Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Stages of Mountaineering

This is an expanded and modified version of the process that I learned this summer from the animal chef at the Denver Zoo. I do not recall his name but he has been featured in climbing magazines several times and climbed very hard routes so he is a legitimate authority on the matter. He was taught the Stages of Mountaineering from an older mountaineer, whose name I recognized yet I forget that as well.

There is a rather predictable process that most mountaineers go through. It is not always this way but often it is.
  1. Rock Climbing. Before this phase many mountaineers are simply hikers or backpackers. They probably even go up steep things, but in general before rock climbing everything the climber does could be done in normal flexible average shoes. Rock climbing is somewhat more dangerous than hiking. At least it feels that way. Accidents can happen and people do get seriously hurt and die every year. However, with proper techniques the danger is very low. Strong anchors, safe ropes, and relatively new equipment used properly will prevent most serious injuries.
  2. Ice Climbing. At this point the climber would like to try something a little more challenging. Instead of shorts and a t-shirt on a sunny day rock climbing the climber will wear expensive clothing, boots, and more exotic gear. The adventure becomes more dangerous. Ice screws, bollards, and v-threads have the ability to melt out or fracture and break the ice. While a chock or bolt used rock climbing may be safe for years ice features can melt in a matter of hours. It is a more committing sport and people are seriously injured and die every year as a result of that increased danger. Fewer people take part in this sport (about 200,000 people in the US versus 4 million rock climbers).
  3. Alpine Mountaineering. The climber now seeks to obtain a better view from higher peaks on harder and longer routes. Skills of both ice climbing and rock climbing are used as well as backpacking, cooking, and dealing with altitude, often in remote locations. There is more danger on this step than the previous two. Avalanches, altitude related illnesses, exhaustion, environmental conditions that change over the course of several days on a route, and logistical problems can all conspire against a mountaineer. At the greatest heights of mountaineering on 8000 meter (26,300 feet) tall mountains in Asia all of the mountains have summit to death ratios at or above 1%. That is to say for every 100 people that make it to the top at least one dies. On K2 the second highest mountain in the world that ratio is about 25%. For every four mountaineers that make it to the top one dies. This level is dangerous.
  4. Fishing. Often mountaineers will realize the danger of their sport and proceed to partake in a less dangerous hobby. One that ends with fresh fish eaten in a dry house followed by sleeping in a warm and soft bed. The reasons for this transition are varied. Families, children, old age, close calls, becoming seriously injured, and lack of motivation are all causes for a mountaineer to develop his or her fishing skills. This is also a step where uninitiated mountaineers may be safely brought along on trips. This stage of the process can be shared by the very young and very old alike with almost no danger.
Occasionally a mountaineer that reaches stage four will start back at stage one ten or twenty years later. Climbing things is a very satisfying experience. It is an experience that is hard to replace by other activities. That is to say that the fisherman may perhaps enjoy a little rock climbing now and then.With the advent of climbing gyms an even safer first step can occur. To the best of my knowledge only one person has ever died in a a climbing gym. She was planning ot rappel from about 45 feet in the air and fell off the edge while she was unclipped to anything. Considering the hundreds of thousands of people that use climbing gyms every year that is a miniscule number of tragedies. Also, it appeared to be in part human error, not equipment failure that led to that tragedy, whereas in stages one through three gear has failed outdoors leading to serious injuries and death. That is to say, go try out your local rock climbing gym for a safe taste of mountaineering. You never know where it will lead you.

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