Trev and Nath embark on their first ever winter wild camp on Dartmoor, and battle the elements.
Prologue – 6/12/17 - Best Laid Plans....
Christmas was fast approaching, and Nath and I had already planned to meet up at some point during the festive period to get out for a good old stomp. It wasn’t until I received a text message from Nath whilst I was in a supermarket doing my weekly shop that our plans took somewhat of a turn towards something a little more out of my comfort zone.
You see, Nath had been reading a book called "Between the Sunset and the Sea" by Simon Ingram which must have romanticised a certain mountain in Snowdonia called Cadair Idris, as it had cast a bit of a spell on Nath. His message to me said something like “Cadiar Idris has just made our to do list”, and then, as I was busy pushing a trolly around a packed supermarket, I stupidly said something off the cuff like “Get up there over Christmas shall we?” And that was it…, the bull was out of the pen, so to speak. (It later transpired that Cadir also happened to be Nath's late Grandfathers favourite mountain too).
Over the next few days, it actually became a plan of attack, which meant that over the next few weeks, we were both doing our research and started to buy lots of new kit for the next adventure, and a winter hike and camp, on a mountain, nearly 900 meters above sea level, and over 250 miles away from the comfort of my bed, it really was going to be an adventure. My wife, Don-Don, as always, went along with our plans and bit her tongue, but I could tell that all this excessive spending in what is already an expensive time of the year was probably an unwanted stress for her. Oh, well. Best to be prepared for all eventualities up on a mountain in winter, right? Among my new purchases was a brand new set of Karrimor hiking boots, a three to four seasons Vango Latitude 300 sleeping bag, loads of boil in the bag foods and a pair of slip over the boot crampons. Among Nath’s new purchases were a new Lowe Alpine Alpine Ascent 40:50 backpack, a foil-lined ThermaRest RidgeRest foam mattress, an ice ax and some rope.
Snow then descended on the nation, well, above Bristol anyway, (as has become the norm in the south-west over the last six or seven years we just got rain and lots of it) and the Brecon Beacons, and Snowdonia soon became a hostile arctic landscape. Roads were blocked, temperatures up on the peaks hit sub-zero lows, one time I checked Cadair Idris it was -15, and that wasn’t even taking into account the wind chill factor…. As if I wasn't anxious enough.
Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, as Christmas approached, I managed to get this Australian flu that was circulating, and spent most of the holiday wrapped up, aching and tired, overheating but freezing at the same time. As our D-Day approached, I began to make a slow recovery, but really wasn’t up for the Cadair adventure… not yet. But, it seemed a shame to completely bail on the idea of a winter wild camp, especially as we had now stocked up on supplies and were ready to go.
Two or three days after Christmas, I braved the elements with the kids and took a walk up to the snow-capped Brat Tor on Dartmoor, testing my stamina and exposure to the elements. I survived, well, actually, I really enjoyed it, and when we were making our way back down I messaged Nath a pic of Dartmoor, all white and wintry, to which he replied: “When are we going?” “Saturday?” was my response and so began our very first winter wild camp. Not up a mountain, but still. It's probably best to test the water closer to home first anyway.
It seemed kind of significant to start our newest journey into winter wild camping here, at Sourton’s Church of St Thomas A Becket car park. After all, this was where we started out, in our very first video, before we were even known as Summit or Nothing, and on my very first foray into hiking. Well, here we stood again, nearly two years later and I was about to partake in my very first winter wild camp. Well, I say winter. By now the snow had dissipated, and the milder weather had moved in, so it almost felt that we were cheating a little bit not camping out in minus figures, but regardless we were both geared up for it and excited to be finally getting back out on another wild camp. Our last had been June, and Nath had since purchased his DD Hammock Ultra Light Tarp which he was looking forward to finally testing out! To be honest, I was secretly glad the temperature was up, having not tested any of my new gear, and my sleeping bag (which, incidentally, I had loaded with two sleeping bag liners too – just to be on the safe side, eh?).
We were going to follow a route that Nath had planned out, traversing Sourton and making our way to one of the highlights of our hiking outings so far, the magnificent Great Links Tor, where we intend to find a spot to camp just a little beyond, near a tor called Higher Dunnagoat. We set off around lunch, a little later than usual, but today is not so much about the hiking as the wild camping.
In preparation for our Cadair Idris hike and wild camp, Nath had been busy swatting up on Map reading skills and wanted to take a closer look at using pacing as an instrument of navigation, something we have failed to do, so today (as always) he led the way. (This always seems to happen, not something that is intentional but I think once Nath takes the lead I seem to just let him, yet I do keep an eye on our route and will gladly pull him up on any errors or queries as we continue (see Lingmell – see Dunkery Beacon lol).
