In 1923, famed mountaineer George Mallory was touring the U.S. to raise money for an upcoming expedition to Mt. Everest. As most accounts state, when asked by a reporter why he would dare to climb the tallest mountain in the world he replied with a very simple answer, “because it’s there.”
While this answer sufficed then, more elaboration is needed today to reach a better understanding of why growing numbers of people are pursuing adventure at higher altitudes. Everyone has a different motivation to explore the mountains — escapism, physical challenge, accomplishment, a feeling of Zen. Mountaineering can provide great rewards but can also exact heavy tolls if caution is thrown to the wind. Prior to venturing out among the clouds, the aspiring mountaineer must understand the risks associated with the pastime and ready himself to mitigate the risks through training and preparation.
ASSUMPTION OF RISK
Most trailheads leading to high angle destinations clearly post “proceed at your own risk” and “dangerous conditions.” Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous. Weather patterns are predictable in their unpredictability. One moment can be filled with blue skies and the next can be overwhelmed by storm clouds and high winds. Gear can be carried to address these environmental concerns but no one wants to use this foul weather gear if they can avoid it.
“THE CASES OF EXPOSURE WHEN FALLING INTO A SMALL CREEK OR LOSING BEARINGS IN A WHITEOUT ARE VIVID REMINDERS OF HOW EASILY NATURE CAN TAKE OVER IN THE PERSONAL NARRATIVE.”
The human error element of danger is less predictable if the aspiring mountaineer is unaware of the risks he or she takes. As the number of members in a climbing party increases, the number of potential bad decision makers also increases. I’ve witnessed novices winter hiking in jeans and other inexperienced hikers making “speed ascents” with just a hydration bladder. There are no victims in mountaineering, only volunteers. The first step in preparing for emergencies is understanding them. Read accident reports, consult geographically-specific guides and speak to Rangers whenever possible. There is no such thing as carrying too much information in your head.
Only a fool would venture out into the mountains unprepared. The potential for inclement weather and known hazards should be reason enough to pack appropriate clothing and safety gear. Depending on where you are traveling, this will include the base layer meant for wicking, the mid layer for insulation and the shell layer for protection from the elements. These various layers should be lightweight as ounces feel like pounds when the body becomes deprived of oxygen at elevation.
Accessories like gloves, gaiters, hats and eyewear are also a must for safe travel. Good mountaineering boots should be worn that have a stable sole for travel over rocky trails. Traditionally, Norwegian welt boots offered the best stability in a platform but modern construction allows glued soles to offer the same. Good boots prevent injuries as a sprained ankle can lead to an emergency.
A minor inconvenience at lower elevations could be life-threatening in the mountains. Therefore, in addition to clothing, a suitable emergency kit should be carried at all times regardless of the duration of the trip. Items contained in this kit include a compact and lightweight knife, water bladders or bottles, a fire starter, headlamp, stove, bivy sack, and a first aid kit with a good blister kit. Depending on the technical difficulty of the climb ahead, one may end up carrying a harness, crampons, ice axe, helmet, rope and other hardware. Studying maps ahead of time and gathering local information is part of the preparation as is carrying the map for your area too. In normal conditions, you may know the best direction to travel for water, for shelter and for safe return via alternate route or loop. You may forget under stress or if you’re exhausted or deprived of oxygen, which is why having a map supplement is vital to safety.
PHYSICAL FITNESS/ 02 DEPRIVATION
Prior to venturing out in the hills, one must honestly assess their physical fitness. Jogging, running and weighted-ruck marches are great ways to prepare for the aerobic demands of backcountry travel. Varying training will best prepare the climber for the rigors they’ll find on these trails. Many aspiring climbers find out too late that their body doesn’t perform the same way at elevation the way it does closer to sea level. Oxygen deprivation masks are popular with athletes to simulate higher elevation and push their body harder during exercise sessions.
