Keith and I had been exchanging emails for months, setting dates that eerily seemed to perfectly coincide with the next roar from the 'Beast from the East'. We had to cancel at the last minute twice, and I was most appreciative of his flexibility, understanding and persistence when we finally met last night at Pendreich car park on the Sherrifmuir road out of Stirling!
The objective was to hone some of the navigation skills the guys already had through years of hill experience. I think it's fair to say that most of us hill-goers by necessity have dallied with maps and the like, and most of us possess some skills and general map awareness. Keith, Douglas and John had various skills, specialities and techniques that we tried to bring together as a team. The trick is to use a system, a methodology that gives you confidence in what you are doing - 'I know that I have walked X distance, I know that it is on a correct bearing, I know the ground is doing what I am expecting it to do looking at the contour lines, and I know I haven't gone too far otherwise I would have encountered Y, so even though it doesn't look quite like I was expecting to, I MUST be here, at point Z'
Also, it is important to accept your fallibility - How often we ascend whilst contouring, how often our bearings are just a smidge off, how often we make assumptions on what things MUST look like. In the darkness, or indeed mist or whiteout, these are magnified, and believing in your ability, relying on the fact you have practiced the skills many times pays dividends. As Douglas so accurately put it, 'it's like a jigsaw', and you shouldn't try to make pieces fit. If they don't fit, something's wrong. Re-think, re-trace if necessary, review. You're probably just metres off, but in a whiteout and near a corniced edge, that's serious!
We had fun finding increasingly challenging 'features' in the darkness, planning strategies, executing them, refining them, and moving on. Working as a team, the burden of pacing and walking on a bearing was shared, and with some coaching, the guys located all of the objectives successfully, moving around unfamiliar terrain in darkness with increasing confidence.
We ended up with a walk to the summit of Dumyat, that unassuming peak so familiar to Stirling folk, and a great vantage point over the Firth of Forth, lit brightly as it was. The wind was fresh, so the photo quality is very poor I apologise!
On the walk out, we reflected on our learning, and I made the point that confidence is gained through practice - Don't always go out in good conditions. Find an objective with relatively safe approaches, put the GPS away and nav! Test yourself. Gain experience, gain confidence. And suddenly the encroaching dusk and enveloping cloud will hold a little less consternation, the night a little less worry. You never know, you might even enjoy it....afterwards in the pub! ;)
Thanks to Keith for organising, and to Douglas and John for some great banter and enthusiastic participation. See you guys next time in the snow!