What comes to your mind when you hear the word “mountaineering”? Can you imagine climbers roped together in a single line heading to the top of a large mountain? Are you thinking of an ice ax, or maybe a winter view of the snow-capped peaks?
The vocabulary of mountaineering can be confusing. Climbing a mountain can mean walking a trail to the top of a mountain, or referring to a day hike or a longer hike. The term “alpine climbing” often means climbing over rocks as you head to the top of a peak. “Climbing” can refer to climbing indoors in a commercial climbing hall or outdoors on a rock face with ropes for safety. The word “mountaineering” indicates movements on snow, and possibly on glaciers or ice to reach a summit.
Because It Is There
George Leigh Mallory, a famous British mountaineer, once answered the question of why he would want to climb Mt. Everest with the answer: “Because he is there.”
Throughout the ages, humans have climbed mountains for many reasons. Sometimes they have climbed to safety, as a view from above could alert them of an impending threat. Many people have climbed for adventure; what is above knows what is below. And yes, some people climb because it’s there. Others find deep spiritual significance in the mountains or have had sacred experiences there.
Know Your Fundamentals
Mountaineering comes with risks, just like any adventurous activity. Outward Bound instructors are equipped to safely manage the risks involved. Instructors are certified as Wilderness First Responders, Advanced Wilderness Rescuers or equivalent, and meet all local, state, and federal Outward Bound requirements for their positions. They teach students the fundamentals of safe snow and mountain travel, including how to read the terrain, choose a safe route, and cover snow science and avalanche safety topics.
Let’s compare mountaineering to winter driving. For winter travel, you may want to take extra precautions to make sure your vehicle is in good condition for travel, has the correct tires, the correct amount of antifreeze, and possibly chains. You can keep safety items handy in the event of a blockage: a warm blanket, emergency food, flares, and a phone. You could practice on snow and ice in a vacant parking lot to see how your car reacts to freezing conditions. There are many precautions a driver can take to minimize or eliminate the risk of winter driving. By preparing for what MAY happen, you decrease the risk of something bad happening. In the preparation process, you might imagine scenarios where you don’t want to be on the road and might choose to avoid going out in bad weather to avoid the risk.
In mountaineering, personal preparation and skill development are also important. The weather in the mountains can be temperamental, and there is no guarantee that you will reach the top, so enjoy the experience, the challenge of being in winter conditions, and the teamwork involved. If all the stars align, you might just have the unique opportunity to stand on top, relishing the effort and that top-of-the-world feeling. You won’t linger for long, however. You still have a long journey down.
To prepare for the climb, instructors teach many skills, including the basics of self-care in a cold environment: eating enough calories, drinking fluids, preventing hypothermia, and dressing in diapers. You’ll learn winter camping techniques, including melting snow for water if needed, putting up shelter in a snowy country, and choosing a good campsite. You can even learn to use snowshoes or cross-country skis.
On one of my first mountaineering expeditions, we were carrying heavy backpacks, along with ropes and ice axes, crampons, food for ten days, and all of our camping gear. The snow was soft and our feet sank deep in the snow, making the trips exhausting. Sometimes the snow was so soft we went in the snow up to our hips! Going with experienced climbers helps you learn without so many tough lessons from the school of hard knocks.
Skills You’ll Learn
As you approach your first mountain, you will participate in a “snow school” where each student practices the essential skill of self-arrest. On a moderate mountainside, the ice ax is held so that the pickax digs into the snow and the climber holds the ax as an anchor to stop a slide. The practice of auto-stop gives the climber the confidence that he can regain a stable position if he slips on a steep slope. You will also learn to travel in a rope team and other safety techniques.
Additional skills you might learn include putting crampons on your boots. These specially designed devices have teeth that grip on hard snow or ice, allowing you to walk without slipping.
During a day of mountaineering, you will likely use an ice ax and crampons and also learn rope techniques to ensure a safe climb.
An Outward Bound mountaineering course helps them master the art of living outdoors in winter as the group approaches their mountain goal. The summit may be the ultimate goal, but each individual must learn good self-care, teamwork, and important communication skills along the way.
Members learn to be in tune with the weather and with each other. Is anyone too cold? Do we need to stop and eat more calories? How much daylight is left and should we consider looking for a campsite? Do we have to melt more snow for water before we leave camp? No one will climb the mountain alone. It’s a team effort.
Hard Work Pays Off
The day at the top is fascinating. Preparations were made the day before so that everyone would know what to pack, how much water to carry, and what equipment is needed to begin the ascent.
If the weather doesn’t cooperate, summit day can be elusive. This is the nature of the mountains. With luck, the weather will be good. The group will start their day with what is called an alpine start. In many situations, climbers want to start very early so that they have plenty of daylight to reach the top and return to camp safely. It can also be a huge advantage to travel at dawn when the snow is hard. Snow exposed to the sun for hours can become soft and the boots can dive deep into the snow, making just walking uphill quite difficult.
Mountaineering is hard work and often done in cold weather. To do this, it takes a lot of physical effort and a certain skill exerted. It also takes a little luck. If the stars align and your team is feeling strong, you’ve mastered the skills you need to be safe, and weather permitting, you could be rewarded with an unforgettable 360-degree view of the peaks around you. and memories that last a lifetime.
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