A little stale from stomping the same ground over and over, I was lucky enough to be invited away with the awesome Ultimate Navigation School, who teach everyone from hill walkers to Mountain Rescue Teams and Special Forces. Would the weekend expose my deficiencies or give me cause to celebrate some barely used and possibly forgotten techniques that I acquired years ago? Here’s how I got on…
Despite being a competent navigator, if I’m honest, navigation has always bothered me. For, generally, such a confident guy, this is somewhat of an anomaly. In more recent years this has been compounded by the types of terrain and hikes I choose to go on. Whereas, years ago, I wouldn’t have thought twice about slowing things down, heading well away from the trails and covering only relatively short distances in order to explore the wilder side of our landscape, post-kids, my time is more precious. Consequently, I tend to whizz along the well-worn mountain trails of Snowdonia and the hill trails of the Clwydian Range that I’ve become accustomed to.
Repeated visits along these trails, whilst beautifully spectacular, do tend to limit the navigational tools that I am able to employ. You get to know the lie of the land, while the collecting features that your mind once searched in a concentrated fashion, are now just given a fleeting acknowledgement. Basically, I felt like I’d taken a step backwards and was apprehensive about what tools I still had at my disposal. Fortunately, I had some of the UK’s most well-respected navigational instructors on hand to jog my grey matter and reinvigorate this old dog with some much needed confidence and support.
Day one of the Ultimate Navigation School course was essentially an instructional day. However, don’t for a minute think that this involved boring classroom work. I have far too much of that in my life as a teacher as it is haha! No, this was a day to spend out on the hills getting taught and practising techniques under guidance. Awesome!
It was refreshingly nice for me to venture away from the relative familiarity of North Wales (and the security that comes with knowing the area so well) and head into unfamiliar territory over in the Peak District. As much as I absolutely love North Wales, and will still continue to do the vast majority of my hiking there, sometimes a change of scenery is good for your mind. Well, in this case, good for my learning too. So, walking out of our Glossop base, we headed into the heather and peat-filled world of these gorgeously wild moors to find ourselves. Literally.
After quickly recapping the basics, our fantastic Ultimate Navigation School instructor, Stuart, started to fill our mind with knowledge and more progressive techniques. Some of this was stuff that I’d long since squirrelled away somewhere in the back of my mind; some of it was new to me. What I really liked was that with every progression we were given every opportunity to try it out, get it wrong, and ask daft questions. His patience, humour and ability to re-communicate an idea was brilliant. This was something that, as a teacher, I can really see the benefits of and, as a learner, really, really appreciated.
After a long day on the hills with the Ultimate Navigation School, in weather that was pretty grim at times, we headed back to base for a hot brew and debrief. Stuart gave us all some action points and set us some homework to do before the next day. So, without further ado and stinking from a day in the great outdoors, I drove straight to the M&S Food outlet by my hotel to pick up a bottle of wine, before walking over to Dominos to order a large Meteor for one. Come on, I hadn’t been set homework for over a decade; I needed reinforcements!
Showered, pizza laid out on the bed, and glass of wine poured, I began to plan the legs that I’d been given to lead the following day. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the detail and techniques that I was adding to my plan far outstripped anything I’d done in years. I genuinely felt reinvigorated by navigation. Well, it was either that or too much wine!
Day two with the Ultimate Navigation School arrived and I was really looking forward to leading my legs of the journey. The most complicated of the legs was my first leg, which was 850m of travelling across heather covered moorland and peat bogs. We would be travelling uphill to a position that we could not see and there were very few features to identify and collect along the way to reassure us. In fact, just to complicate matters further, the only features present on the map were two linear water features on either side of my desired direction of travel during the first 300m of travel.
When we arrived, however, there were many, many more of these linear streams and ditches crossing our route. I should have realised by now: a weekend away with the Ultimate Navigation School was never going to be straightforward. Walking on a bearing, aiming off, leapfrogging using members of the group to cross the deep ditches and streams, plus pacing and timing was tough enough. I could have done without the multiple red herrings as well! However, after stopping to re-evaluate, I realised that they were red herrings and started to trust my position. I could see exactly why Stuart had chosen this terrain: to deliberately confuse us. It was exactly the sort of test I’d been craving.
Fortunately for me, there was even more testing to come. The objects that I’d identified on the map to aim off to, near my final attack point, didn’t appear to be anywhere in sight. A little concerned, I checked everything again. It seemed very odd that these four structures, which in my head were probably going to be stone grouse butts and, therefore, pretty identifiable when close enough, didn’t seem to be there.
I checked my bearing once more, identified my last feature (a thin wooden stake that had been stuck in the ground – a little wider than a broom handle) and paced my last few steps to it. Still looking out for my now fictitious grouse butts, I checked everything again. Slowly, but very surely, I realised Stuart’s last red herring of the day were these no-longer-present features. The thin wooden stake that I was standing right next to WAS the thing that I supposed to be navigating towards as part of my aiming off plan. It seems daft, but I can’t tell you how chuffed I was with myself.
Navigation can be hard work. You’re essentially collecting and processing multiple pieces of data and information and then having to make calculations and decisions in order to keep yourself safe. However, navigation, as demonstrated in my gnarly first leg, can be immensely rewarding. I got a genuine buzz out of my successes over the course of the weekend. What’s more, I feel like I’ve had my interest in navigation reinvigorated. It definitely won’t be the last time I go away for the weekend with the Ultimate Navigation School.
Whatever your level, check them out: https://ultimatenavigationschool.co.uk/