Monday, January 18, 2010

Who needs a compass anyway?

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?


  1. Stuart, a useful experience and a sobering lesson for the rest of us. Like you, I have rarely needed to take a compass bearing in the hills here - and even then, only because I had a friend with me who wasn't an experienced hill walker. It was more to instil confidence in my friend rather than of necessity. I have, however, taken a few bearings for practice, just to make sure I haven't forgotten how to!

  2. I assure you, ill be making sure i practice a lot more than before, which will be easy because i never practiced!

  3. There's nothing worse than being confident in, but incorrect about, the way you're going. I'm glad it all worked out!

    This past weekend, I was snowshoeing in the back lot of a ski resort trying to find access to a wilderness area. For a long while, I followed a set of ski tracks, as they were heading in approximately the direction I needed to go. As I went farther, the tracks were replaced by boot prints and they descended into thicker and thicker bush, finally coming to a stop in a pile of broken limbs. All I had found was some other fool's misadventure, memorialized in the heavy snow. Tracing my way back, I too broke down and pulled out the map and compass.

  4. This brought a wry smile to my face. My wife & I were walking round there before Christmas, and there was thick freezing fog on the tops. Definitely a day for the compass!

    (P.S. Found you via Martin's Summit & Valley blog - keep up the great work!)

  5. Sounds frustrating Devin. Thanks Chris, I was having a look at your blog too, it seems we have a lot in common gear wise, except for the bivi, i use an akto. I take it your from these parts then?

  6. My mother's family are from round your way, but that dates back to an gorta mor. I grew up in Yorkshire, though. There's a 4-season kit posting in the works..!

  7. I look forward to it Chris, I may do up a bit of a 'show and tell' soon enough as well.

  8. Great read, I had a similar experience when I first started hill walking several years ago, I trusted a digital compass on a watch and when I walked off from a feature, I hadn't realised that I was at a feature just 300m to the east and it threw my descent offline in thick cloud as it got dark.

    It was on Bleaklow in the Peak District and I went through a horrible three hours as it got dark and I wasn't fully equiped technically or mentally for being completley lost in dark and cloud in a massively remote area like Bleaklow. I ended up running and have no idea why and went through some horible mental states.

    I eventually phoned the police who put me through to Mountain Rescue and whilst on the phone to them calming me down I realised where I'd ended up, I ended up at the reservoirs at Ladybower instead of 15 miles away at Old Glossop where my car was. Luckilly they found that a NT ranger was at the reservoirs and he came and picked me up once I'd reached the edge of the reservoirs.

    It was a harsh lesson learned, after that I found outdoor forums and started to take kit and skills seriously. I even did a refresher course last year for navigation and really enjoyed it, it is incredible the things you can do with a compass when you know how and fun too.

    Glad you had that moment where you realised you had got it right in the end, I think that is really important, when I got lost I used my common sense and followed a stream and I knew in my head the area as a map and that there were reservoirs one side, a road on bottom and top and a town the other way so unless I walked in circles if I followed water I'd get to one of these virtual boundaries.

    I realised afterwards that handling these siutations is also about confidence in your own ability and not just highly technical stufff but simple common sense stuff too. Next time you'll get stressed less easy as you've been there before and got yourself out of it.

  9. Funny, I had that same desire at one point to run. I think it was the beginnings of panic, I successfully calmed myself though luckily. As you say, a navigation course is worth its weight in gold. Thanks for your comments

  10. We climbed Pen yr Ole Wen and into the Carneddau last weekend, climbing into the cloud cover at 600m or so and it was so thick you could see perhaps 10m. As we skirted round to Fach, Dafydd and Llewelyn, then headed north to Foel Grach, we were having to take bearings regularly as the path would disappear from view, both as a consequence of the visibility and the terrain. With a 45mph wind as well, it was mentally challenging stuff to keep focused and eventually find somewhere sheltered to pitch out of the cloud. We didn't get lost but staying focused for the long is rather tiring. I was using my Suunto Vector's compass for convenience but, after a while, I got the Silva out just to check. Fortunately, the Suunto was correct throughout but the added comfort of a second compass was a reasonable compromise on UL principles! Also, I was not alone. I walk alone quite a bit, but those days there are so often two of us that, in situations like that, sharing the mental burden is welcome.


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