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Master Class: Explore the Alpine Zone

Apply mountaineering basics to adapt to thing air, avoid high-altitude hazards, and make smart decisions.
Prep for Changing Conditions
>>The higher you go, the higher the stakes. Mountains create their own weather, and it can change in an instant. Warning signs: clouds getting thicker and lower to the ground; lenticular (lens-shaped) clouds hovering above a peak, which indicate high winds; and sudden changes in atmospheric pressure. Monitor the latter with an altimeter—watch for sudden changes in altitude that aren’t explained by your movement. Falling pressure indicates a storm threat. Check forecasts, pad your schedule, and pack extra layers and gear.


Recognize Hazards
Understand terrain-specific alpine dangers—and how to navigate them safely.

Rock

Danger Instability, tricky routefinding, rockfall
Technique “Even if the route appears easy, slow down and pay attention,” Wedberg says. Pick your line of least resistance from afar or follow an established route. Where footing is less certain, such as on talus fields, keep weight on your back foot as you test the stability of the rock ahead. Stay nimble and leap away if a rock shifts underfoot. Avoid traveling above or below your partners: If one of you were to fall or knock a rock loose, you’d take out the others. If you must hike above or below teammates, spread out to stay out of each other’s fall line.
 
Snow
Danger Slides, hidden ice
Technique Snow can make climbs easier by reducing the danger of loose rock. Start before dawn, when cold temperatures make terrain frozen and more stable. When crossing soft snowfields, kick steps into the snow before stepping with your full weight. Always move from one balanced position to another. Rope up with teammates in steep areas.
 
Ice
Danger Losing your footing

Technique Your ice axe is like a third leg, providing added stability on icy slopes. Master the self-belay: Hold the axe in your uphill hand with the pick facing back, and plant the axe’s shaft firmly into the uphill slope to use it as an anchor. If you start to slide, self-arrest: Position the axe diagonally across your chest, gripping the shaft with one hand and holding the head with the other (a). Roll in the direction of the pick to flip onto your belly. Throw your weight onto the axe pick, burying it into the slope (b). Practice before trips.

Time It Right

The best time and season for an alpine climb? Consider these factors: Early-season snowfields can be easier and safer than rock if you’re properly equipped with an ice axe and crampons. Also, time of day matters: Predawn, frozen snow is easier to traverse than late-afternoon mush. Rockfall is more common during heavy snowmelt. Summer thunderstorms are most common in the afternoon, so you want to be off the summit early. Variable conditions aside, here’s when to target some of the world’s most popular peaks.

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