Last weekend, I accomplished another life goal of mine– I climbed Mt. Rainier.
Having just moved to the Pacific Northwest a few years ago, it was not immediately clear to me why anyone would consider this important enough to put on a list of goals. But then, one day, as I was driving to work, I saw the mountain.
From 60 miles away.
Especially after climbing Kilimanjaro, I knew that I wanted to spend more time in the mountains. Considering that for the last 18 months, I’d been living within spitting distance of the premier glaciated mountain in the lower 48, it was doing time. I always wished I would find myself without an excuse. And then I did.
So for the last 8 months, I learned how to climb a mountain. I learned it from reading books, talking to instructors, drawing on past experience, and, in a few cases, present experience. I learned it searching the internet, highlighting manuals, peppering experienced mountaineers with questions (it was a long car ride, sorry MM!), and– most importantly– I learned it on the mountain, particularly Mt. Rainier, which I have now made the 2.5-hour drive to on more early Saturday mornings than I care to remember.
Climbing mountains is not an unusual thing to see on bucket lists. There’s something appealing about dreaming about Everest. But if you read this blog much, you’ll know that I get antsy around too much dreaming (it’s the “books about heaven” thing).
So I’m going to give you an antidote. I’m going to tell you the basics of actually climbing a mountain. Things like what to wear, what to buy, what to know, and what to learn elsewhere.
This is just an intro. I’m a beginning mountaineer. I’ll say many times here that this article doesn’t cover close to everything, but it covers enough to get you started.
And that’s the question here. If you actually want to climb mountains, what will you do with this info? Read it? Skim the pictures? (they’re good, I promise) Bookmark it for “later”? Continue dreaming?
Or will you start tonight?
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Disclaimer: If I really need to spell out what belongs in this disclaimer, please stop reading. If we can have a gentleman’s agreement here, that would be nice. Thanks! Please do keep in mind also that this is only an introduction. It’s a brief look at what I’ve learned in my short time doing mountaineering. Your training needs to be chiefly on the slopes with experienced mountaineers.
Perhaps the best place to start with mountaineering is with the dangers inherent in the activity. Everything else is contingent on those– what you pack, the route you choose, whether or not you even attempt to climb. If none of these dangers strike, mountaineering doesn’t have to be anything more than fancy backpacking in nature’s preeminent milieu. But if something goes wrong, your day has a much higher chance of being memorable– or last.
There are a whole bunch of dangers, and if one tried to list every way in which someone might die while mountaineering, it would really drag on. I’m using a pretty non-traditional breakdown of what might kill you on a mountain, but I think it does the trick– there are some things that will kill you in a flash (falling, having something fall on you, avalanches), there are other things that you need to be concerned of all the time (temperature, elevation), and then there are crevasses.
It should come as no surprise that you can fall off mountains– cliffs, cornices, sliding down slopes, etc. To prevent slipping on steep hard snow or ice, wear crampons (metal spikes) on your boots. In the case of a fall on snow or ice, ice axe self-arrest is how you stop yourself. Ice axe self-arrest is when you stop your fall by digging the pick of your axe into the snow. If a fall would be dangerous and one person can hold another’s fall with self-arrest, you’ll want to rope yourselves together.
In some circumstances where ice axe self-arrest can’t stop a fall, you’ll want to have a semi-permanent point of attachment (called “protection” or “pro”) to the mountain. Usually this would be an anchor, ice screw, or other piece of equipment. Some anchoring techniques are covered here, but the full gamut of options (including running belays) are not.
Icefall and Rockfall
Many steep areas routinely shed rock or ice. Sometimes this can be due to climbers above you; sometimes this occurs without prevarication. It’s good practice to not directly above others when you could kick loose ice or rock down onto them. Try and keep some distance between you– and if some loose debris does go down the mountain, yell “Rock!” to alert others.
While rockfall is a constant danger in steep areas, the best prevention of injury is to steer clear of areas where rock has clearly tumbled down before and wear helmets.
Asking what to do if you’re about to be hit by an avalanche is a bit like asking what to do if you’re about to be hit by a car. Pray? You will find that avalanches regularly kill even experienced mountaineers– that’s because they can be so hard to predict and there’s so little you can do in the path of one.
