I have walked many mountains in Ireland now, in different ranges throughout the country, one thing has surprised me though, I have very rarely had to use a compass to find my way. In the whole of 2009, I had to resort to map and compass only once, on Slievemore in County Mayo. I think the only time I ever got lost on a walk was during my Duke of Edinburgh Bronze expedition somewhere on Butter mountain back in 1846 and that wasn't even my fault!
I'm the first to admit, my compass skills are limited, limited by the fact I rarely practice them. The Mournes were my stomping ground for so long with its great 20 odd mile long handrail, more commonly known as the Mourne wall. Of course I'm aware that these skills can be practiced anywhere but another reason for my relative ineptitude is that I have never really been bothered to learn them.
I have been blessed with a decent sense of direction and before any walk, I do pour over the map and study the details so I have the route memorised. This of course, doesn't count for much when you remember, at the end of the day, I'm a human like everyone else, and humans make mistakes.
With that admission, I'll move onto yesterdays walk. I chose the Galty Mountains which straddle Counties Limerick and Tipperary. I love new territory and the chance to get more of a feel for a place. I've been living in Tipperary now for a almost a year and had only visited the Galtys once even though they're only an hour away by car and are home to one of Irelands 'Munros', Galtymore (919m).
From the Knockmealdowns a matter of weeks ago (see that walk and pic of entire Galty range here) I had viewed the Galtys at sunset, conjuring ideas of traversing the full range, from west to east, maybe in one long day, maybe with a wild camp thrown in, who am I kidding, definitely with a wild camp thrown in!
The route I'd chosen for the day though was to be governed by the amount of daylight available, the late start (11am) didn't help matters. I tailored it to suit the timings, 16km was the distance to be covered. A nice easy stroll over four summits and back the way I came.
Things started off well, visibility was great, large patches of snow still covered the western and northern slopes and the temperature was relatively warm . Temple Hill (785m), the first summit of the day is home to a fortress of a cairn, with built-in stone seats and protected by large stone walls acting as a fantastic wind break.
While enjoying a cup of tea, I noticed wisps of clouds beginning to form and flow over the summits to the east, this prompted me to take a compass bearing to the next summit, Knockaterriff Beg (679m). Before reaching the bottom of the col between the two mountains, the stratus cloud had descended, now obscuring the summits ahead entirely. Luckily I had taken bearings to the summit (marked by a steel post).
From there, after 40m of descent to another col, the steep trudge to the summit of Lyracappul (825m) began. I had taken a bearing to the beginning of the ridge and sure enough came across a vague path leading that way. The ridge begins with a prominent rock outcrop directly overlooking a near vertical precipice. With this found, it was an easy trek to the summit cairn. At this height, it was clear that the cloud cloaking the mountains was very thin as the sun was almost visible and every now and again, the fields and pasture in the valley below would appear in view to the north.
After another cuppa, the ridge was followed to the summit of Carrignabinnia (822m). From here I debated continuing but it was now just before 3pm and I had to get back. I pretty much backtracked all the way over the ridge to that rock outcrop, took a bearing back to the col below and descended. I made it safely enough but it's here that things took a turn for the worse.
I took my bearing to the summit of Knockaterriff Beg, directly south and began to follow it. Somewhere though, I went off course and after fifteen minutes I realised I wasn't where I was supposed to be, the summit post was nowhere in sight and when I checked what direction I was now heading, I was shocked. I was now heading north again but I wasn't back at the col.
I wasn't worried but I found myself struggling to comprehend what had gone wrong. How did I manage to turn full circle following a simple bearing? I'd got it right all day. By now the mist was thick and I was completely disoriented, it would be dark soon enough, I had to get my act together.
The hardest thing was getting rid of the sensation of anger with myself, it was putting me off thinking clearly. After a while of battling with myself to look at the map and think sensibly, my mind focused and began looking at things logically. I got my facts straight, I knew where north was, I knew my whereabouts within 300-400 square metres and I knew Temple Hills location in relation to this. I trusted the compass totally and headed directly southwest, I figured I would hit Temple Hill at some point, head to the ridgeline and from there, plain sailing.
It turned out I was completely right, and I got back without a hitch, even hitting the ridgeline only a few metres away from where I had descended from earlier in the day. I had gotten lost, but I'd made sense of my surroundings and found the way again. The walk back through the forest under a rapidly darkening sky sharpened my mind on getting more proficient with a compass, I always have it in my pack. I think I'll sign up for a course sooner rather than later. If the terrain had been more difficult and more precision were required, I may have been in trouble.
A positive day all round in my book, lessons learned and 4 new mountains climbed, only 46 to go to reach my target for 2010.
So, who needs a compass anyway?