A-Z of a Climber
10 November 2008
Note: Many of these articles are very old, and although the technical information is still relevant the equipment mentioned may not be (for example a Stormy cooker was state of that art in 1995, but not in 2021).
I’ve never been that good at reading maps, but I don’t let it get me down. For me, it’s one of those things that ‘proper climbers’ are supposed to be good at, like how proper men are supposed to know how to change a tyre or what type of engine their car has (I don’t know either!
My dad was great at navigation and honed his skills to such a high degree he could tell the contours through his feet, and instinctively knew what direction he was travelling in and could often go without either map or compass. For people who get this good, the problem is that they really yearn to get lost, to see how good they really are, but never can. Unfortunately, his skills weren’t transferred to me, although like him I generally do know what direction I’m travelling in - the wrong one.
My problem is I just don’t do numbers and map reading seems to involve lots of adding things up or taking stuff away (don’t get me started on magnetic deviation!) I can’t even handle the 24-hour clock, so it’s not surprising that maps and compasses baffle me. When I skied across Greenland this year I just had to keep the same bearing for 27 days and even then I found that hard. And when it comes to pacing, what kind of brain is empty enough to find room for all those
numbers. The problem is that very often I find my life, and that of my partners, depends on being able to count out the steps, but each time, no matter how hard I try, I find that instead of being able to say: “That’s it, lads, 387 metres, turn 246°,” my mind has usually wandered to such rich topics of thought as ‘how does Ikea come up with all the odd names for their products?’
Generally, I count from the back.
One of my favourite incompetent navigation stories involves a bunch of the UK’s top mountaineers who were invited to Scotland by a leading British gear manufacturer to discuss new ideas for winter clothing. On the first day the whole team set off to climb on Shelter Stone and, as usual, the night and the storm arrived much sooner than expected, luckily only after everyone had made it to the plateau.
Quickly they formed themselves into a line and began heading home. After quite a long time Famous Climber A, who was at the back, asked if they were heading the wrong way, as he thought they should be going up not downhill. The leader - Climber B - one of the UK’s top Alpinists at the time, told him he hadn’t deviated from his initial bearing at all and everything was okay. Half an hour later Climber A asked again if they were not, in fact, going the wrong way and to prove the point got his own map and compass out. They were. Quickly they formed up in a circle to check what was wrong, while Climber B argued that he was, in fact, right.
“You’re going south instead of north,” said Climber A as Climber B showed them what he was doing.
“No I’m not,” said Climber B, “look the compass is pointing south,” he said stabbing the compass with his finger.
“No,” said Climber A, look the red bit’s pointing north.”
At this point, Climber B looked Climber A in the face as if he was the most stupid person he’d ever met.
“Everyone knows that the red bit points south ... because it’s hot.”
Needless to say, they never had that meeting and Climber B took up surfing soon after.
Often my lack of map reading skills means I don’t even take one and there’s been many a time I’ve had to navigate by the map on the inside cover of a guidebook and the compass on my watch (you see they are useful after all!. This, of course, is not recommended by the UK’s Mountain Rescue Teams and did once result in me arriving at Pen y Pass rather than Ogwen Cottage after a route on Idwal Slabs! come to think of it, I was trying to navigate using the Gogarth guide at the time!
But if you’re crap at reading maps then it’s crucial you get yourself a partner who can and remember to tuck in behind them and I highly recommend you find yourself an ex-orienteer (or borenteer as I prefer to call them!. This type of individual could navigate you out of Hades without even having to gel the map out and even if they can’t climb at least they’ll get you to and from the crag safely (Al Powell is just such a person, yes I know you thought he was one of the best climbers in the UK but, in fact, he just knows how to find the crags!. And, of course, you can always cop out and buy a GPS, but that’s ‘a whole other can of worms for people with brains like mine.
So if one day you find yourself lost on some mountain and come across me, perhaps looking in my guidebook ‘and consulting my watch, then don’t ask me the way, just say hello and keep going.”