Understanding snow-pack analysis and avalanche rescue are critical, though I won’t cover those in this guide.
Readers of this blog will remember I’ve turned around from a summit attempt because of avalanche danger before.
Coldness & Wetness
These are perhaps the most mundane dangers on the mountain, but they are a continual concern. I’ve seen someone go from a bit chilly to the edge of hypothermia in a few minutes, so I do stress the importance of keeping the right temperature. Part of being a good mountaineer is continually re-evaluating your temperature and if you need to do anything about it.
The way I think of coldness on the mountain is like a knife edge. If you get too cold, you’ll have trouble warming yourself up and may get hypothermia. If you get too hot, you’ll start to sweat, which makes you inconceivably more likely to get very cold, very quickly.
The best policy is to stay balanced on the knife. I try to remain comfortably refrigerated at all times– perhaps halfway between sweating hot and uncomfortably cold.
Wind, wetness, standing still (especially after exercising for a while), and darkness will all bring upon coldness even faster. It’s best to have plenty of experience doing hard work in cold weather (preferably crazy mountain weather) before you make your climb, because people’s bodies don’t react the same to temperature conditions, and you’ll want to be familiar with when is the best time for you to strip or add layers.
Up past 10,000 feet of elevation, you’ll notice it’s quite a bit more difficult to jog, carry heavy things, or even walk. Past a certain point, ascending too quickly will make you nauseous, give you a headache, or kill you– and some high-altitude conditions go from zero to life-threatening in hours. For high-elevation climbing, don’t sleep more than 1,000 or so feet above where you did the night before, “climb high, sleep low”, and become knowledgeable on the symptoms of High Altitude Cerebral Edema, High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, and Acute Mountain Sickness (altitude sickness).
A danger found solely on the surface of glaciers is crevasses. A glacier is quite literally a river of ice, and whereas water rivers have turbulence, slow-moving glaciers simply develop enormous cracks where there are pressure differentials. These cracks are called crevasses, and unfortunately for glacier climbers, they can be hidden under weak layers of snow and dozens of feet deep.
The ice axe is the general-purpose tool of mountaineering, and self-arrest is the most useful skill to learn with it. Self-arrest is the process of stopping yourself as you’re falling down a slope, and there are three positions to learn it from: head-first on your belly, head-first on your back, and feet-first on your back. If you’re falling feet-first on your belly, you should already be in the arresting position that is the end goal of the other three moves.
If you’re arresting as part of a rope team to stop a partner’s fall, you should rapidly kick your feet into the ground upon hitting the deck so that the force of the fall doesn’t land entirely on your upper body.
When travelling on glaciers or risky areas where the fall of one team member can be arrested by another, it’s crucial for the team to rope up– that is, to attach each member at a regular interval (35 feet is fine for climbing in the lower 48) along the length of the rope.
To rope in, wear a rock climbing harness with a locking carabiner through the belay loop, and tie into the carabiner with a figure eight on a bight, a butterfly knot, a clove hitch, or a similar knot. See the knots section for details.
When travelling with the rope team, the leader calls “Moving” and “Halt” when stopping and starting walking. If any member starts falling either into a crevasse or down a slope, they yell “Falling!” All other team members should then self-arrest with their feet pointed towards where the weight will be applied on the rope.
Of course, when you’ve gotten to the point where you’re practicing roping up, it also helps to know how to coil a rope for storage or around your body so that the first and last person on the team have some slack to work with in the case of an emergency. But those things aren’t covered here.
In the event of someone sliding down the mountain, it’s best if they’re attached to a rope and the far end of that rope is attached to something very solid. Sometimes another person will do, but sometimes that other person will need to be a bit more mobile– in which case you’ll want the weight on a solid object, and that’s what an anchor is.
Anchors can take many forms:
- A piece of rock-climbing protection wedged into a crack in a rock
- An ice screw drilled into solid ice
- A picket (2.5-3.5-foot metal bar designed to hold weight) wedged into the snow
- A large object (such as an ice axe, picket, backpack, etc.) buried in the snow– this is called a deadman
- A large teardrop-shaped trench in the snow (called a bollard) in which a loop of rope can be held
- A tree (the rope is just looped around it)
- A combination of the above
I will focus here on deadmans– all the rest you will have to learn elsewhere (and frankly, you don’t “learn” how to make a trustworthy anchor by reading about it– you do it on the mountain then rope up a bunch of friends and all jump against it until you find just how many people it can hold).
