QMDs without summiting: low ground options
A QMD publication
Bill Fear 2020
These views and opinions are my own and are not representative of, or linked to, any organization or group
Among the many myths surrounding Quality Mountain Days (QMDS) three stand out. First, they don’t need to be more than five hours – they do. Second, there is a set ‘list’ of mountain country – there isn’t (the list ‘includes’, it is not ‘restricted to’). Third, you have to summit – you don’t, but summiting is an integral part of mountaineering and thus summiting is always a preference with QMDs.
In this post we discuss ‘low level’ QMDs. That is, in principle QMDs achieved not only without summiting but achieved on lower ground that is really Hill and Moorland country. The importance of this is often overlooked. Mountain Leaders should be able to travel as effectively on paths as off them and be as proficient on Hill and Moorland country as they are in any other type of country. Yet Hill and Moorland work requires a subtly different skill set, especially with regard to navigation, and this is often overlooked. Ideally any mountain leader should have at least a couple of low level QMDs in their portfolio and as they develop this should increase and be a normal part of their activity.
From a pragmatic point of view, it is also not always practical to rush off into Disneyfied mountain country to achieve a MacDonaldised ‘QMD’, and being in mountain country does not make the day a QMD by default. Anybody, for example, can do the Snowdon Horseshoe on a half-decent day and anybody can walk up Scafell even on a not very good day. Yet in-principle QMDs, with a little imagination, can be achieved in many parts of the country that are often overlooked. Furthermore, this alternative country is often more demanding than much of the mountain country and will test your skills and your capabilities to the limit to the same degree that will mountain country. All it lacks is height and rock – for that you must go to the mountain country where there is height and rock.
Yet another consideration is the real practicality of leading groups in the mountains. The ‘leadership’ aspect is concerned with the management of risk, primarily when working with young people. There will be times when it is simply too risky to go up on higher ground and especially onto steep and rocky ground. On such days alternative low-level routes must be planned and executed. A lack of knowledge and experience with low-level country could result in some serious difficulties in these circumstances (unless it is restricted to well-known routes and marked paths; even then problems can be encountered).
The most important criterion for a QMD is that it is ‘physically and mentally challenging’ and the quality is dependent on ‘such things as the conditions experienced both overhead and underfoot, the exploration of new areas, and the terrain covered.’ Being out for five hours or more on difficult ground in unfamiliar country starts to achieve this, mostly, and the five hour time frame is also a regulatory requirement. (That is, the Summer ML Award is registered with Ofqual as the equivalent to an AS/A level/NVQ Level 3, and one of the regulatory requirements is that QMDs are five hours or more.)
If there are no mountains in the country immediately accessible to you, and/or if the weather does not permit summitting, then low level work is always an option. (A mountain has a summit of 610m or more. There are many lists of UK mountains available.)
The first thing to do with a low level QMD is work with the weather; going out in bad weather, or at night, on difficult and challenging ground that is remote will be physically and mentally challenging. Second, consider the ground. A low level walk up a remote, long, steep sided river valley that you have to climb out of at some point has particular risks and challenges. Indeed, in South Wales the majority of mountain rescues of seriously injured people are probably from a particular river valley rather than high ground. Also, you may be able to find good rock you can work with on low ground, and steep ground is steep ground no matter how high above sea level it is situated. There are many rocky outcrops and crags on lower ground that provide the same risks and challenges as they do on higher ground.
Low ground can also provide different challenges to those on higher ground: bog; exceptionally rough ground; navigational difficulties when there are minimal features (especially challenging in poor visibility); obstacles such as forestry; seductive paths that take you in the wrong direction; and so on.
So, here are some things you can do to maximise the use of low ground:
- Plan a challenging day of more than five hours;
- Stay off marked paths are much as possible and/or seek out those minor paths that take demanding routes;
- Incorporate challenging features (streams and rivers that need to be crossed; steep ground; rock and crags; rough ground; bogs that need to be circumvented; etc.);
- Pick features that you need to find on your route. For example: ancient monuments; sheep folds; contour features (especially); rain gauges. Plan a route from feature to feature;
- Go out in demanding weather;
- Find the most remote parts of the country and visit them – seek out ‘wild country’ with steep and rocky ground, as much as possible, where you are dependent upon yourself for immediate help. There are many places like this hidden away in what might seem to be familiar low ground. For example, the ‘most remote parts’ of both England (Fur Tor) and Wales (Tyle Garw) are in relatively low level moorland. (They are the most remote parts of England and Wales respectively not just because of their relative distance to the nearest road but also the lack of access, noting that you are rarely more than an hours walk from a road in the UK and would need to travel to Scotland to find places more than an hours walk from a road.)
Days like this can readily meet most of the QMD criteria and arguably meet enough of them to be a QMD. Before continuing, bear in mind the caveat that low level QMDs are, in principle, the exception. In a batch of 40 QMDs, for example, perhaps two low level QMDs are going to be suitable, depending on the circumstances and justification and so on. You cannot get experience in the mountains without getting experience in the mountains. But, equally, a day in the mountains on familiar, well worn, tourist routes and circuits, and stretching the day to five hours by dawdling and taking your time is, quite simply, unworthy of being called a QMD.
With a little careful planning and good dollop of considered imagination along with good map reading and planning skills low level days can meet the following QMD criteria (as well as being a physical and mental challenge):
- planning and leadership;
- navigation away from marked paths; terrain and weather comparable to that found in UK and Irish hills (the risk of hypothermia in the absence of injury and/or immobilisation is somewhat lessened on low ground, but is still a very real risk);
- knowledge is increased and skills practised; attention is paid to safety;
- the journey is five hours or more; adverse conditions may be encountered.
To recap, the value of having some low level QMDs in your portfolio is often overlooked. With a little imagination, planning, and some skilled map reading, however, they can be readily achieved as long as you are willing to meet the key criterion of a physically and mentally demanding and challenging day. A fifteen mile walk across remote hilly country can give as much height gain as a day in the mountains. Throw in multiple river crossings and navigational challenges and you readily have as difficult and demanding a day as any day in the mountains. Furthermore, much mountain country in England and Wales is overlooked by rigid adherence to the false belief that there is a definitive ‘list’. If there was such a list then the Scottish Islands, for example, would be excluded as they are not on the list. Bad news for anybody who has done their assessment in the Scottish Islands – it’s just been rendered invalid! Similarly, the Cheviots provide some excellent summits and remote and challenging country. Dartmoor has two mountains. The Elan Valley is remote, challenging, and has mountains with very long distances between them as well as three bothies. Radnor Forest is difficult and demanding country and is spooky in the mist.
Finally, to repeat, the only way to spend time in the mountains is to spend time in the mountains. But that doesn’t have to be at the expense of high quality days in remote and challenging country. Just be sure to recognise that if going for the ML award you need those unquestionable QMDs that you can be proud of.