Mountain Leader Award – check

ML finally in the bag

I’ve been a bit busy of late, but the sticker for my ML logbook finally came through a few weeks ago – basically means I have completed the award – so this is really a footnote in the whole process.

Bit of an anticlimax and all, but I’m just relieved to have got to the end of the process. Obviously, there is continuing development and refreshing of the skills, but the assessment stage is over.

It’s good to be able to concentrate on other things now, and I have work lined up for Morocco and Scotland in January and February 2012, which will help me work towards the Winter ML award.

Climbing is still very much an objective too, and I’m planning to visit St. Montan tomorrow for my first outdoor sport climbing session in France. Although summer has now broken and the Mistral is bringing in much cooler air, it’s pleasant out in the sun, so it should be  good introduction.

More to follow, hopefully.

Quality Mountain Days Revisited

My post last year on QMDs has attracted the highest number of hits on this site other than the home page.

It’s understandable given the relatively large numbers of people now undertaking the ML award. This perhaps reflects  a number of factors: increasing appeal of outward bound type activities; more education centres offering hillwalking; downturn in the economy leading to UK based holidays etc.

However, I was reminded again recently of the perennial QMD question by a thread on (sister side to The question for the ML candidate, of course, is ‘what is a QMD and how do I get one?’ The debate on UKH surrounded whether days in the Peak District, Dartmoor or other more low-lying areas qualify as QMDs compared with the Highlands, North Wales or the Lake District.

My reflections on the discussion are that unfortunately a lot of the emphasis was on navigation alone, rather than a consideration of all the factors that contribute towards a QMD. Having spent some time on Dartmoor, I wholeheartedly agree that the lower hills do stretch the navigator more with their subtle, rolling features, which in low cloud or bad conditions, are all but obliterated, making orientation that much more difficult.

However, the criteria for QMDs include much more than navigation and map reading, which is precisely why a logbook should contain significantly more days in Scotland and the other ‘proper’ mountain areas. Here one finds steep, rocky ridges, sheerer drops and plenty of exposure. When the leader is required to take into consideration safety on steep ground with its exposure, as well as navigation of a party, the weight of responsibility and challenge increases considerably. In an emergency it is suddenly not so simple to walk on a bearing to the nearest road, to generalise slightly.

I sympathise with candidates who live in the South of the UK, from where travel to Scotland is that much more time-consuming and costly. However, any time in Scotland or ‘the North’ is well spent both as an investment in the awards and for the pure enjoyment of being in great, open mountain areas.

Walking and Scrambling in North Wales

I recently spent five days in Snowdonia, based out of the Ogwen Valley. This was mainly a bid to accumulate the last few required Quality Mountain Days for my ML logbook after being deferred last year. This process has frustratingly taken longer than I hoped, but the added experience has been invaluable.

The Martian landscape from the summit of Glyder Fawr

As part of the trip, I incorporated an outdoor bivvy on the first night, which was partly inspired by Alastair Humphreys’ 24 hour Bivvy Challenge. I wanted to complete three big, long, high-level days, so set off from Gwern Gof Uchaf campsite below Tryfan. My route was basically a high level traverse of the Glyders, saving the fun parts, such as Tryfan and Bristly Ridge, for better conditions. The weather deteriorated throughout the day, so I was keen not to hang around. Glyder Fawr (999m) was the high point and then I followed the ridge northwards to Carnedd y Filiast (821m) before descending to the Nant Ffrancon valley to bivvy out.

Threading through the pinnacles on Bristly Ridge, Glyder Fach (994m)

The bivvy was fairly uneventful apart from being uncomfortable and letting in rain through the zip opening – fairly standard for a bivvy, but I’m glad I didn’t get a full-on soaking, as you often hear of.