When burying a deadman, there are a few key points to remember:
- Stomp out the area in front of the anchor to pack in the snow
- Dig a narrow trench to bury your axe or picket– only as long as the axe is tall and as wide as you need it to be (if you’re digging with the adze, it’ll be a bit libber than that, obviously– fine)
- Deeper is better– never bury it less than a foot
- Angle the trench so that the bottom is closer to where the weight will be applied than the top
- Make a T– you’ll attach a carabiner to the middle of the picket, and you’ll want the rope attached there to be pulling the picket towards the wall of the trench, not out of it. This means you’ll have to clear out a thin trench for the rope to surface, making your anchor T-shaped
- Rebury the anchor when the T is complete
A well-made anchor in solid snow can hold a surprising amount of weight– and this is good, as it may very well need to.
The classic way to strengthen an anchor is to add another one. Then you might take one loop of cord, carabine it to both anchors, and therefore equalize the weight applied to each.
There are a number of other things to keep in mind when setting up an equalized anchor:
- Don’t make them too close together– if they are less than
- Make sure the angle of the cord is as small as possible (i.e. don’t make them too far apart).
- Twist the loop of cord so that if one anchor fails, the rope does not slip out of the cord
This is really only the beginning of anchor skills. For something that you will be trusting your life with, this is an essential area to learn and practice as much as possible.
If you find yourself in a crevasse and your partner(s) are not able to pull you up, you might need to prusik out. This is a method of climbing up a rope safely and easily using two loops of cord.
Prusiking is difficult to describe only in writing– here’s a video to illustrate the technique.
You’ll want to make your prusiks before you’re on the mountain. Creating one is as easy as tying a fisherman’s bend in the appropriately-sized length of 5-7 mm. cord. I recommend two harness prussiks (4.5 ft or so), a leg prussik (8 ft.– though the man in the video does something different than having a single larger leg prussik), and then one longer length of cord for all-purpose use (12+ ft.).
Crevasse Rescue/Pulley Systems
The final skill I want to cover here is what to do in the case of a fall into a crevasse. Setting up a pulley for crevasse rescue is a difficult process that takes a ton of practice before it can be done comfortably. You should not expect that you will have any idea how to do this after reading– only that you should have an idea of what is entailed.
If someone falls into a crevasse and is not able to prussik out– they are injured, unconscious, or otherwise incapacitated– it is up to you to get them out of the crevasse yourself. Your first recourse should always be simply trying to pull them out, but with the weight of a person and his backpack plus the friction of the rope over the snow edge, this can be difficult– particularly so if you’re on a two-man rope team and have to pull your partner out yourself.
That failing, it’s time to set up a pulley system. Pulleys are a simple mechanical way of increasing the amount of weight you can pull with a rope, and it’s possible to create one in the field.
The first step is to set up an anchor and transfer the weight from the team member nearest the edge to the anchor. This is a difficult process if you’re on a two-man team, but if there are three or more, the free person (once he’s verified that the middle person has all the weight) can come and quickly create an anchor just up-rope of the middle person.
Once an anchor is dug, it’s good for one of the team members to rope into it, go to the lip of the crevasse, and put his ice axe under the rope so that it slides easier. He should also check how the victim is doing.
A complete 2:1 pulley system (i.e. makes the weight feel half as heavy as if there was no pulley system between you) looks something like the below, with the small exception that the rope is tied off to the carabiner at (B), not freely sliding. This means that slack will gather between (A) and (B) as the rope is pulled by the rescuer. When the (A) pulley is pulled to (B), he’ll have to loosen the knot, take in all the slack, then retighten the knot. That way, he can let go of the pull end, slide (A) back towards the victim, and start the process over.
A 3:1 pulley system is similar, the only difference being that rope can freely slide through the carabiner. This is what is pictured above.
