Seven Must-Learn Mountaineering Skills Before Attempting Your First Summit
Viewing the summit-shots of successful mountaineers, we could be forgiven for thinking there’s not much to the art of mountaineering other than healthy levels of strength, stamina, fitness, courage and, of course, a good beard. Above, however, we have chosen our words very carefully, for mountaineering is indeed an ‘art’ and as such an exacting discipline that requires proficiency in far more technical and nuanced skills than first meet the eye and than many assume. Before conquering your first summit, most of these are likely to come into play at some point and others likely to be absolutely prerequisite to a successful and safely-completed climb. Below we take you through eight of the most important of these skills and how they can help you on your way to summiting that all-important first peak.
Route-finding in the high mountains can be a tricky business. Added to the trouble of snowcover hiding way-markers, signs, notable features, and the often exasperating disappearance of the ‘trail’ on rock (as opposed to earth), the weather can always decide to take a turn for the worse and make things a whole lot more complicated and interesting by far. Compass and map-reading skills and the ability to navigate in low to zero visibility are things you don’t want to head into the mountains without having mastered.
The ability to identify ‘safe’ routes (and unsafe ones), weak snow ‘bridges’ and potential crevasse sites will all help to improve efficiency, speed and safety in the often labyrinth-like landscape of glacial terrain. Just as important as knowing how to cross a glacier is knowing when to not even bother trying. If a recent snowfall has made crevasses difficult to locate by covering them with a thin, weak layer of snow, or if temperatures have spiked suddenly and made the snowpack particularly fragile, it may well be best to save your climb for another day – the mountain, after all, will still be there when you return.
3. Rope Work
Before heading into the high mountains, first learn the basics of alpine rope work on a moderate crag or climbing wall. Many of the techniques required on alpine ascents are very similar to those employed in traditional-climbing and, with a few obvious variations, sport climbing.
Familiarity with building a belay, abseiling, tying knots and lead climbing are essentials and, depending on the nature of your climb, learning to work with a double rope (or ‘half-rope’) and walking on a rope as part of a team may also be required. Planning and preparation for your climb should incorporate an assessment – and practice – of any rope work you are likely to have to undertake on the mountain.
4. Avalanche Safety
Before tackling this sort of terrain, be sure to know when and where avalanches are most likely to occur (usually on slopes from 25-45 degrees and following abrupt changes in weather) and learn how to avoid them. Learning avalanche assessment techniques (such as digging a snow pit to check layering and stability) and rescue skills (using a probe or transceiver to locate buried team members) should be amongst the first of your considerations before trying to summit any mountain where there is a significant risk of avalanches.
5. Axe and Crampon Use
Depending on the nature of your climb, learning how to use more technical and aggressive ice-tools might also be a consideration, allowing you to ascend steeper snow or ice sections with more stability and assuredness. With crampons, front-pointing and utilizing the French (flat-footing) technique, as well as simply becoming familiar with the initially awkward feeling of walking with crampons on, are fundamental inclusions on any tick-list of skills to be acquired before attempting your first big mountain.
6. Using Traditional Climbing Gear
Becoming familiar with the workings of trad gear and how to move on ropes on high, steep and exposed terrain can be done on simple low-altitude climbs in preparation for the real thing. Getting it right before setting off on your climb is highly recommended – high mountain ridges, slopes or rock faces are not the best places to be experimenting with untried and untested skills.
7. Patience, Patience, Patience…
Conquering your first summit is always a memorable and meaningful experience for any would-be mountaineer. For many of us, our enthusiasm and desire to get there can cause us to overlook or bypass the fundamentals required to do so, an error that might mean our first attempts are unsuccessful or, even worse, cut short by serious injury, sometimes even death. Learning the above skills before you attempt to conquer your first summit will maximize your chances of realizing your dream and making it down again in one piece, laying the foundations for a trip to remember and a lifelong love for the sport of mountaineering.