Getting lost in Scotland can be a dangerous affair. I learned this the hard way one day while hiking through the highlands of Scotland. There’s a lot one must know before embarking on any outdoor adventure in Scotland. The weather can turn on an instant and the vastness of the landscape makes it difficult to determine distance. Being a few years younger than I am today, I was a bit more naive and eager which lead to a few mistakes that almost got me into some real trouble. You hear about these stories all the time. So and so went out for a hike and got lost in the wilderness never to be heard from again…Happily this wasn’t the case here, but it wasn’t without some luck!
I was traveling through Scotland while studying in Wales when I decided to spend a couple days hiking the mountainous area known as ‘The Cairngorms’. The Cairngorms is a mountain range in the eastern highlands of Scotland that includes a giant national park. If you are looking for outdoor recreation and natural beauty in Scotland this area is a must visit. Outdoor activities of every kind can be found here in both winter and summer. I found a hostel for a couple days in the little town of Aviemore, a great place to make base camp on the western fringes of the park.
The highest and most well known summit in the area is Cairngorm Mountain. Tourists from all over the world visit this area to ski in the winter and hike in the warmer months. The mountain is home to Scotland’s only funicular railway. In the winter months you can ride this funicular up to a staging point that takes you to Ptarmigan Station at 3600 ft. From here you can take a short 90 minute walk, where on a fine day you will experience magnificent 360 degree views over the mountain ranges.
Lost in Scotland
I started my journey from the bottom of Cairngorm Ski Center which can be reached by public bus from Aviemore. From here a hike to the summit was expected to take 6-8 hours at a moderate pace, so being optimistic and a fast walker I planned on a 4-5 hours. This was my first mistake. I didn’t pack much because I thought I would be back in just a few hours. You should ALWAYS pack more water and food than you think you’ll need for situations just like this.
The path was pretty well marked at the beginning, but became less clear when I got closer to the summit. It took me just 3 hours to reach the top of the summit, so I felt like I was doing well. The view from the top is incredible. On a clear day you can see for miles. Luckily, I reached the top just in time before the clouds began to roll in. I took a few minutes to grab some pictures and take in the dramatic scenery.
One of the things you will learn quickly in Scotland is the weather can change on a dime. Fog and clouds can black out an entire area in a matter of minutes. This is what happened to me just after I reached the summit. The fog was so thick I couldn’t even see the ground beneath my feet. I had completely lost the path at this point and was going back and forth trying to find it. After searching for a bit I decided to sit down and let the fog clear. No dice. The fog seem to get even thicker.
I realized it was late afternoon and that I had better get back pretty soon before the bus to town left at 5 pm. I simply guessed on my direction and started to descend the mountain. There is something very eerie about coming down a mountain in compete fog. I literally could not even see my hand in front of my face. The terrain is dramatic and I was worried I might step off a cliff or fall into a giant hole. After a couple more hours I began to worry. The sun was setting and I had long since missed the bus at 5pm. Even if I made it back to the bottom I had no idea how I was going to get back to Aviemore. I tried not to let it get to me and kept pressing on.
I finally reached the bottom of the mountain only to realize I had come down the complete wrong side. Nothing seemed familiar and I had no idea where I was. This was my HOLY CRAP moment. It’s just about pitch black dark and I’m lost in the highlands of Scotland without food or water. What the heck am I going to do? At this point I had been hiking for about 14 hours. I knew that I couldn’t just stay and wait it out until morning. The elements up in the highlands can easily kill a person. The temperature drops dramatically and the wind will cut right through your bones. So, I kept pressing forward.
A few more hours past before I received my lucky break, or perhaps someone upstairs was looking out for me. Just as I was beginning to lose hope, the fog suddenly cleared and I could spot a tiny road way off in the distance. I didn’t hesitate and just began running toward the road. As I mentioned, judging distance in the highlands is very difficult due to the vastness of the landscape. What I thought was a mile or two turned out to be several. After an hour or two I finally reached the road. I had no idea how traveled this road was but I figured someone would drive through eventually. Amazingly, only about 10 minutes had passed before I saw headlights. My heart jumped into my throat. I stood up and began waving down the car as it approached.
The car slowed and stopped right in front of me. Inside was a young Scottish couple that looked a bit bewildered to see me out in the middle of the night. I quickly told them about my plight and very politely asked them for help. They asked where I was headed. I told them Aviemore and they looked at each other like I had eaten some rotten Haggis. “You’re about 20 miles from Aviemore laddy” he responded. I had somehow walked miles 20 miles away from where I was supposed to be! “Would you mind taking me to the nearest town or bus station?” I asked. “We’ll take you all the way to Aviemore, not a problem” he said. “Thank you, thank you!” I shouted. I had never been so relieved in my life.
I finally got back to the hotel just as the sun was coming up. At that point I had been hiking for about an entire day and night. Safe to say that I decided to take it easy the next day. This was a story that I’ll never forget as I learned a valuable lesson. Be PREPARED before you decide to hiking in Scotland!
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