A 3:1 system is good to use if it proves too difficult to hoist with a 2:1 system. A 3:1 system gives you three times the hauling strength as if you just flat-out pulled the rope, but you will have to pull the rope three times as far– this will be apparent when you actually do it.
When pulling the 3:1 setup, you’ll find you’ll have to adjust both prussiks here– (B) as you go, and (A) once it’s pulled all the way to (B). At the risk of dragging this out too far, I will not attempt to describe this. In any case, this is a skill you will learn from an experienced mountaineer, and this guide is here simply as an introduction of what to expect or a refresher.
Not covered here, but useful to know:
- Snowpack analysis
- Avalanche rescue
- Route-finding and map/compass navigation
- Anchoring with ice screws or rock pro
- Running belays
- Many, many more– the best thing to do is take a class with experienced mountaineers or go on trips with guides
What you pack depends on how long you’re going for and what kind of conditions you’ll encounter. I try and give a sense for that in this list. I’ll also try and give prices so you get an idea of what you’d be putting in to go mountaineering. While the net price is pretty hefty, between used outdoors gear, rentals, and borrowing, you can save a good bit of cash– or at least spread out the spending.
The following is gear everyone in the group should bring, as opposed to communal gear.
Things you wear:
- Clothes. I’ll try to make this succinct. No cotton. Everything should dry quickly and wisk water away from you. Wool socks. Have an underlayer (wool or UnderArmor or something) and a layer of quick-drying camping clothes. I even have quick-dry synthetic boxer briefs. But not everyone can be that cool.
- Outer layers. This depends on the temperature. For a bottom layer, have waterproof snowpants. For a top layer, I’ve usually bring a fleece and a super-light rain jacket. If it’ll be particularly cold, I’ll throw in a down jacket underlayer. Layering and unlayering can be a skill in the mountains. Read about being cold.
- Gaiters. If you’re in any more than a few inches of snow, you’ll need gaiters (which basically go over the tops of your boots and the bottom of your snowpants and keep your ankles and feet dry). I thought I would try to get the $40 gaiters to save some cash. That was a mistake. Mine don’t buckle at the bottom and are continually working themselves loose. I think a decent pair usually runs about $70. Ugh.
- Boots. The big question here is: do I need crampons (i.e. the clip-on spikes that give you traction on steep ice)? If no, waterproof backpacking boots will do just fine. If yes, then you need to either get a crampon and boots set or crampons that fit the boots you already have (not really sure about this option). New crampons and boots will cost you hundreds of dollars, though I got mine used for $150 combined. The honkin’ plastic shell boots are great for ultra-cold weather, but a little clunky.
- Warm hat. I have a balaclava. I can wear it like a hat or bring it down around my ears and neck. Love it.
- Wide-brimmed hat. Something to keep the sun off. I will bring both hats on just about every hike I do.
- Gloves. It is so dang essential for your gloves to be waterproof. I have a double-layer system where my bottom layer is a glove/mitten hybrid (the middle, ring, and pinky are in a mitten, but the thumb and forefinger move freely) and the top layer is a waterproof mitten shell. That system works really well. Your hands will be one of the coldest parts of your body (and one hand will be gripping an aluminum ice axe that’s half covered in snow), so make sure your gloves are warm. If you’re in freezing weather and your hands are nice and toasty, it’s a wonderful feeling. If your hands (or your gloves) get wet, you’re a bit screwed.
- Backpack. If you’re on a day hike on non-glaciated terrain, you can get away with a daypack, but most people will bring a legit backpacking pack, and that’s what you need for overnight or glacier trips anyways. Any backpacking pack should work just fine.
- Ice axe. If you don’t need an ice axe, it’s called hiking. There are two types of ice axes– general mountaineering ones and technical ice-climbing ones. Unless you plan on scaling frozen waterfalls and spending $400 on the implements to do so, stick with the general mountaineering axe . It’s about $70 new or maybe $40 used.
- Map. These can be acquired at REI or outdoors stores for specific areas or mountains.
- Sunglasses. Until you’ve been sunburnt on your eyes, you don’t know the true power of mountain-elevation UV.
- Sunscreen. Oh, and the fact that all the sunlight bounces off the snow and hits your skin from every angle, you can actually can get sunburnt on the bottom of your nose. Been there, done that. Also: up your pants. Haven’t been there, but I’ve heard stories.