The next day was an early start in order to cover more ground. This would be a fairly long traverse of the Carneddau from Bethesda, via the West spur of Carnedd Uchaf to end up back where I started on the Ogwen side. The weather was consistently wet and cloudy all day, and up on the plateau bitingly cold. I was very glad to take my lunch in the emergency shelter on Foel Grach, and was not surprised to learn later that snow had fallen on the Cairngorm plateau given how cold the air stream was. I opted to navigate from obvious cairns and tops, rather than following the paths necessarily, to avoid getting disorientated in the bad weather.

Attempting to topple the Cantilever

The rest of the walk was uneventful apart from a little care needed to descend the bad step on Bwlch Eryl Farchog. This would be an obvious place for a rope if out with a nervous or inexperienced party of hillwalkers. It was then a long trudge down the ridge and back to camp to warm up and get out of the weather.

James, deep in concentration, explaining a navigation technique

Unfortunately, the bad weather continued into the week, so now joined by friends, we opted to use the shelter on the East side of Tryfan to look at navigation, ropework and scrambling. The Heather Terrace again proved to be a useful approach to the Glyders, enabling us to tackle Bristly Ridge, which I led directly over the most interesting buttresses and pinnacles. I also finally managed to summit Tryfan, which had eluded me for years. My previous attempt was on a family holiday when my parents were reduced to their knees on the scrambling sections and we almost became cragfast after attempting to descend an unknown gully on the West face as a short cut to the car. This time I jumped from Adam to Eve to signify the achievement, although difficult to get a self portrait at the same time!

A self portrait perched on Adam & Eve, Tryfan

One of the highlights of the week was an introduction to scrambling ropework from my friend who is attempting his Mountain Instructor Award assessment in September. I then had the great opportunity to led a friend up Nor’ Nor’ Groove on the East face of Tryfan, putting into practice the skills I had just learned. It was wet, slimey and muddy, but an extremely rewarding way to move up the mountain environment, balancing speed and safety. Hunting for anchors, setting up the belay system and route-planning all added to the experience, which was thoroughly absorbing.

Elidir Fawr & Marchlyn Mawr Reservoir

The weather cleared for my finale of the week, a big day out. I aimed to walk from the Ogwen Valley over to Elidir Fawr, then back over Y Garn and Glyder Fawr, with some added spice at the end, descending Y Gribin and the False Gribin. As the day progressed, so the weather improved, and I reclined in the summit shelter of Elidir Fawr (924m) to eat my lunch, and then gradually peeled away layers returning East. It was exhilarating to take the direct line down Y Gribin, the wind whipping from one side and the sobering exposure dropping away on the other.

Perched high on Y Gribin

As you may have noticed, I haven’t reported on my SPA Training, as it was cancelled, but happily has been rescheduled for the beginning of June, so more to come then.

Heroic mountaineer pose

Fan Brycheiniog, Brecon Beacons

It was good to stretch the legs at the weekend for the first time after returning from Scotland. We tackled Fan Brycheiniog (802m) in the western part of the Brecon Beacons – my last time to Pen y Fan on the East killed off excess enthusiasm for that area, which is extremely accessible from Cardiff and Swansea, and so generally very busy.

From the East the route follows the  pleasant ridge of Fan Hir after which great views unfold of Llyn y Fan Fawr, if the weather is clear. We had some mist and hail early on, but later the views were fantastic. At the top, the wind chill was significant, so we did not hang about – rather like in Scotland – and I felt I made a good call to descend to Llyn y Fan Fawr into the lee of the wind, rather than follow the gentle slopes to the South.

We were treated to magnificent views as we headed back, the well vegetated cliffs of Fan Hir on our right, and were able to enjoy the weak sunshine sheltered from the wind.

Soon I plan to hand in my updated ML logbook with the required extra days in light of being deferred last March. Although it has taken almost a year, I have enjoyed doing it at a more relaxed pace and fitting in other activities. When I receive the coveted sticker, I will focus on rock climbing for the next few months, but will happily lead more groups, fit in winter walking days, keep sharp on the navigation with some orienteering and potentially record some  days, as all of these elements contribute to further personal development and the WML, IML and MIA.

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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.

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