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Mountain Weather: A summary.

Mountain Weather: A summary.

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

This is a summary of the section on mountain weather in the Military Mountaineering, July 2012, handbook by the Department of the Army, Washington DC. It is limited to considerations in the UK and Ireland mountains. Note that farenheit have been converted to Celsius and feet to metres so there are some odd measurements.

PDF Here

Mountain weather is more erratic than on lower ground and is highly changeable. Understanding the weather and how to plan accordingly is important. Safety or danger can depend on a few degrees of temperature and terrain can quickly become dangerous and even impassable. Severe weather can impact on morale and increase, or exacerbate, problems.

High pressure generally means better, more stable, weather.

Low pressure usually means the weather will worsen.

With high pressure the air flows clockwise and out (anticyclone). It is usually associated with clear skies and mild wind at most. With low pressure the air flows counterclockwise (cyclone). It is usually associated with bad weather. Low pressure builds vertically and pulls air inwards.

Pressure is shown by isobars on a weather map. Isobars are like contour lines. Areas of high pressure are called “ridges” and lows are called troughs.

Wind. High ridges and passes are seldom calm but protected valleys rarely have strong wind. Winds accelerate through mountain passes and canyons and can increase in force on exposed mountainsides or summits.

The force exerted by wind quad quadruples each time the wind speed doubles. Gusts can be 50% higher than average wind speed.

In the Northern Hemisphere, there are three prevailing winds:

  • Polar Easterlies
  • Prevailing Westerlies
  • Northeast trade winds (although these winds generally blow in from the west; they originate in the north east and pick up parcels of air.)

In the mountains we also have localised mountain specific winds that do not usually affect the weather:

  • Anabatic wind; blows up mountain valleys
  • Katabatic winds; blows down the slopes. Occasionally strong.

All air holds water vapor. The warmer the air, the more moisture it can hold. Fully saturated air is at 100% humidity. When air cools beyond its saturation point it releases moisture (clouds, fog, dew, rain, snow, etc.). The temperature at which this happens is called the condensation point. Air that is holding a lot of water can reach condensation point at 200C. In drier air it can be a as low as 00C or even below freezing.  Air cools as it rises and warms as it descends. This is the adiabatic lapse rate. This rate varies depending on the moisture content of the air. Moist air warms and cools at about 1.790C per 305m of elevation gained or lost. Drier air warms and cool about 3.080C per 305m feet of elevation gained or lost.

Clouds are indicators of weather conditions and it is possible to forecast weather conditions b reading the clouds. Clouds can be formed by:

  • Convective lifting; air rises from the heated ground
  • Frontal lifting; air masses collide and warm air is forced over the colder air mass. This usually results in precipitation
  • Cyclonic lifting; Low pressure pulls air into its center. Once there it goes up.
  • Orographic lifting. Air is pushed up over a mass of higher ground.
  • Clouds are classified into five categories: low-, mid-, and high-level clouds; vertically developed clouds; and less common clouds.

Low-level clouds are either cumulus or stratus. They are mostly water droplets. When temperatures are cold enough they may also contain ice particles and snow.  There are two types of precipitating low-level clouds: nimbostratus and stratocumulus.

Nimbostratus clouds are dark, low-level clouds accompanied by light to moderately falling precipitation. The sun or moon is not visible through them. Their bases are difficult to diffuse and difficult to accurately determine.

Stratocumulus clouds usually appear as low and lumpy or as rounded masses with clear breaks of sky. They may be accompanied by weak  precipitation. If you extend your arm to the sky altocumulus clouds are about the size of a thumbnail. Stratocumulus are about the size of a fist.  Low-level clouds account for most of the precipitation. If they are dark at their base they are thick and usually indicate impending precipitation.

Mid-level clouds have the prefix alto-. They are less distinct than low level clouds. Warm clouds are less distinct than cold clouds. Middle clouds usually indicate fair weather, especially if they are rising. Lowering mid level clouds usually indicate a coming storm.

Altocumulus clouds appear as parallel bands or rounded masses. Usually a portion is shaded. They form in advance of a cold front. On humid summer days they usually indicate later thunderstorms. Scattered altocumulus usually indicates high pressure and fair weather.

Altostratus tend to obscure the sun or moon and there is no halo around the sun or moon.

High-level clouds are usually frozen cloudswith a fibrous structure and blurred outlines. They often obscure the sun or form a ring around the moon. They indicate moisture and the approach of a storm around 24-36 hours away.

Cirrus cloud thickens and lowers as the storm approaches. Temperatures are usually warm with rising humidity. Cirrus is the most common of the high-level clouds. They usually occur in fair weather and are associated with an approaching warm front.

Cirrostratus are sheet-like, relatively transparent, high-level clouds. The sun or moon can be seen through them. They tend to thicken as a warm front approaches.

Clouds with vertical development can grow to great heights with tremendous energy. The two types of vertical development clouds are fair weather cumulus and cumulonimbus.

Fair Weather Cumulus looks like floating cotton balls and last for 5 to 40 minutes. Under the right conditions they can develop into towering cumulonimbus clouds associated with powerful thunderstorms. They are fueled by thermals rising from the earth’s surface.

Cumulonimbus are larger and more vertically developed than fair weather cumulus Under the right conditions they can develop into large cumulonimbus associated with powerful thunderstorms known as super cells. These storms tend to develop during the afternoon and early evening when the effects of heating from the sun are the strongest.

Other cloud types include orographic clouds, lenticulars, and contrails.

Orographic clouds develop in response to the forced lifting of air by the earth’s topography, over mountain tops and high passes for example. The air is lifted by the mountain, cools, sinks down and becomes warmer then accelerates back up. As it cools the water vapour condenses into cloud. This is also called lenticular cloud.

Lenticular clouds are cloud caps above pinnacles and peaks. When they are flying saucer shaped they indicate extremely high winds. If they grow and descend they tend to bring bad weather.

Contrails are water vapour trails made by the exhaust of jet engines. If they take longer than two hours to evaporate that indicates impending bad weather.

Serious errors can occur in interpreting the extent of cloud cover. Cloud cover always appears greater on or near the horizon, especially if the sky is covered with cumulus clouds, Cloud cover estimates should be restricted to sky areas more than 40 degrees above the horizon. You can assess cloud cover by diving the full circumference of the sky into eighths and noting the coverage and type in each eighth.

Fronts occur when two air masses of different moisture and temperature contents meet. One indicator of an approaching front is the progression of the clouds. The four types of fronts are warm, cold, occluded, and stationary.

A warm front occurs when warm air moves into and over a slower or stationary cold air mass. Because warm air is less dense it rises up and over the cooler air. The cloud types indicating a warm front are cirrus, cirrostratus, nimbostratus (producing rain), and fog. Cumulonimbus clouds will sometimes be seen during the summer months.

A cold front occurs when a cold air mass overtakes a slower or stationary warm air mass. Cold air forces the warm air up. Clouds types are cirrus, cumulus, and then cumulonimbus.

Occluded fronts. Cold fronts usually move faster than warm fronts and overtake warm fronts lifting the warm air from the surface. The zone of division between the cold air ahead and the cold air behind is called a cold occlusion. If the air behind the front is warmer than the air ahead, it is a warm occlusion. Most land areas experience occlusions more than other types of fronts. Cloud types include cirrus, cirrostratus, altostratus, and nimbostratus. Precipitation ranges from light to heavy.

A stationary front is a zone with no significant air movement. Warm and cold fronts can become stationary. When it begins moving again it becomes a warm or cold front. There is usually a noticeable temperature change and shift in wind direction when crossing from one side of a stationary front to the other. Weather is usually clear to partly cloudy along a stationary front.

Temperature drops 0.6 to 0.9 degree Centigrade for every 100 metres of gain in altitude in motionless air. When air is moving up the mountain with no cloud forming the temperature drops 1 degree Centigrade 100 metres of gain in altitude.

Temperature inversions occur, often in the morning and evening, when the air is warmer higher up than in the valley. Temperature inversion is caused by cool air sinking into the valley and staying there until it is warmed by the sun.

Air cools on the windward side of the mountain as it gains altitude. This happens more slowly if clouds are forming. On the leeward side of the mountain the air is heated and is warmer than on the windward side.

Weather forecasting. Weather reports should always be used in conjunction with the locally observed current weather situation to forecast weather patterns. The weather can vary at different elevations and across different topography.

There are five ways to forecast the weather:

The persistence method. This method assumes the best predictor of the weather is the current weather conditions. That is, the conditions will not change.

  • Trends method. This involves determining the speed and direction of fronts, high and low pressure centres, and clouds and precipitation.
  • Climatology method. This uses average weather statistics over many years.
  • Analog method. This uses historical data to compare to current weather conditions.
  • Numerical method. Computer analysis of data.

Recording weather data. Recording conditions, or just keeping an eye on them, can help forecast the weather to some extent. Pay attention to:

  • Wind direction – the magnetic direction it is blowing from.
  • Wind speed – you can use the pint rule.
  • Visibility – asses the distance to the furthest visible object.
  • Current conditions – precipitation: rain, rain showers, snow, fog, haze, mist, mizzle, thunderstorms, heat.
  • Cloud cover – divide the sky into eights and note cloud cover in each eighth.
  • Ceiling height – estimate the height at which the cloud intersects with the terrain.
  • Temperature – above or below freezing, how hot.
  • Pressure trends – if you have a barometer or if you can learn to feel changes in air pressure.
  • Changes in weather – note changes or trends in observed weather conditions:

Deteriorating Trends:

  • Wind direction shifts; high pressure system wind flows clockwise, low pressure system wind flows counterclockwise.
  • Wind speed increases.
  • Changes in visibility.
  • Increasing cloud coverage.
  • Increase in precipitation.
  • Lowering cloud ceilings.
  • Cooling temperature, which could indicate a cold front.
  • Increase in humidity.
  • Decreasing barometric pressure

Improving Trends:

  • Wind is steady from one direction.
  • Decreasing wind speeds.
  • Increasing visibility.
  • Decreasing or ending precipitation.
  • Decreasing cloud coverage.
  • Increasing height of cloud ceilings.
  • Getting warmer.
  • Humidity decreases.
  • Increasing barometric pressure.
Bread Recipe

Bread Recipe

Recipe for Man Bread

PDF HERE

To make Man Bread you need to be prepared to do a bit of work and have some patience, both familiar to most men. The essential core to Man Bread is using two different levains, both of which are developed separately, and autolysation. There is no kneading, but some mixing and stretching is required preferably with a silicone spatula as this allows you to get under the dough at the bottom of the bowl. I always use glass bowls but a metal bowl will work just as well. For baking I use a Les Creuset pot.

