ML Night Navigation – Snowdon
I don’t mind admitting that when it comes to map-reading I’m something of a one-trick pony, a 1:25,000 man through and through. But those days may soon be gone…
On the penultimate day of the Mountain Leader’s course in North Wales we packed up and cleared out of our Llanberis hostel in the morning, making way for the next set of
victims ermmm… candidates due to arrive. We wouldn’t be requiring those firm, comfortable beds on our final evening, as we would be setting up a wild camp near the foot of Mount Snowdon, and conducting night navigation exercises (navex) in the area nearby.
This was the first time all week that we had been out with full rucksacks. Thankfully mine wasn’t as bulky as it can be on multi-day treks, but it was still heavy enough to suggest that I was about to vanish into the wilderness for weeks!
My only concern at this stage was that our veterans group had set a fairly tough pace all week, even by the instructors’ reckoning, which is all well and good when we’re only carrying daysacks. But add a little (LOL. little?) extra weight to my back and suddenly my pace slows to a crawl. I have been increasingly accustomed to using my age as an excuse on these occasions, but this time I’m not even sure I WAS the oldest! Perhaps simply the least fit…
Our instructor for the night navex was Steve, one of Phill George’s associates. Hand-picked from a large number of MLs at Phill’s disposal, Steve had been chosen for his ability to ensure there would be rain. You may laugh – we did. However, on every single occasion that Phill had hired Steve to conduct a night nav exercise, rain apparently appeared in great volume and with almost no warning…
But this surely wouldn’t happen on our outing? We had enjoyed excellent weather all week and it didn’t look likely to change. Ermm… yes.
Suited, booted and loaded with kit we parked up close to Bethania. For those contemplating visiting the area, I can heartily recommend the excellent Caffi Gwynant, where we stopped the following day on our way back down… awesome cakes! Anyway, I digress…
We dismounted the vehicles, all as chirpy as ever, and then Steve gave us the instruction…
“OK guys, if you’d like to get out your 1:50,000 maps we’ll do some nav legs on the way up!”
Heyyy, wait a minute… 1 in what? Ah yes, I do remember Phill lending me one of those. I think it ended up buried deep in the recesses of my Bergen. Out of sight, out of mind and all that. Begrudgingly, I unearthed said reference material and had a look.
The saying “if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined” sprang immediately to mind. Where the heck had all the map features disappeared to? I checked the calendar – fading memory and all – nope, it wasn’t April 1st. I may or may not have whispered to Evo Evans, our Adventure Quest Instructor, that I had a defective map. He may or may not have laughed at me. One thing is for sure is that I was confused.
I was then reminded that this was the military map of choice. REALLY? I know it has been nearly 20 years, but I was pretty good on all the courses I did back then. On that basis I’d hoped it would be like riding a bike… but alas, it wasn’t. I’m not sure whether I’ve simply been spoiled during my post-military years by always sticking with the excellent OS 1:25,000 maps, or whether I’m deluded and simply never was very good with maps at all. I knew immediately that I would struggle with this alien piece of land survey.
As we set off, my ‘lead’ leg was one of the first – not too far, not too difficult. It did throw up the question of whether boundary walls are always as they seem. One wall-esque ‘target’ on the map actually turned out to be a mining cart track, and Steve enlightened us about its history when we all finally established that we’d found it. Interesting as all this was, I was still very preoccupied with the map I held in front of me.
I can’t really explain it; maybe it’s just me. Nevertheless, the transition from my “old faithful”, familiar 1:25,000 scale to this foreign 1:50,000 version felt like I’d been reading English, had the text yanked out of my hands, been handed something written in Chinese and was still expected to know what it said. My brain just wasn’t having any of it! For the first time all week I started to feel extremely stressed at my own shortcomings. It wasn’t long before somebody picked up on this, and kindly suggested I revert to my map of choice. The ML course isn’t designed to stress out the candidates. Instead, it’s aimed at highlighting the areas individuals need to work on improving during the consolidation period over the following months, and prior to assessment. I had certainly identified one of those ‘needs’.
As the day wore on, we all had a go at leading before eventually reaching our camping spot: on a plateau approximately 400 metres below the summit of Snowdon. We discussed the protocols of wild camping before eventually pitching our tents, and no sooner had I removed mine from its compression bag, than a signal was sent out to every mosquito in Wales to move in. I/We have never seen anything like it. NOT ONE of the other tents was affected at all! Thankfully, the mozzies all observed proper etiquette and remained on the outside of the tent until the earlier prophecy – about Steve’s rain – effectively came to pass. It started to blow a gale and tip down with rain, and within moments my bright green tent flysheet turned into a mosquito mortuary. Happily I was safely inside, out of reach of all of the above, as we waited for darkness to fall.
When we emerged again a few hours later, it was time for the night navigation. I actually found this quite fun, regardless of the fact that I was ‘encouraged’ to revert back to that inscrutable Chinese text. We practiced walking on bearings, timing, pacing and handrailing features in the locality to get to predetermined locations. Without a doubt, though, the biggest eye-opener came the following morning when we walked the same route and saw what, in daylight, were quite obvious goals. However, shrouded in darkness the previous night they’d really had us scratching our heads at times.
After our night nav-ing we finally fell into our beds, a little weary to say the least, and thankfully ‘Steve’s rain’ had passed by morning. As the others all took down their tiny single-man domains, I dismantled my 5-star, 3-man, Berghaus marquee (LOL – still covered in wet mosquitos unfortunately!) and we readied ourselves for our final hike of the week. We simply needed to get down off the mountain and – crucially – make absolutely sure we remembered to visit Caffi Gwynant for some superb cake on the way! Of course, as was the case all week, no training opportunity would be missed, so we continued our navigation practice all the way down, relocating every now and again to demonstrate that we were all still ‘playing’.
The ML course was all but over. We enjoyed coffee and cake before reaching the vehicles, and then headed back to Llanberis to receive our individual course debriefs from the instructors and say our goodbyes.
It had been an excellent week, enjoyed in the company of like-minded veterans and excellent instructors. Now that we’ve completed the official training course, the rest is down to us: the next steps are consolidation, brushing up on the skills discussed in the debriefs and putting them into practice on the mountains. Once we have all done this at our own pace, and the time is right, we’ll head back to Phill George in Snowdonia for the final assessment. In my case this may be taking place towards the end of the year… does that give me enough time to learn Chinese?!
For those interested in becoming a Mountain Leader I can heartily recommend Phill George as an instructor. You can visit his website for more information here.
If you are a UK veteran interested in taking part in the ML qualification I strongly recommend that you visit the Adventure Quest website, here.
If you are none of the above but would like to take on a new challenge, with support from qualified guides, why not consider coming along on a group day organised by Adventures with Heroes? For more information, just click here.
Simon Duringer is an award-winning blogger, interviewer and author. His own books can be found on Amazon too by clicking any of the following icons…