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.
Depending on the season and where you are in the world, the type of glacier may vary, but the core skills required of the climber on each are essentially the same. Walking as part of a team on a rope, taking in coils, self-arrest and building a belay or ‘haul system’ for crevasse rescue are all absolutely imperative must-have mountaineering skills. Nevertheless, while much of the skill involved in glacier crossing falls under the classification of rope-work, gaining some familiarity with glacial terrain before tackling a big route which includes glacier crossings is also highly advisable.
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
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.
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
Depending on the season and where you plan to climb, the risk of encountering (or triggering) an avalanche in the high mountains can, unfortunately, be something of an ever-present nightmare. Even if you limit your climbing to the summer season, in most high ranges there is sure to be some degree of snow cover and with it, in many cases, the threat of an unstable or at least sketchy snowpack.
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
Most Alpine or high-altitude ascents will require the use of crampons and ice axes or ice tools at some point along the way. While the use or application of this equipment may seem fairly self-explanatory, there’s more to it than many first assume. With a snow (Piolet) axe, learning to self-arrest and how and where to plant your axe (on the high side of the slope) for self-belay and support in case of a slip, are absolute musts.
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
Although many mountain routes won’t require the use of trad gear, on those with long rock or ice sections and/or exposure at or above grade III, using protective gear is always going to be a good idea, if not essential. For this reason, before summiting your first mountain a basic but solid knowledge of how to use nuts (stoppers), friends (cams) and the associated rope-work is likely to be necessary.
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…
Patience is perhaps the most crucial skill or quality required in order to summit your first mountain. Days out or expeditions in the mountains can be frustrating at times, with the weather, climbing partners, snow conditions and the often fatiguing work of the activity itself all contributing to the steady – or sharp – decline of your reserves. Losing patience, however, can lead to mistakes or at the very least undermine your enjoyment of your climb. A level head and a degree of expectation management are in order to ensure you don’t get frustrated, disappointed, discouraged or even dangerously reckless if things don’t go exactly to plan or as quickly and smoothly as you’d like.
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.