Quality Mountain Days

Quality Mountain Days

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I discovered the mountains, and Quality Mountain Days, QMDs, in a somewhat unusual way. I’ve always been active, always loved being outdoors, and particularly loved exploring and getting lost in being outside. I feel more comfortable in remote open spaces than I do in my living room.

For a long time though my only real engagement with the outside was simple walking and long distance running. Then I was in a serious cycling accident and after a few years found that I was unable to run effectively. I discovered long distance walking – distances of 20+ miles in a day, and even an event walking 100 miles in under 48 hours without any real breaks other than short rest stops. Walking was something I returned to, as I had walked a lot in the outdoors in my younger days. I began to go out to some of the more remote areas and walk, sometimes taking the whole day to work out a relatively short route on the ground. At the same time I realised that there were mountains.

I had always known about mountains but they were sort of in the background. Rivers were more my thing, and hills. I didn’t really make a distinction between hills and mountains, and weather was something that went on outside and I didn’t pay much attention to. But as I discovered mountains I began to notice a subtle difference.

The first real encounter I had with the mountains was two days in the Lake District doing solo walks. On the first day I did a round trip from Langdale via Bowfell to Scafell Pike and back along the Garden Corridor taking in Great Gable on the way. I was fascinated. The different textures of land, the dramatic changes in scenery, the rock, the steep drops, the sheer physical demand, were all so different to what I was used to. I began to realise I’d perhaps been missing something.

On the second day I trip up Helvellyn via Seat Sandal, down Swirral Edge and back up Striding Edge, and then down again. When I reach the top of Helvellyn for the second time, from Striding Edge, I had a feeling of ‘not wanting to go down’. I wanted to stay ‘up on top’ for as long as I could. There was something about the high, open space, the near-yet-farness of the sky, the horizon melting into the skyline. This feeling isn’t bought about by height alone, and I’ve been with others when they’ve experienced it. It is something about the tops, about being up on those long rolling stretches of summits that seem to go on forever.

Shortly after the Lake District we had a week in Ireland in the MacGilcuddy Reeks. We picked this area by sort of accident, finding first a suitable location and only then discovering that the area we had chosen to stay in had the highest peak in Ireland, Carruantoohil. You might say the mountain came to us.

Our experience of the ‘The Reeks’ cemented our awareness of what it meant to be in the mountains. We began to realise, naively scrambling down Brother O’Shea’s gully, some of the dangers. A few days later as I stood alone on Big Gun watching the weather coming in over Carruantoohil, my first ever substantial ridge scramble behind me, an arete in front of me, a big day still ahead with another ridge scramble at the end of it, I began to realise there was more to the mountains than I had ever considered.

It was probably the Ireland trip that decided me to do the Mountain Leader Training and, so, a month later I was up in Scotland on the training course. In order to go on from the training and do the assessment you have to accumulate ‘Quality Mountain Days’ (QMDs), and I reckoned if I gave myself 12 months between training and assessment I should get enough of these in my log book. This changed when one of my fellow trainees announced, shortly after the training, that he was going to do the assessment in six months time. And that is what I did. In six months I logged around 30 QMDs along with a couple of scrambles, some Mountain Days, and some Lowland Walks. I also had six weeks off with severe flu, ran an AGM and social weekend for my walking club, and moved house. We spent almost every weekend and every holiday focussed on getting time in the mountains, and I couldn’t have done in on my own. What I gained in that six months is largely down to my wife, who provided endless support and encouragement and joined me on most of the trips helping to turn them in to adventures.

The difference the training, the intense commitment and focus in achieving QMDs with my wife, and the assessment made to both of us is hard to quantify. It bought about subtle understandings and changes. We are now, for example, far more inclined to seek out remote areas and walk off the paths than we used to be. We appreciate, I think, the risks we are taking and try to be better prepared to manage those risks. We understand and learn from our mistakes, and then make new mistakes and learn from them. Together we’ve taken routes that have left locals and fellow walkers shaking their heads. And we’ve seen the mountain tops in winds so strong you can’t stand in them, in driving rain, in snow and ice, in blazing sunshine. We’ve walked in mist bubbles and in vast open spaces where the horizon is merely a blur. We’ve seen copper-gold sunsets on the hills, streams rushing into rock faces and disappearing, buzzards, kites, and lizards. We’ve been so cold we can’t feel our hands, so drenched we thought we’d never get dry, and so hot we’ve sought out the faintest breeze for some blessed relief. We’ve practised rope work and watched Ravens flying upside down (barrel rolling). We’ve been woken up by swallows in the early hours of the morning and heard the cuckoos call echoing through the valleys and among the stones. And all the while our appreciation and awareness of the mountains has grown. The mountain leader training provided the lynch pin for this, acting as a sort of touch stone I could return to when things were uncertain or doubtful. Having the certainty of knowing that it is better to cut things short, to get back onto a safe route, to get out of trouble, allows for a greater exploration of what the mountains have to offer – especially the harsh beauty of the more remote areas.