Step one is developing the levains. This is going to take roughly 7-10 days and you will need to keep an eye on things on a daily basis. A levain is also known as a ‘sourdough starter’. It is a culture of wild yeast in a dough. Always use organic flours to avoid being poisoned by additives.

Step two is cultivating a starter dough. This done by simply doubling your levain.

Step three is making the bread dough. This recipe will result in a fairly wet mix and it isn’t suitable for kneading. Indeed, there is no need to knead. The dough can be stretched but it becomes sticky very quickly which limits stretching to around four to five stretches. Of course, you can keep flouring the board but then you are adding more flour to your dough.

It sounds like the process takes a long time but actually it is pretty straightforward and doesn’t take much effort. The main time constraint is in being available to autolyse the starter and the dough. However, if you have a night in then there is plenty of time. I find from taking the levain out of the fridge to baking is around eight hours. The advantage is that if you get the timing right you have time for a few beers once you have made your bread dough.

Making the levains

Step one: making the levains

Gram Flour Levain

Ingredients

  • A bag of organic Gram flour
  • A bag of organic bread flour (white, brown, wholemeal, etc. Doesn’t matter).
  • Water
  • Bowl
  • Tea towel
  • Plastic spatula

To start take a small amount of the gram flour, about ¼ of mug, and mix it with roughly equal quantity of warm water into a smooth paste. Put the paste into the bowl, autolyse/stir vigorously for a minute or so, and cover with the tea towel. Put somewhere warm and not in a draught (I put it on a top shelf).

Over the next 24 hours the levain should start to have some bubbles in it. This is where it is useful to use a glass bowl as you can see the bubbles. Once the bubbles have started to form fold it gently for about a minute with the spatula (autolyse). Then make a fresh mix of ¼ mug of flour and warm water and add to the to levain. Autolyse again. Cover. Leave for another 24 hours. Repeat.

Of course, the difficulty here is that the amount of levain starts to grow because you are continually adding more food (the flour and water mix). The answer to this is to remove about half the levain and throw it away before adding the next lot of fresh mix.

When the levain is 3-4 days old replace the gram flour feed with normal bread flour feed. This should introduce some renewed vigour. Use a normal bread flour feed about once every four feeds but otherwise keep up the gram flour feeding.

Let the levain develop for at least one week in this way to ensure you have a good strong culture.

Once you are happy with the levain – it should start forming bubbles within an hour or so of feeding and roughly double in size every 24 hours (or less), then ‘fall back’ to normal size – you can put it in a jar, cover with cling film with holes punched in it, and keep in the fridge. You will still need to feed at around roughly once a week to once a month depending on how often you use it. As a rule I tend to put in as much feed as levain I use.

Bread Flour Levain

As above except make this levain purely with organic bread flour. Do not use any gram flour. You can mix and match the types of bread flour you use as long as they are organic. This levain tends to be more runny than the gram flour levain.

Once you have grown your levains it is a good idea to name them. My gram flour levain is C1 and my bread flour levain is C2.

Making Man Bread

Step two. Making the starter.

The great thing about the levains is they keep as long as you look after them properly and you can grow as much levain as you want or need.

To make the starter dough take roughly a ¼ of a mug of both C1 and C2 each and mix them together in a glass bowl. Remember to feed C1 and C2 to replace what you have taken.

To the levain mix add the same amount again of bread flour and warm water and fold in/autolyse for around one-to-two minutes (as long as it takes the kettle to boil). Cover with tea towel and put on top shelf. After 20 minutes or so fold/autolyse the starter again for as long as it takes the kettle to boil.

Repeat this another two times about one hour apart. That is folding/autolysing three-four times over the course of rough 2.5-3 hours.

Leave the starter overnight covered with the tea towel, or for as long as it takes to double in size – this can be as short as a couple of hours or as long as overnight. If the levains are treated well and autolysed well they are quite aggressive and will grow quickly. Now you are ready to make the bread.

Step three. Making the bread.

Ingredients

  • Stater dough – around one mug full
  • Warm water
  • Strong Organic Bread Flour
  • Glass bowl
  • Plastic Spatula
  • Anything you want to add to the bread: salt, seeds, honey, pepper, etc.

Ratios:

Starter dough should equal roughly ¼ of the total mix

  • 3 parts warm water in 100s of millilitres (e.g. 300 mil of warm water)
  • 5 equal parts strong organic bread flour in grams by volume or weight (e.g. 500g of flour by volume)

To start making the bread you should have around a mug full of starter. It will look like more than this in the bowl and it should be runny, sticky, and full of bubbles.

Next get your flour and warm water. The ratio is three measures of water to five measures of strong organic bread flour (300mil:500g, water:flour).

Pour the warm water into the glass bowl.

Add the starter dough. It should have lots of air bubbles and float on the water.

Stir the starter into the water with the spatula.

Add the flour.

Stir and fold the flour into the mix. The first autolyse of the bread mix.

Gently fold the mix around, up, and over, stretching it as you do so for around 1-2 minutes.

Cover with a tea towel and put on top shelf.

After 20 – 30 minutes stir and fold again with spatula. The second autolyse.

After around one hour stir and fold again. The third autolyse. This is optional and will depend on how the dough is rising. If the dough has already doubled in size I suggest going on to the final mix and stretch.

Leave to rise until it has doubled in size. If your starter is well made this should happen in a couple of hours but it can take longer depending on temperature, the type of flour used, and so on.

Once the dough has doubled in size flour a bread board or mixing surface generously using the strong organic bread flour. Get your baking tin, rub a thin coat of olive oil all over the inside then coat with a thin layer of flour (proper corn flour is good for this – not the cornflour used as a thickening agent). This will stop the bread sticking to the baking tin/pot. You can just coat with olive oil, or use butter, or dripping, or lard, and so on which will add subtle flavours to the bread. But use sparingly.

Using the spatula gently fold any additions – salt, spices, sun dried tomatoes, sultanas, cranberries, nuts, seeds, etc – into the dough. Scoop the dough onto the floured surface. Make sure you scrape all the dough out of the bowl in one. The dough should be sticky and will look far to runny to knead. That’s good because Man Bread doesn’t need kneading.

Gently roll the dough once to coat it in flour so it doesn’t stick to everything.

Pull the edge of the dough out from the centre and fold it back into the centre. Do this on each ‘side’ so that you have pulled the dough fully from four opposite directions and folded each pull back into the centre. This stretches the dough out and pulls the gluten. You can get imaginative with this stretching. Be careful as the dough absorbs the flour quickly and becomes sticky and unworkable.

Turn the dough over and put it into the baking pot with the ‘seam side’ down (the side you folded the pulls into).

Cover and leave to prove on top shelf for a couple of hours of for as long as it takes to get a decent rise. The dough will have proved when it has grown in size and looks ‘liquidy’ again. It may not have doubled in size but it should have grown substantially. I usually wait until it has grown by at least two thirds again.

Meantime set the oven at 1900C.

When the dough has grown to size put a little water into a baking tray and put in the bottom of the oven. Put the dough, in the baking tin/pot onto the middle shelf.

Bake for around one hour.

For the last five minutes of the bake turn the oven off and crack the door open.

After an hour take the bread out. Using a palette knife ease it away from the edges of the baking tin. It should be loose anyway but this helps release any sticky spots. Turn the loaf out and put on a wire rack to cool.

Glossary

Levain. A levain, or ‘starter dough’, is a mix of flour and water in which naturally occurring yeast has been cultured. A levain will live indefinitely as long as it is fed and not invaded by mold. It can be kept in the fridge in which case it will go dormant, but still needs to be fed around once every two weeks to once a month. A portion of the levain is used to cultivate a ‘starter dough’ which is then used to make the bread. Obviously when you take a portion of levain out you need to replace it with an equal amount of feed (flour and water mix). I have found that a good levain can be used and fed 3-4 times a week even when kept in the fridge.

Autolyse. Autolysing is the process of allowing, in this case, the flour to soak in the liquid so that the flour absorbs the liquid. In simple terms. What you are trying to do, actually, is to get everything working together and to get the yeast activating and mix the flour and liquid well so that it rises into a nice, tasty, bread (or pizza). In this method I autolyse the starter dough and the bread dough with good effect. Autolysing also has subtle effects on the taste of the bread and can bring out flavours.

When autolysing a use a plastic spatula and scrape around the edges of the mixing bowl and fold the dough back in. I make sure I scrape under the dough as well to lift it off the bottom of the bowl. I tend to lift the spatula was well pulling the dough upwards as this stretches the dough and activates the gluten. I autolyse about twice a day when making a levain and about 3-4 times when growing the starter dough. The bread mix I autolyse around 2-3 times but I don’t autolyse once I have stretched it and put it into the baking tin/pot.

I recommend against using machines to autolyse unless you are baking commercially as you are going to batter the hell out of the mixes.

