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Peregrine News

Tools for Navigation: From ancient maps to modern gadgetry

Posted by Joseph Anderson

When I was an adolescent growing up in the burbs of Washington D.C. my world seemed flat.  School was dependably and dreadfully dull but I always knew there was more:  A colorful world filled with epic landscapes and adventures…I just knew it was out there. My response to this monotonous cage was simple:  Rebellion!  Loud music, mind altering substances and a dedication to anti-establishment.   This was my mission as a youth and by the end of my 15th year amidst my quest to find that better world I had in fact become completely and utterly lost.  In the end my parents did the right thing.  They went against the recommendations of the social workers which was to send me to a rehab and they sent me instead to my future, a month long NOLS course in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming.

Reading Topography

It was mid summer and another bluebird day far from any trails.  The previous day, one of my fellow class mates had gotten us quite thoroughly disoriented. It took hours for the instructors to get us relocated and found on the map.  Today it was my turn to lead the group. I was nervous at first while I held the folded map of lines up and attempted to make sense out of what I assumed was a task I would be sure to fail.  Behind me followed my 9 classmates and two instructors.  At first it seemed like it would be nothing but unrelenting pressure but instead the epiphany struck…it all made so much sense.  The topographical lines on the map matched the unmistakable landscape around me.  The distinctly closer lines that were intended to show steeper terrain on the map came to life as the two craggy peaks to my left.  Our route was to stay in the middle of the obvious U shaped delineations, or shallow ravine and then eventually cross them to the left but contouring mostly, meaning holding the line on the map, which in practice is holding the elevation.  Eventually we reached a high point in the sparse forest and I released any lingering doubts. The remainder of our journey descended in a straightforward track towards a meadowy wonderland camp visible a few miles down slope. 

This day was a great day.  The feeling of success was fine, but that wasn’t it – it was the idea that the mountains and landscapes here and far beyond were completely and incredibly accurately drawn on my maps and I knew how to read them.  I didn’t need a road or a trail or signs.  I had this sense that entire terrestrial world was at my fingertips.  This was freedom. It was like learning fly.  But there was something else.  Streets and trails and signs and roads with names, easy to follow directions and dumbed down maps to keep the layperson, or mindless followers out of trouble, those were the tools that most people used.  But now I was initiated into real map reading like the adventurers of old.  It was like I was a young wizard apprentice receiving my first lesson in Alchemy, for in my hand I was holding the culmination of 5,000 years of humankinds attempt to find their place in the world and map it.  It was finally clear that I had been right all along and those people mulling around that atrocious flat world, well they were wrong….  The world wasn’t flat and boring, it was fricking awesome.

What I had in fact learned to do was to use the modern version of the oldest method of map reading without the aid of path or road:  Navigate by the landmarks or by the Topography.  The use of topography for navigation actually predates written maps, for it is said that when Abraham left the old world to find the new he was guided by rumor of fertile hills adjacent to flat plains that when followed would guide his caravan through a crescent course until paradise was reached.  Then there was the mysterious People of the Sea who were said to have known the landmarks of the coasts like no other people.  However they would never write them down to prevent their enemies from following suit. Inevitably maps were drawn of ancient lands. Human methods for determining and defining ones place in the world evolved from loosely accurate artistic renderings of dominant hills, mountains and landmarks to the intricate mosaic of lines I was now holding in my hand: An accurate duplicate of the world around me only 24,000 times smaller.

My map, the 7.5 minute USGS topographical quad map series, was created from the culminated works of a more contemporary hero in map wizardry.  He was one of the original American adventurers and probably greatest American mapmaker - John Wesley Powell.  Here was a man that was not afraid of the unknown.  And as we investigate who the real mapmakers were we find they were the ones who went into the unknown.  The ones that pushed a little or even a lot further past what had been previously mapped into hardships and adventure and through that journey new tools were be born, new maps yes but also new ways of reading maps. 