The importance of pacing is huge, as it can help you keep track of your location in poor weather and zero visibility – the last thing we want is a repeat of Tryfan, although nowadays we do tend to back up our map reading skills with Viewranger and GPS! But, familiar territory such as Sourton and Great Links area seemed like a good place for us to practice this part of navigation, and ac
We made our way into the bleak North moor, and in a gloomy day in which the clouds look like they were holding back torrents of rain, there were not so many people out with us. But with the cloud cover, came milder temperatures, as I said, so we had to be at least grateful for that. The rain kept off for the entirety of our 7K walk, and although our pace wasn’t as quick as Nathan’s was when he tried this method only yesterday on a solo hike, it was still better than he had anticipated. We all know that he carries me to some extent (see Old man of Coniston), and also with us stopping to film views and each other here and there, our time on the trail is never going to be speedy, but that’s not why Nath is measuring here. He’s just trying to work out an average speed for us as a team to help us keep track of our distances en route.
Soon Great Links was in sight, growing ever closer as we wound our way towards it on twisting tracks that seemed to worm towards and away as the path went on. We made great efforts to stick to tracks this time, as our usual method of carving a straight line across horrendously unforgiving terrain was probably not the best idea, especially as the ground on the tracks was waterlogged enough. If you know Dartmoor, you know its wet… Very wet! Even in the dry months, and let alone when there has been so much snow and rain fall.
A little after three o’clock we arrived at what appeared to Bleak House Ruins, a surprisingly intact ruin, as far as ruins on Dartmoor go. There was a considerable amount of masonry still standing, and not just scattered low-level stones that we were expecting after visiting Brown’s House last year. The house was constructed around 1878, and was called Dunnagoat Cottage, and was home to the manager of the Peat works nearby at Ammicombe Hill.
With a little under an hour until sunset, we decided that we would use this as our home for the night, especially as there was a stone slab inside the house that we could set up our stoves on and use as a kitchen.
Unfortunately the misshapen ground, littered with granite, was not the most ideal spot for camping, but we did manage to find one length of relatively level ground to pitch on (ideal!), only to find that the ground beneath this lush earth was unforgiving, to say the least (oh!), literally granite laying about an inch below the surface. We had to angle our pegs at such extreme angles that they were practically horizontal.
We were soon set up, Nath’s new tarp looked impressive, low lying, streamlined and taut – my Vango Banshee looked saggy and sickly in comparison, but regardless, I loaded it with my gear, grabbed my stove and joined Nath at the ruins to set up a kitchen at the slab. Then the heavens opened. Not even Four o’clock and we were forced into our own shelters. The rain was in for the night, so this was going to prove to be a looooooonng night in a tent.
It wouldn’t be Summit or Nothing if we didn’t make at least one major cock-up per outing, and this time it fell to the weather. We had been on it with regards to keeping an eye on the weather apps, checking what time the rain was due, but it was only now that we were in our tents that Nath had a Eureka moment to actually check for wind. It wasn’t good. Early evening was going to see a rise in wind speed, with winds of up to 45 mph about to hit us and keep up throughout the night until the early hours of the morning. With only an inch of peg coverage, this was going to be brown trousers time.
Apart from twenty minutes of preparing my evening meal in the tiny porch of my Vango Banshee, the rest of the night was made up of lying around with my tent flapping relentlessly inches away from my face. It is also worth mentioning that the ten minutes boiling my water for my dehydrated meal was spent holding the porch area back against the hammering wind, with my fingers exposed to the elements outside. I read about two-thirds of the book I brought along with me, watched the clock, anticipated the weather. I did manage to get some sleep here and there, but for the most part, I saw each hour come in as the wind seemed to worsen throughout the night and into the early hours of the morning. The wind gusted through my tent with a cold icy sting, but despite that, I was happily toasty inside my new Vango altitude sleeping bag. In fact, I spent half the night hanging outside of it trying to cool down.
At about 7am, the wind and rain finally began to fade, and although it was still quite dark outside, this was our ideal time to get up and prepare our breakfast. Nath had an expedition breakfast, I had a porridge sachet, washed down with a hot chocolate. We ate that, took down our tents and left no trace, and got back on the hike home, knowing that we had a small window to move in before the rain was once again due to hit and hit hard.
The sun rose, and it soon became apparent that we were shrouded in a thick blanket of fog, ideal for Nath to test his newly learned techniques of navigation. He took a bearing from the ruins and set us on a course towards higher Dunnagoat, which we found with relative ease. From here, Nath took another bearing, leading us to Great Links, which we momentarily summitted before taking a bearing to locate the track that would lead us home. Drained from my flu and a horrendous nights sleep, I found the walk a hard slog, harder than usual, and the thick mist only added to my bewilderment. However, Nath’s navigation had done us proud and we made relatively good time back to the car, getting caught only briefly in a downpour at the very last half a kilometer of our walk.
So, our first winter wild camp was a success, well, in so much that we survived, our tents stayed up and we found our way home. Unfortunately, we hadn’t managed to get back up to the mountains of Snowdonia, but it helped us to anticipate for future wild camps. Despite the horrendous conditions, and the long and laborious night, all was soon forgotten, and we are now looking forward to yet another wild camp, this time venturing a little further afield, with plans of making our camp on a more wintery mountain. Not Cadair Idris, but still, somewhere that we hope will be memorable, challenging and rewarding. Watch this space!