Intermediate Navigation Course Report
I’ve just returned from a cold and rewarding trip to the mountains of Snowdonia as part of our Intermediate Navigation Course. There is no such thing as a bad weekend in the mountains (unless it ends with somebody disappearing off over the horizon in the back of a Sea King SAR helicopter), and despite now having to find space to dry out a 5m canvas bell tent I am still basking in the memory of scrambling, exploring and navigating across mountainside and crag.
The Intermediate Navigation Course syllabus is aimed at those who want to build on the skills we teach in our Basic Navigation Course. It COULD be suitable for beginners, but to get the very most from it we recommend that students have had some navigation training before. Mike and Isaac have been on a few of our courses before – our Outdoor First Aid and Basic Navigation courses – so they knew what to expect from our teaching style and had already got the basics of grid references, taking bearings and measuring their distances across rough terrain.
I met them both in Betws y Coed for a quick coffee and a revision of their map skills, then a wander across the village green to look at GPS receivers, the various map scales and comparing the comparatively crowded maps of Snowdonia and the Lake District with the contour-rich, feature-sparse terrain of the Western Highlands and Knoydart. The stark difference between the two areas are soon revealed – handrailing fences, walls and paths is a good strategy for most of Snowdonia or the Lake District. If you try that in most corners of Northern Scotland you’ll find yourself in trouble!
The next step was a short drive up to Ogwen Valley – giving Mike and Isaac an 8-figure grid reference, a map and telling them to meet me in a certain place. This certain place was the long layby on the A5, just outside the Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite. With a few hours of November daylight left we took a moment to look at the map and set off north onto the lower slopes of Pen Yr Ole Wen. Although not far from the main road this is good navigation training territory with some sneaky contour bulges and several sheepfolds and streams that look very much like each other… Here you cannot spot your destination from hundreds of metres away – you have to carefully plot and measure a navigational ‘leg’ that will take you well beyond the limits of your visibility and know how to recognise that feature when you get there. The rest of the afternoon was spent swapping between Mike and Isaac, nominating points on the map and discussing the various techniques we could employ to get there.
We came down the hill in darkness, watching the dozens of head torches descend from the higher summits on every side. With only 7-8hrs of daylight at the moment a head torch becomes a necessity rather than a safety item for a long walk in the mountains…
We retired to the relative civilisation of Capel Curig and the small campsite up behind the Bryn Tyrch pub. A field, a tap and some basic toilets was all we needed for the evening – after making camp and a simple meal of whatever a Jetboil and an MSR stove could satisfactorily heat up we wandered down to the excellent Moel Siabod cafe. Open late this evening for a charity quiz night it had all we could desire – warmth, friendly faces and a good selection of ales and cider…
Next morning we returned to the cafe for breakfast and to make the plan for the day. With a good weather forecast (good visibility, light wind and no rain) we opted for a slightly more adventurous route up Y Gribin on the northern flanks of Glyder Fach. This is the rockier edge of the broad ridge that separates Cwm Bochlwyd and Cwm Idwal and is a Grade 1 scramble. It rises from the shores of Llyn Bochlwyd and changes from a series of boggy steps to a knife-edge ridge in around 500m of vertical ascent.
Scrambles and mountaineering routes can be notoriously difficult to navigate on. Navigating to either end of the ridge is quite straightforward, but pacing and timing is virtually impossible when using your hands to negotiate steps and cracks. You can know you are on the scramble, but knowing how far up/along requires a bit of careful thought and observation of the change in contours, your relationship to other landmarks and other more subtle factors.
We started with a bit of simple location and navigation practice on the lower, boggy slopes under Llyn Bochlwyd then began the scramble proper. The weather was good, if a little misty at times, but we made good progress. An RAF Sea King from RAF Valley gave us a couple of fly-pasts before disappearing back down towards Bethesda, and we saw nobody apart from a few other walkers on distant paths. As we rose the clouds drifted away, revealing views across to the far side of Anglesey and glimpses of the Snowdon range through the low points of the ridge we were climbing to. Once we reached the flat plateau at the top of Y Gribin we decided on a route and strategy that would see us safely to the summit of Glyder Fach and down the far side of Bristly Ridge before returning to the car via Bwlch Tryfan. As always when we pass through this area – Castell y Gwynt and the Cantilever were explored and the usual photo opportunities were grabbed. The mist descended and the need to navigate safely down from the mountain went from a theoretical one to an actual need – The visibility had now dropped to around 20-50m and we wanted to find the correct gully to start our descent.
The last stretch was a gentle descent along a stone-paved track to the same boggy area we had crossed a few hours earlier, talking through everything we had covered and giving Mike and Isaac ideas on how to practice their skills further in the coming weeks.
The Intermediate Navigation course is perfect for anybody who wants to tackle more complex, mountainous terrain or to take their skills to the next level. You don’t need to be a mountain athlete or rock-hopper as the routes chosen are to suit the abilities of the group on the day, you just need to have a good grasp of the basics. If you want to learn how to navigate in North Wales from scratch then we have the Basic Navigation course.