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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.’  
A Potted History of the ML Awards

A Potted History of the ML Awards

This is a potted history of the development of the Mountain Leader (Summer) Award in the UK c. 1963-1975/1980 and an overview of the recent registration of the Award with OfQual (2013). It is focused on the Mountain Leader Summer Award (ML Award) with some reference to the Winter Mountain Leader Award. All I’ve attempted to do is present a brief historical overview of arguably the core development phase of the award/s. Accurate detailed reflections on this history seem hard to find, and single organization perspectives tend to have their own particular bent (As Geoffrey Templeman notes in his review of the history of the BMC).

According to the Mountain Training literature the award is clearly a mountaineering award and Mountain Leaders should class themselves as mountaineers. Mountain Leaders should be familiar with the origins, development and ethics of mountaineering within the UK and Ireland, and how hill walking is an integral part of mountaineering. Quality mountain days should be days that involve physical and mental challenges and should be seen as making a positive contribution to the person’s development as an all-round mountaineer.

The ML Summer (and Winter) award/s originally had the remit of providing a particular aspect of educational development to schoolchildren/young people. Over the years, and especially recently, there has been a push to expand the remit of the awards. The Award is registered with OfQual in the catetory of sport, leisure, and recreation. While the various handbooks and FAQs demonstrate an educational remit conferred on the Mountain Leader Award it has enough breadth and depth that it can be applied across any age group.

Regardless of any educational remit this does not detract from the benefit of completing the award, as I am well aware. Indeed, I, and others, have argued strongly that regardless of the intended remit achieving it can, and should be, be a powerful and worthwhile developmental experience. Whether or not this is the case remains open to question but is, in part, down to the individual.

Pete Macdonald details how the ML Awards were developed by the Outdoor Education centres (UK) in the late 1960s as a direct response to concerns raised about the safety of groups of schoolchildren/young people being taken into the mountains. This coincided with Wolfenden’s 1960 report Sport and the Community, which challenged traditional ideas of what sport should be: “Courage, endurance, self-discipline, determination, self-reliance, are all qualities which the sportsman, in the broadest sense of the term, has at least the opportunity of developing in the pursuit of his sport. They spring as readily from mountaineering as from rowing.”

The perceived value of outdoor education had been growing thanks to initiatives like Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme. There was a push to develop higher standards of competence among the adults who organise adventure activities among children/young people, and to recruit more such organisers.

Concerns about safety were already prevalent, and the Central Council of Physical Recreation (CCPR) had proposed guidelines and certification in the early 1950s due to concern about the growing number of accidents with led school parties. This met with resistance from hillwalkers and climbers who were concerned that this eroded the ethos of mountaineering and eroded their freedoms. This latter concern remains as valid today as it was then. Further concerns regarding MaDonaldisation and commodification of ‘outdoor adventure’ have been explored, for example, by Chris Loynes who coined the phrase ‘Adventure in a Bun’.

In 1963 the Associated Wardens of Mountain Centres (AWMC) and the CCPR agreed a certificated award. This process was, it seems, driven by AWMC and was led by Jack Longland, the then warden of Plas y Brenin.

In 1964 Mountain Leader Training Board (MLTB; now MT) was established (although an alternative date of 1961 has been mooted), and they developed the Mountain Leader Certificate (MLC; now the Mountain Leader Award). In 1965 the Scottish Mountain Leadership Training Board developed the Scottish Winter MLC (now the Winter Mountain Leader Award).

The MLC was intended “…as an essential requirement for teachers, youth leaders, and other adults wishing to take young people to the mountains and to show them how to enjoy their mountain walking with safety.” (p.63, Langmuir, 1969)

By 1970 concerns were being expressed that the large number of people entering mountaineering were leading to a loss of the core ethos of the activity as a means of physical and aesthetic recreation along with a loss of athletic competence. (See also Loynes, sic.)

Concerns about safety were re-emphasised when, on 20th September 1971 six children, an 18 year old student teacher, and one leader were benighted in a blizzard for two nights on the Cairngorms. Five children/young people and the student teacher died. (The Cairngorm Plateau Disaster.)

From 1965 – 1974 there were continued articles of concern about how too much emphasis on safety reduces the value of the outdoor experience and unnecessarily limits the freedoms of true mountaineers. There were also escalating concerns about the growing conflict between mountaineering as a sport vs. mountaineering as an educational activity along with concerns about the risk of litigation if appropriate measures were not in place

In 1974 the British Mountaineering Council’s (BMC) Future Policy Committee published a report (available in the British Library) that was critical of the educational use of mountains and the promotion of mountaineering for educational purposes (as reported by Macdonald, 2018). Around the same time (1974), the Hunt Committee was tasked with reporting on the issues.

The Hunt report (1975) was also critical on some points (as noted by Simon Priest and Michael Gass):

  1. Many who gained the certificate were not professionally engaged in mountaineering and that the training and certification were too limited.
  2. The certificate had an overinflated value as it only met a minimum requirement.
  3. The certificate attracted people who might otherwise have no interest in mountaineering.
  4. Many agencies started to require the certificate and that precluded many people who had greater competence than required by the certificate.
  5. Local Education Authorities and others took the certificate as an inappropriate guarantee of the leader’s ability.

The Hunt Report recommended that training continued but should be more responsive and flexible to individual needs, that ‘certificates’ should be eliminated and the name of the award changed to something less ‘powerful’, and the scheme should be renamed.

