On Altitude Navigation
Navigating on mountainous terrain is very different from doing so on flat ground. In the last, a compass is very important because usually few landmarks are visible. Knowing the path, directions and distances becomes then crucial. On the mountains, the situation is different. Navigation in the Everest region is not very difficult. The trekker can always climb to the nearest ridge and get views of vast territories that would usually contain many landmarks. The higher the trekker is, the higher peaks he’ll see; most of these have very well known features. This makes finding the correct path a breeze.
Direction and distances are less important and less reliable while on the mountains. Slopes should be accounted for while calculating distances, and that’s difficult while on the windy field. Terrain may change and demand making lengthy detours that would transform any planned path into obsolete.
While navigating on the mountains, the important thing is the landmarks. Note which mountains are to be seen and from which side; which rivers are to be crossed; are they white water streams?. Check out if any of these has special characteristics (Mount Ama Dablam has a very distinctive shoulder, a glacier wall is near the Pyramid and so on). Villages and monasteries are easy to identify. Nepal is densely populated; on a territory which is roughly a third of the Bolivian one (Bolivia shares many geographical features with Nepal) live roughly three times as many people. That means that even in remote mountainous regions villages appear at least every few hours allowing an easy verification of the location.
On the Everest region, most days can be easily walked without the help of a compass. At the strategic level things are clear. However at the tactic one things can get complicated. On some spots there is no clear path and the trekker must take decisions. "I’m on this saddle and must reach that summit – what’s the best path?" is the most typical dilemma the trekker would face. It demands more common sense than navigation experience. Good shoes are more important here than a sophisticated GPS attached to a specially dedicated satellite. A sturdy walking stick is sometimes better than an electronic altimeter.
Under such conditions, the best approach is making a general plan for the walk planned for the next day – when the expected weather can be reliably guessed – but considering the plan just as a good base for changes. That’s an integral part of the freedom experienced in a trek; attempting to walk according to a rigid plan is unreliable. Instead, learning the areas’ main features and attractions is the key for enjoying the experience.
At high altitudes things can change fast. The day I reached Kala Pattar it began snowing before I left. At first the snow was sporadic, but that was enough to hide the path, especially since the last crossed a glacier and frozen ground. For these situations having a map and a compass is essential, though nothing replaces a good understanding of the terrain being crossed. I knew there was a glacier between the Pyramid and Kala Pattar, thus when I reached its edge I just crossed it without checking the exact location and although the path seemed to advance along the glacier’s side. Knowing where I was going was the single most important fact for the successful navigation.
The temptation to take GPS devices is big, yet probably misplaced. Relying on gadgets that may malfunction (bad batteries, no recharging facilities, lost satellite contact, etc.) instead of on one’s skills is an error. Simply, trusting GPS and maps is not always possible. The terrain may have changed since the map was drawn: small streams may change course, old paths may be covered by vegetation or landslides, other unpredictable events may occur. Nice paths on the map may not be visible on the terrain; the trekker must be prepared to find the correct path relying on alternative methods.
One of the favorite topics among trekkers in the Everest Region is what’s Kala Pattar’s exact altitude. There are as many answers as sources. Moreover, all the trekkers equipped with measurement devices get even new answers. Consider this before buying an expensive gadget and becoming totally dependant on it for finding your path.
Part of the problem is that extreme weather conditions affect the function of these devices and in the low pressure conditions of the Everest region the weather is extreme at all times. Sudden winds can change air pressure quickly and significantly and lead to fluctuations in the measurements. (That’s way many reports state they are an average of x measurements on given conditions.)
Now it’s time for the trek.