John Wesley Powell floated an expedition down perilous chasms into some of what remains as the most mysterious and uncharted land in the United States. Floating through and mapping the Canyonlands as well as the Grand Canyon, Powell knew this was one of the most important waterways of our countries future.  He also knew the importance of having accurate maps and became the great grandfather of the United States Geological Survey (USGS). This led to todays 7.5 minute topographical maps which are still the basic for standard topographical maps when traveling in the backcountry.  The last great series were mapped from the 1960s into the 1980s and then updated into the 1990s.

True North

For a few years simply reading the topography was all I needed.  Just like most youth avoids the heeding of wisdom from their elders I was certainly no exception.  My young dyslexic teenage mind decided I was good at reading topography and my limited experience gave me a bloated level of confidence.  So why should I complicate things by trying to figure out all of the other unnecessary numbers and tools on the map? That's what I told my self and so that's what I stuck to.  I did know a little about the basics of the compass and how to use it but never seemed to really need it.  My general attitude was that in the time of need I would figure it out just like I had before.  But just like all youth secretly realize, I knew, somewhere tucked behind my ego, I should in fact pay more attention to ancient knowledge.

So it was at age 19 my obsession with exploration and learning about this craft had only deepened as I found myself on big expansive seas of ice in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains.  It was on this three-week mountain traverse of yet another new landscape that I stared out at one of the oldest challenges for the traveler and cartographer alike:  What if there are no landmarks?  Or what if the landmarks on the Horizon changed so little that they did not help immediate navigational needs?

Three thousand years ago the Qin Chinese found certain element that would always point in the same direction when placed in water. Eventually the elements were put on a needle and placed on a dial with 360 separate markings with the needle pointing to zero.  It’s said that because of this original directional tool that the Chinese were able to establish trade routes throughout the ancient far eastern seas.  Eventually this concept made it to Classical Greece and by 400 BC the Greeks were able to establish trade and then City States in Italy creating the foundation for a future empire.  But it wasn’t until Columbus was sailing the great unknown oceans to the west that it was clearly established that there was a vast difference between true North and a Magnetic North.  This, he noticed when the distance between magnetic North and the actual North continued to change the further his ships traveled from home.  But Columbus knew that things were not all going to be like what they were back at home.  He knew this because he was doing what true mapmakers do,  they set off into the unknown. Columbus set off with only the idea that the world was round.  Columbus made a point as to not tell the crew that the needle was deviating from it’s course the further they traveled.  Since the world was only round in theory he thought this would lead to fears that they were in fact headed for the end of the world. 

So here in the Chugach I found myself following my first actual need for a bearing: 195 degrees South.  Magnetic declination listed on this quad map in Alaska was 21 degrees.  That means to follow a proper bearing I needed to fix my compass so that my magnet was pointing 21 degrees to the east of true north.  Somewhere north of Baffin Island.  That’s what I had to, and will always have to visualize as being magnetic North.   I fixed the red arrow drawn on my compass base to the red declination arrow.  I then held up my compass and rotated my compass until the magnetic needle lined up with the red arrow.  This is called putting “Red in the Shed”.

Holding Red in the Shed, I followed my bearing for several kilometers until we reached the broad non descript Whiteout Pass. Insignificant Peak was 65 degrees to the North East and Sunlight Peak 270 degrees to the West.  At this point we needed to check our exact location before following a new bearing for several more kilometers.  Here, I layed my map on the ground and with a pencil, using the side of my compass, I drew a line 65 degrees branching off from Insignificant and then another at 270 branching off from Sunlight.  The two lines intersect.

The beginnings of triangulation began with the Greeks and most notable Pythagoras, and the Pythagorean theorem. Later this was followed by a higher level accuracy in both map making and map reading in Baghdad between 800 and 1,100 CE. The basis for modern map surveying and triangulation began here at the height of Islam in the middle ages and changed little until a Dutch mathematician and geographer introduced a method of describing incredible accuracy by using triangles in the 1600s.  Two hundred and fifty years after that, the system of triangles for measuring landscapes reached its greatest heights with the British in the Great Trigonometry Survey of India.   With the ambitious goals of mapping with previously unmatched accuracy the curvature of the earth as well as the highest mountains on earth, the highest peaks were found and the exact height and location recorded and mapped.  One of the primary and most effective leaders of this 60-year project was Sir Colonel George Everest whose name is still found on maps of the world’s highest summit.

