Monday, 20 September 2010

A Great Cock-Up On Great Cockup

It's time for the Accretionary Wedge, and for this month Lockwood has asked for our important geological experiences:
It may (or may not) be something that led you to the discipline [...], or a class, or a work experience, or a field experience. It might have been a puzzle or problem solved, or job landed, a degree completed. Perhaps it was something else entirely. It could have been an awful, disastrous experience from which you learned an important lesson.
I'm going to go with the latter, and this is perhaps a big one for me to admit to - it's quite embarrassing, and I just hope my fellow geoscientists can still look me in the eye afterwards.


In July 2000, I carried out my geological mapping project. I mapped an area of the Uldale Fells, the very north of the Lake District. Standing on Brae Fell, I could see the Solway Firth and over into Dumfries and Galloway. I could see wind farms. When atop Great Calva looking south, I could see right down an old fault line stretching beyond Thirlmere. It was beautiful in a wild way that we don't often see in the UK. I shared the entire Uldale Fells with three classmates: I mapped the westernmost section, with Theo, Heather and Dave mapping successively further east.


We spent four days making reconnaissance trips around the area in groups, and then began our individual mapping. I was dropped off just to the west of Great Cockup (yes, it does exist, and yes, I still think this is hilarious), and was due to meet the others at the end of the day southeast of Knott, at a parking area next to a swimming spot in the River Caldew.

About an hour before our rendezvous point, I was on the saddle between Knott and Great Calva, with Hause Gill and Wiley Gill either side of me. I had intended to go down Wiley Gill, meet up with the track along the Caldew, and stroll back to the car. To this day, I have no idea why I did this, as I was perfectly capable of reading a compass.

I went the wrong way.

I went towards Great Calva, looking for the path on the left hand side of the gill, but never found it. I was about halfway down what was Little Calva before I realised my mistake. I fished around for my mobile to ring the others. But it wasn't there. Somewhere in the scrub I had lost my phone, having kept it in my pocket for easy access down the fells. I went back to look for it, and probably wasted more time than was necessary. I realised I was going to be late.


In retrospect, the sensible thing to do would have been to find the Caldew track again and hoof it back to the car Scouts pace. But I was absolutely desperate to get a message to someone. Then I spotted the youth hostel. The warden was in, but his mobile phone had very little reception. After wandering around outside for a while, we eventually managed to get my grandmother on the phone and ask her to phone my mother (I forget why I couldn't get hold of her immediately) and for Mum to phone one of the others. Note to all field geologists - even if you have mobile reception and are in a relatively safe area, write down your contacts' mobile phone numbers just in case.

Then I had to start the route back anyway. I was mentally exhausted, gutted at the loss of my mobile phone (it had a really cool Xpress-On cover and a light-up aerial - this was, after all, the year 2000), and feeling like an absolute pillock. About halfway along the track, I spied Theo walking towards me. When he caught up with me and we started walking back, he waved his fluorescent yellow CAS strap in the air as a signal, and that was when I realised just how worried my classmates had been.


It is not my finest hour. I cannot believe what a stupid mistake I made. I have always prided myself on my map-reading and compass-using skills, so I don't understand what was with my loss of judgment and idiocy. I have never made this mistake again, and I managed to map a huge area with a combination of speed over ground and detail of observations. In fact, I got the highest mark of the year group for my mapping project.

I learned to mapread twice, walk once. I learned to write contact details in my field notebook. I learned to secure my mobile phone. I have a pink zipped case with a belt loop for my phone, so I can spot it if it falls off (not that it should, fitted onto my belt). I suspect students are no longer allowed to map alone, but I don't know what the rules are at universities now (hell, my A2 biologists will not be allowed to work in anything less than a pair in a fenced in, locked nature reserve of extremely limited area!).

Now I am a lecturer responsible for my students' safety and education in the field. I set an example to them, ensuring that I am appropriately attired and shod, with a well-stocked backpack. I spend time with each of them, making sure they know how to find their bearings, and we have a good backup of mobile phone numbers and emergency contact details. Most importantly, I am very forgiving of mistakes they make, because I remember that once upon a time I wasn't quite as shit hot at this fieldwork lark as I thought I was.

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