Winter Navigation Training

Part 1, 19/1/14

I was feeling fidgety. There was a low angled but really bright sun shining from a clear blue sky; and we were doing a classroom session. I was itching to get outside but skimping on the basics, particularly for novices going on a winter Scotland trip for the first time would not be a good idea. We were all very aware of the unprecedented statistics for avalanche deaths last year and that each statistic represented a personal tragedy for the families left behind. Being able to navigate independently will always give you an edge which could save your life.

The session started by looking at maps and what they represented. There are lots of different types of map in many scales e.g. 1:10000, 1:25000, 1:30000, 1:50000 and the, very rarely seen these days, 1:63360. We looked at compasses and how to use them and then it was time to go outside.

We started by orienting the map with the compass so that what the map is displaying is what we are seeing on the ground. Being able to keep track of distance covered is vital, particularly in the winter mountains where visibility could be down to one metre; so we counted paces and did timings. Before long we were interpreting contours, using tick features, catching features and handrails to keep track of where we were.

Back to base for lunch and as it was still sunny we went outside to go through the theory and then practicing taking bearings and calculating grid references. After another working tea break we watched a BBC Scotland documentary about last year’s avalanches. It was all very sobering. It was decided to have a short consolidation period for practicing the skills before heading out onto the Downs for some more realistic training with an emphasis on winter navigation and skills.


Part 2, 21/1/14

It is only a few minutes train journey from the noise and bustle of Brighton to Hassocks station and a short walk from there, to the South Downs where we had a full day without encountering another person.


The three days between part one of the navigation training and today’s practical gave us the opportunity to do a little consolidation work but hopefully was close enough so that everything was not forgotten.


The walk south, alongside the railway embankment, gave us the opportunity to practice out timings and pacings, while identifying tick features and using catching features. Soon we saw the Jack and Jill windmills, clearly visible in the bright sunshine, against a clear blue sky, on the crest of the whale backed hill, before us.


Last year our training fairly closely replicated some of the conditions we were likely to encounter in Scotland as it was one of those rare years when the Downs were covered with snow. This year however the only white stuff was the clasping chalk clay which pulled at our boots, sent us skidding around and played havoc with our pacings.


We were using both the 1:25000 and 1:50000 maps and noted the differences in the amount of information provided by each map.


The interval between contour lines on our maps was 5 metres (in Scotland it will be 10 metres) which made identifying contour features on low lying ground very difficult and the need for accurate navigation techniques very important.


It was very cold, so when lunch time came around we headed for a small copse and the shelter of the skeletal winter trees. I went for a pee and noticed the signs of badger and deer. Our seat was the trunk of a tree, fallen many years before and now the food and habitat for mosses, lichen and the fruiting bodies of various types of fungi. It was the home of insects and had been used as a toilet by a fastidious rabbit. We shared a Thermos of coffee and talked of Scotland.

We continued to navigate, noticing discrepancies between the map and what we could see on the ground, while getting higher and higher up the hill before making a precipitous traverse along a steep, concave, scarp slope until we arrived at a lone sentinel hawthorn. We think of the Downs as a series of gentle rounded hills but from where we huddled, the ground fell away from us at an angle of 55 degrees and was a realistic place to get out the rope.


For the novices in the group getting an idea of basic ropework is essential while for those who have done it before a recap is never wasted and gives the more experienced members the chance to pass on their knowledge. We practiced using an Italian Hitch to belay a climber or to abseil. This is a great technique for winter as the ropes are often too frozen to fit into a belay plate and it is all too easy for cold fingers to fumble their belay plate and drop it down the cliff. We practiced three different ways to abseil using only a rope (some are more comfortable, and safer, than others). We could have done more but the short winter day was over and we still had to navigate back to the station. Things went very well and we made good time; unfortunately we made a poor choice for the last part of our route and ended up walking along a very busy and noisy road which made an unpleasant contrast to the rest of the day.

We arrived back at Hassocks in the dark feeling that we had an enjoyable as well as informative day in the hills and continues talking about the forthcoming trip all the way back to Brighton.