BAM!  There I am on the map, caught in yet another moment of map reading triumph. Now I was bigger, the mountains were bigger. I felt like I was a young wolf making my first solid kill.  Here I was in a landscape so inhospitable that to simply walk across them you had to learn to rope together or else fall into a potentially bottomless hole.   And once again I was able to use the tools of this ancient map reading craft and instantly find where I was. Now that I had determined my exact location on the map I was able to figure out what bearing I needed to take in order to find our way down the Whiteout Glacier to our next camp. Armed with my maps and my compass the giant glaciers and high peaks of the Chugach Mountains were managed.  The thought of a globe full of mountains brought a delightful taste of more adventure to my palate, yet I was young and mostly just lucky because the weather was fair on my expeditions thus far and I still had yet to learn some of my biggest navigational lessons.

Where in the World Are We?

Even the ancients knew that one of the keys to navigation was this:  To understand our place on earth we must eventually look up into the heavens for guidance.  The first written clues of this can be found in the original story in which Calypso tells Odysseus to keep the Bear (Ursa Major) on his left hand side and at the same time to observe the position of the Pleiades, and the Orion as he sailed eastward from her island Ogygia traversing the Ocean. 

It was during a time in the Classical world that the Greeks and the Persians were first studying the stars in depth. It was clear even by this early time that if we were part of the night sky, we too must be on a sphere.  Now the problem of finding our exact location on that sphere was quite complex, for on that sphere there are in fact three dimensions.  To find our locations based on landmarks was fine when they were available but what about if there were none?  Using the ancient compass to orient, the Greeks began assigning a system of numbers depending how far East or West one was in the Mediterranean World.   Instruments were created to measure location by following the sun by day and stars by night.  An early version of longitude, had been created.  This system allowed the Sea to become easily navigable and commerce boomed. 

By 330BC a man from a Greek colony in present day Marseilles had an idea for measuring location as one travels to the North.  On the longest day of the year the length of time that the sun remains in the sky will be the measurement of how far North one has traveled.  And so it was that Pytheas became the first great explorers of the Classical World and traveled as far North as Thule (Iceland), creating along the way a basis for longitude and latitude. But what Pytheas was not expecting was “an endless mix of air, water and ice.”  Which is an incredibly accurate description of the Northern Seas beyond Iceland where sea fog sits on the partially frozen seas. Pytheas was forced to retreat from his adventure.  Regardless, on this journey he was able to create a foundation for Longitude and Latitude and the two dimensional map. 

July of 1996, two thousand three hundred forty five years after Pytheas, I was to learn how little I knew about Navigation.  I was flying into mountains crowned by the highest mountains of North America.  My adrenaline pumped as we flew straight into the heart of these steep granitically muscled mountains of ice.  Our tiny 4 seater Cessna banked right, away from the highest peaks further north and our plane aimed towards the cluster of castle like spires I had been reading and researching about for the passed several months.  Our ski plain landed onto the new snowy world with blue skies abound.  Shuttling loads of climbing gear and supplies I felt like a veteran adventurer but unlike Pytheas I was not a veteran.  Pytheas used all of the technology available of his day in order to further the knowledge base available for the classical world.  I was quite the opposite.

The original problem of finding exactly where one was on the map or on the globe was solved by the Muslim World. They originally invented a tool called the Kamal with its early system of knots to measure location using the sun and the stars, specifically Polaris, to give an exact location.  Then they gave us another tool called the astrolabe.  By the 15th century the Portuguese gave us the simpler Quadrant along with Encyclopedias of Charts with both Longitude/ Latitude as well as the Mercator grids.  The first Sextant, which is still the most practical and accurate non-digital tool for measuring location, was made simultaneously by the English in their home land and in their North American Colony in 1731. 

During the Age of Discovery the known world had very recently multiplied exponentially in size, which created yet a new problem in accurate map making, reading and most important global exploration. When transferring data from the longitude and latitude of the spherical earth to a single planed map, the distances and angles became distorted the further out from the equator one went.  By 1570 a Flemish Cartographer named Gerardus Mercator created a grid pattern to superimpose on maps that allowed for corrections in scaling inconsistencies.  From that time onward there have been a series of updates and improvements until World War II when the US corps of engineers implemented the system used today called the Universal Transverse Mercator or UTM Grid. 