I find that the time it takes for the kettle to boil is about right for an autolyse mixing and the time between autolyse mixings is long enough to relax with a beer.

Tips for QMDs

Tips for QMDs

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

The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here

The tips are all from my own journey and experience. They are not any sort of formal guidance or advice. Anybody wanting to gain an ML certificate should refer to the MT guidance and handbooks and bear in mind that the ML Summer Award is the equivalent of a single ‘A’ Level/VRQ Level 3 and is regulated by OfQual.

I have based these tips on two things: 1) the core principle/s of a QMD; 2) my own experience and understanding. The core principle of a QMD is: a day out in mountain country that is a physical and mental challenge lasting at least five hours or more. I suggest including at least one summit, and preferably more, of at least 610m, covering a distance of at least 16km, having a minimum total height gain of 600m, and covering a variety of terrain (i.e. off paths and/or using minor paths over different terrain). Mitigating factors include the weather, having an inexperienced person/s with you, and/or deliberately staying on lower ground and/or doing a shorter distance for a specific reason. Noting also that on much of the UK’s slightly lower ground it is relatively straightforward to reach heights of around 500m and it doesn’t take much planning to get a total height gain of 600m.

When I attended my ML training at Glenmore Lodge I had close to 30 QMDs logged but had no idea of what made a real QMD. Some of those QMDs were excellent, and some were, quite frankly, embarrassing. After a serious conversation with the assessors during the debrief I began to realise what QMDs were all about and over the next six months I logged up close to 40 QMDs and at the same time downgraded around 20 of my QMDs to Mountain Days. Since qualifying I have continued to develop my understanding and appreciation of what is, and what is not, a QMD and why. I continue to log QMDs, Mountain Days, Hill Days, Low Level Walks, and so on and am working on developing a portfolio of Days Out which will include all of these.

TIPS

  • Do some unplanned, unrecce’d days out. There is nothing like waking up in unfamiliar country, picking up the map, and taking five to ten minutes to say I’m going to do that summit, then that summit, then that summit…repeat…and heading out from your tent not knowing what you are going to face.
  • Do a partly planned day but only use a 1:50 map, or, even better, a Harvey 1:40, and don’t use your compass. (You should have your compass with you for emergencies or if things go pear shaped, but try and avoid using it and work only from the map.)
  • Keep your distance up. Except in exceptional circumstances it is difficult to see why a QMD would be less than 12-15 miles. Of course, there are situations where they might be a lot less than that, but as a general rule plan for 12-15 miles – you can always cut it short if you need to.
  • Make sure there is plenty of rough and/or rocky ground on your route. Even low level QMDs can be challenging if you stay mainly on rough ground, especially if it is in featureless terrain.
  • Plan, in detail, a long day, say 20 miles, taking a mostly unfamiliar route. Seek out small, unused, and ancient paths, features, landmarks, and so on. Plan using maps, mapping software, google earth, and so on. Write a Route Description from the maps and include key features, distances, and compass bearings. Do the same for a short but challenging day out.
  • Make the most of the weather. Find out what it is like to do long, tough, days when it is baking hot, freezing cold, windy, pouring with rain, &c&c. How will you react and respond?
  • Build in some scrambles. There are, for example, some excellent and highly challenging QMDs to be had in the Peak District by building in some of the listed mountain summits and incorporating a recognised scramble along the way.
  • Do a slow, ambling, day and don’t worry about distance or planning, or anything else. Just take your time and enjoy the day and work out the route as you go along. (Best for either a spring or warm autumn day.)
  • Do a long, fast, day where you push the pace all day (but keep safety as your number one priority). This could take place on a known route, for example the Welsh 3000s.
  • Do one of the Big Routes (e.g. one of the Big Three) as a two or three day QMD incorporating wild camping. (Which I haven’t done – yet. But we don’t yet know how our rescued Malamute X will take to the tent.)
  • Take out someone inexperienced and make sure you maintain good safety standards while at the same time incorporating meaningful challenges into the day.
  • Go out with someone more experienced/faster/whatever and try to keep up.
  • Go out with someone you don’t know. (Not advised, but I have done a number of challenging days with individuals I’ve never met before. Bears a remarkable similarity to going on an e-date or meeting someone in a bar.)
  • Spontaneously find an escape from your route while keeping to more than five hours at a realistic pace.
  • Do some night walks (they don’t have to be in the mountains, but even better if they are). This could include long walks that don’t finish until after dark.
  • Do a rope-work day on the rocks. Alternatively, build some rope-work practice into your day.
  • Abandon (cut short) a QMD part way through for a good reason – usually safety. For example, if you head out in questionable weather and it starts pouring with rain find an escape and abandon the walk. Log it as an abandoned QMD and give the reason.
  • Don’t be a drone/slave to any form of ‘list of mountain country’ (unless you are concerned primarily with getting an ML certificate). Think for yourself and utilise common sense combined with discipline, imagination, and reference to the core criteria. Any country that has mountains is mountain country, at least the part that has the mountains. The official UK definition of a mountain is clear – a distinct prominence above 610m – and all UK mountains are listed in the public domain (and on the Summits and Mountain Bothies page, which needs updating). All UK mountain country was listed up to 2017 in the MT handbooks and a full list can be found on the earlier blog post QMDs: ‘The List’ 2013 vs. post-2013.
  • Learn to make use of relevant and available information to plan and design QMDs – that is part of becoming a mountaineer. If you allow your activities to be constrained by hearsay, social media, and assumed well-intentioned advice you will only limit your own potential and capability, and being a mountaineer is about developing and growing your own potential and capability.

Perhaps the most important tip of all is always to think of how you can the most out of the day for your own development. How will the day challenge you? (You may only know this when you reflect on your experience of course.) This is, for me, all part of being both a mountaineer and someone with a love of ‘The Outdoors’.

Planning a QMD

Planning a QMD

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

The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here

Good planning requires gaining some prior knowledge of the area you will be visiting as best you can (following the textbook requirements that is). This can mean reading guide-books, looking up local history, visiting websites, and perusing maps. It’s all very well to go thundering off along a route planned on a map knowing the gradients of each slope and having a complicated set of Naismith’s Rule timings written down and so on, but that tells you nothing about the wider landscape, terrain, and overall location.

To really benefit you need to able stand outside the narrow corridor of your route and locate yourself in the wider context. This will not only improve your QMDs but will also increase your enjoyment of the Mountains. It allows you to develop options both in planning the route and during the actual QMD. Being locked into a set route because you have failed to take account of the wider area can have consequences ranging from boredom and frustration to potentially life threatening.

Bear in mind a QMD is a day in the mountains that challenges you physically and mentally. You will need to be realistic about how much of what sort of ground you can cover in what sort of weather conditions in a period of five hours or more. Over time your ability to plan appropriate routes will improve as will your ability to cover different types of ground.

To start planning a QMD route first decide on the mountain country you want to visit. Try and get away from the hotspots but if you must go to them be inventive and do something different. If, for example, you decide on Snowdonia bear in mind it is divided into four different areas with 10 to 13 different mountain ranges depending on how you separate them out. The most remote area covers the Rhinogydd, Arenig, Migneint, and Rhobell Fawr and for this reason, among others, these areas are arguably the most interesting and allow for a better quality of QMD. Of course, they don’t have the bucket-list romance of the more popular areas.

Once you’ve decided on the country spend some time looking at the maps and identifying features. In particular look for summits and ring contours, flat places, ridges, cliffs, crags, ancient monuments, paths, streams/rivers, lakes/ponds, and gullies. These features are both interesting and useful for navigating. You may even discover a new, forgotten, or unused route.

The next thing to do is find a start point for the walk. If you’re driving, for example, you’re going to have to park somewhere and this is going to limit your start-point options. You’re probably going to want to finish at your car as well and that means planning a circular walk rather than a linear one. Some areas are well served by public transport and this does allow for more point-to-point options but does mean you will be walking with fixed time constraints.

Decide which features you want to visit and make use of them. QMDs usually include at least one summit as they are, as the name suggests, all about the mountains and mountaineering.

Plan a route that takes in the chosen features making use of any public rights of way, footpaths, tracks, trails, waymark and handrailing features, and so on.

Once you have a good idea of the route check for escapes and alternatives. Escapes are safe routes that take you off the mountain if things get difficult and/or you need to cut the day short. Difficulties range from the route being more challenging and taking longer than expected through unexpected adverse weather that makes the route unsafe to injury, and so on.

Be aware that not all routes have escapes and most routes will only have a limited number of escapes. Sometimes the only escape may be to turn back and you should make sure that is an option. If, for example, the route includes a short but challenging scramble along the way it may not be safe to down-scramble if you have to turn back.

Do a second round of route planning and look for alternatives and options. Alternative paths, alternative features you can make use of, alternative routes. If one way proves to be too difficult and challenging, for whatever reason, is there another way?

Once you have a good idea of the route you want to follow and features you want to visit along the way write a simple route description/plan. A good way to do this is to note features, grid references, distances, and compass bearings, and the rise and fall of the land.

As you become more experienced at QMDs you may want to explore different areas without detailed route planning. This is great fun but bear in mind you will be moving more slowly than usual and will need more time to solve any problems you run into. Don’t be over-ambitious. Do try and find out as much as you can about the nature of the country and the terrain before you go exploring.

Summary of key points in planning a QMD route:

  1. Choose an area.
  2. Identify features: summits; ring contours; flat places, ridges, cliffs, crags, ancient monuments, paths, streams/rivers, lakes/ponds, and gullies.
  3. Check for parking spots and/or public transport.
  4. Plan a route.
  5. Note features of interest, relevance, and usefulness.
  6. Check for escapes and alternatives.
  7. Do a second round of route planning and look for alternatives and options.
  8. Write a simple route plan noting features, grid references, distances, and compass bearings, and the rise and fall of the land.
  9. Go over the route and check for errors, alternatives, and options.
  10. Make notes on the alternatives and options.
  11. Finalise your route plan together with notes on alternatives and options.

