Wednesday, June 5, 2002
By DAVID SHEPPARD
Special to the News
It saddens me to hear of the deaths occurring in our mountains. It saddens me to see the brave volunteers that go to aid injured climbers, in turn, endangered and injured. These losses are completely unnecessary. They are the result of some very bad decisions.
So often, I hear people say, “What a tragedy. They just did not have enough experience to be up there.”
Anyone who has been listening to the news for the last few weeks understands that mountains are very deadly places. The best training, the best gear, the greatest collection of experiences and the best teachers only provides the smallest chance that the climber will be safe. The Cascades have radically unstable weather (blizzards in June), terrible rock falls and generally bad anchor points. Our mountains are, for the most part, big glaciated, shifting piles of boulders and gravel. They appear in our backyards as familiar, gentle giants. They are the exact opposite.
Being a mountaineer is a long-term commitment. It cannot be something that one becomes by going to the sports store and pulling out a Visa card. Carrying a cell phone cannot be an abrogation of personal responsibility. Common sense, born of experience, will allow you to survive.
Mountaineering is a progression of experiences beginning with one’s first steps. An aspiring mountaineer cannot skip from the first step to the last. I offer this letter as a suggestion of the minimum kinds of experiences I feel necessary to prepare on for mountain climbing.
Mountain climbing is, by its very nature, dangerous. I do not suggest hiring a guide to take a beginner immediately into high country. Who wants to be a piece of baggage? Are you really willing to totally trust your life to another person’s experience? Being responsible for your own safety is an essential part of the great contradiction of mountaineering. Hire the guide to take you on a hike appropriate to a beginner.
Physical fitness is the best way to start preparing and ensure that the experience will be fun and safe. Upper and lower body strength is essential. Fitness must be a way of life for the mountaineer. The best mountaineers are both strong and smart. If you have not been working out several days a week for the last several months do not go far into the wilderness.
The first outdoor experience an aspiring mountaineer must have is the ability to live outside comfortably. Go camping. Go somewhere beautiful and enjoy living outside for a couple of days and nights. Part of this experience must include camping in rainy, cold and snowy weather. Learning to manage bad weather is an essential step towards becoming a competent mountaineer. Bad weather is a reality in the Cascades.
Backpacking combines fitness and camping. The skill of living out of a backpack is another mountaineering essential. Find a guide or genuinely experienced friend to share your adventure. Learning from an expert will help ensure your safety. Start with a short hike to a nice place to camp for the night.
Long aggressive hikes are great adventures. The physical demands of carrying a pack over rugged miles will begin to teach the aspiring mountaineer what will be asked physically of their body on the mountain. The more time one spends outside, the better that person will understand how their body works and how to use all that expensive gear.
It is essential that the first trip above the timberline be with a guide and teacher. This hike should be a trip up to the lower snowfields. This should be an opportunity to gain experience and learn the many skills necessary to climb higher. I suggest several trips to lower parts of the mountains. Stay off the glaciers unless you have a guide. Visit the lower slopes in all kinds of weather before a trip to the higher slopes or the summit is attempted. Learn your way around and experience the mountain before taking the risk of going to the highest slopes. It is essential to feel the unbelievable force of mountain wind, rain, sun and snow before it is a life threatening issue. These experiences are essential to your survival. The summit is only a tiny place compared to the size of the rest of the mountain. Arriving at the summit is insignificant compared to a safe and enjoyable ascent and descent.
The progression I have suggested is very general and minimal. There are a great many individual skills to master. There are clubs, classes and books to help gather these experiences.
The point I hope to make is that common sense born of experience cannot be purchased, cannot be hurried. The experience level necessary to make the right decisions in the mountains comes slowly. Go cautiously so you can enjoy another trip next weekend. Please understand that the art of Alpinism is to pick the right conditions, go light, travel fast and always come home safe. Success is measured by becoming an old mountaineer.
Take the time to get strong and smart. Do not let a vacation adventure become a tragedy. I wish you happiness and “peace on all summits.”
David Sheppard lives in Odell. He is a Crag Rats member and former Outward Bound instructor.