Tear the compass from my cold dead hand.


I’m in the forest, it’s dark, I’m on a path that didn’t exist when they made the map I’m using.  I can see lights on the other side of the glen in places my map says aren’t there.  I look East and there’s trees, West and there’s trees, North and South, yeah there they are once more those tall green suckers.  It’s happened again, I can’t find the bothy.

Compass. Hill walking

From my cold dead hand.

The path I’m on is beginning to descend through the forest and that just doesn’t feel right.  I stand looking at the map again and it occurs to me that I’ve passed the bothy, I begin to back track, as I do I find paths weaving in and out of the woodland, none of which appear on my map.  After about an hour I turn round and head out of the forest back to my car three miles away.  Out of the trees there’s enough moon light for me to walk without my head torch.  I’m more than a little frustrated by my failure to find the bothy but I walk back to the car something strange happens, I realise I’m enjoying myself.

The glen is wild and empty.  Great clouds sweep across the sky their huge shapes picked out by the glow of the moon. The low hills, in this broad glen, are brushed with the early winter snow and seem friendly rather than remote.  The wind picks up in the open glen and catches me in brief flurries of spindrift, I revel in being alone in this place far away from technology and the clamour of and chatter of the 21st century.

As I drive back through Aviemore and on up the tarmac snake of the A9 to my home in Inverness I consider again my stubborn refusal to use a GPS device relying on the more primitive technology of map and compass.  If I’d given in to the temptation to purchase one of these digital miracles I would be sitting in the bothy just now, instead of driving back home reflecting on my own incompetence. Perhaps it’s time to give in and link myself to the guidance of celestial beings that can ease my passage through any maze of pine and fir.  Then I come to decision, I’d rather die than use GPS…here’s why.

In a handful of years it will be possible to get a phone signal anywhere in the UK, that’s everywhere from Corrour bothy in the heart of the Cairngorms to Cape Wrath in the far north to Snowdonia and cliffs of Great Gable.  It will never be possible to be alone again and something will have changed forever.  Wherever you are the great seething mass of cyber linked chattering irrelevance will be able to seek you out.  Turning off your phone or even, perish the thought, leaving it at home, will not be an option, mountain goers who do so will be branded reckless and fool hardy.  Should you do so the Daily Mail will tip that great cauldron of scorn, they keep hot for such an occasion, down upon you with a righteous indignation they normally reserve for the tightness of Russell Brand’s trousers.

Insurance companies will refuse to pay out on the demise of none phone users. They have every right so to do, after all rescue, and divine guidance, is readily available with a twitch of the thumb, to ignore such life-saving assistance it is close to suicidal.  Charles from the office will give you a quick call as you step into Tower Gap, one icy February day, to remind you that the sales figures for last month are due in tomorrow. Everyone will be expected to be available all the time everywhere.  In this risk averse society, those shrugging off the digital duvet will quickly become outcasts and lepers.

That, of course, is only the beginning, here’s the future… As Andy steps on to the Cairngorm plateau the microchip in is in his helmet fires into life.  “Warning, snow storm approaching, arrival 23 minutes,” says the female voice of his communication centre in gentle, reassuring, tones as if she were announcing the delivery of hot buttered toast.  A graphic images flashes up on his visor displaying an animated weather map where a swirling cloud of snow advances toward him in little bytes of time.  “Hazard approaching.  Risk of fatal gravitational incident.”  Another map appears on the visor, this time the ice coated cliffs of the corrie are highlighted red.  Despite these adverse conditions Andy is one the more adventurous of his generation, having once ridden a cycle off road,  and decides to carry on, pausing only to turn up the temperature control on his heated jacket.  Approaching the summit Andy’s visor flashes up reminders for insurance companies, a young lady explains to him how his clothes could come cleaner in the wash and a take away company promises to deliver pizzas of unimaginable deliciousness to his home in moments. Andy decides he’ll pay the extra subscription next time and get the advert free version of the guidance device.  From the summit the plateau stretches away white as icing sugar and twice as inviting and, despite the flashing arrow guiding him home, Andy decides to press on.  “Deviation alert,” intones the young woman, “You have departed from your authorised route.”  Andy strides on, enjoying the freedom and looking in awe at the snow covered peaks of the Cairngorms. The young woman whispering in his ear grows ever insistent that he must return to his agreed route pointing out that Andy lacks the experience credits necessary to continue.  At last, in a reckless fury, Andy rips the visor from his face and stands on alone on the snow as the sky darkens and a myriad of ice crystals drift down from the snow filled heavens to melt on his exposed skin.  As he does so one last phrase is still audible from the dangling headset.  “RESCUE DRONES DISPACHED. DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CURRENT POSITION.  PURSUIT AUTHORISED.”

