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June 2001

Skills For The Upwardly Mobile

Everything you need to know about hiking in the high country, from talus hopping to finding the right gear to dealing with wind and glaciers.

Going Down

When descending steep terrain, face away from the slope and go down “crab” style, using your butt for friction (but don’t let your pack launch you out from the slope). As the descent steepens, face sideways to the slope. This allows a good view of holds and the route below. When it’s nearly vertical, face directly into the cliff, just like when climbing down a ladder.

Setting The Pace

  • Adjust your speed. Mountains are big, and your legs and lungs are small. Adjust your speed so your body can plug away, one step at a time, until you reach your goal.

  • Move at your pace, not someone else’s, especially at altitudes several thousand feet higher than those at home. Take deep, slow breaths, and don’t go so fast that you hyperventilate. (See “Heave Ho!” August 1999, for more tips on hiking at altitude.)
  • Employ the mountaineer’s rest step to conserve energy: With each step, pause for a breath or two with your lower knee locked, bearing weight on your skeletal structure.
  • Rest regularly and briefly. Start the day slowly, stopping after 15 minutes to shed clothing layers. Then stop hourly, but just for a few minutes-enough time to relax, but not so long that your muscles get stiff. Tank up frequently on food and water to combat fatigue and altitude sickness.
  • Climb high, sleep low. That’s the mountaineer’s motto for avoiding altitude illness.

If you live at low altitude, spend the first night at no higher than 6,000 or 7,000 feet. Then move camp no more than 2,000 feet higher each day. (Don’t worry about hiking higher during the day; it’s the sleep time that counts.) If you experience mild symptoms of altitude illness, take a rest day under your partner’s supervision. If symptoms persist or worsen, descend (the only cure). Typical symptoms include: headache, lethargy, insomnia, loss of appetite, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath, fluid retention, vomiting, dry cough, bluish lips.

Know Your Limits

Don’t climb on “exposed” terrain (where bone-breaking falls are possible) without a climbing rope and trusted belayer. Beware of crossing “necky” spots (where the trail is narrow or treacherous) you’ll have to recross later, since afternoon thunderstorms or snow can make the descent more dangerous.

Mountains Of Class

Understanding the standard American climbing classification system will help you match a guidebook description of off-trail travel with your personal ambitions.

Class 1

Easy as a trail; you can keep your hands in your pockets.

Class 2

Rugged enough that you’ll regularly place a hand on a boulder for balance.

Class 3

You’ll need both hands for security or to pull yourself up. Step carefully, and don’t push beyond your comfort zone. It’s better to turn around, build your skills, and come back another day.
Classes 4-6

Use ropes for belay, with increasing reliance on climbing gear (protection, harness, helmet).

Picks And Spikes

Hard snow on a steep slope, ridge, or pass can keep you from seeing the other side of the mountain. To march safely over a few yards or miles of frozen trail, carry a lightweight ice axe and ultralight crampons. (See for reviews; axes cost $50 to $100, crampons about $100, instep crampons vary widely.)

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