The Sublime and the Mundane

Recently I wrote about finding satisfaction in the sublime and the mundane, mentioning Alistair Humphreys, the adventurer-author-motivational speaker.

I failed to cite him properly, which had been playing on my mind, so have included an excerpt from his post, ‘My Manifesto for the Year. A year of Micro Adventure‘. If you have not already discovered him, I thoroughly recommend following his blog, as a start, for inspiration for your own adventures and a fresh take on everyday life.

London’s monstrous ring road may seem an unlikely destination for adventure. The M25, “the world’s largest car park” or “the road to hell”, has achieved iconic status as representing all that is dull, depressing and hopeless about modern life. Whether its victims are stuck in a crawling traffic jam, driving numbly through the darkness or enduring tasteless, overpriced food in the anonymous sterility of a service station, few of the one million people who drive on the M25 every day see it as a source of excitement, adventure and invigoration. And yet…

Check out Alistair’s blog for the full post.

Alistair Humphreys. 2010. My Manifesto for the Year. A year of Micro Adventure. [Online] (Updated 3 January 2010)

What is a ‘Quality Mountain Day’ and where can I get one?

A number of people have come to me, asking about Quality Mountain Days (QMDs), because of my content on the Mountain Leader award and posts on Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons. This is a big question for the Mountain Leader and responsible for many pages of discussions on forums such as UKClimbing and OutdoorsMagic, some of which get hilariously heated.

From my perspective, working towards the award boils down to two key, but not exclusive, areas: party management and navigation. As I said, there are other elements, but these two are to me the essence of the award: maintaining the safety and satisfaction of those in your care. I want to concentrate on navigation here, as getting on and around the mountains is the first hurdle, after which people management and the finer skills of ropework, river crossing, access etc. can be developed naturally.

A lot of people want to know examples of QMDs: where one goes, for how long and incorporating how much altitude. These elements are subsidiary, as the title gives it away: it is all about quality.

If one is not blessed with immediate access to North Wales, Cumbria or Scotland, there might be some superficial problems with identifying a potential QMD in the lower regions of Dartmoor and the Brecon Beacons, for example. These areas tend to be a little less rugged and high than their northerly counterparts, but their diminuitive height does not mean diminuitive quality.

My advice would be to take a broad perspective of the lower areas, planning start and end points first, and then looking in more detail at incorporating complex moutain terrain into that larger plan. By ‘complex’ I mean areas in which one finds plenty of ring contours, re-entrants, tarns or pools, crags and outcrops and interesting contour features all mixed together in a relatively small area. These are all readily available outside the highest areas of Snowdon and the Scafells, which actually make navigation practice on a small scale more difficult.

One might question why it is relavent to focus on the small scale; this is because by noticing the highest peaks, such as Helvellyn or Glyder Fach, one has already subconsciously begun the process of navigation on a large scale. The logical, and important, step is to translate this to the small scale where identification of small outcrops and meanderings of contours is important for negotiating terrain, which could be in bad weather or at night. Navigating between crags and being confident of hitting catch features come to the fore in this context when the larger features and sense of scale are absent.

I think good navigation is a lot about trust and concentration. One needs to trust the bearings that one takes, especially at night when there is no way of knowing their final destination in physical terms; it may be obvious on the map, but will it translate into physical reality? It is very easy to distrust a compass bearing, but also just as easy to stray off course with the direction of the wind or downslope – the path of least resistance is a seductive one. As for concentration, it is all too easy to forget to look around oneself, which is partly a symptom of following paths, but also of being in groups of ML candidates. In reality it is easily done when out with a group and engrossed in conversation. Concentration is not just a mental discipline too; it involves an evolution of natural instinct, which is a skill built over time that allows one to naturally and fluidly relate map to ground. Let me know if you know a short cut to this one!

If you have read this far, you are probably wondering whether I will share any specimen QMDs. Well, as I am a nice chap, I think I will. Dartmoor is the more difficult, as there simply is not much traditional complex mountain terrain. However, I found it invaluable for honing my sense of space and awareness of slope aspect. Any time spent on Dartmoor is excellent, as it quickly teaches you a general sense of awareness. I would suggest finding a route from the official Ten Tors event and making an overnight trip of it. In terms of the Brecons, I would recommend the area around Carreg Goch on Y Mynydd Du. On a 1:50k map you will immediately notice the concentrated black symbols, which is a good sign. Do not be scared of the ubiquitous ‘shake hole’ too – it is merely surface evidence of subterranean subsidence and can also be used for navigation purposes. Lastly, the area around Stony Tarn above Eskdale in the Lake District is as good a place as any for a QMD incorporating challenging small scale navigation.

