Saturday, May 4, 2013

Debacle in Shetland: The Geocaching Catastrophe

As I mentioned previously, my goal upon reaching Shetland was to see as much of Shetland as possible by finding as many geocaches as possible. My goal was to start at the top of Unst with Shetland's - and the United Kingdom's - most northerly geocache. In retrospect, it would have been a good plan in a few months, assuming that I complete my physical training plan. In April, it probably nearly cost me my life.

I read the description of the cache in question, which stated that:
this cache requires a walk of approx 2.5Km/1.5miles each way from the car park above the visitors' centre at the old shore station
Based on that description, I figured that the cache would be a bit of a hike, but no real issue to get to. In fact, I was almost immediately off track. After walking for maybe half a mile, I stayed on the main path, missing the turn that I should have taken in order to take the most direct route up Hermaness Hill. This took me on a sort of winding northwesterly route, rather than due north toward the hill's summit.

When the path terminated, my Garmin eTrex Vista said that I was still nowhere near the cache, which I had expected to be near the end of the path. I decided that I had come that far already, so I may as well press on. I walked further until I came to a sort of gentle ridgeline. The GPS was pointing far away from where I was standing and I eventually decided, against my better judgment, to give up the altitude that I'd already gained in order to descend the hill. I expected that, once I was on the next hillside, the GPS would point me toward the northern edge of the hill, and I could walk around it to get the cache.

Alas, no.

In fact, the further around the hill I went, the more sure I became that the GPS was, in fact, pointing me toward the top of the hill. At that point, I had a choice: I could climb back up the hill I'd just dismounted and go back the way I'd come, or I could climb the taller hill in front of me and keep looking for the cache. I made what I'm still not sure was the right choice: to live my motto of "keep fighting" and keep looking for the cache. Feeling fairly warm and sweaty on an unseasonably warm and sunny Shetland day, I made slow progress up what turned out to be Hermaness Hill, biting off a little piece of it at a time. Because the hill's slope was so gradual, every time I thought I was going to get up to the top, there was another nub to climb over. After the better part of four hours, three or four miles of walking, and two hills, I made it to the top and found the geocache in short order. I quickly signed my name in the log, and set about getting back to my hired car.

It's at this point of the story that I'd like to mention just how concerned I'd become. I had eaten literally nothing that morning, and I had only taken in a couple of swallows of water to clear my palate after brushing my teeth. There was virtually no mobile phone reception, and by the time I reached the summit of the hill it had been a solid hour since I had seen anyone. I'm nowhere near as physically fit as I ought to be. Factoring all of those things in, it was obvious that I needed to get back to my car and head for civilization.

Remember earlier, when I missed the turn-off from the path to go straight up the hill? Well, the path down to the car park from the top of Hermaness Hill was practically non-existent. It was marked by wooden stakes stuck in the ground every so often, barely visible from one to another. A variety of crude bridges, some of them seemingly built from cargo pallets, crossed various drainage streams, but in many cases these weren't the best routes across the terrain. In fact, the entire hillside was fairly treacherous moorland, requiring very careful footwork and the occasional leap in order to make it from top to bottom. In all honesty, had I made the correct turn-off at the beginning of the journey, I almost certainly would have called the fool's errand off at the very beginning. After about an hour, maybe a bit less since I was going downhill, my path rejoined the main path at a point where I would have never guessed I was supposed to have turned off, and from there it was only about ten minutes' walk back to my car.

When all was said and done, I had walked five or six miles, climbed two hills, fell four times, trashed one of the two pairs of trousers I'd brought on the trip, and blown about three more hours of my time in Shetland than I had intended. I later looked at another website - this time, one specifically about hiking in Shetland - and found that the second hill was more than six hundred feet in elevation, and my ascent had begun at the car park, which was no more than about fifty feet above sea level. I also checked that listing at the geocaching website, and learned that while I had read and reviewed the cache description, I had failed to note that the terrain difficulty rating was 3.5 out of 5. Had I twisted my ankle or something, I hesitate to think what would have happened to me. And what did I get for it? Picturesque vistas of Muckle Flugga and RAF Saxa Vord, a massive blister on my left big toe, and the right to say that I almost died on the Isle of Unst while seeking out a geocache. In retrospect, I should have done a better job of managing my risks - lesson learned.

With at least an hour and a half of driving ahead of me, and two ferry rides, I had no time to see or photograph Unst or Yell in more detail. As I drove back from the farthest reaches of Unst to check in at my digs in Lerwick, Shetland stopped looking like Wyoming and began to more closely resemble one of my two least favorite states of the Union: Oklahoma.

2 comments:

  1. what a wally. any shetlander could have told you what to expect at hermaness

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. And yet, no Shetlander, to include the one who left the listing for the geocache in the first place, did so. :)

      Delete