This Grid has received updates in series with the most current being the WGS84 Grid for the entire globe or the NAD83 (North American Datum 1983) or ED50 (European Datum 1950).  All current navigational maps list the type of Datum being used and has at least kilometer wide markings along the sides of the map giving the Northing and Easting coordinates.  But what if you couldn't see the stars?  What if you were in the clouds.  This remained one of the largest problems in navigation throughout almost all of human history until finally a tool came along that would help in solving that problem.  Well, it would help in mainly varied topographical terrain such as is found in the mountains.

It was widely understood since Galileo’s time that barometric (atmospheric) pressure could be measured in order to determine fair or bad weather.  But what was not understood until the 1800s was that the higher one climbed in elevation, the lower the pressure.  Finally in 1928 when the world was just learning to fly, a German inventor built the first accurate Barometric Altimeter.  This handy piece of light hand held piece of navigational equipment was built by 1924 to be used on the infamous Irvine and Mallory expedition.    The jury is still out but it is speculated that they may have been the first reach the top of Mount Everest and perished in storm on the way down.  It is also a possibility that the altimeter gave them just enough over confidence to push onward in the storm.

Every year during the months of May and June South Central Alaska receives, on average dryer conditions than the rest of the year but by July the giant Alaskan glaciers are engulfed by clouds once again and resume building.  So it was during the middle of the month of July 1997 that our young team of eager climbers landed on a big and broad Alaskan Glacier and soon after we landed we were enveloped in the Alaskan mist.  5,500 feet on the Pika Glacier is all we knew.

For 14 days we could not find our place on the map because the mist turned to unrelenting storm with almost no visibility.  Now armed with our altimeters we tried mapping routes out towards the various mountains that we remembered surrounding us but it was no use.  Our entire arsenal of cartographic wizardry ironically did not include the single biggest leap in navigational evolution in all of human history:  The Global Positioning System or GPS.

Looking back I realize now that I was not just rejecting current technology out of shear ignorance but I was still caught in a loop.  It was mostly an adolescent trap of rejecting authority.  To be fair I found the classic “Freedom In The Hills” during a time when the system of authority was trying to strangle me.  When I heard talk of a network of machines circling the earth that could tell me exactly where I was at all times no matter what the weather. I had images of urban streets in the sky and post apocalyptic 1984 and Matrix type movies coming to mind.  I saw the same people sitting my parents down and explaining to them how and why I should be “treated”.  It reminded me way to much of Jack Nicholson (Randle Patrick McMurphy) from One who flew over the Cuckoos nest, labotamized at the end of the movie just when you thought he was going to get away.  Isn’t that what what happened to Galileo?  He insisted the Earth was not at the center of everything but it was in fact the sun.  The powers of his day made him live out the rest of his life under house arrest.  I don’t need a machine watching over me thank you, A map and compass was an older wiser system, it was our way of doing things.  But could you imagine if Pytheas, or the early Vikings or Columbus or Magellen or Cook or Amundsen or Shackleton or any of the great explorers could all of a sudden have had access to this system?  Better yet, could you imagine what the great map makers of old would of thought?  To have this power and not use it? 

Down glacier from us there was another group of climbers.  They had been dropped off a few weeks before us and actually did get some climbing in during the good weather window but during their pick up day they didn’t get picked up, nor did they get picked up during the following days.  The little Cessna planes couldn’t fly in these mountains in this weather and if they did they’d most likely run smack into a mountain wall.  But now our friends down glacier had run out of food.  We gave them a little but we couldn’t give them too much because then we’d be in the same boat.  Mostly we hunkered down.  We couldn’t hike out because the normal 2 and half weeks it would normally take to hike all the down our glacier and then all the way out the giant Kahiltna Glacier would get us completely lost without any visibility. Armed with our maps, compasses and altimeters we thought about it, but we didn’t dare.  So we ate our food and we counted the days to when we were supposed to be picked up. 

