Through the fog we could see a cairn drifting past to our right, perhaps 100m away and on slightly higher ground than where we were. Was that the summit?
I looked at my watch: 11:30am. I hadn’t expected to reach the top till around 11:40am, so something had clearly gone wrong with my navigation.
I looked around for an obvious reference but this being the high Cairngorms there was nothing. We did however get the sense that the ground was starting to fall away, so I wondered whether I’d overshot the summit and was now descending the far side of the hill. Hmm, what to do?
On the one hand, you want to trust your navigation and timings because the cairn you can see might not be the summit at all. It could easily be some other random cairn, its meaning or purpose long forgotten, but a voice in your head shouts regardless:
‘Hey! That’s the summit!’
“Is it?”, you ask. “I’m not so sure”
“Aye, course it is” It replies. “Cos it looks like one!”.
The voice is persuasive but it just doesn’t tally with what your compass and watch are saying. So you hesitantly ignore the voice and press on ahead, your uncertainty compounded by the fact you are now losing height. Damn it, maybe the voice was right after all? But then the undulating ground rises again, another cairn appears in front of you and you find yourself at the true summit. Yep, trust in what you know. Have faith in your competencies.
Then again, that assumes that you’re actually competent and you haven’t made a mistake. And so sometimes you have to override what you think you know and instead trust your gut instinct when it tells you something has gone wrong. On this particular hill, something had definitely gone wrong. To be a minute or two out over a distance of 1km would be an acceptable margin of error, but to be nearly ten minutes out was major.
We walked on a bit to verify that the ground was indeed falling away before deducing that yes, the cairn we’d passed earlier was the summit. Eventually I realised what I’d done wrong, I’d foolishly relied upon my brain’s (in)capacity to retain vital information for more than a few minutes. We’d actually started walking at 11:02, but what with all the pauses to check bearings over the last 1000m, 11:02 had mutated into 11:12 in my head, and instead of aiming to stop walking 29 minutes later when my watch read 11:31, I was aiming to stop at 11:41, hence arriving level with the summit ten minutes early.
On the plus side it was reassuring to find I’d actually got the original timings more or less correct. But on the other it was disappointing to find myself so far off the bearing. I was annoyed, because this kind of thing used to be second nature.
I can’t quite believe it now, but during my formative hillwalking years I never really worried about the weather before I headed out because, well, you couldn’t check even if you wanted to. There was no Mountain Weather Information Service. No forecast of cloud level or visibility. There was just Ceefax (Google it, kids!) with its big blocky map of the UK and where the weather was square shaped. At most, it might tell you it was going to chuck with rain all day but otherwise there was nothing to glean, so you just went. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost, but a glance at my hill diaries from that era says it all really:
Long day ending in the dark. 7hrs in cloud!
Poor visibility, heavy rain, strong south winds
Cloud 700m, persistent rain. Saw nobody all day
I don’t keep hill diaries any more, but if I did they’d make for tedious reading. They’d just read: lovely day; lovely day; lovely day; lovely day, as though Bill Withers had gone hillwalking.
Exhilaratingly brutal winter days notwithstanding, when I’ll gleefully accept the worst of what is on offer, I’ve otherwise become a fair weather walker. I think the arrival of detailed online forecasts has been the main reason for that, because if forecasts are dire, with bad visibility and rain, I tend not to head out.
It’s disappointing (but not surprising) to see I’ve lost my navigation skills, but I also wonder whether I’m also less able to notice the signs and signals that the environment gives me, some subtle some not, when the atmosphere is undergoing a change. Am I less in tune with the hills if I only see one side of their temperament?
Rain or shine, fog or not, I’ve learned an enormous amount over the years, but I’m in no doubt whatsoever that I was a more competent navigator 15 years ago. I’m going to work hard to get it back, and have already bought a watch with a stopwatch function so that I don’t have to rely upon my brain to count. Hmm, now I just need to remember to press ‘Start’ when I set off.
Ben Dolphin is an outdoors enthusiast and president of Ramblers Scotland