The mid-1970s saw increased concern around the conflict between risk and the avoidance of risk for educational purposes. In 1978 there was an arbitration session between the BMC and the MLTB at the Inns of Court. The tribunal, apparently, gave the BMC responsibility for training. The MLTB retained its autonomy on the basis that the MLTB had an educational remit rather than a mountaineering remit and was concerned with social and personal development. Within this remit ‘mountaineering’ was an educational activity. Around the same time the MLCs became the ML Awards.

The Mountain Leader Awards, especially the Summer award, appear to have been through a long period of gradual consolidation between c. 1980 and c. 2013. During this time there was a reduction in the list of what was considered mountainous country (the list was changed in 2013 and the award was registered with OfQual) and a seeming effort to clarify what is, and what is not, a Quality Mountain Day (QMD). However, the actual description and criteria for a QMD remain somewhat vague when compared to other awards and to Mountaineering Ireland’s description and criteria. Viewing the historic forums where the Mountain Leader Award (Summer) was being discussed highlights a level of controversy about how people interpreted and understood and achieved QMDs.

The Mountain Leader Award (Summer) is regulated by OfQual (since 2013). (As yet – 2019 – the Winter Mountain Leader Award is not registered with OfQual.) The Award is registered as a Vocationally Related Qualification Level 3, which is equivalent to an AS Level, an A Level, a Level 3 NVQ, and so on. This can be matched across to the European Level awards. The award is not, as far as I can tell, a certificate in leadership.

Quality Mountain Days, which must be a minimum of five hours, make up more than 50% of the required hours for the Award (200 /360) and 40 hours are given over to Logging of walks/Completion of technical diary, which presumably demonstrates some of the core administrative skills that make up a good part of the role. These administrative skills include, for example: 1) relevant planning considerations such as parental consent, authority clearance, personal and medical information, finances, insurance and transport; 2) completing detailed preparations such as planning routes, checking access, obtaining weather forecasts and briefing  the group; and 3) ensuring the group is appropriately prepared for the activity and complying with current legislation relating to the activities.

A good understanding of the different elements of risk are arguably lacking in the syllabus. These elements are concisely articulated by Chris Loynes and Peter Higgins in Safety and Risk in Outdoor Education and in a wider context in Petzl Foundation reports Accidentology of Mountain Sports and Incidents and Near Misses in Mountain Sports (although the latter two are concerned with Alpine Mountaineering sports). That having been said, responsibilities towards group members and individuals are fully articulated in the relevant handbooks and additional responsibility is devolved to the ultimate provider of the service/provision in question.

Since 1964, more than 140,000 individuals have registered with the ML scheme. It is sometimes seen simply as a process of gathering professional qualifications, and ‘certification’ (paper-based as opposed to having legal status as a certificate) and ‘awards’ have permeated every corner of mountaineering and outdoor activity. However, there is also an argument that self-reliance and self-discovery are still strong in the outdoors in Britain with regard to education, despite the loss of state-funded outdoor centres, because of the quality and depth of outdoor instruction – and the fact outdoor instruction is about much more than simply earning a living. Furthermore, to date the UK has led the way with regard to the development of ‘Outdoor Leadership Qualifications’ and this seems set to continue.

The Hunt Report on Mountain Training, July 1975, listed five important ‘tenets’ regarding mountaineering. These arguably continue to hold today and a summary is given here:

  1. The pursuit of mountaineering should imply a certain feeling for the mountain scene, as well as a sensitivity in regard to other people who wish to enjoy the mountains.
  2. Mountaineering in all its aspects should be pursued as a matter of personal choice for its own sake, whether from a sense of adventure, or from a desire to acquire knowledge or fresh experience. The essence of motivation to engage in activities in the mountains is that the decision should be that of the individual, acting spontaneously rather than under impulsion.
  3. A basic element in mountaineering is the presence of serious risk in varying degrees. Without this element it would lose something as vital as is competition in organised games. The attraction for some people lies in discovering where the risks lie and in developing skills and gaining the experience to measure up to them.
  4. Those who go to the mountains of their own free will must be free to court these risks. Those who are being introduced to mountaineering must be safeguarded against accidents arising from exposure to risks which are beyond their experience and skill to cope with. At the same time, they should not be taught attitudes or practices which, by over-playing safety, may stultify enjoyment and restrict their ability to progress in climbing with all its attendant challenges and opportunities. By becoming prevalent, such attitudes and practices deprive mountaineering of its unique characteristics and charm.
  5. Mountaineering is a pastime which most people like to enjoy with a few friends, or occasionally alone. Some are more gregarious; but whether they go alone or in smaller or larger groups, all would wish to preserve a sense of remoteness and an element of wilderness in the mountains.

Sources

A brief history of the BMC. Posted by BMC on 01/05/2017

Chris Loynes and Peter Higgins in Safety and Risk in Outdoor Education (No date)

Geoffrey Templeman reviewing The First Fifty Years of the British Mountaineering Council A Political History in The Alpine Journal, 1998.

Langmuir, E. (1969). Mountain leadership. Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K Scottish Sports Council

Loynes, C. (1998) Adventure in a Bun. Journal of Experiential Education; 21:1; p 35-39

Mountain Training: 50 years of showing the way. Posted by Ed Douglas on 07/01/2014

Simon Priest and Michael A. Gass. Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming

The Bradford Papers Annual, Volume II, 1987. Indiana Univ., Bloomington. Dept. of Recreation and Park Administration.

The Hunt Report on Mountain Training, July 1975 (available at the British Library)

The Petzl Foundation report Accidentology of Mountain Sports and Incidents and Near Misses in Mountain Sports are available from the Petzl Foundation.

The Story of Whitehall Centre: Outdoor Education across the decades. Pete Macdonald. 2018

Quality Mountain Days

Quality Mountain Days

PDF of post Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that is the value of QMDs.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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