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Mountain Leader Poor Visibility Navigation Part 2

Updated: Feb 21

Poor Visibility Navigation, Mountain Leader

Be Bothered….two simple words that will make a difference to anything that you do in the mountains and in this instance it’s about approaching poor visibility navigation skilfully and determinedly.

Be Proactive, not reactive, preparation is the key….getting caught out in poor visibility and not being ready, is always going to make your day harder and more stressful, let's be honest, even with practise it’s still a little unnerving. So this idea of practising progressively as I mentioned in the last article has a direct impact on not only how it goes, but your ability as a Mountain Leader to cope with it whilst managing your clients, be bothered….

Here’s some thoughts on strategy, walking on a bearing, relocation and that valuable tool…the torch!

Having a bit of an idea what your options are getting to your objective is a good starting point and this might be dictated by a variety of factors. Heading for something large or linear always makes sense, as do shorter legs, sometimes the ideal solution doesn't come easy and is made up of a range of techniques and legs.. Its hard to put any rules against how far you’d travel on a single bearing, there’s too many elements that might affect it, this comes down to your experience of similar terrain and the ability to understand that. So walking a longer leg to a large feature like a lake could definitely be a good option, as could a number of smaller legs to definite features along the way achieving the same outcome, consider the terrain, work to your strengths and make choices.

Keeping things small, will reduce the natural degree of error that will occur (hence longer legs - bigger features!) and then consider the range of techniques in addition to pacing and bearing that you have available to you, things like aiming off, attackpoints, handrailing and strong catching features. Once decided on a plan then, the next stage is to get on with it….

Taking accurate bearings, applying it on the ground, walking in a straight line in complex mountainous terrain and dealing with any obstacles you might have will be challenging, but you should have the confidence to tackle it.

I’m not going to detail taking a compass bearing, rather just some simple tips that will you may already do or hopefully will enhance your skills in the future.

Taking a bearing needs to be done in a stable position, so if necessary taking a knee somewhere appropriate will protect you from the elements and give you that stable ‘platform’ to work off.

Poor Visibility Navigation, Mountain Leader

Prior to placing the compass on the map and making some fundamental mistakes, put things in place to capture those type of ‘school boy errors’ (direction of travel arrow pointing the wrong way for example), so for instance guess the bearing first, look at your position on the map, imagine a clock face of North, East, South, and West from your position and you should quickly identify which quarter of the clock that your objective is in, so in this photo, I’m planning to walk from A to B, therefore as a guess it will be NW or between 270’ and 360’. With practise you’ll get more accurate…

Ordnance survey map

Take your bearing and it should correspond to that quarter unless you’ve caught the mistake, which means you get to have another go at taking the bearing(!)and more importantly means you won’t walk the wrong way!

Before applying the bearing to the ground, your compass should be attached to you somehow… having the ability to go hands free quickly is useful at times and losing your compass on the hill is just embarrassing! I guess we all have our favourite ways to do this, be careful though as there’s plenty of things you may have in your chest / waist pockets that could affect your compass magnetically.

Walking on a bearing is pretty easy really, creating a stable platform for the needle to settle may take a few extra seconds, but worth getting it right, don’t rush it. There are a few methods of walking on a bearing, walking point to point is an extremely accurate way, a little slower, but with practise you can maintain a decent pace. Essentially choose something in your line of sight / torch beam, maybe its a rock, a piece of vegetation, maybe its only 15m away, confirm several times it’s inline with your direction of travel arrow, place the compass down and walk to your point. Once you reach it start the process all over again, combine it with pacings and it can be super accurate over distance.

As you walk this leg in poor visibility, look for breaks in the cloud, these are opportunities to gain information of what’s around you and confirm what you think you know. I tend not to go past anything distinct on the ground without confirming it on the map, a linear feature like a stream is easy to check with a compass and acts like a tick feature on your route.

As you count off your paces, you need a method of recording how many you’ve done, pacing beads attached to your compass do the job really well, you only need a few. The idea of of using your fingers, picking up stones and so on may not always work so having a method that is ‘attached’ to you is the better choice.

With some good adjustment of distance travel you’ll arrive at your objective. Sometimes though you may be short of your objective due to your stride changing over distance - reinforcing short legs are better! Once again you’re travelling between A to B and your distance ends at X, you’ll then need additional information to confirm your location, at times this needs to be done in a logical way to reduce just wandering around…you may get lucky, but you could lose your location at X

Harveys map

So your 1st option is to continue on for a short distance - you can return to X by simply walking on a back bearing.

Another option could be to look ‘left and right’ of your location or in this situation North and South. This is a simple process of just pointing your Direction of Travel arrow in the direction you wish to walk and allow your magnetic needle to towards the nearest cardinal point (N,E,S,W) and walking on that bearing (see photo below) - you can choose any number, but to be honest the cardinal points are easier to remember when you need to reverse the bearing to return to X. Don’t forget to pace out and back in too!

Silva compass, Harveys map

Using these simple techniques you can gain more info around you and make an informed decision of where you are and what you need to then do. The later technique also forms the basis of how to box around obstacles too.

Throughout you have always have the ability to return to A if it all goes wrong and have another go!

These techniques need practise, best done in good visibility to gain confidence in them and remember whilst you’re doing all this, your clients still needing looking after!

If you’re unlucky enough to be leaving the hill in darkness then it’s all about having a lot of illumination, not just for you, but perhaps for the group as well. There’s been a trend of using both head and hand torches for quite a few years now and there’s some good reasons why…

head torches

Head torches are great for your navigation and to see where you’re going, however in darkness and low cloud in that position the beam gets dissipated by the cloud - bit like car headlights on main beam in similar conditions.

So holding a torch low and along the ground gives you some light over distance and allows you pick out features to navigate to, now a head torch works in this mode, but it becomes a faff switching between positions so an additional hand torch really benefits here. In normal night conditions both types of torches with good battery life and lumens are a powerful combination to aid navigation and to help the group negotiate the terrain.

I’ve personally used LED Lenser for about 12 years now and wrote about some of their new products a few years ago, needless to say I’ve still got these models and continue to use them..

It’s pretty simple when you’re in the mountains, life is so much simpler when you have a lot of light!

Some useful tips hopefully, the key to them is to practise….

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