It’s been a year since I did my Mountain Leader training. As part of the training I was introduced to the delights of night navigation. While no stranger to wandering the hills in the dark, my previous experience was limited to simply following well worn paths up and down familiar peaks in Snowdonia. Now I was away from paths and relying on map, compass and headtorch alone. It’s mildly exciting stuff, especially when trying to determine the scale and distance of objects caught in your torch beam (if you’ve never played ‘Buttress or Boulder?’ it’s a bit like Father Ted’s explanation of small and faraway cows. But without the cows. Or comedy.)
The reason aspirant MLs are taught night nav is not so that we can facilitate clients’ romantic, moonlit summit sojourns (though we could), but to simulate being caught in poor visibility when out on the hills. A common occurrence, or so you’d think. Like any new skill, it requires practice to perfect and in the year since training I have spectacularly managed to fail to be out in anything approaching poor visibility conditions for any significant length of time. I know, hard to believe in the UK. Why not just go out at night? You may well ask. I’ve tried. Really I have, but usually during a two day wander with wild camp thrown in. And once I’ve filled my belly with a pot full of amorphous gloop and a few glugs of single malt, I’m not getting out of my nice toasty sleeping bag for anything…
Fortunately, this past weekend’s hill forecast was steadfast in its prediction of low lying fog over the middle of Wales. Perfect! Off to Pumlumon we go…
True enough, Pumlumon was indeed obscured by a thick blanket of fog. Visibility was at best around 30m or so and frequently less. Without the distraction of nice views we ditched the car in a lay-by somewhere near the Nant y Moch reservoir, hoped we’d be able to find it again and headed up the grassy slopes towards the summit. En-route I practiced relocation by contour interpretation (ML-speak for working out which lumpy bit I was standing on by repeatedly gawping at the map and then the ground). Verification was provided by Mrs. C, guardian of the GPS, whose surprise at my accuracy was only surpassed by my own.
It was blowing a hoolie on the summit of Pumlumon so we didn’t hang around, dipping down to the relative shelter of the big plateau east of the main top. Here, a profusion of summit features provided the ideal opportunity to practice some pace counting (very accurate) and timing (meh!) as we wandered from cairn to pool to boundary stone. Only once did things go appreciably wrong, as I stumbled upon a pool some 30m away from where it was supposed to be. My bafflement was only appeased when I got home to check online mapping vs. satellite overlay. Pool on ground is not shown on map. Pool on map is no longer a pool. Both pool and not-pool are part of same big boggy area.
A spot of leap-frogging on a bearing across a featureless tract of grass got us to another pool near a fence corner (where it was supposed to be) as the wind whipped up again and the drizzle intensified (intense drizzle? Is that a thing? Rain?) We decided that was enough excitement for one day and squelched off down a spur to pick up a track to take us back to the car. Which was where I thought it would be.
A final navigational challenge was provided by a herd of highland cattle blocking the road on the drive out of the valley. That was entertaining. I’m thinking of entering next year’s Cambrian Car Cow Slalom event. If there is one.