An Introduction to High Altitude Mountaineering

Contributed by Michael Restivo, Mike off the Map.

Climbers should always stick together in anticipation of
rapidly changing weather.

When I was 11 years old, my mother took me to see the IMAX documentary Everest. It chronicled an expedition up the world’s highest peak in the face of a 1996 disaster that spelled the most dangerous season in the mountain’s history. Despite the tragedy, the climbers of that expedition decided to push on and reach the summit against every adversity possible. As I walked out of that theater, my dreams of being a climber were launched. I was taken in by the courage, the fortitude, and the will to climb that these climbers displayed.

High altitude mountaineering is the pinnacle of the climbing world. Despite popular belief, rock climbers and mountaineers are alike in few ways. One does not have to be an expert on the vertical walls to climb high peaks. Where rock climbers are known for strength, flexibility, and finesse in their movements, mountaineering is a game of endurance and resistance to the elements. Training for an expedition takes on a different set of goals, as more time is dedicated to deeper breathing, lower body strength, and being able to face—and competently work—in potentially brutal weather.

Unlike climbing, where the goal is to pull up a vertical wall, mountaineering involves walking up treacherous, steep slopes. After proper training and conditioning, a beginning climber should start on non-technical hills (hills that don’t require the use of crampons); cleats that are attached to heavy mountaineering boots or an ice axe; an edged pick that provides stability for the climber and helps stop them in the event of a fall down a steep slope. Some of the ideal slopes for learning skills lie in the “fourteeners” of the Rockies (peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet) and the smaller slopes of the Cascades in Washington. Many are small enough that they can be climbed in a day, and in the spring or summer the snowfall is at a minimum. Beginner climbers should ally themselves with an experienced guide or mentor and practice proper technique on the mountain.

Various layers of clothing help with varying temperatures and conditions.

Conditioning

Proper conditioning before attempting a climb is crucial. Not only does it make a stronger climber but it also ensures an enjoyable and less physically demanding ascent. However strength alone doesn’t specifically get climbers to the summit. Mountaineering requires several exercises that maximize the body’s potential. At altitude, the air becomes thinner, the body struggles to provide oxygen to the blood, and climbers should be well acclimatized before going too high. Deep breathing should be utilized at every step of the ascent. Climbers should practice pressure breathing: breathing deeply, inflating the lungs to capacity, and then forcing air out like blowing a candle. When walking up the mountain, climbers should be able to execute a proper rest step. Rest stepping involves having one leg on the muscle and the other resting on the skeletal structure, therefore having one leg in a state of rest and alternating between the two.

Safety 

The hazards of mountaineering are many, but they can we lessened with proper monitoring and self-evaluation. A summit should never be guaranteed, as variables such as weather and fitness may force a climber to turn back before reaching the top. It’s more important to save energy for the down climb rather than the ascent as many climbers risk being exhausted before reaching the peak. Climbers should set a timetable to reach the top and turn around if they fail to meet it. Weather at altitude can be extremely unpredictable and turn dangerous very quickly. Climbers should always have partners and a reliable means of communication. Before a climb, checking in to a ranger station or communicating with other climbers and teams on the mountain ensures that somebody could be located should a complication occur.

Equipment 

Mountaineers should always carry proper equipment and be prepared for any situation. High altitude is extremely cold, and a good climber should know how to layer and adapt their clothing to any situation. In snow, climbers should carry an avalanche transceiver that will locate them should the worst-case scenario occur as well as a helmet, headlamp, and proper water and rations.

Mountaineering can be extremely dangerous without proper training and involves a set of skills that are learned over time and best taught by experienced climbers and guides. A wise option would be to enroll in a mountaineering skills course offered by companies such as RMI that teach fundamental skills and techniques then utilized on bigger climbs. A beginner mountaineer should start on day hikes and small climbs before launching into larger multi-day expeditions. The risks in high altitude climbing are many, but the culmination of teamwork, endurance, and strength will ensure safe passage to some of climbing’s loftiest goals.

Ultimately, mountaineering provides an incredible view from the top.

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