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The Skills You Need for Mountaineering
For ages, people climbed mountains for various reasons – from hunting to building altars, to studying the stars and surveying the surrounding areas. It wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that mountain climbing became a sport and a recreational pastime in Europe, with adventurers scaling peaks for the mere sense of accomplishment.
Some people climb mountains without knowing exactly why. As Norwegian philosopher and mountaineer Peter Wessel Zapffe poignantly said, “Mountaineering is meaningless, like life itself. Therefore, its magic will never die.” As they say, when the mountains call, you must go.
Mountaineering, however, is not for everyone. It is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding and requires specific technical skills. Although different types of climbing require distinct competencies, all mountaineers should possess the same essential skills. So, what are these skills, and what does it take to be a mountaineer?
It is almost impossible to go on a climbing adventure all by yourself. Mountaineering is a group activity that requires all members to support, trust, and look after each other. But unlike most team sports, in mountaineering nature is your number one challenger, and your life could depend on the person walking next to you.
Mountains pose a variety of dangers, including unpredictable weather, falling rocks, hidden crevasses, and avalanches. For this reason, teamwork is vital for the group to reach its goal safely. It is essential, therefore, for each mountaineer to possess fundamental leadership skills such as self-awareness, positivity, and openness, as these qualities enable them to function well in a team.
But aside from the basics, what does leadership skills imply? It means you should be able to think strategically, assess risks, and speak up when issues arise, as well as respect the insights of every climber on the team, even when you disagree with them. If you have expertise in a particular area, such as gear use or climbing techniques, be sure to share them without imposing. Moreover, you must recognize that you are part of a group, and any decision you make should be ethical and beneficial to the team as a whole.
When we say navigation skills, we don’t mean peering at the screen of a smartphone or a stand-alone GPS device all the time. We are referring to traditional compass reading and the ability to match a topographic map to the landscape around you.
You don’t have to ditch your electronic navigational devices altogether. But keep in mind that while these devices are convenient, they are unable to identify potential hazards or help you understand the terrain. You don’t want to accidentally fall into a crevasse in low visibility just because the GPS failed to tell you that there is a fissure in between point A and point B.
Besides, extremely low temperatures drain battery life rapidly, and many electronic devices are neither waterproof nor shockproof. When your battery runs out, you have to depend on the good old map and compass, along with the necessary skills to use them.
Most importantly, your navigation skills are insufficient if you are unfamiliar with the route. Therefore, gather as much information about the trail and surrounding region before you set foot in the area.
When you suddenly face some unexpected complication while roped in on the side of a mountain, it takes more than mere clarity of mind to get out of the situation. As a mountaineer, you need to learn basic custom commands that climbers use to relay information to each other. Verbal cues such as belay, slack, climb on, climbing, and rock help mountaineers to communicate what they are doing or about to do, as well as warn each other of any impending danger.
More important than learning the commands is knowing how to call them. Your voice must be loud and unmistakable, aimed in the direction of the person you are passing the message to, and the instruction must be clear and understandable. Communication skills sound simple enough, but when bad weather, fatigue, anxiety, or fear are all gnawing at you in a high-risk situation, you need composure along with good communication skills to work through the problem.
Part of communication is alerting proper authorities that you are entering the mountain for an expedition, as well as informing them of the route you wish to take and your expected return date. After your excursion, be courteous enough to let them know you are back safely.
Mountain climbing is inherently dangerous. Many mountaineers become lost in the wilderness, suffer from hypothermia, experience hypoxia, are stranded by terrible weather, or get injured in accidents.
Every mountain climber must have survival skills on top of physical and mental strength, endurance, resilience, and cunning. In every group mountaineering excursion, preparation is crucial. You need to know your route well and be aware of the risks you might encounter. Make sure that you stock up on food and water.
But if you run out of both, prioritize finding water. You can survive on water for days, and foraging the mountains for food could only result in more complications. Consider bringing with you a filtration system that you can use to purify water before drinking it. Be sure to have a first aid kit and know how to administer first aid. Always protect yourself from the elements by wearing warm, quick-drying, or waterproof clothes. Practice building temporary shelters, such as makeshift lean-to tents or snow caves, so you can take cover from sudden shifts in temperature. Check with the weather forecast before you climb; better yet, learn how to read the weather. As much as possible, only use your phone for emergency calls.
Having survival skills involves an awareness of your surroundings, an understanding of the dangers you’re facing, and the ability to think of ways to escape the threat. When you’re in a hazardous situation and don’t know what to do, always let your survival instinct take over.
Part of the process of becoming a mountaineer is learning the fundamentals of climbing. You don’t need to be a master rock climber to be a mountaineer, but you need to acquire skills such as using a harness, tying a rope, belaying, and rappelling. You can learn these by spending a few days at a climbing gym or by taking a mountaineering class. Yet, there is no better teacher than experience, and the best way to develop and enhance your climbing skills is to practice in areas designated for mountaineering beginners. Although climbing skills mainly focus on movements and techniques, they engage the brain as much as the brawn.
After all, it is your mental prowess that compels you to tread on once your body is exhausted. Also, the arduous process of obtaining these skills helps you to be mindful of your physical limits. For instance, Acute Mountain Sickness (headache, nausea, coughing, lethargy) could suddenly strike while you are scaling the summit especially when your body hasn’t acclimatized to the environment. In such a case, you should be wise enough to back down and descend.
Taking these skills into consideration and practicing them before embarking on a mountaineering holiday will stand you in good stead for a successful trip.
About the Author
This article was provided by Undiscovered Mountains who run mountaineering and multi-activity holidays and adventure tours of the French Alps and Himalayas.