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March 2014

Hike Smarter: 4 Ways to Climb Higher

Learn how to acclimate to higher elevation, descend safely, use crampons, and self-belay.

1. Acclimate wisely

Traveling from low to high elevation? Build in an extra day or two and allow your body to adjust, moderate your effort the first couple days, and try to avoid driving directly to trailheads above 10,000 feet (plan a dayhike at a lower elevation).

Stay hydrated (air is dry up high); avoid alcohol.

Hike high, sleep low. Camp each day below the highest elevation you’ve reached.

Avoid ascending more than 2,000 feet total per day.

If symptoms of altitude sickness develop (persistent headache, loss of appetite, fatigue, loss of coordination), stop ascending. Go down if they don’t improve within 24 hours.

2. Descend safely

Made it to the top? Congratulations. Now don’t ruin your trip on the way down.

Keep your knees slightly bent as your transfer weight to the downhill leg, absorbing impact with your muscles instead of your joints.

Align your foot, knee, and hip on big downward steps. This helps prevent rolling an ankle and takes some strain off your muscles.

Use your trekking poles like crutches when stepping off huge ledges. Plant them in front of you, on either side of where you want to land, and lower yourself in a controlled way using the poles for support.

Glissading? Remove your crampons (if you tumble with spikes on, they can cut you, and catching a point can spin you out of control).

Problem Fix
Scrambling steep rock Keep weight over feet; maintain three points of contact; test every hold
Exhausted while climbing Use the”rest step.” With each stride, briefly lock your downhill knee and rest your weight on your bones, not your muscles
Always lagging on alpine starts Prepare your summit gear the night before, so you can focus on dressing and eating (not packing) at 3 a.m. See page 84 for more fast getaway tips.

3. Use crampons correctly

These spikes are your ticket to safely traversing steep snow and ice. But there’s a learning curve: Flex your ankle with each step, so your foot is flat against the slope, bringing all points in contact with the ground. Don’t move one foot until the other one (and your ice axe) are secure.

4. Learn to self-belay

Walking unroped on steep snow? Use your ice axe to prevent a slide. With feet secure, plant the spike and shaft (adze forward) at least 6 inches deep. Keep your uphill hand on the axe head as you step. Repeat. If you slip, keep one hand on the axe head and grab the shaft (low) with the other. Your weight should pull against the buried shaft.

Layer smart:
On alpine starts, it’s tempting to bundle up against the chill. Start cold; you’ll warm up fast going uphill and won’t overheat.   

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