It is common for mountaineers to overestimate their ability. It may take days or even weeks to reach the summit of a mountain and on occasion, climbers will forget the final destination is not the summit but where they started. Pushing too far and too fast taxes the body. Refusing to rest also reinforces the idea of the law of diminishing returns. Summit fever can get you killed and one must understand the trip is only half-way over once you reach the top. In this exhausted state, the temptation is there to bivouac early in the descent when retreating below tree line would be a better course of action. Learning how far you can push your body prior to the trip will let you know when you’re about to hit your fitness wall and should turn back.
Getting lost in the hills can get you killed. Finding a false summit, a high point that appears to be the peak but is not, drains morale and not knowing which direction to go leads to a slow descent. Navigation is important to the mountaineer and understanding how to read a map and how to orient oneself against the visible topography is a skill that must be developed.
Learning to identify trail markers such as cairns or other known features can help reestablish your location if you become disoriented. Keep track of these points and familiarize yourself with what the trail will look like upon return. When traveling in a climbing party, there should always be more than one person skilled in navigation.
If only one person knows how to navigate and becomes injured, there is no redundant layer of safety. Of course, map and compass skills mean little in whiteout conditions, which can come on quickly. Modern electronics work better in cold weather with lithium batteries but screens can still freeze and become useless. With near zero visibility, other skills will determine your safety.
SELF-RESCUE AND SELF-RELIANCE
In the backcountry, it may be hours or even days before a rescue crew can reach you. It is essential therefore to have the knowledge of self-reliance skills to avoid emergencies, and self-rescue techniques to respond to them. Injuries from falls are common and on snow-covered slopes, uncontrolled sliding can lead to serious injuries. Ice axe carry is a must for snowfields and learning how to employ an ice axe for self-arrest is a necessary skill. Knowledge of knots used for ascending and descending rope is also of importance. Before the days of modern mechanical ascenders, mountain climbers carried Prusik loops. If a belay/rappel device is lost, a climber can descend safely with knowledge of the Munter hitch.
Learning how to address medical emergencies is another aspect of mountaineering self-reliance. Using a closed foam pad, a mechanical splint can be made to brace a broken leg. A reliable stove with extra fuel is an absolute must-have item in wintery environments where there is no firewood to burn. To maximize performance, always use a windscreen or build up a snow wall around your stove. Use a camp shovel or stove base to prevent your wire camp stove legs from sinking into the snow. A stove can be all the added difference needed to provide aide to someone trying to warm from the chilling effects of exposure.
Emergency snow goggles that can save your eyes from snow blindness can be fashioned out of duct tape. Two simple pin holes are made to limit the amount of light that enters the eyes. If bad weather descends upon a climbing party or if advanced medical care needs to be rendered out of the elements, knowledge of how to dig a snow shelter or where to bivouac will determine survivability. Again, in an exhausted state, digging out a cave is not an easy task. Physical training comes into play again.
EARLY STARTS AND EARLY RETURNS
Whenever attempting a summit, I always make it a point to leave early before sunrise. This means traveling in the dark and leaving at a time that allows for maximum use of daylight and enough in reserve for emergency. Weather tends to pick up by midday and it is far safer to be below tree line on your a.m. approach in the dark than it is to be descending in the dark by afternoon or nightfall. Also, the summit is a place for temporary celebration. It shouldn’t be seen as a long-term destination. You are extremely vulnerable at the peak and should be aware of changing weather patterns on the horizon.
“THERE IS LITTLE MARGIN FOR ERROR SO STOPPING FREQUENTLY TO ASSESS YOUR CONDITIONS AND PROVISIONS IS ESSENTIAL.”
Make it a point to monitor how long it took to reach your location from the tree line. It will take approximately this long to return to the safety of it at a reasonable pace. Leave early and get back to the trailhead before dark. Frame your trip with the understanding that the mountain will be there to spend more time on with each subsequent trip. Bank your time enjoying the summit in small increments each trip rather than one extended-duration celebration that could lead to descending in the dark.