Detailed Route Planning

  • Always start a QMD with the most difficult part first (unless you are experienced and/or with an experienced group).
  • Try and arrange an easy but interesting finish.
  • Always know the finish and the options available for the finish. You don’t want to be struggling to find a route at the end of a big day.
  • Avoid big climbs and steep descents at the finish when your legs are tired and you are fatigued.
  • Make sure you know where the escapes are.
  • Note key waymarks/waypoints all along the route and close to the route.
  • Have rough idea of how long the whole route will take you and the legs between key waymarks/waypoints.
  • Plan for where and when you can take rests and be protected from the weather.
  • Identify key features you can use to relocate/reorient.

Planning a QMD using a map

Without doubt the superior way to plan a QMD is from paper maps, ideally using a 1:25, a 1:50, and a 1:40 if available. This will give you a good sense of the country and suitable variations of route. It also means you can switch between maps while you are out. Furthermore, the different types and scale of map have different information on them and that will exercise your sense and your thinking.

Planning from paper maps also gives you a good sense of the bigger picture. Knowing where macro features are is invaluable. For example, knowing that there is steep ground to the north but more gentle ground to the south, or a road on the west, or obstructions in the east, and so on allows you to utilise features using your sense when things get tough. Even just knowing that it is safer to head on a bearing of roughly, say, 2700 rather than 2000 can stand you in good stead. Similarly knowing that actually the feature you are looking for is on your RHS, which is to your west, say, even though the feature on your LHS looks like the one you want, is helpful.

Moving between different maps and different scales can be an enlightening experience and is recommended with all route planning. I remember planning a route around Cadair Idris, one of my very early QMDs, using a Harvey 1:25. It shows a path down to Llyn Cau about 100m east of the summit at c. SH 712130. Good luck. Then I came back up the gully on the west of Llyn Cau, which wasn’t shown as a path on the Harvey but is shown as a path on the OS 1:25. If I’d used different maps I wouldn’t have come down the crags. I might have gone up them, but not down.

When I planned a walk from Brecon up the Epynt Way and back to Brecon, a 30 mile walk, I used a bespoke 1:25 and a bespoke 1:50. This was immensely useful as I was able to ‘zoom in’ using the 1:25 and ‘zoom out’ using the 1:50. And I was familiar with the actual map I used on the walk.

Combining map and software for planning

There is a lot to be said for combining a software package such as OSmaps or Viewranger with paper maps for planning. The risk is that you get lazy and rely on the software, which is what I have done at times with unpleasant consequences. However, if you are disciplined and enjoy exploring the simulated environment it can open up new routes and ways of getting out into the more remote country.

When doing some planning for the Welsh 3000s I found a clear descent at the 610m ring contour just below Halfway House down the spur. It was such an obvious route in a high traffic area I knew there must be well used. On OSmaps I shuttled between the OSmap, Aerial view, and 3D and the path was clear enough until it left the spur. I later recced the path and found it straightforward.

In the same way when planning the 30 mile Nuttalls circuit in the Black Mountains there is a clear ancient path on the western slope of Chwarel y Fan that provides a good lead into the ascent across rough ground. This path is visible on the aerial view and it gives a good idea of the state of the path (barely visible). And indeed, as I write this I am shuttling back to OSmaps and have just spotted a better route from Vision Farm to the said ancient path than the one we used.

However, as I discovered on the Nuttalls recces and on the day itself, relying on the software without familiarity with the available [paper] maps at different scales substantially inhibits your ‘sense of location’ on the day. While the software makes a great adjunct and can provide fresh insights nothing comes to close to familiarity with the paper map and a sense of the wider country that develops using paper maps for planning.

Planning a QMD form a GPX file

GPX files of walks, runs, and QMDs abound in the web. OSmaps, Viewranger, and Strava are littered with them. However, these routes should only ever be taken as indicative. They may be a route someone else has followed, which doesn’t necessarily make it a viable route for you. They may be ‘armchair’ routes, planned on the software but not executed as shown on the ground. Either way, for my own part I can’t see the attraction of staring at a small electronic screen while outside that’ll own outside in the mountains. That’s not why I go out.

What GPX files do provide is ideas and options. Loading a GPX file into one of the software packages and checking the route and modifying it to suit your interests and skills and to challenge you in that country is a great way of developing routes for yourself and exploring the country. Most GPX files can also be modified once loaded so you have the chance to play with and develop the route.

I also tend to track my routes and compare them to armchair routes. This gives a good sense of the difference between the map and the territory and develops your map reading skills and sense. I also tend to modify my tracked routes post hoc which is again a great way of ‘learning to see’ options and alternatives both on the map and on the ground.

Critically any and all GPX routes should be viewed with a paper map also to see the difference between what is on the screen and what is on the map. All of this develops the skill of being able to read maps and the ground in a variety of different ways.

Planning a QMD using computer software such as OSmaps or Viewranger alone

Not advised. There is a risk in that you are unable to see the larger landscape and therefore will not have a ‘bigger picture’ and additional orienting features. The way you ‘move around’ to orient on, and with, a map is different to way you move and around and orient with software. The software has functions that are simply not available on a map. Any planned route should be translated to the map and you should be familiar with the route on the map first and foremost.

Planning a QMD using a handheld device

Not advised. There is an additional risk in that you are unable to see the larger landscape and therefore will not have a ‘bigger picture’ and additional orienting features. There is also and element of deskilling as you come to rely on the device to do some of the work for you and by default come to rely on the device rather than your skills.

Route Descriptions/Plans

Sometimes much is made of writing some sort of templated plan for a mountain walk with the estimated time to cover each leg and so on. I’ve not come across anyone using one and, indeed, I would be somewhat concerned if the walk leader suddenly whipped out a piece of paper with complicated esoteric instructions on it and started peering at it. I also question how much use it would be in the rain.

That having been said, training yourself to write usable route descriptions is, again, a skill that will both boost your mountain sense and open up the country to you. My own preference has been to write (relatively) simple route descriptions with key features and compass bearings that I can follow (an example is given below). I have to add that with hindsight there are times when estimated time taken and/or distance between waypoints would have been helpful.

Whether you use them or not RDs and/or Route Plans are an excellent exercise and should be written and followed regularly in order to maintain and develop the associated skills. Writing RDs will assist with planning and increase knowledge and awareness of the country and how to manage yourself in the country.

For my own part I’ve written RDs both before and after walks and found it equally useful to write up an RD after the walk as a way of revising it and developing my skill set. I’ve written details RDs and made jotted down a few features/waypoints and compass directions in a waterproof notebook, which, by the way, is really an essential part of your kit for both planning and safety. I’ve relied on an RD written by others for a 100 mile challenge walk and I’ve relied on a couple of pages of jotted notes on waterproof paper for 15 mile walks in unfamiliar mountains. As I said, learning to write and develop RDs is an essential skill and should be revisited on a regular basis, which is what I need to do.

Keeping a QMD Log Book

Keeping a QMD Log Book

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

The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here

Imagine if, in ten years time, you want to look back on your achievements in the mountains. Perhaps you want to share a route with a friend or family member. Maybe you want to redo a route you thought was iconic at the time and you haven’t had a chance to repeat it yet. Or perhaps you want to consolidate a recent experience. You turn to your log book, flick through it until you find the walk you’re after, and read over the record. What would you like to read? How would you like to re-experience that walk? What did you learn from it?

Imagine if, in ten years time, you want to look back on your achievements in the mountains. But you can’t. Because you don’t keep a log.

And that is the essence of keeping a log. It is a reflective record of your achievements, development, and learning kept by you for your own use. Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like you need to keep a log to ‘prove’ something or other for some award or other. This defeats the whole purpose. Although bear in mind that if you lead groups, especially groups of children and/or young people a log of your day is essential and you need to keep the log in a structured and accurate format. This write up does not address keeping a log book in that way and you are advised to refer to appropriate guidelines for those purposes.

As well as being a record for your own benefit, both now and in the future, keeping a log will help you focus on your own develop and highlight, to yourself, your areas of strength and weakness. The very act of consistently writing up a concise summary of the relevant details of your activity is part of your personal and professional identity as a mountaineer. In the same way that your QMDs define you as, or not as, a mountaineer so your log book defines you as, or not as, a mountaineer.

There is no set way of keeping a log of your activities. Most of us will struggle, initially, with what to log, how to log it, how to write it. What information do I include in my record of a QMD? How long should the record be? What proof is needed? And so on. These questions all indicate that you are keeping the log for the wrong purpose – you are keeping it for someone else. Once you realise the importance of keeping your log as a record for yourself most of these questions will go away, or at least reduce in significance.

It is a good idea to keep log book entries short and to the point. Don’t worry about detail you don’t need. Do include any mistakes, errors, near misses, and so on, and do be reflective. Think about what went well and why, and what went wrong and why. A good log book entry will have simple, concise, to the point records that give the minimum of necessary detail for you to be able to reconstruct the day (activity) and repeat it. You will need to know who you were with, where you went, what the weather was like, what the key highlights and lowlights were for the day, and any ‘lessons learnt’. If you write good, simple, concise records for yourself they will be equally good for anybody else (even if you need to verbally elaborate at some point). The point is that, as I was told at Glenmore Lodge, no one wants to read an essay about your day out. Furthermore, the longer the entry the more likely it is that there is a problem with your QMDs.

