Mountain Mentors

How do you learn to read a map and use a compass? How do you get good at route choice and cluster order? Who do you ask about fell-running shoes and mountain-running bags? How do you work out what to eat and drink, and how often to do so in different types of races?

Isabelle all ready with her map, compass and rucksack for an IMRA Mountain Navigation Race. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.
Isabelle all ready with her map, compass and rucksack for an IMRA Mountain Navigation Race. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.

Courses of course can bring you up to speed on a lot of these things. It’s been especially great to have the likes of Blessington-based Outdoor Evolution and Joe Faulkner’s Nav4 team in the UK teaching people the rubrics of mountain navigation over the years.

I’ve learnt my fair share of stuff on courses already. But where I’ve really learnt the most is from being out and about in the mountains for hours with fellow mountain runners.

The importance of running beside and learning from more experienced mountain runners was brought home to me a while ago whilst on a run with two lads. One of the two is a highly successful mountain runner and orienteer, a holder himself of several caps for the Irish mountain running team. The other is still new to the sport, a very fit ultra-running athlete who was keen to know all the specifics about running in the mountains.

Whilst we ran downhill, the young lad avidly quizzed the old-hand about his sport. What type of compass should he buy – a coloured orienteering one, or one with a bezel? What type of shoes should he wear – trail or fell? What kind of food should he eat – sandwiches or nuts or gels?

It reminded me how I too had quizzed fellow mountain runners and adventure racers about their mountain practices when I first started mountain running. But where I learnt most was from being out in the mountains with others and watching what they did and said and ate and wore. In particular, I’ve learnt most from my racing partner and unofficial ‘mountain mentor’, Andrew McCarthy. We first teamed up for the 2007 Rogaine and I was simply amazed to watch him navigate and pace the 24 hour race to perfection. I too would persecute him with questions: How did he know where the controls where? How did he decide which control to go for? How did he know where we were, even though all I could see around was just bog and mist? What was that he was eating? What was that jacket he was wearing? 

Andrew McCarthy - taught me everything I know about mountain navigation! Photo courtesy of John Shiels.
Andrew McCarthy - taught me everything to know about mountain navigation. Photo courtesy of John Shiels.

Spending hours out in the mountains with mountain-savvy people like Andrew provided me with the ideal opportunity to ask all the questions I’ve ever wanted answered. But it also provided me with a unique opportunity to observe, and in turn mimic how he guides himself safely through the wilds.

Running alongside others out in the mountains also has increased my confidence in my own, yet limited abilities. I remember one race where I was up with the leaders, together with guys who I considered as crack mountain navigators. We were heading off a mountain summit towards a control located in a valley at a stream junction. Admittedly, I messed up finding the control, but so did a number of them. This was an amazing revelation. Before then, I had always presumed that they got everything spot on and that I was the only one who made mistakes. Little did I know that they too were only human and that mountain navigation is not without its difficulties.

There is an art to staying safe and well whilst mountain running. I’ve now come to realise that if I want others to also experience the real joy of proper mountain running, I need to invite them along on my journeys so that the mountain running practices I’ve been given can be passed down to them and to future generations.

Want to read more about how I learnt to navigate? Check out my book, “Mud, Sweat and Tears”.

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