moors is lumpy, boggy and slippery with frequent lumps of granite thrown in for extra fun.

As I climbed my torch suddenly flashed three times. This signals that the battery is low, and my initial thought was a along the lines of “oh crap!” My situation was immediately apparent. Here I was in the pitch black on the side of a hill and I was about to have no light. My only other light sources were my extremely diffuse red LED which would be no good for seeing where I was going, and the flash on my phone. A quick look at my phone confirmed my fears….20% battery left. The flash in constant on mode would give me a bit of light, but the battery wouldn’t last long enough to get me off the moors.

Undistracted and with my brain working properly I would never have put myself in this situation. Normally when running in the dark I carry a spare torch AND spare batteries. Instead I had got ready with my thoughts elsewhere and I hadn’t done my normal and usually automatic risk assessment of my run. As it turns out I still had three things working in my favour, and here they are in no particular order:

– I knew this section of the moors extremely well
– I am an experienced orienteer and navigator over land
– My head torch is the top end “intelligent” Petzl Nao

The most important of the above on this occasion was the Petzl Nao. Fortunately when the battery gets low it puts itself into “limp home” mode. This is just about enough to light the ground immediately in front of you, so you could avoid walking into a tree or falling off a cliff, but it isn’t enough to easily navigate by. It gives you a whopping twenty lumens and an hour of burn time to get yourself out of trouble. After running along with around 500 lumens at my disposal, twenty lumens felt like I was trying to cross the ground using nothing more than a Zippo to light the way.

After determining that I still had some light I opted to put off my call to the emergency services. I know too many Mountain Rescue Team members around the country to want to suffer that humiliation without a really good need to do so. Needing to be rescued within 2 miles of my house. How much more embarrassing could it be? 😉

The next step was to figure out how I could quickly and safely navigate off and to an area with street lights, which was about 1.5 miles away at this point. My familiarity with the terrain came in extremely handy. I had to make a good use of the available line features. These are parts of the terrain that extend like a line, such as a wall or trail. I could tell roughly which way I was facing, and I basically went from line feature to line feature to get myself to an extremely obvious trail that would take me down to the street lights. First I ran/walked over to the Puffing Billy track, a massive and obvious line feature that I know well. Then when I was pretty sure I had over shot the path I wanted to take off of the Puffing Billy Track I turned off and headed towards where I knew there would be a wall. Due to over shooting I knew that if I turned right the wall would take me to the gate at the top of the trail off. If all else failed I could back track up hill to rejoin the Puffing Billy and take a slightly longer, but more obvious route off.

I could tell my rough direction due to the glow of street lights in the distance, and eventually I emerged safely into town.

Some things about running in the dark that may not be obvious and these need to be factored in even when using the brightest of head torches:

  • It can often be difficult to tell whether the ground is flat, slightly up, or slightly down.
  • It can be hard to see the trail, particularly following a grassy trail on the moors or a piece of single track through some woods. You can easily go off course, and I mean really easily. You have to be very vigilant.
  • Your depth perception is dramatically reduced/altered with a head torch.
  • It can be hard to pick out that ankle turning rock or that extra slippery bit of wet grass

Now, as I have written it, this doesn’t sound like that much of a drama. In reality it took me more than twice as long to get off the moors as it otherwise would have, and any small bit of bad luck would have resulted in an MRT call out. If I had turned an ankle then my torch wouldn’t have lasted long enough to get me home. If I was too slow and my torch totally died then I would have to call the MRT. At the end of the day I was lucky, got myself home safely and didn’t need to make that call.

Thank you so much to the guys and gals of the Dartmoor Rescue Group for being there. You are all amazing and do a great job, but thankfully on this occasion I didn’t have to make that call.

If you are interested in search and rescue on Dartmoor then you can find out more at www.dartmoor-rescue.org

If you are heading out into the countryside at day or night then there are some great tips on keeping safe at http://www.dartmoorsartplymouth.org.uk/keeping-safe/