Please indulge me whilst I make a long drawn out comparison between mountain navigation, and keeping your career on track. When navigating in mountains, if you have lots of information, you’re paying lots of attention, you have some basic tools, and a decent amount of skill, you can navigate blind. I’ve successfully navigated through complete whiteout, and even on moonless nights. You do need all those elements though, and chief among them is paying attention. This is actually easier to do when things are starting to turn nasty, or when conditions are making you nervous. You’ll naturally be more alert to what’s going on when you feel threatened.
By comparison, it’s actually incredibly easy to get lost on a bright sunny day, on a lovely, bucolic country path, when you’re wandering along without a care in the world. These are exactly the situations where the path you’re on is easy underfoot, the weather is kind and welcoming, and the views are stunning. Perhaps even the company is too. Because of this, you tend to get the map out very infrequently, and the compass even less. It’s likely that besides taking in the view, you’re not actually 100% sure where you are at any one time. You know you’re on “a” path, and you’re heading in vaguely the right direction, but if pressed, you’d struggle to pin down your location to a precise grid reference.
In truth, on all sorts of occasions, this is not a problem. If you find that you missed a fork in the path a mile or ago, and you end up emerging onto the main road a bit further from the car than you’d hoped, well, you’ve just got a slightly less-pleasant return trip than you had originally planned – you’re not really in any danger. So why pay incessant attention to the map all the time? Surely it will detract from the enjoyment of the walk, and get on the nerves of anyone you’re walking with? Fair point – if the worst that can happen is you simply add a little extra to the total distance walked, or have to retrace your steps a little. However, in mountainous terrain, or in bad weather, the consequences can be far more serious. I’m not being too melodramatic to state that making navigation errors in situations like these can at best be really unpleasant, and at worst, be life-threatening.
Allow me to illustrate with an example of my own stupidity and hubris. I’ve spent a lot of time in “the hills” and am pretty skilled with a map and compass. I’m also a bit complacent, and don’t really like checking the map every few minutes if I can help it. Back in November 2005 I was hiking from Edale to Glossop across Kinder Scout, an area I’d traversed several times before. From memory, all I needed to do from Edale station was head up the road, climb up onto the plateau, then follow the path around the edge of Kinder Scout until I dropped off the tops, turn right, and then carry on for a couple of miles until I struck out across open country to pick up the head of a track that leads down to Glossop.
The weather was foul. Strong winds, driving rain, and very low cloud. On climbing up to the Scout, I duly started following the track that hugs the edge, and after about half an hour realised something wasn’t right. I checked the map, and realised that I’d been fabulously complacent in my route-finding. The path that hugs the edge actually follows a lengthy dog leg out onto a spur, which cost me quite a bit of time once I’d retraced my steps. I resumed the path, and somehow made the same mistake again an hour later, in the process losing quite a bit of height.
By now I’m getting a touch anxious. Glossop was still a good few miles away, but I was still on the “top”. Bear in mind it’s early November, and given the weather, it will be effectively dark by about 4.30 in the afternoon. My map is getting damaged, as it’s only a paper one, so every time I take it out and check it’s getting soggy. I eventually found the cairn that marks the turning North along the Pennine Way, at which point I checked my map, and it completely fell apart in the high wind. I shoved what scraps were left into my pocket and turned up the paved Pennine Way in very low spirits, in the rapidly darkening evening, and after a mile and half turned off towards where I hoped the track to Glossop would be. Without, of course, actually taking a compass bearing. You’d think that after a day like this I’d be paying a bit more attention wouldn’t you?
For those that are not familiar with open moorland, up close it’s incredibly tricky terrain to traverse. You have to watch where you place every step, and there are innumerable tussocks, bogs and pools to manoeuvre around. I had my hood up to try and keep some of the rain out, and consequently, my field of view was a bit obscured. Not that I had much view, since it was almost dark, thickly misted, and still pouring with rain. Imagine my horror when after walking away from the paved Pennine Way for 5 minutes, I looked up to see a paved path in front of me. Panic set in. Sheer, heart racing panic. Where in the hell was I? There were no other paved paths on the moor. What had I done? How was I ever going to get out of here?
Thankfully, I took a deep breath and realised my mistake. In heading out across open moorland, with my restricted view, and all the obstacles to cross, I’d managed to turn myself round a full 180 degrees. On realising this, I put my back to the path, finally took out my compass, and followed the bearing on it religiously. I tramped straight through bogs, over tussocks, glued to my magnetic bearing. After a few minutes, there was a brief gap in the clouds, and there, below me, were the lights of Glossop. The track was about 200 yards ahead.
There are of course, a dozen things I could have, and should have done differently. From buying a map case or laminated map, to setting out earlier, to taking a compass bearing as soon as I’d left the Pennine Way. Above all though, the greatest error was in not paying attention. There’s a world of difference between walking a path like that in perfect visibility, when the route is clear, and it’s easy to see reference points in the distance. When visibility is down to about 30 metres, it’s a different matter altogether, and I should have been paying attention the whole time.
The long-drawn out analogy I’m labouring to make, is that paying attention to your career development, and planning your next move, can often be the last thing on your mind when everything is going swimmingly. You’ve got lots of work coming in, everyone likes what you shoot, and it feels like this situation will continue into the infinite future. I’ve got news for you – it won’t. SOMETHING will change. Someone who regularly commissions you will leave their position – the new place they take up doesn’t like your work, and their replacement doesn’t like you either, preferring to work with their established stable of photographers. One of the companies you work for may go bust very suddenly, owing you a lot of money, or budgets may be cut back and you struggle to cover your overheads. You get the general idea.
The one certainty in business, and arguably in life, is change. Nothing will stay the same. The time to be making preparations for the consequences of this change, is when things are still going swimmingly. Very few of us naturally like marketing ourselves, to pick one example, but the time to be doing it is when you’re busy, confident of your ability, and lacking the desperation that comes from really, really needing the work you’re pitching for. Neither is tracking finances and accounts something that sets our hearts on fire, but it’s far better to keep such things ticking over, rather than wait for every invoice to go past the 90 day mark, at the same time as you owe a big tax bill.
Namely, keep navigating, even when it’s bright and sunny. Don’t wait to pull the map out until you’re standing on a bleak moorland, in a howling gale and torrential rain. It might just disintegrate in your hands.