Mountaineering is the sport of attaining, or attempting to attain, high points in mountainous regions, mainly for the pleasure of the climb. Mountaineering differs from other outdoor sports in that nature alone provides the field of action and just about all of the challenges for the participant. Climbing mountains embodies the thrills produced by testing one’s courage, resourcefulness, cunning, strength, ability, and stamina to the utmost in a situation of inherent risk.
Mountaineering, to a greater degree than other sports, is a group activity, with each member both supporting and supported by the group’s achievement at every stage. For most climbers, the pleasures of mountaineering lie not only in the “conquest” of a peak but also in the physical and spiritual satisfactions brought about through intense personal effort, ever-increasing proficiency, and contact with natural grandeur.
It is more properly restricted to climbing in localities where the terrain and weather conditions present such hazards that, for safety, a certain amount of previous experience will be found necessary.
While it is necessary for the complete mountaineer to be competent in all three phases of the sport: Hiking, Rock Climbing, and Snow & Ice Technique each is quite different. There are wide variations within those categories, and even the most accomplished mountaineers will have varying degrees of competence in each. Good climbers will strike that balance that is consonant with their own physical and mental capabilities and approach.
•Hiking: It is the essential element of all climbing, for in the end mountains are climbed by placing one foot in front of another over and over again. The most-arduous hours in mountaineering are those spent hiking or climbing slowly, steadily, hour after hour, on the trails of a mountain’s approach or lower slopes.
•Rock climbing: Just like hiking, it is a widely practiced sport in its own right. The essentials of rock climbing are often learned on local cliffs, where the teamwork of mountaineering, the use of the rope, and the coordinated prerequisites of control and rhythm are mastered. The rope, the artificial anchor, and carabiner (or snap link, a metal loop or ring that can be snapped into an anchor and through which the rope may be passed) are used primarily as safety factors. An exception occurs in tension climbing, in which the leader is supported by a judiciously placed series of anchors and carabiners through which the rope is passed. He or she is then supported on the rope by fellow climbers while slowly moving upward to place another anchor and repeat the process.
Anchors are used with discretion rather than in abundance. Anchors include the chock, which is a small piece of shaped metal that is attached to rope or wire cable and wedged by hand into a crack in the rock; the piton, which is a metal spike, with an eye or ring in one end, that is hammered into a crack; the bolt, which is a metal rod that is hammered into a hole drilled by the climber and to whose exposed, threaded end a hanger is then attached; and the “friend,” which is a form of chock with a camming device that automatically adjusts to a crack. Anchors are rarely used as handholds or footholds.
For the majority of rock climbers, hands and feet alone are the essential, with the feet doing most of the labour. The layperson’s notion that the climber must be extraordinarily strong in arms and shoulders is true only for such situations as the negotiation of serious overhangs. By and large, hands are used for balance, feet for support. Hands and arms are not used for dragging the climber up the cliff.
Balance is essential, and the body weight is kept as directly over the feet as possible, the climber remaining as upright as the rock will permit. An erect stance enables the climber to use that fifth element of climbing, the eyes. Careful observation as while moving up a cliff will save many vain scrambles for footholds. Three points of contact with the rock are usually kept, either two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand. Jumping for holds is extremely dangerous because it allows no safety factor. Rhythmic climbing may be slow or fast according to the difficulty of the pitch. Rhythm is not easily mastered and, when achieved, becomes the mark of the truly fine climber.
The harder the climb, the more the hands are used for support. They are used differently in different situations. In a chimney, a pipelike, nearly cylindrical vertical shaft, they press on opposite sides in opposition to each other. On slabs, the pressure of the palms of the hand on smooth rock may provide the necessary friction for the hold.
Climbing down steep rock is usually harder than going up, because of the difficulty in seeing holds from above and the normal reluctance of climbers to reach down and work their hands low enough as they descend. The quick way down is via the doubled rope in the technique called rappelling. The rope, one end being firmly held or secured, is wrapped around the climber’s body in such a way that it can be fed out by one hand slowly or quickly as desired to lower the body gradually down the face of the rock.
Rope handling is a fine art that is equally essential on snow, ice, and rock. Sufficient rope for the pitch to be climbed and of sufficient length for rappelling is needed. As a lifeline, the rope receives the greatest care and respect. A good rope handler is a valued person on the climb. The techniques involved are not easily learned and are mastered primarily through experience. Anchors and carabiners must be so placed and the rope strung in such a way as to provide maximum safety and to minimize effort in ascending and descending. That includes keeping the rope away from cracks where it might jam and from places where it might become caught on rock outcrops or vegetation. A rope should not lay over rough or sharp-edged rock, where under tension it may be damaged from friction or cut by falling rock. The use of helmets while climbing, once a somewhat controversial issue (they may be uncomfortable or may limit vision or mobility), has become much more common, especially for technical climbs (e.g., up rock faces).
Constantly changing conditions of snow and ice are important hazards faced by mountaineers. Good mountaineers must have an intimate knowledge of snow conditions.
Some of the Life Lessons learned after Climbing Mountains include:
•Many have gone before. Every time you hike, you find yourself grateful for those who have gone before and have smoothed a trail for you. And be reminded that, in life, we all stand on the hard work of those who have walked before us.
•Many will come after. You are not the last to walk this trail, climb this mountain, or witness these views. While you are thankful for the work of those who have gone
before, you also sense an important obligation to those who will come after to leave the
trail, the mountain, and the earth in better condition than you found it.
•Not all paths have been traveled. Just for fun, you try to build a rock sculpture somewhere during each hike. You look for unusual places where the balancing rocks will remain undisturbed but still noticed by observant hikers in the future. To accomplish that, you always pick a spot just off the beaten path. Each time, you are reminded that there are always new paths to be found in life and new discover to be made.
•Sometimes quiet is the best noise. You will love the stillness and calm of an empty trail. It reminds you how much you love hearing no noise at all.
•You can travel farther and accomplish more than you think. Uphill trails only leave two choices: Reach the top or Turn around. Reaching the top only requires the perseverance to keep putting one foot in front of the other. When life gets tough, you try
to remember all you can do is put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.
•Healthy fuel is important. Hiking spurs intentionality in the food and drink you choose to consume. You eat a healthy breakfast. You bring water, thoughtful snacks, and a light lunch if necessary. You choose healthy fuel so that your body will function properly during the hike. Plus, there’s something that just doesn’t feel right about eating artificial foods while being present in the natural world.
•Pack light. The weight of physical possessions is clearly felt when they are piled on your back. Wise travelers carry only what is needed for the journey. May it be true of you while packing and in living.
•Choose your steps carefully. While hiking, each step is clearly chosen. You focus intently where your next foot is going to land sometimes even calculating 2-3 steps in advance. This intentionality helps you avoid unnecessary harm. And I hope the decisions you make with your life’s direction will be made with the same precision and care.
•Age is only a number. I’ve seen hikers under the age of 7 and I’ve seen hikers over the age of 70. You are learning more and more that age only represents the number of years you have been alive. It does not serve as a litmus test for opportunity. Those who decide
early in life to care for their bodies and not allow age to limit their potential will not be handicapped by it.
•If you can climb a mountain, you can do anything. While not technically true, the chant still goes through your head constantly during a hike. Reaching the top of a mountain (any mountain) is an impressive physical, mental, and emotional accomplishment. And it is motivating. It reminds you that you can accomplish important things with your life if you dream big and put in the work.