Posted on December 10 2014
Its about this time of year that we all delve into the furthest reaches of the kitchen drawer or duffel bag to uncover our battered, unloved, ‘cheapest we could find’, compass. We are vaguely aware of their necessity when heading into the Scottish hills and yet remain fairly blasé about remembering exactly how to use them. I’ve heard stories about well respected mountaineers using infallible logic to identify that the red end of the compass must point south because its warmer at the equator. Brilliant logic even if totally wrong.
In the U.K. we spend most of the year climbing in areas with footpaths, in good visibility and reasonably pleasant weather. Navigational challenges at most of our crags are more likely to involve avoiding dog turd than following a bearing. Its important to realise that the ability to navigate is not something that you acquire through osmosis by spending time in the hills. It’s a distinct set of skills quite removed from your climbing ability which can help ensure your survival in the worst conditions.
Whilst in theory any magnetised needle floating on water will align itself with magnetic north its probably worth investing a few quid on a decent compass. The compass is what you use to measure direction. The ‘twisty bit’ in the middle with parallel lines drawn on it can rotate. This is the important part of the compass because it allows you to make measurements on the map and transfer them to directions in real life (and vice-versa). There are loads of good videos on youtube which are easier to follow than me explaining things here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4O8DmkAC2wI).
One thing which is of interest at the moment is that magnetic variation and grid north are more or less the same in the U.K.(-3 degrees or west 3 degrees in Scotland). Whilst this is a measurable difference, in practice its going to have very little impact on you getting to your destination or not. This means all the complicated adding or subtracting of values depending on whether you’r looking at a map or the landscape around you can be ignored. Basically your compass now points to true north.
Maps are large, cumbersome, wind catching objects designed to piss the user off. The best thing to do with a map is to cut out the important bit. If your going climbing on the Ben, cut out the part of the map showing it, laminate it and stick it in your pocket. The night before you go to try a route look at the map, work out where you’ll top out, where number 4 gully is (if descending the north face) and how to get between the two. If you know how to take a bearing and measure distance (http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/safety/estimating-distance.shtml) this wont take long. There is loads of helpful information on the MCOFS website but the key is to be organised (http://www.mcofs.org.uk/ben-nevis-navigation.asp). If you know how far you have to walk and on which bearing you wont even have to get the map out in the terrible weather which will inevitably envelop you on the summit. (The same goes for all mountains not just the Ben obviously!
Global positioning system’s are becoming increasingly popular as they get cheaper and more reliable. There is a long standing belief held by some that G.P.S’s are down right dangerous and should never be relied upon for navigation. This is because its technology which may break/run out of batteries/Russia might blow up the American satellites/it might be lost or dropped etc. All these things are true and most are equally applicable to compasses or maps. G.P.S’s can be very user friendly and display your location on map with your direction of travel indicated, altitude, time, speed, everything you’d want to know and more. They can burn batteries fast so take spares and think about what will happen if it does break. Most people who hate them are pretty good with a map and compass and probably resent the fact they had to put so much effort into learning all this stuff when nowadays a machine can do it for you. Having said all this though the bottom line is its always best to have a back up navigation system. A compass and cut out section of a map weigh next to nothing so take them with you even if you never have to look at them.
With ever increasing numbers of people venturing into the Highlands every year its important people take responsibility for their own actions. Its unfair to apply pressure on the voluntary mountain rescue services of these areas solely because you didn’t take the time to learn to navigate. It isn’t complicated or expensive to learn it just takes some time. Do your learning in a safe environment and don’t try things for the first time on the Cairngorm Plateau in a white out.