Basically, there is no sneaky way to find out what a QMD is. You need to plan the route and execute it. If you experience bad weather along the way, that is all part of the fun, and will contribute to the quality of the day in many ways. Once you start taking groups out, party management will be a bigger factor; you will know when you are being stretched in this department, for example, dealing with demanding people in difficult situations.

carolclimb ML Training and Assessments

Carol Emmons & Richard Sagar

In my exuberance at writing up the ML Assessment, I forgot to say thank you to Carol Emmons and her team for last week.

I felt it only right to endorse Carol, as she was responsible not only for the practicalities of the course, but also a huge amount of professional development that I have gained from interacting with her and her associates, Richard Sagar and Matt Heffer.

I have had a few enquiries regarding Carol and the ML courses she runs, and would thoroughly recommend her. The beauty of the setup is that you receive input from two or three instructors throughout the courses, each one bringing their own speciality. For example, Carol is excellent on encouraging you to think about people skills and party management, whereas Richard has a rich history of mountain marathons and orienteering, so will drill you in contour interpretation and finer map skills.

If you would like to get in touch with carolclimb, feel free to follow the links below:




Assessment Aftermath

Putting skills into practice with a group a year on from Assessment

Sitting in the office for the past couple of days, I have gone from one extreme to another. The hardest thing about coming back from mountain ventures is the way that life goes on as if nothing has happened. People seem oblivious to where you have been and what you have been doing, which is understandable. The struggle to stay safe and sound on mountains set against the unconscious, onwards march of those left behind is truly incongruous. I am not saying this is wrong – when you do not know, you do not care, or have no need to – but just peculiar. I almost feel as if I should be lauded on returning, but ultimately I go to difficult places not for anyone else, but for the satisfaction of overcoming personal challenges.

Anyway, on assessment last week there were many extremes: a high attrition rate of personnel meant that out of 12 people, three dropped out – one a day for the first three days! Of the remainder, there were six passes and three deferrals (two for night navigation, one for insufficient logbook experience (myself)). There was a day of lovely sunshine, but also a night of windswept snow and sleet. As we strolled to the end of the assessment past St. Olaf’s Chapel, it struck me that it was fitting that we had been based in Wasdale: the valley with deepest lake, smallest church, biggest liar and highest mountain. Indeed, we climbed Scafell Pike on the penultimate day of the expedition, but unfortunately took a torturous, scree-filled path up from Cam Spout.

The cross-section of people was much different to the training, being on the older side, which meant a commensurately greater amount of experience. This was hardly surprising, given the advised 60 Quality Mountain Days for assessment, but it was also quite amusing. The eclectic nature of the group meant there was a split between those of around-, or post-, university age and then a large majority of near retirement age. Some had apparently left the assessment a little late in life for the sake of experience and sadly did struggle. One of the highlights, though, was listening to the accumulated knowledge of David in our group, who had acted as technical advisor on the recent BBC Wainwright Walks, presented by Julia Bradbury.

In the same way as the last course, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring new areas of the fells, which routinely get overlooked for the more popular, higher hills. The areas of Birker and Ulpha Fells and Eskdale Fell, though, are bursting with interest and well worth visiting for the hidden cols, ridges and knolls in their midst. They are, of course, perfect places to practise navigation, and if you really want to test yourself or practise for assessment, you would be well advised avoiding the tourist routes. Birker and Ulpha, for example, contain complex mountain terrain, for which trudges up Helvellyn and Scafell Pike are no match! Upper Eskdale is also an incredibly broody place in low cloud, and the black crags, imaginatively named Sampson’s Stones and enigmatic Great Moss made our short foray there very atmospheric.

As mentioned, I came away with a deferred pass on condition that I accumulate ten more quality mountain days. At least five of these need to be in Scotland, which is honestly a joy to my heart! I have wanted to climb Munros for many years now, planning unfulfilled expeditions to the Arrochar Alps at university, and this is the perfect excuse to realise those plans. Alternatively, I might steal a week on Skye in the summer, but this is to be confirmed – route choice would be the primary difficulty given the amount of bare rock in the Cuillins…

As a side note, my Softie Osprey 12 sleeping bag unfortunately proved itself rather inadequate on the assessment expedition after many years faithful service and I am also on the market for a solo mountain tent. The Scarp 1 has firmly caught my eye, but we will see how it goes in both departments.

There should be more to come at the end of April when Jon and I next hoping to get out and about.

Mountain Leader? Almost…

I just finished my Assessment this afternoon. I am going to post in full later, but the result was that I have been deferred, having insufficient logbook experience. In practice, this basically means that I passed, and just need to complete ten more Quality Mountain Days, with at least five in Scotland, before I can receive the pass. Overall, I am very happy – it was a great week, I showed off my skills and met some very interesting people.