And that is the value of QMDs.

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At the time of writing the number of people visiting ‘the mountains’ has increased roughly fivefold in the UK alone in the last five years. This is mirrored in the number of calls to Mountain Rescue, which have also increased correspondingly.

In line with the increasing numbers of people are increasing numbers of people ‘leading walks in the mountains’ with scant disregard for things such as: group management in what can be a dangerous and hostile environment; environmental considerations; respect for local traditions and culture; core navigation and route finding skills; and so on. Fortunately, most of these ‘led walks’ follow well defined paths and take relatively simple and unchallenging routes mostly during good weather.

There is an established industry providing mountain leader skills suitable for leading groups on mountain walks, and, indeed, that equips the individual with a useful skill set for exploring the mountains more widely. And the foundation of these skills are Quality Mountain Days, QMDs. As such it is difficult to underestimate their importance. (For official definitions and relevant information see the FAQs from the Mountain Training Association)

There are two reasons why QMDs are important if you want to spend serious time in the mountains; walking and/or scrambling. (Climbing is a different matter altogether and Mountain Training provides relevant information.)

One reason is to develop your skills, knowledge, and experience. The other, less recognised, reason is to develop and deepen your appreciation of a particular outdoor environment. The technical skills are all very well and with a little practice most will develop quickly, up to a point. Some elements, such as route finding, decision making, and risk assessment, take time, thought, and experience and there are no short cuts. No amount of skill or experience, however, will compensate for a lack of ongoing appreciation of the environment. For many people being the mountains is a deeply moving experience and not one that can be achieved by walking up a wide pavement with hundreds, if not thousands, of other people.

The point of QMDs over and above all of this is to gain a deep understanding of how to manage yourself and others in a mountain environment. It is one thing to go up Pen-y-Fan, a height gain of only 300m from the Pont ar Daf car park, or Scafell Pike, or Ben Nevis, on a clear summer day following the footpath with masses of other people around. It is quite another to be standing on top of Pen-y-Fan at nine o’clock at night in February in the middle of storm Katrina in gale force winds and driving rain and being unable to see your feet that’ll own the path. And it’s quite another thing to be on top of Rhinog Fach in the mist with a dislocated finger knowing you’re colder than you should be. And it is yet another thing if you are leading other people as you are responsible for their wellbeing and safety.

Drama aside, gaining QMDs, if done in the right way, allow you to go to places most people won’t, and can’t, go. It will allow to experience the real mountains away from the tourist trails and noisy crowds – even if you do have to brave them some of the time.

Many mountains now have more in common with Disneyland than they do with the outdoors and are overcrowded and noisy. As you build your experience of QMDs you will, or should, explore more and increasingly be able to find ways of getting to the high tops that are, for the most part, relatively deserted. You should also learn how to manage difficult, or even dangerous, weather conditions which means you can go into the mountains when others either can’t or won’t.

Bear in mind that QMDs will define your experience and understanding of the mountains and will shape you as a mountaineer.

Most of what I say here, and on this site, relates only to ‘Summer’ conditions in the mountains of the UK and Ireland. Summer conditions do not depend on a time of year. They are, simply put, not Winter Conditions. That is, you don’t require the use of winter specific equipment such as crampons and ice axes. While you can teach yourself these skills, using crampons and an ice axe, and develop them independently, in my experience some training from appropriately qualified professionals will give you that little bit of ‘edge’ that can make all the difference.

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QMDs are days spent in mountainous country that develop you as a mountaineer. You should be learning important techniques and skills and practicing existing ones. Exploring new terrain is an important part of the QMD experience. The quality and value of QMD is determined by the scale of physical and mental challenge. Things such as the conditions overhead and underfoot and the skills needed to explore new areas all contribute to the scale of the challenge.

You cannot develop your skills and experience by repeating the same route or even by visiting familiar areas repeatedly. Nor can you develop your skills and experience by only going in good weather, cutting journeys short without good reason, and so on. In the same way, following well marked paths in busy areas will not contribute to your skills and experience.

When you start out, of course, you may want to start with well marked paths in busy areas. If, for example, you are a novice and completely unfamiliar with the Lake District then walking up Scafell Pike via Lingmell and going on to Scafell will probably seem like an epic journey. And it will be. But repeating that journey decreases it’s quality and value in terms of skill and experience. Finding a ‘new’ route up, say, Scafell and across to Scafell Pike and back over Lingmell will, however, add your skills and experience. Until you come to know the area.