On our scheduled pick up day the clouds had risen to only a hundred or so feet above camp.  It was no longer sleeting but it really didn’t look good for a safe pick up.  Eventually we heard the whine of the Cessna planes circling above.  That was good, meaning that it was clearing up enough so at least flying into this point was possible. 

“AAAh heya guys,”  We heard over our radios the pilot trying to connect with us.  “Not looking so great for today.  We may need to try again for tomorrow.” 

Our hearts sunk.  And there’s no guarantee the weather would be better tomorrow.  Nobody said it but we all knew it.  I started thinking of our starving climber neighbors who were now way past their pick up point.  We had heard planes attempting to pick them up previously but with no luck.

 “Hell I’m going for it!”*  the radio blurted out. 

We all looked at each other as we heard the whine of one of the planes deepen.  “There he is” Tim yelled out and we all looked towards the beautiful sight of one of our two planes diving below the cloud base. 

With that a second plane was obliged to follow.  We cheered and hugged each other.  It was at that sight that I needed to shake off my adolescent baggage.  The great explorers surely didn’t struggle with such silly nonsense.  That didn’t mean they were guilty of blind conformity either.  A healthy distrust of the powers that be should never be underestimated, but The Greats did not reject tools that would further their mission.  On my way home from this trip I felt exactly like what I was:  A child.

Embracing the Future:  Global Positioning System

After World War II ended all of the captured German rocket technology fell into the hands of the new world super powers, the US and USSR.  These two rivals went into the “Cold War” against each other along with a race towards dominant power through weaponry.  They subsequently went head to head into the Space Race.  The Soviets delivered the first blow by putting Sputnik 1 into orbit in 1957 and by 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space.  But by July 20th, 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon.  Two Americans: Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.   As arguably the greatest feat in human exploration of all time the space race was over and in its wake the greatest navigational tool the world had ever known became possible.  

It was Sir Isaac Newton in the 17th century who first proposed the idea that satellites could be placed in space above earth.  If an object is at the furthest extent of earth's gravitational pull, relative to it's size, it falls but because the planet is a sphere the earth is constantly curving away from that oject and it therefor remains in continuous orbit indefinitely.  Now using the newly developed space age technology coupled with the quickly expanding technologies of radio frequencies the modern satellite became an almost overnight jump in technology.  Today almost every aspect of our lives now relies on satellites.  Whether it be entertainment, communication, business and finance, defense, science, weather and of course navigation in just the last 15 years the world has become so dependent on satellites that if they were suddenly to all fall from the sky it would be catastrophic. 

For many years I did not purchase a GPS unit.  I just stayed away from Northern latitudes and kept my tail tucked…temporarily.  I thought that I’d get back to that another time. Besides the last couple years of the 20th century we didn’t use technology like we do today, computers were slow, the Internet was very slow.  I didn’t own a cell phone and neither did any one else really. Climber types were misfits, derelicts, real live dirt bags.  Not computer geeks.  All these things that our life depends on these days just didn’t exist.  Neither did Yoga pants, or spiffy Schoellor Jackets that look like business suits.  We still wore wool sweaters and fleece jackets.  I wanted uninhibited adventure, not calculated adventure.  But the fact remained I stayed away from this technology because I was afraid of it, not that it was a bad idea but that I would be bad at it.  It was technical and I hated technical. Finally at 26 years old, I cut more of the adolescent child loose and looked to the sky for guidance so that I could harness it’s great technological power.

By mid May of 2006 I was on my second season of leading groups to climb Denali.  We were hiking on the big broad Kahiltna Glacier that climbers follow to their first camp.  It was a hot sunny day and we stained our T-shirts through with sweat as we labored up the Glacier towards our first camp.  I stopped our group for a break to drink and refuel.  “Cool clouds.”  One of the group members pointed out.  There was a layer of eerie looking clouds down glacier following us up the mountain.  We resumed hiking steadily towards our camp still several miles away.  The air was even hotter and cloud cover was sliding all around us.   Within literally moments the air temperature dropped 50 degrees F.  Our sweat soaked clothing encased us in an armor of ice that could be felt down to our bones.  We immediately stopped and threw on layers of clothing.   With the cold clouds also came wind and snow.  Visibility dropped from 10 miles to about 20 feet.  Being on a glacier in a complete and total white out is the most externally disorienting experience.  There is no longer a ground or a sky or a direction.  It’s complete white.  It’s really not all together clear if your next step will be up or down.  Vertigo is not uncommon and a sense of direction is all together gone. 