Don’t forget your old shipmates

This is a digression from mountaineering, but a worthy one. Once again I have been lambasted by my wife, this time for liking ‘dad music’. It all came about when I mentioned Fisherman’s Friends – she thought I was talking about those disgusting sweets that come in white grease-proof paper from the sweetshop…

Fisherman’s Friends are in fact a group of men who sing sea shanties in Cornish pubs. When I discovered that they are to release a new CD of these songs something swelled inside me. Do I take myself too seriously or have I suddenly become a ‘dad’ – completely and utterly behind the times? Who knows, but I am not yet a beached Cornish whale, like my pregnant wife!

To return to serious matters, am I alone or does the prospect of burly fishermen with big moustaches singing about the high seas not rouse something primeaval in the heart of every man? It awakens the Celt in me, the Anglo-Saxon raider in his longboat, the Captain Hornblower or Captin Aubery of Master and Commander. Every man was once a young boy who wanted an adventure and a bit of danger for extra added spice.

Where’s that little boy now? Where’s the part of you that would long to go to the far side of the world and back with his muckers? My wife is now making pirate impressions at me. My eyes roll back in my head.

Keep dreaming of the sea…

Haston and Kant

I’ve been reading Dougal Haston’s biography recently – ‘Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk’ – and I feel that I ought to have known more about him, having picked up scattered mentions and noting a winter route in the Cairngorms with his name. He is a key figure from the British mountaineering past that had somehow avoided my gaze.

His mountaineering achievements are inevitably very impressive, but somewhat predictable – among other things, he climbed the Eiger Direct, South Face of Annapurna and the South West Face of Everest. However, it is his character, personality and inner-self that are perhaps more enthralling. His involvement with a fatal drink-drive road accident in Glencoe and his almost self-destructive climbing ethos paint a thoroughly intriguing picture.

Haston’s identification with the writings of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant resonated with something in me that has been grappling with the motivations behind ventures into high and dangerous places. Haston was evidently on some sort of personal quest, perhaps self discovery, trying to answer why it was that he needed to push himself to increasingly extreme lengths for satisfaction and contentment. Ultimately, he never entirely answered this fundamental question.

In Kant, Haston found some enlightenment as to why he climbed. Kant wrote that, ‘individual actions should be regarded as self-contained necessities within themselves, without reference to any other purpose’, and Haston himself reflected, ‘[Climbing] tests are not stepping-stones to one big test. They exist as separate wholes, the tackling of which is one complete function with my terms of existence’. Practically, that meant, in the words of his biographer, ‘that the only happiness he could find lay in severe tests in a mountain environment. And even that would be temporary; after one test, he would have to find another, and another. To achieve this would take a degree of selfishness and self-absorption and, like his favourite philosopher Kant, he sought the freedom to live as freely as possible within laws of his own making, and nothing would deflect him from the path he had chosen’.

To me this seems sad. Although there is something inherently compelling about mountaineering that draws one to the next peak or climb, to say that climbing for the purpose of enjoyment is too simplistic, as was fashionable in the 1960s and ’70s, is perverse to me. There is something very satisfying in doing an activity for the very sake of its inherent pleasure. Indeed, Eric Liddell, the Scottish runner, who won gold at the Paris Olympics in 1924, spoke of the pleasure he felt in running fast. Ultimately, winning or losing did not matter to him, but engaging himself in the one thing that in so doing would satisfy his soul. In contrast, Haston gained satisfaction from pushing extreme boundaries which would only ever recede and becoming ever absorbed in a self-centred spiral.

In the same way that the natural human condition strives for perfection, it is a mountaineer’s condition to want to quench the wanderlust inside that yearns for the thrill of another exhilarating mountain experience. I know this feeling. Part of it is selfish. The climbing world is a small one, and a rock face an even smaller one – every climber secretly wants to climb the hardest and make the most daring ascents over and above those of the next climber. Partly, also, it is for the fleeting feeling of freedom one feels, no longer shackled to a desk and a computer, but caught up in grand places that put you in your place.

Ultimately, the secret is to find satisfaction in all things from the sublime to the mundane. Alistair Humfreys, the explorer and adventurer, takes this view, one week on a foreign adventure, the next circumnavigating the M25 on foot, seeking to find challenge and fulfilment in every aspect of life. Admittedly, one would struggle to eek out the adventure in placing the stationery order at work on a Monday morning, but how about that feeling of joy on the bike ride to morning, exulting in the fresh morning air with the sun rising like a blazing fireball?

Connor, J., 2002. Dougal Haston: The Philosophy of Risk. Edinburgh: Canongate

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