The length of time spend on a QMD journey is important. QMDs last five hours or more. This time factor is critical to your development. Anybody can be out in the mountains for five hours, but after five hours fatigue and boredom begin to set in. This affects you physical and mental performance. It’s one thing to be lost in the mountains after two hours with five or six hours of daylight and warm weather ahead of you. It’s quite a different thing to be lost in the mountains after six hours in the mist with the light fading and the cold setting in. The more experience you have of time spent in the mountains the more comfortable you will feel in a wider variety of situations.

Mountainous country is quite well defined, with equally good reason. Mountains are high and have steep and rocky ground. While there is no universal definition of a mountain the generally accepted definition in the UK and Ireland is an elevation over 610m (2000ft).

This combination of height and steep and rocky ground present their own challenges and risks. Managing them successfully and repeatedly in a variety of weather conditions requires the development of appropriate skills and experience.

Fitness clearly plays a role in QMDs, as it does in mountaineering. There is no way around it, spending a long day in the mountains is mentally and physically tiring, and in difficult conditions it can be exhausting – even more so if you are responsible for the safety of other people. You need certain level of fitness, endurance, and agility. As with your skills these will develop over time if you pursue QMDs.

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There is a set of criteria that contribute to QMD, as opposed to a mountain day. You need to be part of planning the day and leading during the day. Bear in mind here that some of your best QMDs may be achieved either on your own or with a trusted partner. The leadership aspect means that you take responsibility throughout the day for the route, for the navigation, for you safety and the safety of others, and so on. But even if you never lead a group you can still bag QMDs and develop your relevant skills and experience.

You need to able to navigate across rough ground and off marked paths. This is a critical skill if you really want to get into the mountains. The most interesting parts of the mountains are the parts other people don’t go. Or at least those that do have a relevant skill set. Not only that, there is an element of safety in this. Being able to navigate across rough ground greatly increases your ability to move through the mountains.

You need to experience adverse conditions. It’s not really a navigational skill to follow a marked path using a map in good weather. Some slight degree of skill is required to follow a marked path using a map in bad weather. A great degree of skill is required to find your way to safety in adverse weather conditions when there are no paths and you are tired, cold, wet, and disorientated. Having this level of skill will greatly enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of the mountains.

Safety is a key criterion. There are many factors to consider with regard to safety. Planning, having the right kit and equipment, developing the necessary and sufficient level of skill and experience, understanding the weather and the implications of different weather conditions, knowing how to contact Mountain Rescue, and so on. The best way to improve safety is to develop your knowledge, skills, and experience and keep them up to date.

I’ve already mentioned the importance of time. A QMD is a journey in the mountains of five hours or more.

Finally, the point of mountaineering is to appreciate the mountains and this usually means summitting. Not everybody appreciates the summits but they are what make the mountains mountains. Naturally, a QMD would usually include at least one summit. Sometimes many more. And bear in mind that the point of a QMD is to develop skills and experience. You don’t have to enjoy it but you should feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment. And as you build a portfolio of QMDs you can occasionally relax and just have a day out in the mountains where you do enjoy yourself.

Mountainous country, in the UK and Ireland, includes the following areas:

  • Yr Eryri/Snowdonia
  • Bannau Brycheiniog/ The Brecon Beacons
  • Y Mynyddoedd Duon/The Black Mountains
  • The Lake District  
  • The Mountains of Mourne  
  • The Scottish Highlands  
  • The Galloway Hills  
  • The Cork & Kerry Mountains  
  • The Galway & Mayo Mountains  
  • The Donegal Mountains  
  • The Dublin & Wicklow Mountains’

Of course, it is possible to get mountain days, and even a QMD or two, in areas such as the Yorkshire Moors and uplands, Dartmoor, and the Peak District. But you only going to get a couple of Mountain Days or QMDs in these areas outside of the list, and for good reason: the risks are not the same as the risks in the defined mountainous country. This should be abundantly clear. Walking in true mountainous country incurs a level of risk that is simply not present in other country.

It’s worth saying, briefly, what QMDs are not. They are not days spent: as a course member under instruction (for example on a training course or military exercise); assisting a qualified leader; as a member of a group practising their skills; repeating familiar routes; or days less than five hours even if they are abandoned for safety reasons.

Abandoning a walk for good reason doesn’t make it a QMD. It does, however, still provide valuable experience you can learn from and if you are concerned about safety you should not hesitate to cut a walk short. As Mark Twain said, “It is better to be careful 100 times than to get killed once.”

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