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.

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

  1. Pingback: Quality Mountain Days Revisited « When Men and Mountains Meet

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