An Introduction To Mountaineering

If you want to get involved in mountaineering but aren't sure what it's all about, you've come to the right place.

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What exactly is mountaineering?

Technically anybody could walk to the top of a mountain but this would not make them a mountaineer. Mountaineering can best be described as the ascent of any hill or mountain where the gradient and severity of the terrain requires some form of climbing and the sustained use of technical equipment.

In summer this equipment can include a helmet, rope, harness, karabiner and protective climbing equipment, and in winter will include the addition of crampons, an ice axe and protective ice-climbing equipment.

Mountaineering will inevitably involve periods of hill walking but what distinguishes these two activities is whether you need to use technical equipment in order to reach your objective: the summit!

How can you benefit from mountaineering?

There are numerous benefits to mountaineering. The most obvious benefits are improving both your physical fitness and cardiovascular fitness levels as well as reducing body fat through aerobic exercise. Some other less obvious or ‘less tangible’ benefits include greatly improving your own personal confidence and team working skills, which you will use in your work and personal life without even realising it!

Why would anyone want to do it?

Ask the majority of mountaineers why they pursue the sport and many would struggle to come up with a logical answer as to why they devote many hours, days and sometimes months to, basically, climbing a lump of rock! But mountains have always held a considerable fascination to people for many different reasons.

Mountains present a challenge to the adventurous, a release to the mystic and an arena for the sportsman. Different people are drawn to different activities for many reasons so what would draw someone to go mountaineering? Mountaineering is as much a spiritual pursuit as it is a physical one. Often you will experience personal joy and sadness, triumph and defeat but always developing that spirit to surmount the insurmountable. Few people wake up one day deciding to try mountaineering, more often it is a natural progression for either a hill walker or a rock climber to pursue their enjoyment further.

How much time does it take?

A mountaineering route could be as short as a few hours of climbing to reach a summit to then descend by walking down. This could be extended to day-long or multi-day ascents. At the other extreme, mountaineering routes can literally take months. But remember, the quality of a climb is not just determined by the altitude climbed, but by a number of other factors.

Many mountaineers become obsessed with ‘bagging’ some of the world’s 8,000m (5 mile) peaks (all located in the Himalayas). Some equally challenging but more enjoyable routes are to be found on many other peaks around the world. The sheer remoteness of some of the world’s mountain peaks means that no transportation can get you easily to your route meaning the only way there is weeks of trekking.

Once on a mountain, ascent at altitude means that time must also be taken to let the body adjust and acclimatise to working in a thinner atmosphere with less oxygen (any ascent over 5,000m or 1.86 miles can be considered high enough to cause altitude related problems).

What does mountaineering feel like?

Mountaineering often involves a whole spectrum of emotions and sometimes they can all collide at once! Words cannot describe the sense of freedom you get when you are ascending a mountain. It is truly a spiritual experience leaving you feeling really alive! You will find out a lot about yourself, some inner strengths you never even knew were there as well as developing new strengths.

On any ascent there will be good times and bad times too, that’s what makes the sport so personally challenging and character building. You may experience times when you ask yourself ‘Why am I doing this?’ But those moments pass to be replaced by great feelings of achievement that will stay with you forever.

Who can do mountaineering?

There are no real age barriers to entering into the world of mountaineering (anyone under 16 should clearly be supervised by a qualified adult). The only real barrier to mountaineering is the need for a moderate level of physical fitness but even this will develop as you progress in the sport and your routes become harder and more sustained.

Do you have to go on a course to participate in mountaineering?

Mountaineering is a pursuit that should never be undertaken without a good understanding of the many different aspects involved, ranging from map reading and navigation skills to rope work and understanding mountain weather. Friends often teach each other, passing their knowledge on, but the time and money invested in a course is more than well spent. Courses are very reasonably priced and you should definitely consider booking up with a reputable organisation offering expert advice.

Types of mountaineering

Different styles or methods of mountaineering have evolved over the years. The main impetus behind this evolution in styles of climbing has been the massive advances in mountaineering equipment.

The advent of the likes of Gore-tex, tough lightweight plastics, carbon fibre, extremely strong but lightweight metal alloys, pre-packaged high-energy foods, and improved stoves and tents, all mean that the large and slow expedition-style ascents of yesteryear are now giving way to fast lightweight ascents. Routes that once took days using old equipment and climbing methods are now being ascended in a matter of hours!

Three general ‘types’ of mountaineering now exist:

Alpinism

  • Alpinism is a type of mountaineering, originally developed by alpine guides but now used extensively to ascend ‘low level’ routes (below 5,000m or 3.1 miles in altitude).
  • The majority of mountaineering routes around the world, are classed as low-level mountaineering (sub 5,000m).
  • Previous climbing generations carried a lot of equipment and many accidents were borne from the sheer weight of kit being carried and the slow progress of ascent.
  • The essence behind alpine-style climbing is to move quickly by carrying minimal climbing protective equipment and bivouac equipment, keeping weight to a minimum and adopting the attitude that ‘fast is safe’.
  • Alpinism requires all members of the party to be able to move over difficult terrain with speed and competence.

High altitude mountaineering

  • Mountaineering above 5,000m is affected by altitude, weather, access and sustained climbing on snow and ice.
  • High altitude mountaineering requires a mixture of determination, patience, fearlessness, caution, careful planning but the ability to make snap decisions.
  • Traditionally this type of mountaineering has made the use of expedition or ‘siege’ style tactics to carry vast amounts of bivouac equipment and food, and establish camps at different altitudes on the climb, necessary to allow party members to acclimatise to the changes in altitude.
  • Alpine-style climbing is now creeping into the world of high altitude mountaineering with many day-long routes now being ascended in just hours. But, fast and lightweight ascents cannot be undertaken by anyone as most people succumb to rapid gains in altitude. Also lightweight ascents run high risks if anything should go wrong.

Ultra lightweight mountaineering

  • Reserved for the more intrepid mountaineers, where climbers ascend high altitude peaks, using modern lightweight equipment in very short times.

It’s recommended to start with alpine mountaineering, as diving in at the deep end can have some severely adverse effects. Start off with lower altitudes with easier routes, and slowly build your way up as your experience grows.

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