How to Choose a Mountaineering Objective
So many Mountains!
But which ones to choose?
Alpine panoramas with clouds far below and an aesthetic route stretching out ahead of you with only wind and gravity holding you back. But how to find one’s self in the perfect adventure balancing risk and reward, challenge and preparation, ambition and experience…
What do I enjoy?
Be honest with yourself in planning your mountaineering objectives. So often I’ve seen and experienced rope teams with different visions of what is enjoyable. Do you climb for getting things done or to share time with a good friend? These are two important distinctions that can cause a lot of misunderstandings and conflict in rope teams. Some alpinists are very driven and result focused while others are totally happy just getting into the mountains, so long as a good time is had along the way.
Communicate with your partner or guide about your goals. Too often things are assumed and no one ends up happy. Implementing the idea of “win win or no deal” is a good policy here! If it’s going to end in tears don’t get involved regardless of how much you want to get out there.
The ascent of any route begins in dreams at least the autumn before…Gaston Rebuffat
Adaptation & Awareness
Are you able to be open to your environment and absorb the signals that the mountains and partners are sending you? It’s often not difficult to interpret problems like when you or your partner are not well, timings have been affected for whatever collection of possible reasons, for example: weather, conditions, warming, crowding or hundreds of other possible signs. What is difficult is being aware enough to observe the signs and communicate your possibly unpopular observations.
Noticing the signs and understanding that plans need to be adapted relate to not not being stressed out, over excited, overly focused, fiddling with gear, overly chilled out or overly attached to your objectives.
Try to be aware of your ability to adapt and build your human weaknesses into you plans. For example: you know you have a tendency to be over excited and focused when taking on alpine objectives. You’ve made your Mountaineering plans for the weekend, checked the weather, gained info on conditions and heard that there could be rockfall at a certain point if you arrive there too late in the day. Communicate a plan to your partner with very specific decision points where you absolutely must stop and discuss timing, whether to continue, do an alternative route, make a new decision point or turn around. Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder if you know you’ll forget.
Fitness in mountaineering is generally long endurance mixed with short bursts of high steps or climbing. Acclimatisation is just as important, if you’re fit, altitude will hit you just as hard as an unfit person. Leave enough time to acclimatise. Three or four nights above 2700m will generally acclimatise people enough for most alpine peaks. More is always better and the more you do the better you’ll feel. You can read more about training for mountaineering in the city here.
Rock Climbing is a great skill base for alpine climbing but there are problems with being a rock climber in an alpine environment; over confidence being the primary one. Alpine cliffs may not appear to be very difficult to the eyes of a good rock climber. The only issue is that they are often loose, unprotected and bigger than expected. On classic climbs, climbing straight over hard cliffs is generally an error in route finding and will cause you to loose time. Also an indoor or sport climbing style relies on the holds not breaking off, when mountaineering, falling off may be catastrophic so trusting holds too much must be avoided.
Hiking & Skiing
Hiking and Skiing is also a great base for Mountaineering as you’ll have a good idea of how to keep going all day, look after yourself in tough environments and navigate in the mountains. The limitations would be the lack of technical ability in climbing, scrambling and route finding. I often find that people with a hiking background will carry too much stuff when they start Mountaineering. You need to strip your kit down to the minimum necessary items and they must all be as light as possible! No more enamel cups and thermometres hanging off you backpack!
Experience is the biggest factor in keeping you safe in the mountains. From understanding and being aware of dangers to looking after yourself and managing your energy to route finding to understanding weather and conditions; experience is everything. However experience can also trick one into a false sense of security. The brain can think that it’s seen something similar before and because nothing bad happened in previous experiences, the current experience must be safe… Unfortunately a single human’s experience cannot be great enough to have seen all possible dangers and compute them rationally. Therefore we need to also rely on the experiences of others and data that has been collected, this is especially true with avalanches.
So what to do when you lack experience? Start really small and learn all the basic skills of equipment management, rope skills, movement, fitness, mountain weather and conditions. Then take on easy routes, gain as much information as you can. Consult the local mountain guides and look up all the information you can find, just don’t take all sources as fact. As you get better and more confident you can take on bigger objectives.
Sure Thing or Adventure
A crowded classic like the famous Arete des Cosmiques can seem like a good place to start as it’s easy to find the way by following the polished, scratched rock. There are plenty of good topo’s and information but on a busy summer day you’ll have queues of disgruntled people climbing over and around you if you’re not quick. It can be pretty stressful when you’re already just trying to survive the route. Often the biggest danger on any mountain is the other people. Rockfall in the route is most often caused by other rope teams, getting stuck behind a slower team can expose you to storms and nightfall, the stress of others is sometimes very distracting and at worst a falling rope team can floss you off the mountain which does sometimes happen.
The obscure adventure can be a great time but with all the disadvantages that were advantages on the crowded classic. There may be little information, timings and dangers may be relatively unknown. Obscure adventures in the Alps often involve a big approach and often there is a reason routes are left to fall into obscurity. They must be approached with an open mind and multiple attempts may be needed to figure out what it’s all about and what tactics will be required.
Choosing your objectives in the mountains and with who you share your adventures is a personal choice and no one can really tell you how to do it. However, working full time as a guide in the Alps, every year I witness many rope teams split in their motivations and visions. Teams that take on routes they are not at all prepared for and really risk and sometimes lose their lives on what was supposed to be a fun experience is all too common. The mountains are as inspiring and beautiful as they are dangerous so choose your actions carefully, be humble and have fun!