What is Mountaineering?

what is mountaineering -- the quintessential mountaineer

When I first set foot on Mount Whitney (Jan 2024), I thought I was about to embark on a classical mountain backpacking trip. On a hiking trail. I elected to take the so-called “Mountaineer’s Route,” and I was insanely mistaken in my assessment. My eyes were opened, and I became aware of a new sport: Mountaineering. This post is my attempt to clear up the misconceptions that plagued me prior to that trip, and to begin to answer the question: “What is Mountaineering vs. Hiking?”

What is Mountaineering? What does the word mean?

The term mountaineering resists formal definition, and depending on context, can mean many things to many people. In general, it will contain some mix of any or all of the following skill sets:

  • rock scrambling
  • bouldering / free solo-ing
  • rock climbing (see technical, below)
  • down-climbing (generally considerably harder than ascending)
  • ice climbing
  • alpine hiking
  • traversing
  • glissading
  • self-arresting
  • belaying
  • snow-shoeing (or deep trail cutting, your choice)

some modernists might also include:

  • slacklining
  • highlining

as well as various methods you might utilize to come down the mountain:

  • snowboarding
  • split-boarding
  • skiing
  • base jumping
  • wing suiting

the surface upon which these sports are played out is… the mountain. Said mountain, generally will have:

  • exposed (raw rock) sections that are well above tree-line (this is also called “alpine terrain”)
  • in addition to rock, contain surfaces covered in snow and/or ice, especially in winter

What does “technical” mean?

In the context of mountain sports, “technical” generally means sections of the terrain that require (or would incent) the use of protection or certain specialized gear. Generally at a MINIMUM, this implies ice axe and crampons (in winter / ice / snow). perhaps snowshoes. In summer this implies more like traditional (“trad” / “sport”) rock climbing gear:

  • climbing shoes,
  • climbing harness,
  • climbing rope,
  • carabiners,
  • belay devices,
  • protection anchors m(friends, wedges),
  • helmet.

Is Mountaineering the same as Hiking? as Backpacking?

In a word: NO!!!!

When you see the word mountaineering, it +generally+ implies a few things (not always):

  1. no real trail. there might be an accepted “consensus” GPS route (such as on AllTrails), but in general, mountaineering is a free-form navigation between a fixed set of waypoints and / or bottlenecks on the route to the summit. Don’t look for a marked or “groomed” trail: set your sights on a destination / waypoint, and sight-navigate the best / most interesting route to that objective. stop, rest, and repeat… all the way up to the summit (or to camp)
  2. very steep slopes / ascent. classic hiking / backpacking trails rely on switchbacks — long zig zags used to safely and gently ascend / descend a steep slope. Mountaineering routes, likely as not, go straight up or down the slope, essentially perpendicular to the topo lines. Mountaineering routes are graded by steepness, in degrees of slope: 30°, 45°, 55°, etc. They go all the way to straight verticals (90° cliffs), and can even invert into overhangs (where you are basically hanging backwards, hand climbing, feet dangling).
  3. use of specialized climbing equipment. All you need for a typical hiking or backpacking trail is your body and your two feet.. perhaps a pair of boots or even tennis shoes. Rarely do you ever even use your hands. On mountaineering slopes, you will often find yourself using your hands, being on all fours, or hanging from the tip of an ice axe. Mountaineering routes often require the intelligent and creative use of ice axes, microspikes, crampons, and other technical rock climbing equipment (see technical, above).  Each of these pieces of equipment has its own skills ladder. You should know your equipment, and how to use it, intimately, long *before* arriving at the trailhead.
  4. mountaineering segments have grades or classifications. The traditional system — called the Yosemite Decimal System, aka YDS — includes class 1 to 5, with class 5 additionally broken down into decimals, from 5.1 all the way up to 5.16. these decimals can further be sub-graded alphabetically, such as 5.11a.
  5. mountaineering segments often have significant exposure. “Exposure” is the term which roughly translates to “consequence of falling.” It is generally measured in feet or meters, factoring in for landing. In other words, doing a tricky bouldering move where you might fall 4 feet to a waiting crashpad is one thing. Doing that same move at the lip of a 200′ cliff overhang with nothing between you and the rocks far below but air and gravity… that’s some serious exposure. Degree of exposure also depends on what the landing surface is — is it a bush, a tree, a deep lake, a soft snowbank, or jagged rock? A general thought is that 5′ of exposure is manageable. 10-20′ of exposure is leg-breaking. 50-500+ feet of exposure is potentially lethal. Before attempting any segment, you should soberly assess its exposure, and weigh the risk of passage vs. your ability level (and, often, the risk-tolerance of your climbing partners).

So those are some things to consider the next time you think about going on a “mountaineering expedition,” or are choosing between the “hiking trail” (well marked, gently sloped, groomed and maintained) and the “mountaineers route” (a wild, steep climb that probably has technical sections, loosely strung between a distant set of waypoints).

Caveat Adventurer!



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