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Why Navigation is Important to Climbers

Compass

Why Navigation is Important to Climbers

If you spend most of your climbing time on roadside gritstone crags, it can be hard to see why any climber would need to learn to navigate. Even in the dark, it’s easy enough to find Stanage car park.

I am a good navigator, I hold an NNAS (National Navigation Award Scheme) award and I’m working towards my ML (Mountain Leader training). But I never used to connect navigation to climbing. That was before my ill-fated trip to Raven Crag. 

Ah, which Raven Crag, I hear you say, there are so many! Well, my friends, that was part of the problem.

A damp day in the Lake District gave me the idea to introduce some friends to Corvus – it’ss a multipitch mountain route which you can do in boots in the rain and still have fun. Some other friends fancied a hike up Great Gable, so that worked out perfectly – we all jumped in the minibus and drove down to the far end of Borrowdale. 

Now, as a navigator, I’d looked at the map. The nav was really straightforward. Or so I thought. My next thought was that it would be a good opportunity for someone else to do the navigating. “To Raven Crag!” I pointed it out, handed over the map and we wandered off. 

an arrow

Some time later, we dropped down a col. I’d only been to the crag once and that was a few years ago, but this didn’t feel quite right. As that thought came into my head, “We’re here!” declared my friend, dropping his pack. 

“Err… we’re not.” This was definitely not Raven Crag.

I took the map back and had a look. As I traced our route from the car park, my heart began to sinking. This wasn’t a simple nav error – we’d started up the wrong bloody valley. We were at a Raven Crag, but between looks at the map, my friend had taken us to a small outcrop, rather than the splendid multipitch crag.

I was furious. Not with my friend, but with myself. Because it was climbing and because I was competent, I’d presumed navigation was easy. It hadn’t occurred to me that things could go badly wrong. 

The thing is, with a good hill day, you can reroute from an error like this, you can change your plan. You might not achieve your goal, you might have to hitch along a road to get back to the car, but you’ve still been out for a walk. 

With climbing, it meant we had the wrong guidebook at the wrong bit of rock. It had been a couple of hours’ walk with heavy bags, so we had a try at what we’d found. It was… questionable. Chossy with poor anchors. We had no idea what we were climbing on and an easy scramble instead turned into an epic of trying to retrieve gear. 

a map

This all could have been avoided with good navigation. 

So, if you fancy a day out at an epic mountain crag, I highly recommend Raven Crag. But I also recommend you take a map and compass and know how to use it!

Other benefits of navigation to climbers:

 

  • If you have an accident, you will be asked for an eight-figure grid reference. Know how to work this out, but more importantly, know where you are!
  • In the UK the weather can turn bad quickly and short winter days can take the best of us by surprise. Know how to use your compass and how to navigate in low visibility so you can get home safely
  • Sometimes it rains. Climbing in the wet is grim, try going for a hill walk instead. Navigation skills mean you can go to far more epic places off the beaten (and signposted) track
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