|Our Really Big Adventure|
Right from the get go we knew that Mountain Skills Two was going to be something of a serious proposition. I suppose it had something to do with the presence of the night navigation bullet in the activity list. We knew that the skills we had learned, two years ago, on Mountain Skills One had all but been forgotten and that on Mountain Skills Two we would be expected to have a good grasp of the basics.
Late Friday we arrived in Devils Glen without our normal air of confidence, hoping that by paying sharp attention our inexperience would go unnoticed. This was not to be. As soon as we settled into Tiglins residents' bar (very nice) other course attendees immediately honed in on our walking history. Rumbled, we immediately collapsed and admitted all. As is the nature of outdoor types this simply meant that everyone was now our own personal tutor, eager to impart their hard earned wisdom.
We had been to Tiglin twice before and had always founded it to be an excellent centre. While the accommodation is basic enough, it is adequate and after a day on the hills no one ever has problems falling asleep. Food is good and plentiful, with seconds of most things, and best of all there is the bar.
Tiglins bar is small with just one tap, Guinness, however it is normally stocked with the finest array of bottled stouts, ales, lagers and bitters. About 50 or 60 all told. I strongly suspect that as the day in the mountains wore on, people thought of little other than settling back to Scottish Heather Ale in front of a roaring fire. I can say with complete honesty that if they werent then I made up for them.
The weekend kicked in on Saturday morning with the attendees that hadn't arrived the night before getting in for breakfast at 8am. My stomach, a delicate animal, isnt the keenest on eating at that time, normally sated by coffee until lunchtime. However, low blood sugar levels and an uncertain lunchtime demanded that I dig into the carnivorous feast of blended pig parts and grease (tasty).
It was blowing a storm outside as we were divided into groups of six for instruction. Ireland being small and hillwalkers a smaller community still, plenty of people already knew each other and there was an abundance of friendly banter. It would have been difficult not to have felt comfortable with the group.
Have you ever tried to get a bearing with 60 mile an hour gusts trying to rip the map out of your hands? Well thats what we did for the next five hours. Not that the conditions were that bad, it just that we were so unashamedly awful. We missed a lake by over 150 meters and it was only 800 meters away from our starting point! Finally towards the end of the day we started to get things right, I would remember my pacing; we would calibrate our compass on North not South. All in all we started to consider the compass as a tool rather than a strange relic used by grey bearded men.
We drove back to the centre for lectures on grid references, hypothermia and evacuation. Frankly if I had not already known the content I would have been totally confused. Classroom lectures definitely were not these peoples strong suit. I knew I didnt have to complain, there were plenty of committee types that would that job for me, and enjoy it. Dinner was tasty and plentiful, my stomach now in full swing like a drunk who doesnt think theyve had enough.
After our less than exemplary navigation performance that day I was understandably nervous about the night navigation. Every item of clothing and emergency rations I had was either in my pack or one me, so convinced was I that I would be getting intimate with my emergency survival bag. I stopped short of the duvet off the bed, thinking that such an obvious display of defeatism would not be appreciated.
I need not have worried - it was fantastic. All of the skills we had learned that day came together and surprisingly, without the distraction of vision, navigation became simpler and more accurate. There is something about the dark that concentrates the mind. After two hours on the hill we gunned the engine and raced back for last pints.
Sunday breakfast was a sluggish start for me and I secretly hoped that looking at steep ground" meant that we would sit in the comfort of the van and look at steep ground. I had the feeling that as a rock climber I had a different opinion to what steep ground was. However, once the group was formed and we were assigned new instructor for the day a sense of enthusiasm crept in and snuggled up to my apathy.
Our new instructor was a fount of local knowledge, and supplemented the discussions on navigation and feature recognition with the history of the region and of the rebels that had lost their lives in the hills. The stories recounted were fresh with enthusiasm and local colour, and it was impossible not to get lost in it all.
The focus of the day was on picking safe routes over steep terrain - steep here meaning that occasionally you have to use your hands for safety and balance. We did useful exercises such as self-location and feature recognition. All in all a very enjoyable, if easy, day. However, the most valuable lesson came after our walk.
When we drove to the pick up point for another group, they were not there and could not be seen anywhere on the hill. An hour later they arrived with dented pride having got lost and been forced to retrace their steps while visibility dropped. It goes to show how easy it is to get into trouble once visibility drops, even with a strong group and an experienced mountain leader.
With a certain degree of disbelief we pointed out a farmer making his way to the top to bring his sheep down from the snow line. He didnt seem to be having any problems in his wellies and jeans with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Sometimes I wonder if we take ourselves too seriously.