Is such an Orwellian nightmare so far away?  In the last fifty years or so technology has advanced further than we could have imagined and it has radically changed our relationship with each other and with the earth on which we live.  In another fifty or perhaps even another twenty years will these relationships even be recognisable?  Were I to follow an arrow on a screen would I pause to notice how a mountain ridge sweeps down to the glen and rises slightly before I must turn north and head home?  Will I scour the glen for a U shaped bend in the river that shows me where the bothy lies?  Will I even notice the rise and fall of a ridge until it deposits me at the summit?  I doubt if any of these things will register as follow the little glowing arrow on the screen.

Were I to worship at the foot of god of GPS I think I would miss these things , a little of the poetry would have gone and the lure of the place would be less.  Instead I think I’ll rely on my own frail judgement, I’ll make my mistakes and pay for them too.  At home I looked at an up to date map of Glen Feshie and realised I turned back only minutes from the bothy.   The map I was using, I discovered to my alarm, was last revised in 1984.  In that time the Berlin wall has fallen, the Soviet Union dissolved and as I learnt to my cost, whole forests have grown from saplings to mature trees.

One day a rescue team may find my frozen body spread eagled in the snow having become hopelessly lost in some cataclysmic blizzard.  They may shake their heads and my recklessness at having gone out in such conditions without electronic aid, they may regard me as a foolish old man clinging to the technology of a bygone age, but I know this for sure, they will have to tear my compass from my cold dead hand.      

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18 responses to “Tear the compass from my cold dead hand.

  1. I have argue with most of that but I can think of one instance when a a mate an I almost failed to find the tent. We were using it as a base to when going the Munros west of Glen Shee. Our round took longer than expected due to soft snow. Consequently we got benighted in the later stages. On a pitch black night the search for the tiny tent took us an hour and a half. We were reconciling ourselves to bivying out when I spotted my own footprints in the mud beside a burn. The tent was 30 yards away……….
    Whilst the GPS is mostly a bottom of the bag bit of kit it does have its uses. I’ve got in the habit of waymarking the tent with the device.
    Having said all that I still like just following my nose.
    Have a good festive season and I hope to bump into you at some remote bothy in 2014.

  2. OMG! The future is dark – the future is not orange! LOL

    That’s an absolutely cracking read – the only thing upsetting me is that I’m a fellow Luddite and, unfortunately, I think you’re right about our hillwalking futures. Thank god I should either be off the hills or dead by then!

    Not sure how fast it’s progressing in the more rural areas though – I live in an only slightly rural (nowadays) area in England and I can’t get a phone signal anywhere near our village!
    Carol.

  3. A splendid read, John!
    I have succumbed to the draw of the GPS – just in case, you know. Aye, just as the whisky is for medicinal purposes only! It creeps up on you, the temptation to “check” where you are. And the mobile phone – “just for emergency” (until you think you’ll just let the wife know you’re OK).

    But what a scenario – no where to hide from technology. The very idea fills me with dread.

    Incidentally, just read your piece in the MBA newsletter for Winter 2013. Great!

  4. Of course GPS don’t work well under tree cover and their batteries go flat. You were able to extract yourself because you had been navigating in and paying attention. Had you followed a GPS in and then been let down you might still be sheltering in the trees!
    I and my fellow members of Dartmoor Search and Rescue Team(Ashburton) Navigation training team really enjoyed the read!
    Then of course, as a Navigation trainer I would say that!

  5. John, you naturally slow down at night, and it seldom registers. Having done a dozen LDWA 100 mile events I know that I will do 3.5 mph all the first day, drop to 2mph all night, then speed up again to maybe 3 mph at dawn. It took a long time to learn this. You want to think you are making good/ normal progress, but unless the ground is very good, you will be slower. Pacing is more reliable at night, but hardly a social experience over longer distances!

    • Impressive stats Adrian. I don’t think I’ve averaged 3.5 mph since I was fleeing from enraged bull on the Pennine way. Were you carrying coal and whisky? The coal carriers could be a new event!

  6. Pingback: Gorilla in the Mist | johndburns·

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