The snow began quickly filling any hope of what used to be a track we could follow and I got out my little green Garmin Gecko.  2…..5…….6…..12 satellites.  There I am, I zoomed out to include camp location.  One point four miles….there it is.  Now all I need to do is walk towards it and watch my step.  Giant crevasses are everywhere.  But that’s OK because walking around a crevasse I don’t need to worry about loosing my bearing or anything other than the battery life of the actual device. 

So how did I have my camp already on the map?  It’s pretty simple really, before even heading out into the mountains I sit down with my map and my UTM grid reader and type in all of the coordinates into the GPS.  It actually makes it all dreadfully simple and almost takes the sport out of it. 

On that Denali trip we spent the first 7 days of the trip working our way up the mountain in white out and storm.  It was tedious and difficult and to this day it’s still the most I have ever continuously completely depended on the Global Positioning System.  Was there a feeling of triumph?  I don’t think so.  It was more of a feeling that there was a job to be done.  I was a guide with paying clients.  I no longer felt like a hunter or a wizard, just a ratchet or a big steam engine freight train, pushing up the mountain. Every day as we prepped to leave our camp, all of the recreational climbers camped close to us would wait for us to head out first so they could follow.

Today it’s actually even easier.  There are many more options and variations in navigational gadgets than I can shake a stick at.  Google, or give us instant access to topographical maps right there on the computer….all for free.  If I split the screen I can have a topo map on one side and a satellite image on the other….cool huh?  As I scroll around the image I can have my UTM reading instantly and set to whichever Datum I’m needing.  No need to count it all out with a UTM reader anymore.  Even the classic GPS is outdated.  I can down load the Backcountry Navigator or the GAIA app onto my Iphone and I have an endless encyclopedia of maps and an incredibly easy to use GPS.  I can overlay different route plans and map images from previous journeys and other adventurers. Furthermore I can bring devices that will help rescuers find me.  The Spot or inReach device use the GPS system when you get in trouble.  Then you’re essentially on the map for the outside world.  Navigation is a completely different experience than it was just 10-15 years ago and it’s only getting easier.     

Now it’s getting toward Autumn of 2015.  I’m not the anarchist I use to be, nor do I feel like a wizard or a hunter or a piece of chiseled mountain machinery.  More or less today I feel like a proud papa.  Three people in the world call me Dad actually and my once magnificent mane is turning shaggy and gray.  It’s been seven years now that I have been the director of a mountain guide service that specializes in guiding on glaciated mountains and ski touring in the world’s deepest snow. Every month of the year I have any number of programs out in the mountains completely enshrouded in cloud. All of the guides in the field may or may not have the latest phone apps and navigational programs, whether they do or don’t, I really don’t care. Whatever party tricks that make their job easier or more entertaining is really up to them.  What allows me to sleep at night is that they have, with no exceptions, five essential tools for navigation: 

  • A 7.5 minute topographical map
  • A Magnetic Compass…(Not digital)
  • Altimeter (GPS altimeters are not accurate for altitude)
  • A GPS unit specific for back country navigation
  • Written Route Plan**

*This was the imfamous Doug Geeting from Doug Geeting aviation.  He was known for taking chances and down the line would eventually loose all of his planes to crashes in the mountains. 

**Your route plan needs to be something that you write out clearly before you even head out on your journey.  Write it in your Write In The Rain note book.  Writing it in your smart phone is fine but it must be backed up…. and it goes like this:

Point 1: Waypoint location (UTM coordinates); Elevation; Description

Leg 1:  Bearing direction; Back Bearing; Distance; Elevation change; Time estimate

Point 2: Waypoint location (UTM coordinates); Elevation; Description

Leg 2:  Bearing direction; Back Bearing; Distance; Elevation change; Time estimate.

Point  3…….and so on and so on.

The time estimate part is something that takes time to perfect but aside from that using this simple method you will not likely get lost.