in the battle between virtual reality and reality, real reality always wins…

Imagine you have a group of fourteen of your fellow human beings, and you decide to go for a tootle up the second highest mountain in the UK, Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms (OS getamap)

In itself a great idea, all part of the new sporting ethos our Dave wants the Olympics to inspire in us, all that faster, higher, stronger, all Good Stuff. So you haul your smartphone out and plot a route.

Then you get on Facebook and invite thirteen of your m8s to join you, take smartphone, stick in front of snout and follow the nice line into the great British Outdoors. What on earth could go wrong?

This is so obviously a place where you’d expect to get a cracking signal on your smartphone (photo: Ben Macdui from Càrn a’ Mhàim, by Paul Kennedy.)

Well, you might need to call on the services of the coppers, two mountain rescue teams, and a chopper. They were lucky, because smartphones are crap as actual phones. Manufacturers seem to leave no space for the aerial gubbins in a smartphone because they pack them full of frippery. As a result the RF performance seems to be ropey – DW has to go upstairs to talk to people on hers whereas on my old work mobile and on another I can sit in the middle of the house on the ground floor and have an uninterrupted conversation.

Presumably our motley crew of f***wits realised their main and only navigational device  had lost contact with the mobile network and failed them in their hour of need when they started going round in circles. Somewhere in the assembled dimwittage somebody had a old steam driven mobile which was still in contact with the network so they could raise mountain rescue or call 999. You can imagine the 999 call now.

999 op: Hello, emergency services. Which service do you require

Dimwit: Dunno, we’re lost

999 op: [facepalms] what area are you in

Dimwit: Scotland

999 op: Any idea what part of Scotland

Dimwit: No, the smartphone doesn’t say

and so on. I guess mountain rescue had to DF the handset signal when they got there.

[edit: This report seems to indicate they were using a GPS app. In which case I was being harsh taking the piss for them expecting mobile phone service in the Carngorms. It seems to be the fundamental flakeyness of smartphones that failed them, which is slightly better than expecting the mobile phone network coverage to be there. Why everybody’s smartphone apps failed together beats me, I assume in a group of 14 teenagers there is more than one GPS enabled smartphone 😉 ]

Now the Ermine does occasionally rouse his idle fur to take a wander in the hills. I’ll even admit to daftly climbing Ben Nevis (via the tourist trail, natch) with a pal in my twenties with simple regular office clothes and shoes 🙂 However, even then, we were bright enough to check the weather forecast on the morning, and take a map and compass with us, although we didn’t use them since the trail is well signposted and the rest of Scotland was doing it as well. This was pre-GPS days.

Many years later, I climbed Nevis again with DxGF. We were considerably better prepared, walking boots, map, compass, GPS and low-grade wet-weather and cold-weather gear. The trouble with Scotland, and the Cairngorms in particular, seems to be that the weather can turn suddenly, and fog descends in about five minutes. We were on our way down, and all of a sudden you couldn’t follow the trail. Although hard nuts and Boy Scouts could probably read the map from only 10 yards of visibility, we couldn’t. However, the track on a GPS is still works in fog, and we could see where the turns were we’d used to get there, and so could stay on the trail and correct wrong turns within about fifty yards of taking the wrong track.

I’m  big fan of the handheld GPS, however I still think it’s dumb not to have a compass as backup. Most handheld GPS units, unless they have a compass too, don’t help you to take up a heading. You can start out in a direction and find out if it corresponds to a heading, but that’s very different from being able to orient a map in the right direction from the off. This wasn’t obvious to me when I first got a GPS.

The lesson for the smartphone/Facebook generation is that in the conflict between the map and the territory the territory is always right, and it looks like four separate groups found that out the hard way in the Cairngorms this last weekend. Although most of the time you can live inside an app, the times you can’t are the times that matter. Which is why they make things like maps, compasses and GPS – things that don’t depend on a mobile phone network to run.

It will deeply sadden me if I ascend Ben Nevis in the future, and as well as the usual detritus of beer bottles and uncivilised trash that seems to collect around the observatory ruins, there is a mobile phone mast at the top. Certain kinds of stupidity should not be encouraged. If you can’t face a world away from the mobile phone network then just leave it be. However, I can have sympathy with the mountain rescue services who may feel that compromise is worthwhile in the interests of not being called away from their families to rescue morons that think their smartphones will give them continuous coverage. Including in a mountainous unpopulated region ten miles away from the nearest road. Another little step on the road to Idiocracy will be completed.

I never learned orienteering or map reading as a child, which seems to be where outdoorsy types of my age seem to have learned it. However, there’s much to be said for having two independent means of navigation, and it’s nice if at least one doesn’t use batteries (and obviously you carry two sets of spares for the one that does). A compass, even on its own, performs a valuable service – even without a map it can keep you going in one direction, which is probably good enough for an able bodied person in the UK to get to civilisation. It wouldn’t help you in remote areas of the States because if you’re unlucky enough to choose the direction that goes 50 miles across a desert you’ll end up looking like the bleached cow skull in Depression era Dustbowl photos.

Rothstein’s Depression-era bleached steer skull – not a good fate 😉

However, nowhere in the UK is really more than half a day from anywhere else. So I’d say the compass is a really useful device to have along, and it has the advantage of not requiring batteries and being small and light. If you really have to rely on a smartphone because that’s important to your world-view then at least take a compass along as well 😉

BMC Safety on mountains (Amazon link)

FWIW here is an more comprehensive list of how to tool up for a mountain walk from the Ramblers Association. The leader of our 14-strong party might have cared to read the Ramblers’ Leading Remote Walks guide, or even the British Mountaineering Council’s Safety on Mountains. Mountain rescue have some advice, and a specific section on how to use mobiles to best effect in a group on mountains (but don’t rely on them!)

I learned a few things from those, such as it takes 10 mins to gain 100m of vertical height. Plus the recommentation for group walking of frequent rest stops. I don’t usually do that when walking, I have at it for as long as it takes to get knackered, then take a while out. The ramblers probably assume a higher level of physical fitness which may be why they adopt the pattern they do, although I am by no means a straggler in group walks.