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(The Gear Loop) - Nestled in the heart of Snowdonia National Park is a building that has been standing since 1798. Long, unassuming and straddling both the shoreline of the Llynnau Mymbyr (lakes) and the blacktop of the A4086, Plas y Brenin was once known as the Capel Curig Inn, but was renamed the Royal Hotel in 1870 thanks to its royal visitations and esteemed guests.

It acted as a military training centre during World War 2 and finally received its title, meaning 'The King’s Place', in 1955 when the Central Council for Physical Recreation acquired the site. 

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The Gear LoopNavigation school: getting lost in Snowdonia with Plas y Brenin, the National Outdoor Centre photo 1

Since 1997, the collection of buildings have been operated on behalf of Sport England by the Mountain Training Trust, a not-for-profit charity founded by the British Mountaineering Council, Mountain Training UK and Mountain Training England.

To say it is steeped in mountaineering and outdoor history would be an embarrassing understatement. The many sinuous hallways and connecting tunnels that link the former coach horse stables and guest houses are strewn with imagery and memorabilia of famous climbers, explorers and outdoors enthusiasts. Look closely and you’ll even find the signatures of royalty etched into glass windows panels.

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The bustling bar, which acts as the hub for visitors, trainees and local walkers in need of refreshment, boasts a hodgepodge library of well-thumbed books and literature. Pull one of the heavily-patinated spines and you’ll likely be turning the very same pages Sir Edmund Hillary did in the 1950s or reading a paragraph Sir Ranulph Fiennes once pored over.

It is here that lovers of the great outdoors congregate before embarking on all manner of courses and experiences, whether that’s brushing up mountain biking skills, learning to roll a kayak in the facility’s heated pool, mastering climbing safety on the indoor climbing wall or, like some of the RSPCA friends I have been chatting to over a coffee, learning to fetch stricken animals out of fast flowing and icy cold water.

The Gear LoopNavigation school: getting lost in Snowdonia with Plas y Brenin, the National Outdoor Centre photo 4

It is in this bar that I meet Dave, who introduces himself as my instructor and guide for the next few days, as we embark on a course that will (hopefully) teach me some essential navigation skills.

March on a full stomach

Log on to the Plas y Brenin (PYB to those in the know) website and you’ll quickly realise that there is a lot going on. Whether you just want gain a little confidence when solo walking, or fancy taking on a week-long Alpine assignment, there’s something for everyone.

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This condensed nav course was designed to give me a flavour of what the place offers and, although covering some serious mileage and gaining impressive altitude, it’s aim isn’t to scare me witless with sheer drops and exposed wild camping.

Day one starts like all days at PYB, with a hearty cooked breakfast served by the site’s kitchen. Most courses include all of your meals, as well as packed lunch to take away, but anyone who happens to be passing by can pop in for a solid plate of food. 

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That’s the beauty of the place, it still bears the hallmarks of the Capel Curig Inn, which fed and watered those making the long journey by horse-drawn coach from rural Wales to London and even further afield. 

It is over bacon and eggs that we start to discuss our goals, the intended plan for the day and the type of walking or climbing we are comfortable with. Then it’s on to a quick rummage through our backpacks to check the kit we have with us.

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Accidentally forgotten everything? No worries, as PYB prides itself on having one of the best-appointed "stores" around. From here, participants and guests are welcome to borrow everything from a local map and compass, to fully-fledged climbing boots, waterproofs and harnesses.

Once fully kitted out, we venture into the misty morning, taking the snaking path from the rear of Plas y Brenin that picturesquely traverses the mirror-like lakes before meandering its way around the foot of Moel Siabod - a 872 metre peak that stretches above the Moelwynion mountain range.

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Peak-bagging

After half an hour or so of easy hiking, we stop and regroup, pull out our laminated OS maps, locate the compasses we borrowed from stores and begin to get to grips with the dark art of navigation.

Dave Janes, our instructor and former Team GB canoe and kayaker, begins to walk us through reading contour lines and creating a story of our intended journey via our maps. Confirming a heading by locating and recognising landmarks, like streams, pathways and even drystone walls.

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It’s difficult to appreciate the detail of an OS Explorer or Harvey map until you’ve successfully plotted a route by following contour lines or taking a bearing from a tiny slither of crumbling wall. It’s an impressive skill that’s dying thanks in part to GPS and handheld nav systems, but an important part of walking, mountaineering and trail running. nonetheless.

We spend most of the morning taking sight bearings, pointing our compasses at peaks we’ve spotted on the map, learning how to take a bearing and then translate this to the piece of laminated paper in our hands.

The Gear LoopNavigation school: getting lost in Snowdonia with Plas y Brenin, the National Outdoor Centre photo 7

It’s clever stuff and after just a few hours, we are able to march our way to even the smallest contour shapes on the map - those tiny squiggles that are no larger than a grain of rice.

By lunchtime, we’ve made our way to the top of Crimpiau, a small peak that looks out over the tiny village of Capel Curig, but is tall enough to afford views of Snowdon itself. The weather is classically Welsh, with puffs of sodden cloud drifting beneath our feet, even though we are a mere 475 metres above sea level. But it doesn’t matter, it’s still a fantastically moody place to ingest some calories.

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Into the night

The rest of the day follows a similar pattern, with our instructor Dave setting us tasks to navigate to an obscure spot, while we ponder over maps, take bearings and scramble our way to the mission objective.

The Garmin on my wrist suggests we’ve covered around six or seven miles in the six hours or so we’ve been out in the drizzle, but the day was never about racking up big distances, it was more about getting comfortable in our surroundings and more importantly, learning how to navigate back to our start point, where we were promised tea and cake was waiting.

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However, there’s not much time to truly appreciate the dense slab of chocolate deliciousness, as we are told to get packs and kit ready for a night navigation exercise, where we would put the day’s learnings into practice… in the pitch black.

Although probably not everyone’s idea of a good time, stumbling around in the cold, wet, inky night with nothing but a head torch is actually surprisingly rewarding, especially if you manage to plot a route using nothing but bearings taken from a map and the few scant landmarks we come across.

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We learn to pace correctly by counting every other step and it’s not long before we can accurately track 100m of hiking without overshooting the mark and landing in a stream or worse - stumbling off a cliff edge.

With another couple of miles under our belts, Dave is fairly happy with the progress and thinks that even in an extreme whiteout on a remote mountain, we should be able to navigate a route, breaking it down into 50 or 100m chunks and slowly picking our way out of trouble.

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But we’re all done for the night and the bar at PYB is calling. A bar that is stocked with tasty local beers, snacks and the promise of good company.

The beds are comfortable, the showers reassuringly hot and the floors in the room as charmingly uneven as you’d expect from a building that has been standing for over 200 years. All that’s left to do is bed down, get some rest and do it all again tomorrow.

Plas y Brenin has something for everyone, whether that’s a quiet stay in one of the satellite farm houses with the family, or a high-octane week of sea kayaking, rock climbing and developing your downhill mountain biking skills. A two-day navigation course with food and board costs £343, but check the website for further information. 

Writing by Leon Poultney.