Two years ago, I didn’t make the mountain grade because my ‘micronavigation’ was nearly always accurate but not quite fast enough – ‘fluent’ as we call it. At the time, although I thought I had a reasonable amount of mountain experience, I’d never navigated or been taught to navigate on terrain quite like this. Empty, featureless moorland? No problem. Bring. It. On. Knobbly, lumpy, volcanic jumbles, where it’s impossible to walk on a bearing and where the squiggled contours just look like a small child has been let loose with an orange pen…? Wow. In hindsight, I suppose ‘mostly correct’ was something of a compliment!
There’s also the steep ground element. I’m a wuss. Full stop. There’s been many a time where I’ve pitied the poor soul that’s ended up looking after me on an exposed scramble; and Crib Goch is a name still capable of striking terror into my very being.
So having not touched any micronav since my ML (Mountain Leader) training in October, I walked into this assessment with three Big Questions: Had I improved at all since that first foray into what I’ll henceforth call ‘knobbly ground navigation’? Could I prove my ability not just to handle steep ground but look after others too? And worst of all, could I live up to the expectation of excellent leadership skills having already led for six whole months with HF last summer?
It turned out these two days would be a pivotal moment in my outdoor career, and Friday 29th May was most certainly the day everything changed.
Sometimes, when you start out in a certain position, you put yourself into a metaphorical box and it’s difficult to climb out (if you’ll excuse the obvious outdoor-related pun there). I’ve always been the nervous one, the one with the shortest legs, the one with the worst upper body strength… And I’ve always used those excuses as an advance defense in anticipation of those embarrassing moments when you have to ask for help or beg someone not to leave you at the back. You expect the moments to happen, so they do, and people rally round kindly showing you the way out, and you never know whether you could have done it on your own, after all. When you’re the one looking after other people, it comes together beyond belief.
I’d been stuck in a mindset that prevented me from realising, for a very, very long time how far I’d come in my scrambling abilities. Through a series of trips with friends, ML training, and a one to one scrambling course, somehow I’d finally managed to drag myself out of that terrible progress-defying state of mind. It wasn’t the scariest or longest section of steep ground on the HF assessment – barely a scramble - but instead of worrying about the unknowns ahead as per my usual tactic, I was enjoying myself so much that the steep ground came upon us, I launched myself into it, looked after the group, and there we were at the top of Steel Edge. I hadn’t batted an eyelid. In fact I’d relished it. The difference? I’d promised myself that no matter what came up, I would face it head on and look after the group as well as possible. At the top of that ridge, after years of “I’ll never be a real mountain leader” and scrambling scaredy-cattery, I allowed myself to see the light at the end of the tunnel...
And the Knobbly Ground Nav? Well, the biggest thing I learnt on that assessment two years ago, and the biggest difference between WGL (moorland terrain) and ML nav, is to read the contours. Never mind compasses and things – you’ve got everything you need in those orange squiggles and if you can learn to read those, you’re laughing. I’d spent the subsequent two years endeavouring to navigate all my walks by contours first, everything else second and I guess the habit developed to a subconscious level. Again, it was on the second day of the assessment that I realised I hadn’t taken a single bearing or paced anything. I’d sneaked a few confirmatory glances at the compass for map orientation purposes, but on the whole I’d simply watched the contours on the ground like a hawk as we moved around, subsequently removing the vast areas of uncertainty that tend to creep in when you to have to ‘relocate’ (work out where you are) from scratch. And that was the big one: somehow I’d developed a relative fluency I’d never tested until that day.
Navigational fluency and accuracy (by my previous standards): tick.
Confidence leading on steep ground (likewise): tick.
Completely different outlook on mountain leading potential: tick!