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“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
-John Muir, Our National Parks, 1901
Muir knew a good thing when he found it, which is why he spent a fair portion of his life in the high country. You, too, may know the joys to be found amid the peaks and alpine meadows and cirques and sheer rock faces. Perhaps you also understand that mountain travel has its risks, and that the unprepared can pay dearly. This special section describes the skills you’ll need to get up and down safely, and to unlock the gates of a heavenly world.
Check with park rangers and local outfitters about weather patterns in the mountain range you’ll be hiking, then plan to be below timberline during hours of maximum danger. If you’re caught in a thunderstorm, avoid lightning magnets, such as open terrain, caves, low spots, and isolated trees. Squat on your pack, sleeping pad, or other insulator. (See Body Language on page 27 for lightning guidelines.)
Mountains make their own weather, with visibility-killing clouds sometimes appearing out of thin air. Occasionally, snow falls from these clouds, even
in July. To handle sudden whiteouts:
- Take periodic compass bearings and keep track of your location on the topo (see “I Was Lost, Now I’m Found” on page 56). Identify escape routes before hitting the trail.
- Memorize major landmarks like ridges, cliffs, trees, and ravines so you can recognize them if you must descend or backtrack in dense clouds or snow.
- Head for a landmark. If a swirling fog gives you brief glimpses of the next cairn or landmark along your route, take a compass bearing and follow it to the landmark.
The constant freeze and thaw of mountain environments loosens potential holds. These can pull off suddenly, causing falls or showering loose stones on your companions. Test every hold before you rely on it; pull or kick down to see if it shifts. Listen for the sound it makes; a
hollow “bonk” means the hold
is loosely attached.
When strong winds blow across a ridge, walk on the ridge’s lee side (terrain permitting) and take rest stops behind big rocks. Don’t let sudden gusts blow you off balance; bend low and brace into the wind with trekking poles or by leaning against boulders and trees.
The best way to go down a steep, soft snowfield is to plunge your heels hard into the snow with your knees slightly bent. Bend forward at the waist for stability.
Crevasses make glacier travel hazardous because they’re often hidden under snow and always difficult to exit. The general rule is to avoid crossing a glacier unless you’ve trained for crevasse rescue and can rope up with partners. The exception comes in late summer when snow has completely melted, making crevasses more obvious and easier to avoid. If you’re not wearing crampons, walk on the hardest, darkest ice, where grit and gravel provide traction.
Seat and standing glissades are the great rewards of summer snowfields. For a seat glissade, put something slick and waterproof (like a raincover) under your butt, point your feet downhill, and go. Use your heels to brake and steer. The standing glissade offers more control. Place your feet flat on the snow, one slightly behind the other. Flex your knees and bend forward at your waist. Use your boot edges to turn and stop. An ice axe and self-arrest skills (see “Picks And Spikes”) open new glissading horizons.
Before crossing snow patches, check the “runout”-the place you’d wind up if you slipped. Don’t cross hard snow if there is a cliff or sharp talus below. Wait for the snow to soften in the afternoon. When you cross steep snow, kick firm steps, weight on the uphill edge of your boot, and test each new step for firmness before transferring your weight. Trekking poles will improve balance, as will an ice axe, which can be plunged into the snow for a secure handhold with every step. Moving the axe when your uphill foot is forward provides a more stable stance.
Scrambling upward is safer and less awkward than climbing down, in part because your eyes lead your body, making holds easier to find. That’s part of the reason people get stuck up high-they’ve climbed up through sections they later find too frightening or difficult to descend. The lesson: Look down while going up, imagining yourself coming back in a few hours. Don’t like what you see? Then turn around before you get too high.
Gullies funnel falling rocks like pellets through a shotgun barrel. Avoid entering or passing below a gully when sun is melting snow or ice, loosening rocks above. Travel quickly, one at a time, and don’t climb directly above or below companions-you could send a rock flying. If staggered climbing is impossible, walk close together so rocks loosened by one hiker don’t have time to gain speed before striking those below. If a stone goes flying, holler “Rock!” to alert others. Wearing a helmet
Refers to slopes of smaller rocks and loose dirt. Soft scree is hard to go up (“two steps up and one step back”), but heaven to run down; it’s also easy on the knees on descents. When hiking uphill, try to kick steps and create platforms for firm footing; on the downhills, plunge-step on your heels as you would on soft snow. For better traction on steep scree, zigzag downhill with your feet angled across the slope rather than pointing straight down.