There may come a time when you elect to travel solo. I’ve done multiple solo fair weather summits of high peaks and have always exercised plenty of caution. Whenever possible, I follow a group ahead of me and notify the Rangers at trailheads. I avoid high risk activities when traveling solo, such as over snow, if a longer rocky trail is available. I also know to use effective communication with responsible parties and let them know if I miss two scheduled check-ins, to start our emergency plan. There is little margin for error so stopping frequently to assess your conditions and provisions is essential. Solo climbing and hiking is generally frowned upon but may be a better option if the only backcountry travel companions are those that make travel more dangerous. Each member added to a climbing party is another link in a chain and that chain is only as strong as the weakest link. Pick your climbing partners wisely and don’t be afraid to decline an imposed invitation to join your group. Your safety is more important than a potential climbing partner’s sense of belonging.
Climbing can elicit strong emotional responses and they are not easily understood by those on the periphery. Why risk dislocated joints, hypothermia, frostbite, broken bones, sprained muscles, torn ligaments and other bodily harm in pursuit of a summit you may not even reach? Sometimes, it is because you have to; an incident or an accident occurs and you are the rescue party. You’ve got to make the climb to relieve a survival situation. Other times, civilization and salvation is just over the next peak.
LEARNING FROM REALITY
Home to the world’s worst weather, Mt. Washington, NH isn’t the tallest mountain (standing only 6,289 feet high) but it is at the center of converging weather patterns that deliver record high winds, unpredictable precipitation and limited visibility. Mount Washington’s conditions make it a perfect proving ground for testing outdoor clothing and gear that manufacturers regularly see on climbs around the world. In the book, Not Without Peril, the author documents the recorded fatalities that occurred on Mt. Washington in a 150-year period in the mountain’s history.
Weather aside, the perils of many climbers and enthusiastic outdoorsmen are attributed not only to atmospheric conditions but man-made situations as well. Examining the true stories of emergencies on Mount Washington and the other peaks in the Presidential range, it becomes apparent what separates survivors from victims. In most cases, the success stories involve larger climbing parties with the means and training to access advanced help. Awareness of, and preparedness for, potential accidents is part of the survival equation.
In more tragic history, climbing during high threat avalanche season and disregarding advice to carry avalanche beacons or backcountry snow shovels leads to disaster. The cases of exposure when falling into a small creek or losing bearings in a whiteout are vivid reminders of how easily nature can take over in the personal narrative. Documented deaths by accidental fall, gear failure or avalanche outline the very real safety concerns overshadowed by flashy equipment and the adrenaline culture. Tragic, preventable, shocking, however defined, the actual causes of danger experienced while mountaineering should never be disregarded. The knowledge we have today was learned the hard way and others gave their lives involuntarily for future adventure seekers to avoid the mistakes they made. As outdoorsmen, we owe it to the memory of those who came before us and to ourselves to learn from reality. Before venturing out, take the time to learn the local history and how you can avoid becoming another chapter in a mountain’s story.
Top Recommendations for Gear
Koflach Degre Boots (koflach.com): Mountaineering boots are not normal boots. Overbuilt uppers, reinforced soles and stiff heel cups prevent ankle rolling, foot fatigue and bruises under the weight of heavy packs. Leather or plastic are two options and both should have provisions for mounting traverse crampons with the latter being suited for vertical ice climbing crampons.
Petzl Adjama Harness (petzl.com): An unobtrusive harness is a must for traveling long distance over terrain where tying in is a requirement. A basic webbing harness will do for occasional use but seasoned climbers know to use a padded climbing sit harness. Gear loops allow for carrying belay/rappel devices, mechanical ascenders and other tools.
Petzl Elios Helmet (petzl.com): A proper fitting helmet will protect your head from injuries sustained in accidental falls and from falling rock and ice. Make sure to purchase a helmet with attachment points for a headlamp. Since many day ascents start before sunrise, travel with a headlamp is inevitable.
Petzl Glacier Traverse Ice Axe (petzl.com): An ice axe is essential safety equipment for traveling in the winter alpine or glacier zones. For correct sizing, make sure the spike is in line with your ankle when you hold it at your side. Learn to use the adze for digging notches and the pick for self arrest. A leash will help prevent losing it out of your grasp.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the May 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.