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How to make a molehill out of a mountain

Gill Tunstall navigates her way around the Welsh hills
According to Ruskin, there's no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. How he would have described an Indian summer followed immediately by storm-force gales and rain as thick as Dralon curtains is anybody's guess. But that's British weather for you. Fickle. One minute you're strolling along a mountain path like Heidi, the next you're in the eye of a storm, lost, with a map that rapidly turns to papier mache.

Yet it needn't be that way, as I discovered by joining an introductory mountaineering skills course at Plas Y Brenin, the National Mountaineering Centre at Capel Curig in north Wales. The five-day course covers almost everything you need to know to have a safe day out on the hills.

And that's what Jonathan, a tree surgeon from Essex, Annie, a globetrotting marketing executive, Paul, an electronics engineer, and Caroline, a pensions adviser, wanted to learn. All had walked with groups, but wanted the confidence to strike out on their own.

The first morning dealt, appropriately, with weather. As gales battered the building, we huddled round a Met Office map, with a swirl of tightly- packed isobars like a migraine before our eyes. Like Ruskin, our instructor, Carl Harbel, is a man who looks on the bright side. The weather may have looked bad, but it wouldn't put a dampener on the day. So, after juggling map and compass in the classroom, we headed into the great outdoors for the real thing.

"Navigation is absolutely the most vital thing for a good day out on the hills," said Carl. With that in mind we spent the afternoon splashing round open moorland nearby, navigating from stream bend to wall junction, footbridge to woodland, and learning to read the land from the map and vice versa. We never strayed high, it was too windy for that, but this was exactly the sort of terrain to get to grips with navigation.

"Sometimes when you're out on the hill and it's windy and raining it's easy to follow a boundary line on the map instead of a path," warned Carl. "The thing is that some of these boundaries end up running over the edge of cliffs, so you need to be sure before going on to the hill."

Gradually, we learnt the practical value of our lessons. We worked out how many paces we each took to walk 100 metres and could then measure distance as we strode out. The squiggles on the map became hill tops, slopes and cliffs, white spaces meant flat ground, and by taking a compass bearing we confirmed that we were going in the right direction.

Confidence began to grow, and by day two even the sky looked brighter. By lunchtime we had honed our navigation skills and were heading for the summit of Tryfan, an Alpine-style 3,000ft mountain that rises from the Ogwen Valley like a huge rock fortress. As we scrambled through heather on to boulder-strewn slopes to the top, the clouds rolled in and out, giving tantalising glimpses of the surrounding mountains.

We descended through a rocky gully, slithering down paths that had turned into streams in the unrelenting rain, gingerly lowering ourselves down rock "steps" that seemed impassable at first glance, all the time under Carl's watchful eye.

"It's funny," said Jonathan, as we reached the bottom. "You look down and think, `I can't get down that', but you do it and realise it's all right. Then you look up at where you've been and think, `I just came down there!'"

Plas Y Brenin runs mountaineering and navigation courses all year round. For a brochure call 01690 720214. The British Mountaineering Council (0161 445 4747) has a list of recognised centres and instructors providing similar courses throughout the country.