Key things to note include the route and its length and duration, who was with you, the weather, the terrain, any specific issues, and so on. For example, I’ll tend to note if a descent is difficult, or if it’s tricky to find a part of the route, the location of a river crossing, that sort of thing. I also note good wild camping spots, water sources, escapes, and possible future routes and alternatives. Ideally we all find our own way of keeping our log entries as they need to make sense of us, first and foremost. I’ve found a reasonably good formula is to include:

  • Who were you with;
  • Where did you go;
  • How long was the route (distance);
  • Where did you start/finish;
  • What mountains did you summit (or high ground, or if on low ground what was significant about the ground);
  • What made it a QMD/Mountain day/hill day…etc
  • What did you learn, if anything.

For my own logs I tend to also include:

  • The weather;
  • Number of summits;
  • Type of ground;
  • My own state (was I tired, did I have to travel a long distance to the mountains, and so on);
  • Length of time out;
  • Time of year;
  • Amount of planning;
  • Remoteness of country;
  • If it is a repeat route or not;
  • Map/s used;
  • Mistakes made;
  • Lessons learnt.

All well as there being no set format for a log there is also no set medium. You can keep a log electronically, as in the DLOG system provided by Mountain Training, or on paper. It really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you keep it.

Your log should be inclusive and it is worth logging everything. Short days, long days, lowland days, hill days, mountain days, scrambles, and QMDs. People often struggle with knowing whether or not a day out should be logged. The answer is always yes, because your log is for you and not for anyone else. So why wouldn’t you log your day out? Whether or not your day out is a QMD is an entirely different matter. Everyday out should be logged though, otherwise how will you know what you have done? How will you reflect and learn and develop?

The important thing is to categorise your days properly and to write them up in a way that you enjoy, can learn from, and will make sense to you in years to come.

Summing up, these are the reasons for keeping a log and maintaining it:

  • It is a record of your experience and your activities
  • It provides an accurate assessment of what you have done and how long you spend doing it. It allows you to track your development and your learning and is an aide to future development and learning.
  • It allows you to reflect over a period of time on where you have been, how you have managed different situations, and helps you to plan where you want to go and set goals. You can identify your strengths and weaknesses, the areas you want to improve on, the good times and the bad times.
  • It helps you learn more about managing different situations and scenarios and keeps track of where you have been, what the conditions were, any peculiarities, places of interest, areas for future exploration, and so on.
  • It is your record of the what, why, how, where, when, and who of your time in the mountains and elsewhere.

Examples

These examples are edited and refined versions from my log book starting with some of the earlier entries and coming forward.

Example 1

Solo’d from the top of Dunloes Gap (South End  below Purple Mountain) via Drishana to Cnoc na dTarbh  Cnoc an Bhraca  Cruach Mhor  ridge to Big Gun  arete to Cnoc na Peiste  across the tops to Carrauntoohil  across ridge to Beenkaragh  KnockBrinnea  descended to metal bridge and finished at Cronins Yard. I hadnt intended to do Knockbrinnea West but the mist came in when I was on Carrauntoohil and lifted as I approached the ridge  and descended when I had crossed the ridge. I lost visibility while on Beenkeragh and worked from a bearing but was nervous of the edge between Stumpa an tSaimh and Large Hags Teeth as the gradient is severe. Consequently I took Knockbrinnea West by default on my approach to Knockbrinnea. I was tired at the start of this walk. When I was crossing the ridge to Beenkeragh I had a moment of indecision. I stopped momentarily noted that I could be caught in an indecision loop if I allowed it to continue. I had assumed it was relatively straightforward from Beenkeragh. It wasnt. I had to descend a boulder field from the summit and ascend a boulder field/scree slope to both Knockbrinnea West and Knockbrinnea. The ridges from Knockbrinnea both lead to the Hags teeth (large and small) and you have to circumvent these. Both the ridge from Cruach Mohr to Big Gun and the arete to Cnoc na Peiste were a little greasy.

Example 2

Disappointing day. Despite having good kit was tired at start and as we ascended Pen Yr Ole Wen. I became increasingly fatigued  cold  and wet. After summiting we followed bearing but when I saw path descending to East with another group on it I headed for the group. We passed them descending rapidly. I knew something was wrong by quite frankly I had had enough and if we descended all I could think of was that it would not be so cold. We scrambled (grade 1) down ridge to Bryn Mawr and took path back to road where car was parked. As we reached car torrential rain came down. I was frustrated and upset that I had made a mistake and been seduced by the path and the other group. But on the other hand I was glad to be off the tops.

Example 3

Tor des Fives (the Five 600s). Two of us. Used Harvey 1:40. Good weather to start. Approx. half the day in thick mist with light intermittent rain. Around one third+ on rough ground. Navigation over rough ground in mist and at night at finish (worked from grid reference to grid reference as couldn’t see a thing with head torches reflecting off light rain and mist). Route was Yes Tor (mist down already), High Willhays, cross Dinger Plain, Okenement Hill,  Ockside Hill, Hangingstone Hill, Whitehorse Hill,  Quintin Man, bearing across boggy moorland to Cut Hill,  Fur Tor, bearing across rough ground towards Kitty Tor (other points on way – saddle  stream crossings  ridge  etc). Crossed river sources at Broad Amicombe Hole  then followed the course of the West Okement river back to camp (big mistake – very rough going; would have been better off on top but thought less mist in valley and more protected but didn’t consider trade off against really slow going). Dark from Black-a-Tor Copse onwards. Cut across past Logan Stones and crossed Vellake and back to camp.

Example 4

We parked by river SH 622 299. Followed foot path to Gloyw Llyn then went over rough ground up onto the ridges and made our way to Llyn Ddu. From here we followed the small path up through the gully then up the steep ground to summit of Rhinog Fawr. We had lunch then went over to east side to eyeball route over to Rhinog Fach and Y Llethr. Decided against it as the country had been hard going getting up to the summit and I estimated we would be out for another six hours if we took in Rhinog Fach and Y Llethr. This was an exploratory walk to get to know the country and we were taking it easy and enjoying the detail of the rough ground. We took South West route off summit and swung west to Foel Ddu. On the rough ground I went into a hole between rocks up to my knee. Powerful reminder of risks/danger. We came off Foel Ddu and hand railed the walls to Carreg Fawr. Slow going but really interesting. From Carreg Fawr we hand railed wall again to farmland and cut corner on track back to footpath and back to car. The most enjoyable QMD to date. Really got into going at a slower pace and just enjoying the technical work and appreciating the country. Great weather. used Harvey Superwalker 1:25. When I looked at the OS 1:25 after the walk the smaller paths we took are marked on that map and I was pleased we hadn’t used it but had found them for ourselves. Saw a lizard, frogspawn,  canada geese, plenty of buzzards, a couple of Ravens, and a goat. Seems to be a lot of evidence of ancient monuments around especially from Foel Ddu back down across Carreg Fawr and lower down.

Example 5

We went from Lllyn Cwm Dilyn and then stayed down and went north across rough ground to Llynnau cwm Silyn then across and up shoulder of gully to obelisk. Then path to Garnedd Goch then down the spur to Cwm Dilyn. Quite a lot of rough ground and very slow on rough ground. Didnt use map. Relied on eye-and-foot to route find. Good exercise for route finding and decision making as we had some difficult ground and difficult decisions although not high risk.

A quick tour of The Big Rounds. A Review of The Big Rounds: Running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds by David Lintern (2019)

A quick tour of The Big Rounds. A Review of The Big Rounds: Running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds by David Lintern (2019)

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

The Big Rounds is a book for grown ups who love being outdoors and taking on physical and mental challenges in remote and mountainous country (acknowledging that the only really remote country is in Scotland and even then it’s not really remote).

This is a well written (even if the editor appears to have a rather effusive enthusiasm for the comma, except in the title of the book), informative, warm, and ‘humorous’ book by someone who knows their stuff and knows the people who know their stuff. The author has taken the time and trouble to share small parts of their own story along with stories and interviews from some truly inspiring people who both developed and have completed these challenges. And it’s not full of machismo-bravado masquerading as ‘heroically being outdoors’ as is often the case on social media. This is a proper good ‘old fashioned’ book that can be re-read and cherished over time. A real book in other words, and real books are never truly ‘old fashioned’.

The Big Rounds covers, as one can expect, the Bob Graham, the Paddy Buckley, and the Charlie Ramsay. The author acknowledges additional challenges in the appendix and offers an apology, and explanation, for failing to include The Wicklow Round and the Denis Rankin Round.

Each of the big three has its own chapter. Each chapter has a map, a detailed description of the route broken down into manageable sections, ‘Practicalities’ – a list of practicalities for the route including resources such as accommodation and where to find water, the history of the round, and an interview with a significant person linked to the round in some way. This might sound dry, but the author has an easy style and good voice and the pages fly by as quickly as the ground underfoot when you are in the zone, and the journey is just as enjoyable.

It doesn’t stop there.

At the back of the book is a set of interviews with some of the people who have contributed not only to the rich history and tradition of the rounds but also to the entire ethos of challenging one’s self in this country. There are interviews with Paddy Buckley, Wendy Dodds, Nicky Spinks and Jim Mann, to name a few.

Delving into the detail of the route description for each section of each round is, without being too extravagant, enlightening. This is route description after my own heart. It reads as though writing it were effortlessly simple and is complete with micro-landmarks, catching features, the feel of the ground, and grid references. Take, for example, one of my favourite paragraphs thus far (doubtless to be superseded soon):

To escape the Aonachs, make your return south, down the slope you just came up, but this time using another smaller path, which stays west of the main ridge. Locate a cairn at approximately NN 189 721, which indicates the start of a path down. In the past, runners (and guidebook writers!) have chosen to use the gullies to the north of this to exit the plateau but this is extremely eroded and growing more precarious on a yearly basis. I doubt the path is much, if at all, slower and it’s definitely more environmentally-friendly. It hugs the north side of a westerly spur leading to the Bealach Coire Giubhsachan. After a little while, a burn emerges from the hillside on your right, which you cross lower down. It’s steep and loose but far preferable to the gullies mentioned above. This path exits the slope directly opposite a stone wall, which is the marker for the climb onto Carn Mor Dearg.’ (pg. 136)

I checked the GR on OS maps and looked on the aerial view and, indeed, the path is clearly visible.

