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Map, compass, and altimeter November 3, 2008

Posted by Jenny in hiking, Smoky Mountains.
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Deep in the valley of Tom's Creek/ Photo by Nan Woodbury

Deep in the valley of Tom's Creek/ Photo by Nan Woodbury

When I began my apprenticeship in the art of off-trail navigation, back in the Smokies 25 years ago, the people I learned from used three tools: map, compass, and altimeter.  With these tools, people like Charlie Klabunde, Bruce Ketelle, Bill Neal, and Ray Payne could find their way into the deepest, darkest corners of the Smokies, and most of the time they could even find their way back out.  We rockhopped up streams to their headwaters, crawled through dense tangles of rhododendron, and hung on by our fingernails as we clambered up slippery ledges next to waterfalls.  We reached secret, undisturbed places, and when we left them it seemed as though the woods closed up behind us, sealing these places inside.

As a matter of fact, we didn’t use our compasses all that much.  It was mostly topo map and altimeter.  The reason was that we were almost always following a stream or a ridge, and unless something had gone terribly wrong (and of course sometimes it had), we knew we were going, say, southwest, because we were following Boulevard Prong up the Greenbrier side of LeConte.  It was more important to find stream junctions, and that’s where the altimeter came in handy.  We would know we wanted to bear right at the tributary that came in at 4500 feet.  It was still a good idea to watch the surroundings.  Charlie would remind me that there was no point in checking my altimeter yet because we hadn’t passed around the end of the ridge that defined the tributary’s valley.  Everyone’s altimeter would have a slightly different reading depending on how it had been calibrated and how it responded to changes in barometric pressure.  It was kind of a standing joke that six or eight hiking club members would stand around in the midst of the undergrowth looking at their altimeters: “I’ve got 4300.  What do you have?” “Well, I’ve only got us at 4160.”  Then after some sort of unscientific weighing and consulting and averaging, we would move on.

Charlie always made xerox copies of topo map sections, which he annotated with different colors of pen and highlighter.  They would be neatly folded in a plastic sandwich bag.  I had the bad habit of folding up the whole USGS quadrangle and sticking it in my pocket.  In the damp dripping jungles of the Smokies, the creases in my maps took on a furry texture, and the maps developed bald spots and holes.

I haven’t ever acquired a GPS because I am happy with the tools I’ve been using all these years.   My compass is deployed more often than it used to be, because it seems as though in New England I am usually trying to fight my way across some amorphous, lumpy area infested with scrub spruce and blowdowns.  The compass needs to be adjusted for the fairly severe declination of the northeast.  I like the delicate, quivering needle of the compass, and I like knowing that the compass is always right (unless I happen to be standing next to a magnetic boulder, but that doesn’t happen too often).  My faith in the compass has been tested.  There have been a few times when I was absolutely convinced I was going the right way, and my compass told me I wasn’t.  I followed the compass, and that’s why I’m here now instead of frozen to death on the summit ridge of East Kennebago.  I like my clunky old analog altimeter.  Even people in the Smokies have used digital altimeters for a long time (and now use GPS units), but I have tried digital altimeters, and I’ve found that my old-style model is more accurate.  It is a round dial about two and a half inches across and 3/4″ thick.  When you calibrate it against a known elevation, you tap the clear dial with your fingernail and the needle settles into place among the finely printed elevation numbers.  There is a certain aesthetic appeal to it.

I’m not sure which is worse, the rhododendron hell on top of Defeat Ridge or the scrub evergreens on the slopes of South Hitchcock.  But that’s probably another blog.


1. bmill07 - November 4, 2008

Jenny, your nice comment on my blog has brought me here, and I read this with interest. In Scotland this summer, as our hiking group was eating lunch, we watched another group that was clearly doing some kind of orienteering training. I asked the guide whether GPS’s have made orienteering obsolete, and he reassured me that they haven’t. In fact, he reckoned that what the group was doing (which seemed to be using their techniques to find gear that had been placed around a big open area) was in fact designed to show them the degree of error involved in relying strictly upon GPS. Somehow I found this rather satisfying to know.
Not that I’d be much good with a compass and topo map myself, although learning how to be so is on my list of Things To Do someday.

2. Peter - November 11, 2008

Having hiked in the eastern US a little I understand the need for a compass and altimeter in the thick forests. In the Rockies a compass is rarely needed because it is more open and easy to see where you are relative to natural features. I rely solely on topo maps. I have considered getting a GPS, but I would probably use it primarily as a way of locating special spots such as a pocket of crystals so I could find it again later. However in the past I have just penciled in an X on the topo map and I never had a problem locating the spot again. I admire your resistance to the technological gadgets and your reliance instead on the ‘old school’ of mountaineering.

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