Is a heap of rocks piled on a slope. Step directly on top of the boulders, moving slowly from one to another, always ready to hop to the next if the one you’re standing on shifts or rolls. Choose lichen-covered rocks, since lichen is usually a sign of long-term stability.
At the edges and snouts of most glaciers are great piles of loose rock. Treat these like talus, but remember that there may be slippery ice under the rocks, making them prone to sliding.
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.
Easy as a trail; you can keep your hands in your pockets.
Rugged enough that you’ll regularly place a hand on a boulder for balance.
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.
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 www.backpacker.com/gear for reviews; axes cost $50 to $100, crampons about $100, instep crampons vary widely.)
Using an ice axe
- Self-arrest. You can stop a slide with your axe. The basics: Hold the head in one hand with your thumb under the adz and the pick end facing the snow. With your other hand, hold the shaft near the end. Press the pick into the snow by laying on the shaft as you hold it diagonally under your chest. At the same time, dig your toes into the snow (unless you’re wearing crampons). Practice where there’s a safe runout.
- Self-belay. Hold the axe by its head in your uphill hand and walk with it like a cane. When the slope gets steep and you don’t trust your feet to maintain their grip, start pushing the shaft deeper into the snow. Stand with your uphill foot forward (a more balanced position) when you move the axe to its next placement. If you slip, plunge the shaft into the snow and hang on.
- Chop steps. If the snow is too firm to kick good steps and you haven’t brought crampons, cut footholds with the adz end of the axe. Stand in the balanced position (uphill foot forward), hold the axe near its end, and swing with a straight arm. Try to cut two steps from one balance position, then move into the new set of steps while using the axe in the self-belay position.
With crampons and other traction devices, you can traverse snow and ice almost as easily as if the ground were bare. Key points to remember:
Lift your legs slightly higher than normal so the spikes don’t snag and trip you up.
- Make sure your feet are flat against the snow so that all the spikes bite with each footfall.
- Prevent snow from “balling up” between crampon points by occasionally knocking your ice axe against the side of your foot.
- Always check and double-check bindings before walking.
When the going gets steep, these tried-and-true equipment adjustments will make hiking easier and more comfortable.
- When hiking or scrambling uphill, loosen any pack straps that inhibit your ability to twist and turn or step high. For instance, the “stabilizer straps” on the sides of your hipbelt are prime candidates for loosening, as are shoulder straps and load-lifters.
- When going downhill, pull your pack’s hipbelt and stabilizer straps comfortably snug to prevent your load from shifting.
- When hiking downhill, lace your boots snugly for optimal support and stability, and to avoid jamming your toes.
- Loosen the upper laces on tall, stiff boots so your ankle can flex fully forward and to relieve strain on the Achilles tendon.
- Shorten trekking poles when going uphill, and lengthen them for descents.
A “length” rule of thumb: Your elbow should be bent at about 90 degrees when you plant a pole. When ascending very steep terrain, or on sidehills, hold the uphill pole in the middle of the shaft so you don’t need to make adjustments continually. Wrap strips of duct tape around the shaft for a
The Leave No Trace Ethic
Environmental ethics are especially important when you’re crossing untrammeled high country. Here are some Leave No Trace guidelines for keeping terrain as fresh as a mountain daisy.
- Walk on existing trails whenever possible. Otherwise, try to walk on rocks. In meadows and on tundra, disperse your impact so that no two people in your party step on the same flower.
- Pick tent sites that can withstand your impact: ideally, rock, snow, gravel, or packed dirt. Lacking these, choose a grassy meadow that will recover quickly.
- Camp at least 200 feet from water. Exception: when an obviously trampled or officially sanctioned site is nearer to water.
- Try to leave your campsite looking better than it did when you arrived. If it’s a heavily used site with an existing fire ring, leave the fire ring-you’ll concentrate use in that spot and preserve surrounding terrain. If it’s a barely used ring, scatter the rocks and pick up any trash.
- Use pit toilets when you find them, or dig a cathole at least 200 feet from water sources. Cover the hole, and pack out toilet paper.
- Set up your stove on bare rock slabs. Kitchen areas get heavy use-make sure your comings and goings don’t cause erosion. Clean your dishes at least 100 feet from water. Leave the soap at home, strain particulates (carry them out), and pour dishwater into a cathole.
- Observe local campfire regulations. Fires are strongly discouraged in the high country and should not be built where wood is in short supply. Carry a gas stove for cooking.
- Don’t build cairns to mark the way. They are unnatural in the wild and disturb other people’s joy of exploration.