Don’t fall into the trap of assuming this book was written only for runners who want to go out and conquer the Rounds within the stated remit. This is, as said, a book for grown ups who understand what it means to challenge yourself in remote and mountainous country. The author, and the interviewees, make is abundantly clear that these Rounds are available to all such grown ups. The author breaks the routes into sections that can be managed by even the slowest of walkers in a day and highlights suitable camping spots and other like resources along the routes. He takes the time to consider the logistics of each section and the route as a whole and provides sound advice and guidance with regard to this. As much attention is paid to the history, landscape, and culture of each route and country as is to the route itself. It is equally a resource for the hardened fell runner looking to hammer round with a lung-busting effort aiming to break a Round record and the slow backpacker wanting to leisurely enjoy some of the best remote mountain country this island has to offer.

All in all it’s a great read. It’s inspirational and informative. It is a lesson in breaking up a long-distance route into manageable sections and it is a lesson on writing route descriptions for complex and challenging routes. The interviews are human, humbling, and motivational.

The author’s sheer joy and appreciation of what it means to be outside with only yourself and ground and the air around you while facing long, difficult, days shines through. It’s not just about pitching yourself against the elements, or the route, or the mountains. It’s also about being alive. Perhaps that is a little to prosaic, but you’ll forgive me for liking the sort of book I wish I had written.

The one issue is that this is such a good book it will surely result in massive increases in the number of people on the Rounds. For a lot of people the Rounds are something you hear mumbled references to with the same sort of fabled awe accompanying the Welsh 3000s (on which I was trashed by a 12-year old girl and her dad). That is no more the case. Lintern’s book is a master class in accessibility and demystification, which is a good thing. But as with all good things there is an inevitable down-side. Nonetheless, the book is a prompt, a spur, to go out and discover new, similar, challenges in our remote country and, ultimately, to share them with others.

The Big Rounds: Running and walking the Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Charlie Ramsay Rounds is written by David Lintern (2019). It is published by Cicerone, Cumbria.

The Big Rounds is available from all the usual bookshops.

I didn’t get anything for writing this review. I just enjoyed the book.

A brief and simple comparison of Viewranger and OSmaps

A brief and simple comparison of Viewranger and OSmaps

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

Viewranger and OSmaps are roughly equivalent geographical mapping software systems available on computers and mobile devices. Viewranger is a commercial platform and OSmaps is owned and run by a UK government agency. For this comparison only the UK mapping provision is considered.

Both systems can be run on a home computer or a mobile handheld device with, in principle, the same level of functionality across platforms and devices. Both systems make the OSmaps maps of the UK available for more or less the same annual subscription fee. The systems allow the user to view the maps, plot routes, save routes, and to track their actual movement across the ground in real time. Saved routes can be exported out of the systems and imported into the systems. Routes can be edited within the systems. There are the expected lookup and search functions to find locations. Both systems have inbuilt ‘navigational aides’ such as compass bearings and direction of travel indicators.

In terms of differences there are some minor, but important, differences between the two systems that are amplified when in comes to route planning and ‘desktop recce-ing’. There are also some substantial failings in both systems with regard to the same.

Advantages and failings of each system

OSmaps

  • Less stable than Viewranger. Regular problems with saving routes, accessing saved routes, accessing downloaded maps. Takes a long time for these problems to be resolved (days or even weeks or longer).
  • Can download electronic copies of full map purchased. E.g. if I buy a paper OSmap I can download the full electronic version. However, this function has failed for months with downloaded maps unavailable.
  • Can’t upload a set of single points/locations. E.g. I can’t upload five distinct grid references as individual, unlinked, locations to view on a map.
  • Can’t plot a set of individual points (as grid references/locations/etc.). E.g. I can’t plot five distinct grid references as individual, unlinked, locations to view on a map.
  • Can’t plot a route with variations. Only plots from last point to next point.
  • Does give grid reference. You can mark a single point and get the 12 figure grid reference for that point.
  • Can’t search for a grid reference.
  • Does give distance, assumed time, height gained and lost, etc. for a route.
  • Can zoom in more on the map and enlarge the map more than Viewranger. For example, I can zoom in to see the wall marked in the map at the Bealach Coire Giubhsachan. I can’t do this on Viewranger as it won’t zoom in that far.
  • Good arial views including 3D aerial views. Easy to switch between map and arial views.
  • Can’t download a map of the route. I can’t plot a route and download a map of that route. It will show if I have the set of maps loaded into a GPS device if I transfer the GPX file.
  • Can download others’ routes for free if they allow it.
  • Can set own routes as ‘public’ or ‘private’.
  • Can import and export GPX files.
  • Can use on a mobile handheld device such as a smartphone or tablet.
  • Can track route on a mobile handheld device.
  • Can use as a ‘live’ system on a handheld device with GPS enabled including accessing map from the system in real time.
  • Unusable for any viable length of time on a mobile handheld device due to battery usage.

Viewranger

  • Stable system and platform with no related problems. But this comes with a distinctly commercial ‘feel’ and a lot of commercial ‘gimmicks’ that don’t add value but are popular with technophiles.
  • Can’t upload a set of single points/locations. E.g. I can’t upload five distinct grid references as individual, unlinked, locations to view on a map.
  • Can’t plot a set of individual points (as grid references/locations/etc.). E.g. I can’t plot five distinct grid references as individual, unlinked, locations to view on a map.
  • Can’t plot a route with variations. Only plots from last point to next point.
  • Doesn’t give grid reference when dropping a pin in a single location and marker points don’t give grid references.
  • Can search for a grid reference.
  • Does give distance, assumed time, height gained and lost, etc. for a route.
  • Can’t zoom in to same extent as possible on OSmaps.
  • Good arial views but not superior to OSmaps.
  • Can download map of route. I can plot a route and download the map of the area covered by the route. This has its advantages and uses but facilitates deskilling. (Loss of overview and bigger picture locating route in wider country.)
  • Can download others’ routes for free if they allow it.
  • Can set own routes as ‘public’ or ‘private’ or set a credit value on them (credits used for in-system purchases only).
  • Can import and export GPX files.
  • Can use on a mobile handheld device such as a smartphone or tablet.
  • Can track route on a mobile handheld device.
  • Can use as a ‘live’ system on a handheld device with GPS enabled including accessing map from the system in real time.
  • Unusable for any viable length of time on a mobile handheld device due to battery usage.

Summary of advantages and failings

For the serious user I would have to put OSmaps as a superior system at this point time, were it not for the poor operational quality and the amount of time it takes to resolve problems. This is down to the quality of viewing – zooming in to detail, switching between maps and arial views, grid references – especially for desktop planning (when it works). The limited zooming-in on Viewranger means that important details that are visible on a paper map are not replicated on the system. The lack of a grid reference for marked points is also a substantial failing. However, in terms of functionality and ease of use Viewranger is slicker and problem free. These distinctions are critical for any grown up serious about being outside in ‘remote country’. They are pretty much irrelevant for anybody who walks on Public Rights of Way and keeps to the lower ground.

With regard to use on handheld devices, there is no doubt that Viewranger is a slicker application and the option to download a map of a plotted route is a substantial advantage. However, both systems are unusable in real time in open and remote country due to:

  1. Battery usage;
  2. Limited coverage/view of country.

With respect to 2) OSmaps has a substantial advantage, if it works, as you can download copies of purchased maps. However, at the time of writing this provision has failed with no fix in sight.

Expanding further on point 2), it is possible to view the entire system of maps in real time on a handheld device (in both OSmaps and Viewranger) but this exhausts battery life extremely quickly, as does tracking a route.

In either case it is hard to credit that the average grown up outdoors person who challenges themselves in open and remote country would make substantial use of either system on a mobile device. A mobile phone especially is part of one’s emergency equipment and battery usage is always kept to an absolute minimum. In addition to this, attempting to move across open and remote country while staring a small digital screen defeats the object absolutely. Furthermore, reliance on handheld navigational aides leads to substantial deskilling if relied on other than in discrete and exceptional circumstances.

The Mountain Leader (Summer) Assessment: What’s it all about?

The Mountain Leader (Summer) Assessment: What’s it all about?

The Mountain Leader (Summer) Assessment: What’s it all about?

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

The MT Handbook on the ML Training and Assessment can be accessed here

The ML assessment is, in the professional vernacular, an assessment centre process and it follows the same processes and principles as any assessment centre. One of the key things that helps with managing and enjoying the processes is doing the homework (preparation) before you attend the assessment. The other is putting it into perspective and managing your own expectations.

The ML Award is equivalent to a single A/AS level or a single VRQ Level 3, and will be assessed at that level. It is primarily a VRQ and that is why the QMDs are so important, and make up the bulk of the qualification (more than 50%).  It was developed as an Outdoor Education award with the emphasis on leading groups of young people in the mountains of the UK.

In practical terms the ML assessment tends to focus on three main areas: navigation, rope work, and QMDs (which are assessed from your log book). During the five days of assessment the majority of actual ‘testing’ will typically centre around leading navigational legs with a little time spent on rope work. The reason being these are core technical skills that can be reasonably well measured. All other skills are open to a wide degree of interpretation. The so-called ‘Leadership’ element, for example, is difficult to assess especially in the artificial context of an assessment centre.

