There are some days when things will go wrong, no matter how well you have planned and prepared. However, there are somethings that should never go wrong, yet occasionally through monetary lapses of reason mistakes happen. On the very rare occasion they can have dire consequences. However, in the vast majority of cases these mistakes are just that – mistakes, and we learn from them. This is the tale of just one of those mistakes and what can be learnt from it.
It happened on the 7th March 2016, I had planned to climb two summits in the western Brecon Beacons called Fan Gyhirych and Fan Nedd. There had been a reasonable amount of snow fall in the area over the previous few days and when I arrived at the parking point I noted that the summits of both hills was shrouded in low cloud.
It took about an 1 hour 45 minutes to walk to the first top of the day Fan Gyhirych. The going was good with patchy snow and reasonable temperatures for the time of year. However, as I started the final pull up to the summit the amount of ground snow increased and as I entered cloud I went into ‘white-out’ conditions. Continuing on a compass heading the visibility improved slightly and the trig pillar came into view straight ahead of me.
I spent about 30 minutes at the summit carrying out my amateur radio operations before readying myself for the walk to Fan Nedd. With rucksack packed I headed off away from the trig pillar in near zero visibility when I am suddenly stopped in my tracks by a dark shadow on the ground in front of me. The shadow was about 5 metres ahead of me and stretched out to either side into the mirk. I froze, suddenly realising what I had done.
I had made a classic school boy error and left the featureless summit on what I assumed to be the correct heading and was heading straight towards the steep descent on the north face of the summit!! I was 180 degrees out.
A quick backtrack to the trig pillar and after reference to the map I set my compass to the pre-planned escape heading and went to head off along the bearing. I had only gone a few steps when I stopped and immediately headed back the safety of the trig-pillar. There was something wrong with the compass – the bearing was wrong! Taking out my GPS I set off again but exactly the same thing happened again. Back at the trig pillar I couldn’t believe that both my compass and GPS were both out and by exactly the same amount!
This was the point where my RAF Aircrew training kicked in and I had to force myself to accept what the compass and GPS were telling me and slowly follow the bearing. After what seemed like an eternity I dropped below the cloud base to find myself on the correct footpath off of the summit.
So what had happened to my compass and GPS to both initially have an identical error. Well nothing – the error was in my brain. I had experienced spatial disorientation in the featureless landscape, something I had been trained for and experienced many times in the RAF. When you loose all visual references it is possible for the brain to think it knows exactly where you are regardless of what your instruments (compass) says. Your brain will assume that the compass is wrong, even if you add more evidence to the contrary the brain will still over-rule logic.
So what can we take from this experience? Well in the first instant, in poor visibility always work with your map and compass – never assume. Secondly, with regard to disorientation that is a more difficult one to address. You have to try hard to convince yourself that your compass is not wrong especially if you have a second device such as a GPS or spare compass confirming the information. You have to be strong and believe that they can’t all be wrong – something else has to be wrong – you!
If you have never experienced disorientation before the feeling can be over-powering and can render you incapable of logical decision making. In the worst scenario all you can do is sit tight and wait for the conditions to improve and bring back that visual reference.