Master Class: Explore the Alpine Zone
Apply mountaineering basics to adapt to thing air, avoid high-altitude hazards, and make smart decisions.
Beware of fast-changing alpine weather (Nate Strong)
Petzl Elios helmet (Petzl Elios)
Crampons (Black Diamond Equipment)
Ice Axe (Grivel)
Prevent Common Mistakes
The problem Poor fitness and acclimatization. “Roughly 80 percent of accidents happen on the descent, when your body is spent,” Wedberg cautions.
The fix Train adequately for the ascent and descent, which use different muscle groups. Build endurance on a series of training hikes and smaller climbs. Ascend and descend stairs with a weighted pack. Build strength, targeting quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, and calf muscles. Going from sea level to more than 10,000 feet? Spend a day or two at camp acclimating. During the climb, stay hydrated and maintain a slow and steady pace that feels manageable for hours on end. You should be able to carry on a conversation without gasping for air; if you can’t, slow down.
The problem Failing to turn around when encountering unsafe terrain without having the proper gear (or knowledge).
The fix Research guidebooks and trip reports, and survey rangers and outfitters to learn what the targeted climb requires, and be clear-headed about matching your skills and experience to the task. Don’t attempt anything for which you’re not prepared or equipped. If you’ve purchased new gear for a specific trip, spend time familiarizing yourself with it at home and on easier training climbs.
The problem Complacency and overconfidence. “As climbers gain experience, some become complacent, thinking they’ve learned all there is to learn,” Wedberg warns. But such thinking can be catastrophic in the mountains.
The fix Keep your mind open and alert to new situations, new terrain, and changing conditions that you haven’t encountered before. “If you don’t learn something new every trip,” he says, “you should stop climbing.”
Grivel’s G1 carbon-steel axe is light, strong, and affordable. The neutral design is good for general mountaineering. $75; 16 oz.; grivel.com
Protect your noggin with the Petzl Elios, a light and widely adjustable lid. $65; 11 oz.; petzl.com
Black Diamond’s Sabretooth comes in a versatile clip version for boots without a toe welt; anti-balling plates prevent snow buildup. $180; 33 oz.; blackdiamondequipment.com
Refine Your Judgement
Know when to turn around.
Signs you should turn back
>>Weather is awful (thunder, whiteout)
>>Acute mountain sickness or edema (severe headache, nausea/vomiting, shortness of breath)
>>You’ve reached your predetermined turnaround time (even if you haven’t reached the summit).
>>Snow appears unstable; learn the signs at backpacker.com/snowpack.
>>You or someone in your party is injured or dangerously exhausted.
>>You’ve encountered conditions you’re not prepared for, like crevasses or ice.
Continue cautiously (revisit turnaround plans every 15 minutes if you notice these issues)
>>Iffy weather (wind, clouds gathering) or distant storms
>>Mild altitude sickness (headache, fatigue, reduced appetite)
>>It’s not turnaround time yet, but you or your teammates are struggling and losing time.
>>Snow is deeper than expected, but stable.
>>You hear of an injury or rescue above you that has not affected your team.
>>You’ve encountered unexpected conditions, but you’ve practiced for them.