Navigation at the ML level is pretty straightforward. There are no time or speed pressures and you can keep the map to hand at all times. There is no excuse for not practicing your navigation and some elements – map reading, planning a route, etc. – can be practiced from an armchair. Similarly, there is no excuse for not knowing how to set the map and read from map-to-ground and ground-to-map. If you have a good QMD log you will have learnt these skills anyway. Night navigation is not part of the ML syllabus yet virtually all assessments will include some night navigation as a substitute for navigating in poor weather. It is worth practicing this as at night, and in poor visibility and bad weather, our perspective and sense of time and distance become distorted. The only way to become familiar with this disorientation is to practice under relevant conditions (poor weather, night time, when tired, etc.)

Rope work focusses on safeguarding and is basic and straightforward. There is a lot of confusion around ‘confidence roping’, which is really nothing more than short roping in disguise. Learn the basic knots and how to ‘descend’ safely and stick with that. Don’t over-complicate things. One of the biggest issues people often face with rope-work is finding an anchor. It is worth learning to seek out and recognise and identify anchors in a wide variety of contexts, especially on rocky ground. As regards actual rope-work, the requirement for the ML assessment can be met with probably 2-4 days dilligent practice, a couple of hours with knots, and some time learning to recognising anchors while out on rocky ground.

QMDs are the core of the ML Award and an area where people sometimes make invalid assumptions about what is, and what is not, a QMD. The criteria and the FAQs provided by MT do not always provide the level of clarity one might wish for (Compare, for example, to the Mountaineering Ireland criteria). There are a couple of key considerations worth noting. First, if you are concerned about whether or not your QMDs make the grade then you probably aren’t ready for assessment. Second, if you don’t know how to assess your own QMDs post-training that raises serious questions about your training. Third, you can ask any provider whether or not any particular day would count as a QMD. The ML Award is regulated by OfQual and a consistent standard must be met. It follows then that if any provider tells you any one, or more, of your days meets the QMD requirement then any provider must accept it/them as a QMD/s. Similarly, if any of your days are rejected as QMDs then any provider must reject those days. However, any provider who does this without seeing a copy of your log book is probably making an error of judgement. All any provider can really do is re-iterate the stated MT criteria and what is given in the MT FAQs.

Coming back to simple terms, if you want to develop as a mountaineer, and the ML award is a mountaineering award, then there should not be any difficulty in gaining QMDs that meet the criteria, especially once you have done your training.

Managing expectations

If you are a teacher, or work in Outdoor Education, you will already have managed expectations with regards to the award and will know why you are doing it. Otherwise, it is worth taking some time to think through why you are doing the award and what you expect to get out of it. It is worth bearing in mind that:

  1. The ML Award is not graded in any way either in part or whole. You either achieve the award (pass), or you don’t (fail). The award may be deferred at assessment, which means you get told which areas you failed on and you can then address those areas and be re-assessed on them. Very few people fail the ML award. A small number are deferred on part of the award, typically navigation and/or rope work.
  2. The award will not lead to a glittering and lucrative career guiding groups of like-minded people around the mountains of the UK and elsewhere. The odds of earning a realistic living from the award appear to be more remote than any mountain country in the UK.
  3. Those who excel at assessment are not the best candidates in terms of real-life future performance. The best real-life candidates are those who perform at average level at assessment. In the same way, setting out to ‘impress the assessor’ says more about your own insecurities than it does about your ability, skills, and knowledge.
  4. The assessment is an opportunity to learn, revise, and continue building your skills. If you remain open to learning you will gain a great deal from it with a skilled and experienced provider.
  5. It is normal to be anxious about an assessment. You are assessed keeping with the MT guidelines and requirements and not according to the individual assessor’s own standards and opinions. In other words, it is whether or not you meet the minimum stated requirement as per MT that determines whether or not you will pass.
  6. At the end of the day achieving the award will not turn you into a mountaineer, nor will it necessarily make you a better mountaineer. The hallmark of a good mountaineer is quality time in the mountains that meet and exceed a particular benchmark.
  7. What the award will give you is a chance to learn, develop, and test yourself. It provides a structured framework to develop a small, particular, skill set and for some of us having this structure allows us to extend ourselves and frame our learning and experience.

It is worth taking some time to chose who you will do the assessment with. You may fancy the idea of using the assessment as an opportunity to visit some of the more remote locations of the UK, or you may want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible with as little fuss and bother as possible. You may choose to do it with someone who has a high pass rate, or you may choose to do it with someone you know. You might choose an assessor based on their level of experience, or you might choose them because they have a reputation for making the assessment enjoyable. Maybe you trained with somebody and feel comfortable with them and you would like to continue your journey with them. All of these are good a valid reasons for your choice. But, equally, the basic assessment of your knowledge, skills, and abilities will be consistent across all assessors and will meet the same standard across all assessors. No one assessment is ‘easier’ or ‘harder’ than any other and as such this shouldn’t really figure in your decision.

The other element to consider is that providers and assessors tend to attract particular cohorts. For example, the institutional centres tend to attract a wider range of people and particularly the ‘corporate’ types and their approach reflects this. Smaller provides tend to be more idiosyncratic with a more personalised approach and have a greater diversity of styles. Smaller providers won’t have anything like the resources available to the institutions but they tend to be more approachable.

During the assessment, and especially during the exped, you are likely going to spend your time with a group tromping around one or other of the various ‘ML graveyards’. Your assessor will probably know the area like the back of their hand (and that is how they will know where you are at all times – that and they will be thumbing the map). You are almost certainly going to get bored, fed up, and frustrated at times, and this is all part of learning to manage with and as part of a group. Taking the time to find an assessor who can make the assessment interesting and stretching for you is worth the effort.

Managing the assessment process

Doing your training and assessment with the same provider is a matter of personal choice and does not convey any overall advantage. There is much to be said for doing your training and assessment with different providers as this will stretch you further and give you a broader perspective on the award.

My choice was to do the training with the top rated institutional provider in the UK, Glenmore Lodge, which was also stressful as it was unfamiliar and included a long journey on the nominal and decaying public transport system that is the shame of the UK. It took me way out of my comfort zone but also gave me the chance to experience Scottish mountain country. When it came to assessment I did it closer to home in North Wales with a small provider with impeccable experience and a solid reputation; a provider who sticks the core principles and doesn’t clutter and confuse the process with fancy bells, frills, whistles, and riffles.

When it comes to the assessment, regardless of where, and with who, you choose to do it there are basic principles you can apply to make it less stressful. After all, it is only an assessment and a relatively straightforward one at that.

Principle One: Accommodation and travel

Book your accommodation well in advance and make sure it is suitable and comfortable. The more comfortable you are the more enjoyable the experience will be.

Make sure you allow plenty of time for travel both to and from the assessment. You are likely to want some time to reflect both before and after and this is a good way to use your journey time. Also, arriving late for the assessment, or at the last minute and tired from a long journey, is disrespectful at best and demonstrates poor planning (all other things being equal).

Principle Two: Have all the kit

Either have all your own kit – the preference – or check in advance whether or kit is available for hire. Some of the bigger providers, such as Glenmore and Plas y Brenin, include the option to book out kit from their stores (if they have it). Expecting providers to hand out free kit because you can’t be bothered to get your own is irresponsible. And if you don’t have all the kit you need how can you possibly think you can function as a mountain leader? How did you do your own rope work, for example? Kit doesn’t have to be super-expensive. The necessary basics will do, some of which can be bought second-hand.

Principle Three: Make sure you have all the food you need and more

Make sure you have proper exped food and any other treats and snacks you might want in the evenings during assessment. Being able to tuck into a bag of your favourite crisps/snacks in your room while watching something on your iPad the night before exped can make all the difference to your motivation.

Principle Four: Look after your kit

Keep your bag and your kit sorted, organised, and tidy at all times. You should be able to pick up your pack and put on your shoes/boots and be ready to go in minutes. Keeping your kit and bag sorted and organised and ready packed will ensure you are always ready and take some of the stress out of the process.

Principle Five: Work with the group

During the assessment you are part of a group and part of a team whether you like it or not. Work with the group and be part of it at all times. This is particularly relevant when leading navigation legs or on steep ground and/or doing rope work. The art of navigation is to get from A to B following the most effective and efficient route to the best of your ability and knowledge. The same applies to pacing, steep ground, and so on.

Principle Six: Use the map/s

Study the maps beforehand. Become familiar with the 1:25 and 1:50 maps of the area. You will have plenty of time before the assessment – usually months – to sit down comfortably at home with either a glass of good single malt or a decent glass of wine and spend time getting to know what the country looks like on paper at both scales. When the time comes any navigation should be straightforward. It’s not a particularly demanding level of navigation other than you’ll be doing a lot of it for five days and it can get boring and tedious – unless you thrive on basic technical exercises.

When doing navigational legs during the assessment thumb the map. Given you will be overly familiar with the map, and you will have it in your hot little hand at all times, it should all fall into place very nicely.

Principle Seven: Get plenty of rest and relaxation and reflection

Get as much rest, relaxation, and reflection as you can. This will not only help to keep your stress levels down, it will also put things into perspective. If you have a bad day one day – and everybody has bad days from time to time – a couple of hours of R&R&R in the evening will help you regain your focus.

Some final thoughts

At the end of the day when all is said and done the award does have some intrinsic value in and of itself if approached with the right attitude and managed expectations. If you lack experience in the mountains, and if you are willing to go out and physically and mentally challenge yourself building a worthwhile portfolios of QMDs, it can be a worthwhile adventure and one that can be shared with others. It can also be a journey of discovery during which you find out what being a mountaineer means to you and what being in mountain country means to you. For most of us the assessment is not be the culmination of our mountaineering journey, it is the beginning.

