Looking after number one

Posted by Martin Doyle on 30/03/1999

One of the joys of going into the hills for a day is the freedom to tramp around where it pleases me, to make the route longer or shorter, make it up as I go along and get back home when it suits me. The thought of leaving a route plan somewhere safe so that I can be rescued if I don't show up on time leaves me cold.

Of course I am working on the basis that I can look after myself and get around safely. I am no different from most people I meet on the hills, so what is it that makes people confident in themselves and self reliant?

A combination of mountaineering skills, experience and the ability to use some basic navigational equipment are common in competent hillgoers.

Everybody carries a map and compass and they are certainly useful for identifying the peaks around you on a fine day. They also come into their own when used as your eyes to help negotiate that elusive route to the road in the dark or to locate a descent gully from a mountain plateau when the mist has come down.

Being able to read the shape of the ground from the contour lines, measure distance by knowing how fast you walk or how long your stride is and follow a direction using the compass are all pieces of a jig saw puzzle which fit together to make a picture for navigating. Learning these skills is good fun and builds a lot of self confidence.

Route finding and route choice are other vital skills. Choosing an efficient route through broken ground will rely on the eye as much as the compass and will help you avoid dangerous ground as well as save energy for later in the day. We all get lost occasionally, usually when we are enjoying ourselves instead of paying attention to what we are doing. The important thing is to know how to relocate ourselves and get back to an identifiable place or be able to recognise our mistake and retreat.

A common factor in mountain accidents is that although the group soon realises it is lost it perseveres on its route in the hope that things will work out and as a result gets further into trouble. A sad example is ‘Five Finger Gully’ on Ben Nevis. It is a small navigation error that takes you into the top of this steepening, narrowing funnel instead of the neighbouring "red burn" but it is a lethal error of judgement to carry on descending the ever steepening ground when the map tells you the gradient should be fairly gentle. This is the time to re-think and take another action.

Good judgement in the hills only comes when skills are well practised in lots of circumstances. This experience is hard won and until it is gained it can be supplemented with good planning. This is of course where the route card/plan is useful. Writing one out ensures that you have considered distances, terrain, hazards, time required etc. So a route plan may be vital for an inexperienced group, but unnecessary for an old hand for whom planning can be done in a less formal way.

Apart from the map and compass the other kit you take should be determined by the conditions and weather you expect to meet. Weather proof clothing (keeping out the wind, wet and cold) will not only make life more comfortable, but may be vital in prolonged exposure to stormy weather. Make sure your shell clothing includes gloves and a hat and that something is taken for extra warmth.

Much is made of the need for emergency kit but like most things in life a balance is needed. The walker who carries a head torch is unlikely to get benighted because she can carry on walking to the valley after darkness has fallen. The walker who carries a tent, sleeping bag and stove so that if he gets caught by darkness can survive the night is likely to be so exhausted by the additional weight that he is carrying that he will be more prone to exposure and ultimately less self-reliant.

Of course accidents do happen and you may be forced to stop out in which case some equipment to help you survive is a good idea. A strong plastic bag big enough to get two people in is great insurance as it will keep the wet out and keep the heat in. It will not be pleasant, but it will keep you in a fit state to walk out when daylight returns, or reduce the damage before rescue arrives - and there will be a lot of cuddling so go with someone you like! You may want to attract attention so put a whistle in your rucksack.

A first aid kit is a good idea. For minor problems you can make do with very little kit and for major accidents you will never have enough equipment. The most important thing is to know what to do to preserve life, stop things deteriorating and avoid making matters worse. First aid is a life skill so it is worth getting regular training.

With a little planning, forward thinking and allowance for the unexpected we are all able to get around under our own steam and hopefully arrive at the pub before last orders.



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