Following my Mountain Leader Training I was given just one area for development, navigation. Having never really done any when I turned up on my course last October I had to learn very, very fast and it is still the one area that I lack confidence in....
As a practical person I need to visually and aesthetically engage with a subject to truly understand it. I can read as many books as I like, but until I actually DO it I will never really learn it. So, a weekend in North Wales beckoned where the whole weekend was focused upon navigation.
As we all do I was checking the various weather reports on a daily basis in the run up to the weekend, Windy always being my favourite, I still release an audible gasp of pleasure when I see those patterns. As we got closer it started to dawn on me that the glorious sunshine had moved on and we were looking at a weekend of low cloud and rain.
Initially I was disappointed, it is after all those glorious views that keep us going as we tackle the steep ascents, but I started to realise that the weather was completely in our favour. What better conditions to practice navigation, on two Quality Mountain Days than in really challenging weather.
The plan on Day 1 was to head up on to the Rhinogs and slowly pick our way, off path, up on to Rhinog Fawr. I deliberately did not look at the map before we went, I was terrified and excited in equal measure.
The Rhinog National Nature Reserve is stunning, even in the low clag and wet mists. The flora and fauna is slowly becoming a quiet obsession of mine. Now I would just like to point out here that you should ideally stick to the pathways within the reserve due to the sensitivity of the landscape, however as will become plainly obvious due to the nature of our objective we did not. We did though tread as lightly as possible and took separate paths so as not to trample the same plants twice.
So, the navigation had to begin and to start off with Tony set me a simple objective which was a confluence approximately 500 metres away. Well, with confidence brimming I set a bearing and was off. Mistake no. 1. I rushed, I didn't take in the landscape before me, I didn't look at the map because if I had done then I would have seen that the easiest thing to do was head down to the boundry wall, handrail until I met the stream and then handrail the stream until I reached the point where the two streams met. It wasn't until I had marched off on a bearing and clearly did not find the confluence that I then looked up, looked around and realised my mistake.
The great thing though is that you really do learn by your mistakes, and from there on in I took my time when given an objective, looked at the options, and talked to myself incessantly.
There were times when we set ourselves objectives that really challenged us and over the first couple of hours we soon realised what our individual strengths and weaknesses are. For me as a visual person, a designer by trade, I am able to look at the map, study the contours and relate it to the landscape before me with relative ease.
Over the course of the morning we looked for walls, contour lines, wet bits, dry bits and then we decided to set up on to the summit for lunch. This was when the excitement really began.
The cloud was getting lower, and thicker and as we met the path to take us up to Lwyn Cwm Bychan it was becoming increasingly clear (or not clear!) that our navigation skills were going to be tested.
Navigating around the lake was challenging in itsel. With the cloud descending and lifting every minute or so we went from a visibility range of anything from 10 metres to 1 metre which made negotiating a slab which one small slip would have resulted in sliding in to the lake, very interesting indeed. When we got over the other side of this we then needed to follow the small path around the lake and then up a gully rising approximately 50 metres. However it was at this point that the pathways split and disappeared. We were alone, visibility was at this point about 3 metres and we needed to make a decision.
We did of course battle onwards, and upwards, taking a bearing off the lake and slab which we had just crossed we set a course up the mountain. It was thrilling to be going off path again, but also slightly nerve wracking as we really could not see where we were going.
There was however one point which we are still to this day unsure of. We could not honestly say exactly where we were, but what we did know was that we just needed to go up so we had to just go with our instinct on this occasion. Luckily we ascended straight up on to the summit and we were then able to breathe!
After a quiet lunch we decided that we would go back and work out exactly where we had gone wrong. This proved to be harder than we thought, the cloud was even lower and we were relying on the contours and little landscape we could see to navigate. But navigate we did and we made it back down to the lake, the path and the route off the mountain. It was hair raising, we learnt shed loads and we both desperately want to go back in good visibility and work out just where we went wrong, because we did go wrong. I would love to say that our joint skills got us to the summit and back down, but I am confident that a fair amount of luck came in to it too.
It just goes to show, even with two trained, experienced mountain walkers sometimes the weather really can get the better of you. It is so important to practice these skills, to grab any opportunity to work with different people and learn new techniques. It is also vital to get out there on those not so nice days and work damn hard. It is worth it, you learn more on those days than all those great weather days put together.
We will be back, and we are still practicing.