QMDs without summiting: low ground options

QMDs without summiting: low ground options

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:

  1. Plan a challenging day of more than five hours;
  2. Stay off marked paths are much as possible and/or seek out those minor paths that take demanding routes;
  3. 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.);
  4. 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;
  5. Go out in demanding weather;
  6. 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.

QMDs: ‘The List’ 2013 vs. post-2013

QMDs: ‘The List’ 2013 vs. post-2013

The MTE ML Award is registered as a Vocationally Related Qualification (Level 3) with the regulator OfQual (since 2013).  As the Award is regulated any advice or suggestions from a registered provider would, presumably, need to be in keeping with the regulatory requirements and the Award criteria and definitions and syllabus as set out by Mountain Training. Any comment or advice from peers is just that: comment and advice from peers.

Mountain leaders are always discussing what is, and what is not, a Quality Mountain Day, and this used to include opinions and advice from providers. It takes quite some time for most people to really get to grips with what is entailed in a QMD, and to appreciate the subtleties and nuances of a day that challenges and develops you as opposed to one that might ‘make you feel good.’ The criteria for Winter QMDs are clearer in as much as they point out that enjoying the day is not a prerequisite for a QMD. The feeling of being challenged in some way usually is.

When I was first thinking of the doing the MLS I was fortunate enough to have some informed conversations with experienced assessors. One of these conversations was about the history of the MLS and the problems with QMDs.

There is some unwarranted confusion over what is, and what is not, mountainous country and the so called ‘list’ which ‘includes’ but is not limited to what is on the list. That having been said, the list was changed in 2013 despite MT saying there was no plan to change the list.

Part of the reason the Mountainous Country ‘list’ for the UK was curtailed after 2013, I was told, was because so many MLs were only ever doing training, QMDs, and assessment in what we might now call ‘Hill Country’. In addition to this, the ML Award was registered with OfQual around this time with the intention to register further awards including the Lowland and Hillwalking Awards. Clearly there was a need to distinguish between them especially if they were going to be regulated by OfQual as separate and distinct awards.

The definition of mountainous country is ‘…wild country which may contain unavoidable steep and rocky ground where walkers are dependent upon themselves for immediate help.’ The 2013 list readily meets that definition. Also, parts of Dartmoor clearly meet this definition whereas parts of Snowdonia and the Lake District clearly don’t. The most popular parts of the Brecon Beacons are so crowded and well served by heavily eroded trails from nearby car parks that it is difficult to see how they can meet this definition, and the same is true for part of the Lake District, whereas the most remote parts of the Brecon Beacons, which have a fair bit of steep and rocky ground, lack substantial height.

The 2003-2013 ‘list’ of Mountainous Country in the UK and Ireland was as follows (note the list ‘includes’; I have the MT handbooks from 2003 and 2013).

  • Antrim Hills
  • Black Mountains
  • Brecon Beacons
  • Cheviots
  • Dartmoor
  • Galloway Hills
  • Highlands and Islands of Scotland
  • Lake District
  • Mountains of Mourne
  • Mountains of North and Mid Wales
  • North Yorkshire Moors
  • Peak District and Northern Moors
  • Pennines

This list was curtailed sometime between 2013 and 2015. This was, as noted above, presumably linked to registering the award with OfQual. Interestingly, QMDs logged in any of these areas prior to 2013 will potentially have to be accepted as QMDs (given the rules allow for historic QMDs to be logged and accepted).

The 2013 MT FAQ stated (I have a copy of the 2013 FAQs):

‘How come the North York Moors and Dartmoor are on the list of mountainous areas?

Yes, one would expect these kinds of areas to come under Walking Group Leader exclusively. There are two points to make:

  • a Mountain Leader award holder can operate in Walking Group Leader type terrain. The reverse is not true.
  • The Mountain Leader scheme pre-dates the Hill & Moorland Leader (formerly Walking Group Leader) by more than 30 years so the list is historic and has not been changed since the inception of Walking Group Leader. There are no plans to change the list in the near future. Hill & Moorland Leader terrain is described in a different…

The 2019 list’ of Mountainous Country in the UK and Ireland is as follows (note the list ‘includes’):

  • Snowdonia
  • Brecon Beacons
  • Lake District
  • Mountains of Mourne
  • Scottish Highlands
  • Galloway Hills
  • Cork & Kerry Mountains
  • Galway & Mayo Mountains
  • Donegal Mountains
  • Dublin & Wicklow Mountains

The MT FAQs (2019) specifically exclude Dartmoor and the North York Moors from ‘the list’ of Mountainous Country. However, what MT FAQs (2019) goes on to say is:

‘Mountain Training however acknowledge that learning can occur in the most diverse of environments. If you believe that a particular experience in a non-mountainous area contributed towards your development and met the definition of a quality mountain day, it may be recorded as a QMD in your DLOG.

It is the course director’s responsibility to ensure that candidates satisfy the prerequisites. Challenging days on the North York Moors/Dartmoor may therefore contribute to the QMD total. It’s up to the course director’s discretion.’

It seems to me that MT has thrown the baby out with the bathwater with regards to the ‘list’ of Mountainous Country on the one hand, and has allowed for the assumption that course directors have carte blanche to determine QMDs on the other hand. This creates problems rather than solving them, not least in that ‘the list’ fails to recognise areas of well-known Mountainous Country in Wales on the one hand, and carte blanche discretion by directors is not what MT allows for (one assumes), and especially given the ML Award is regulated by OfQual.

To clarify the last point, course director discretion to responsibly ensure that QMDs appropriately meet the definition and criteria is both necessary and important and is not being questioned. It is the invited assumption that course directors have carte blanche to determine what is, and what is not, a QMD that is a problem and could be called into question by the regulator if there is wide variation across providers (Although the Five Hour minimum is clearly stated and is necessary to make up the hours for the QMD part of the award).

It is important to be aware that there are good QMDs on Dartmoor, in the Peak District, in Mid Wales, in North York Moors, and so on. But only a limited number, and that is part of the problem with those areas. But equally the number of QMDs you could realistically achieve in either Snowdonia and the surrounding mountains or the Lake District are limited. Probably the only place you could really achieve an ‘almost unlimited number’ in the UK is Scotland. Ireland has excellent Mountain Country as well with huge scope for maximising QMDs.

For example, there is at least one QMD in Dartmoor, at least two in the Elan Valley, at least one in the Plynlimon range, possibly two or even three, at least one in the Radnor Hills, probably 2-3 in the Peak District, possibly 3-5 in the Black Mountains, and so on. Equally there is probably only 4-5 QMDs on the Snowdonia range, 5-10 on the Glyders, 2-3 on the Rhinogs, etc. (And of course around 3-4 in the Berwyns if you are imaginative enough to seek them out.) In the Cairngorms you probably have 15-20+ (as a ballpark), and so on. Then you add in the weather conditions, whether you are alone or with others, how long you are out for, how many summits you bag, whether or not you include a scramble, and so on and you increase the range and options within any one area. What you really don’t want is more than a certain number of QMDs in a single area and the more limited the area the more limited the possible QMDs. For example, Dartmoor only has two mountains, the Elan valley only has three (inc. Pen y Garn). The Snowdonia range has around 10 or 11 mountains but most of them have big paths running up and down them, and so on.

The overall definition and criteria for a QMD have remained unchanged over time except that some exclusions have recently been stated, namely: ‘…days 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 skills, or days spent repeating familiar routes are very unlikely to meet the requirements of a Quality Mountain Day.’ This exclusion was presumably added due the increasing trend of people advertising organised days assisting a qualified leader and stating they would count as QMDs, people suggesting that repeated routes were suitable, and so on. There was a trend seeming to advocate that days of less than five hours are adequate, when clearly they are not.

At the end of the day you can always make use of the definitive Mountaineering Ireland criterion as a benchmark for a QMD:

‘The majority of time should be spent above 500m, distance should be over16km with over 600m of height gain during the day and cover a variety of terrain.’ Add to that a good understanding of the need to get off marked paths and to cover steep and rocky ground and appreciating what is, and what is not, a QMD becomes a lot clearer.

Comparison of 2013 list and 2019 list of mountainous country

2013 2019
Antrim Hills
Black Mountains
Brecon Beacons Brecon Beacons
Cheviots
Dartmoor
Galloway Hills Galloway Hills
Highlands and Islands of Scotland Scottish Highlands
Lake District Lake District
Mountains of Mourne Mountains of Mourne
Mountains of North and Mid Wales Snowdonia
North Yorkshire Moors
Peak District and Northern Moors
Pennines
Galway & Mayo Mountains
Dublin & Wicklow Mountains
Donegal Mountains
Cork & Kerry Mountains

Comparison of 2013 FAQ and 2019 FAQ. Note that North York Moors and Dartmoor are explicitly excluded in the 2019 FAQ

2013 FAQ 2019 FAQ
‘How come the North York Moors and Dartmoor are on the list of mountainous areas? Yes, one would expect these kinds of areas to come under Walking Group Leader exclusively. There are two points to make: a Mountain Leader award holder can operate in Walking Group Leader type terrain. The reverse is not true. The Mountain Leader scheme pre-dates the Hill & Moorland Leader (formerly Walking Group Leader) by more than 30 years so the list is historic and has not been changed since the inception of Walking Group Leader. There are no plans to change the list in the near future. Hill & Moorland Leader terrain is described in a different…   ‘Mountain Training however acknowledge that learning can occur in the most diverse of environments. If you believe that a particular experience in a non-mountainous area contributed towards your development and met the definition of a quality mountain day, it may be recorded as a QMD in your DLOG. It is the course director’s responsibility to ensure that candidates satisfy the prerequisites. Challenging days on the North York Moors/Dartmoor may therefore contribute to the QMD total. It’s up to the course director’s discretion.’  
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