- Food. Pack a meal and a snack for a day trip, or plenty of food for a camping trek. Conservative advice tells you to always be prepared to stay the night comfortably in emergency situations, so you might want to lean on “more food” versus “less food”.
- Water. I drink about 4 liters of water on a strenuous day. Most people drink less, but I always appreciate others bringing extra.
- Headlamp. This is the ideal form of a flashlight. If you’ve ever camped, you probably already know this. It’s not necessary to have like some 70-lumen light, and if you’re going to be using it in a tent, some have a pupil-friendly red light mode, but that’s all secondary to just having one.
- First aid kit. A basic first aid kit isn’t too heavy or bulky– just some bandages, bandaids, gauze, antiseptic, a few basic pills. Nothing fancy.
- Firestarter. Waterproof matches or a flint and steel or a lighter.
- Water purification. Pills are the lightest. Pumps are usually pretty bulky, so I definitely recommend pills. On glaciers and high up, you don’t really need to purify fresh snow (I’m not sure that this is always true).
- Whistle. Blow three times as a distress signal.
- Plastic bags. Good for putting things in to keep them dry. Also good for putting wet things in to keep everything else dry. I don’t know how you could bring too many plastic bags.
If you will be staying overnight:
- Sleeping bag. Get a zero-degree (Fahrenheit!) bag. Synthetic or down both work, though you will really be making a weight/cost tradeoff. Down is a good deal lighter and smaller, but way more expensive. $100 bucks for synthetic; for down prices, step into Feathered Friends in South Lake Union if you dare… I have a synthetic and look at me– I’m awesome!
- Sleeping pad. You can get a foam mat or an inflatable pad. Either is completely fine. Inflatable pads have some insulating air between you and the ground, so they are ostensibly warmer, but I remember seeing a movie of some professional mountaineers in -40 degree weather who used foam mats. So whatever. Also, there are three-quarter length, super-thing backpacking inflatable pads, and I think those work just fine too. They’re obviously lighter than full-size inflatable pads.
If you will be roping up:
- Harness. I think $40 will do you fine. You don’t need anything special here.
- Helmet. Standard rock climbing helmet. $50 to $60 perhaps. This is mostly for protecting your head from icefall or rockfall.
- 3 locking carabiners. $15 each. I know, it hurts.
- 3 non-locking carabiners. $7-$10 each. You do need all of these carabiners in worst-case crevasse rescue scenarios. Apart from that, they’ll just be holding gear to your pack. But think of it this way: if you ever get into rock climbing, you will be eminently well-equipped.
- Prussiks. These are cord loops you pre-tie before your trip for use in emergency situations (or other cord-loop requiring situations). You’ll want a waist prussik, a legs prussik, and maybe an extra prussik or two and some extra cord. I’m pretty sure everyone I know carries extra cord.
- Crampons. See the boots bit above. These are excessively pricey, but they really do make walking on steep, icy terrain so much easier. They’re standard equipment for glacier travel.
- Avalanche transceiver. This is a beacon you can carry that emits a signal to its beacon buddies so that, in the event of you being buried in an avalanche, it’s possible to find you again. If you’re roped up, you’d think this would be unnecessary– but avalanches can snap ropes and there’s no guarantee of finding someone in time to save them just because you’re holding one end of a rope they’re buried on the far end of. I don’t have one, but they’re not a bad insurance policy.
- Webbing loops. Cord is the new webbing, nonetheless many mountaineers carry around loops of webbing for creating anchors. I’m sure they could theoretically have other uses as well, but like I said, cord is just more popular.
- Pulleys. Even when setting up a pulley system for crevasse rescue, these are completely unnecessary– you can easily use carabiners instead. That being said, they are kind of neat and probably have less friction than carabiners. They’re also super light. You’re not bringing up a block like you’d find on a sailboat– these things are tiny!
It’s not necessary to have one of the following items per person. Usually you can get away with fewer, depending on the group size.
- Toilet paper. I love how this is the only “always bring” communal item.
