It's an old cliche, but true: Mountains don't care about your well-being. It's up to you to return home alive. The following guidelines should help.
Be prepared. Wear the most weatherproof clothing and sturdiest boots with high-friction soles you can afford, because up high, your life really can depend on your equipment. Carry all the equipment and clothing you'd need to stay overnight unexpectedly.
Leave your ego in camp. The only successful ascent is a round-trip. If the weather deteriorates, night begins to fall, or you encounter dangerous conditions-deep snow, ice, falling rock, exposed cliffs-go back down. Don't push beyond your skills or those of your partner.
Know your route. Carry the guidebook or photocopies of all relevant pages. Bring a map, too. Wear an altimeter watch. Pack a compass. Keep careful track of where you are and turn around regularly to study your route from above. On the way down, things may seem different, especially in bad weather.
Don't mess with electricity. Mountains are prone to afternoon thunderstorms. If you hear or feel electricity, get below timberline fast, but don't hang out under the tallest or most lonesome tree. Avoid anything metal, including the metal frame on your backpack. If you become trapped in the open, kneel on an insulated sleeping pad. Don't lie with your spinal cord against the ground and don't seek shelter in a cave or a ditch, because lightning travels across the ground.
Build your skills. Read a mountaineering how-to book. Several classics are Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 6th edition, by Don Graydon (1997; The Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA; 800-553-4453; $35), and NOLS Wilderness Mountaineering, by Phil Powers (1993; Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, PA; $14.95). Tag along with an experienced friend. Inquire at a climbing store for recommendations of good local climbing courses. Sign up for a professionally guided climb on a big peak, and practice what you learn. -J. Harlin