Trust Your Compass

“Successfully completing an exercise like this helps to build confidence and when you need to navigate in ‘anger’ you know that you CAN trust your compass” writes Ian Tupman 

Retirement brings advantages when it comes to getting into the mountains, one of which is being able to wait for good weather. The forecast the other day was for the possibility of a few isolated showers in the morning and for the cloud to break up during the afternoon. The plan therefore was a late start and a short, circular walk over Pico de las Alegas from where I hoped to get some atmospheric photos of the higher peaks as the cloud dissipated.

By 11.00 am however, cloud was already building as I drove along the forest track to my starting point. Meg was again my companion for the day and we took a direct route onto Las Alegas following a familiar barranco. As ever, Meg enjoyed running around on the large snow patches as we neared the ridge. Forty five minutes after leaving the car we were on the summit rocks at 2,703m but by this time we had 8/8 cloud cover. Base was at around 2,900m but it rose and fell as I waited in the hope that it would lift enough for some photos.

Looking north-west from Pico de las Alegas

Looking north-west from Pico de las Alegas

After half an hour the cloud had thickened and lowered. So much for the forecast! There were to be no ‘atmospheric’ photos but the opportunity had arisen to refresh my navigational skills. Consulting the map, I decided a useful exercise would be to navigate to the refuge at Loma del Puntal. From there we would have an easy walk back to the car on the forest track. My GPS had been recording our track and I left it in my pack, preferring to use the map and compass. I checked my proposed line of decent on the map for any hazards such as crags, gullies and water courses and took a direct bearing to the refuge some 600m lower and almost 2km to the ESE of my position.

The refuge is down there somewhere!

The refuge is down there somewhere!

The ground falls relatively gently over several crests and to keep on line I sighted on obvious fixed points such as large rocks and the edges of snow patches until I reached the upper edge of the forest. At this point the refuge could be seen nestled amongst the dense trees. Once in the forest however, I needed to check my bearing more often as I negotiated fallen trees and areas of dense growth.

From the map I knew that the forest track was below and away to my right, so if I went off line in that direction, the track would be my catching feature. If I went too far to the left, my map indicated that I would encounter a gully to the north of the refuge. As I made my way through the trees, I hadn’t encountered the track or the gully but my mind began to ponder: “Had I come too low and missed the refuge completely?” It was tempting to take out the GPS and check my altitude but I resisted and a couple of minutes later I was walking into the clearing which surrounds the refuge.

Refugio Loma del Puntal

Refugio Loma del Puntal

It was obvious by now that the cloud wasn’t going to lift (indeed it covered the mountains all that night) and so I had my lunch and we walked the short distance back to the car.

So how accurate had my navigation been? Well, I made it to the refuge but had I wandered about all over the place to get there? The screenshot below shows my GPS track for the walk. Apart from a small ‘wiggle’ as I negotiated an area of fallen trees, I had kept pretty straight.


Successfully completing an exercise like this helps to build confidence and when you need to navigate in ‘anger’ you know that you CAN trust your compass.

For anyone who is uncertain of how to take and walk on a bearing, this short video may be of interest

Ian Tupman
April 2016

This entry was posted in Gear and Equipment, Information, Trip reports, Walking.