It has been a while since I have stepped foot on the hills as the lovely Sharon and I have only just brought a new little soul into this world, although it feels like it is he who made us his servants and facilitators. It means we have found his life taking up our time and concentration. This is not a complaint, quite the opposite is true.
However, when a friend wanted another person to head into the hills I decided to dust off my boots and see if a few months of absence and baby brain syndrome had effected my hill skills. So tonight I decided to break myself back into the hills gently; by heading into the Antrim hills bogs….at night…..in winter.
My friend is planning on doing his Mountain Leader Assessment this year and he wanted to brush up his micro navigation in preparation. As I have very little experience in the Antrim Hills I jumped at the chance. This is an area that I always seemed to turn my nose up at. The lovely Sharon has a lot of experience in this area and she always got quite annoyed when I directed our adventures in the Mournes direction. My reasoning was that they were not as boggy as Antrim and the Mournes were ……. The Mournes (what other reasoning is needed). Since then, I have become more and more interested in the Antrim Hills (I shall never admit this to her) and I want to get to know them better. There seems to be a richer history and folklore to the hills (that is recorded at least) and they are closer to us than the Mournes.
The sun had gone down and we parked in snow. We walked along a track that was covered in snow but still had the lines of quads and sheep. Then we began our trek onto the hillside. The point of this night was pacings, bearings and timings. The point was to know our exact location on a moor that seemed featureless. The few features that did exist were fences. On the matter of fences I had my preconceived ideas of the Antrim Hills confirmed; twice. My experience, in the past, was that on the 1:50000 map of the hills; fences existed when they were not on the map and fences on the map were not on the ground. Now that this was my first experience of the 1:25000 map of this area my expectations were high. But, I have to say; fences existed when they were not on the map and fences on the map were not on the ground.
We concentrated hard as we counted pacing and repeatedly took bearings and tried to keep accurate lines. The snow was thick under foot and the bog was frozen. The visibility was awful and the rain kept falling in a constant drizzle. I got to use a present that Santa got me; a new pair of gloves. At first I felt too warm for gloves but then the exposure got to me a little and I was glad that they performed as expected.
Navigating at night is a skill that should be practiced and experienced by all hill walkers. The main reason is to overcome the fear. I remember my first experience of night navigation and it stays with me. It was many years ago on an education and library board course. We were wild camping and were taken onto the mountains to navigate around in the darkness. I remember thinking how wrong it felt to be on the top of a mountain in the dark as the rain fell and the wind whipped around. The moor looked menacing in all directions and the feeling of being lost was overwhelming. I try to remember this first experience when I am out with people. Although tonight I was with a friend as experienced as me in the darkness. Tonight we focussed on comparing our pacing and bearings. In the moments in-between, in the cold darkness, we chatted about joys of fatherhood as our sons were born just a day apart.
Two observations about the night stand out in my mind. One was the rapid thaw we observed. When we headed out onto the hillside the ground was crisp and frozen, as we headed down the ground was slush and our footprints, from the ascent, walked through little streams and bog that we remembered as solid ground. The other observation was a result of the snow. I observed tracks everywhere and tracks that I have only seen a little of in the Mournes snow; Hares. Seriously, how many Hares live in the Antrim Hills?