If you will be staying overnight:
- Tent. Remember that conservative advice recommends you bring enough to stay the night comfortably even for day trips. I don’t think I’ve brought a tent on every day hike in the mountains I’ve done, but at least a bivy is not a bad idea. You’ll want a 4-season tent that sleeps the number of people in your crew (1 less if it’s for emergencies only).
- Bivy. A “bivouac sack” or bivy is essentially a one-man minimalist tent (more like a cocoon, really). These are good compromises between bringing a tent on a day trip and not having any emergency shelter– two people can cram in one.
If you will be roping up:
- Rope. Thickness? Eh, about 9 mm. Length? You’ll want at least 40 feet per person for climbing in the lower 48. You only need it if you’re crossing a glacier or climbing steeply enough that you need to belay your partners.
- Pickets. When one talks about making a “snow anchor”, this is the anchor itself. It looks like scrap metal, but it’s way more expensive (and useful). Generally you’ll want two pickets for a rope team, which could be between 2 and 5 people. The first and last person on the rope carry them so that if the other falls in, there’s always someone who can create an anchor.
- Stove. Useful both for making food and melting snow for drinking water. Stoves are incredibly frustrating to use in cold, windy conditions, so I usually bring cold dry food to eat. But then again, I have issues…
- Altimeter. This eliminates one degree of freedom in trying to figure out where on a map you are.
- GPS. This eliminates the other one. Technically, neither an altimeter nor a GPS are necessary, but there’s been many a day where I may have reached a summit had I been able to tell exactly where on the map I currently was. Alas, I own neither of these things, though I’m thinking about getting a joint GPS-altimeter.
- Snow shovel. Useful for digging out a space for your tent if you are camping in the snow. Also snowpack analysis.
- Wands. A “wand” is a fancy mountaineering word for a thin bamboo rod with a piece of initialed tape stuck on the end. They’re used for marking routes. If there are white-out conditions, these are great for being able to find your way back down a mountain. Then again, who’d be climbing in white-out conditions is a question I’m not sure I can answer. I’ve never used wands, but I know they’re ridiculously light– or they must be, as groups will usually carry 50+ if they carry them at all.
One of the most satisfying parts of mountaineering is mastering the gear you use to climb the mountain. Knowing how to tie the knots, make the pulley systems, belay, rappel, etc.
What’s the difference between a knot, a hitch, and a bend? They’re all things you tie in rope.
- A hitch is a kind of knot that you tie around something, and as soon as you remove that object, a hitch will come out just by pulling on the ends– no untying required
- A bend is a knot that ties two ends of rope together
- A knot refers to basically everything else– and it’s kind of a general purpose term anyways
Oh, and tying a knot on a bight means tying it using a doubled-over loop of rope rather than a single strand.
Here are the most common knots you’ll need to know:
- Rewoven figure eight. For tying the end of the rope to the harness through the rope belay loop.
- Clove hitch. For tying into the middle of the rope on a rope team (also see: Butterfly Knot, which is harder to untie once a load has been applied to it; Double Bowline, which is bulkier)
- Prussik hitch. For tying prussiks to rope (also see: Bachmann hitch, which is bulkier and requires a carabiner, but slides in the non-weight-bearing direction easier; Klemheist hitch, which is better for webbing)
- Double fisherman’s bend. For tying cord together into prussiks– a good all-around bend
- Bowline. General purpose loop known for its strength
- Munter hitch. Can be used to belay someone (a skill not covered in this guide) if you don’t have a belay device
- Water knot. For tying ends of webbing together
(All of these links are to AnimatedKnots.com, which is by far the best knots resource I’ve found on the web!)
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At over 5,000 words, I’m going to have to call it a day with this thing. As I’ve learned mountaineering, guide after guide has told me how it’s impossible to boil it down to a few simple rules. It’s a vast set of skills, know-how, judgment calls, and intangibles beyond the surface I’ve skimmed here. It’s an investment of time and money, but the price is pays out– the beauty of it– makes it worth it all. The hills aren’t for everyone, but if they’re for you, you’ll know it the second you taste their freedom.
And a plug: Freedom of the Hills. It’s the classic guide to mountaineering and rock climbing. It’s in its eight edition and clocks in at something like 400 pages long. For $20 on Amazon, that’s a steal. You want a real introduction to the mountains? Check it.