Up here, the shortest distance between two points is a route you really don’t want to travel. It’s called straight down the fall line, and you generally arrive at your unintended destination with an assortment of lacerations and fractures.
There are old mountaineers, and there are bold mountaineers, but the old AND bold mountaineers are mostly a fantasy out of some glossy magazine for conservative armchair adventurers. The long cautious approach is what it’s really all about.
You might be in the mountains by choice, or you might have been rudely deposited there by an airplane crash. Whatever the circumstances, there are a few basic principles that can help you arrive where you choose without injury.
Principles of mountain travel
First, remember Ingersoll’s statement that “In Nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, there are merely consequences.” Everything you do up here has its consequences. You will become intimately familiar with the practical laws of physics. Gravity is your primary enemy during mountain travel until you learn to use it to your advantage.
Mountains are masses that have been thrust up by geological forces. Erosion and gravity dictate that all mountains must be in the process of becoming flat plains. This is very important to remember — all those craggy peaks have untold tons of rock and snow that is only tenuously held in place, and a fumbling human can very easily disrupt this balance and bring some of it down.
What is up is inclined to come down. During mountain travel, your task is to encourage this process as little as possible, and when it happens, to not be in the way. Inertia dictates that what is at rest tends to stay at rest, and what is in motion tends to stay in motion and in the same direction of motion. This is the primary law in your favor as you try to glide across loose rock that gravity is trying to turn into an avalanche.
So much for the theory, let’s get down to the practical points of mountain travel. In general, stay out of draws whenever possible. Lower on the mountain slopes, draws are likely to be choked with brush, often nearly impassable.
High up, draws are filled with scree (loose rock that is very unstable). Draws are the pathways of avalanches, rock slides in the summer, and deadly snow slides in the winter. The main ridgeline and the spur ridges leading off from it are generally more stable ground and more clear of brush.
Picking a route
Crossing draws occasionally is inevitable in mountain travel, but choose your route carefully to avoid the most unstable areas.
When you pick a route across a rocky area, remember to look up for any large slabs that may come down if you disturb the slope below them. Try to choose several alternate routes out from any suspicious spots that may turn out to be worse than they looked. It’s very hard to re-mute when you’re in the middle of an acre of sliding scree.
It is the most common fault to be so intent on placing one foot at a time on something stable that you don’t look up at the long view of your route. It is very easy to suddenly find yourself in a predicament where you cannot go forward, and to retreat is very dangerous. Every four or five steps, force yourself to look up and assess your route.
Familiarize yourself with the type of rock in the area before you commit yourself to mountain travel — especially if it involves climbing up any rock outcrops. If it’s good solid granite, you’re in good shape, but nothing is more dismaying than to lunge desperately for a handhold and have it crumble off in your hand as your feet flail on top of a newly born avalanche.
Don’t follow the animals!
On any mountain where there are wild sheep or goats (or domestic ones that are roaming wild), you will see distinct trails worn into the mountain-side. These look inviting as safe, easy routes. Don’t be a sucker!
These critters can go places no human can. Following their trails can lead you into places that you can’t get out of. Even moose and bear are occasionally found casually strolling in mountain places where a human simply was not designed to go.
Traveling with other persons
If your mountain travel involves another person or persons when walking across unstable rock, don’t walk close together — this compounds the disturbance and will be more likely to start a slide. If there is at least 20 feet between you, rocks disturbed by the first person will have a chance to settle before the next person steps on or near them.
Also, when traveling in a group, ALWAYS be aware of the fall line and the other person’s relation to it. The fall line is the route an object will free fall or tumble. The fall line of a rock you might knock loose will go straight down on the steepest course.
Make sure your partner is never in your fall line. You don’t want to kill or injure the other person, and you can’t help but kick some rocks loose. It is the responsibility of the person on the uphill side to adjust speed or direction to ensure that there is no one in his fall line.
Walking differently during your mountain travel
There is an art to walking in extreme mountain terrain. To be good at it, a person needs balance and sensitivity. Walking is no longer a mechanical process of putting one foot in front of the other.
Each step is different from the rest. One foot reaches out, but instead of coming down solidly and taking the body weight, it touches the rocks like a hand, testing the footing before you shift your weight onto that foot.
If the footing is not solid, that extended foot has got to be free to move around or drawback. If you have already shifted your weight onto it, you have no choice but to complete the step. If the footing is bad, that step could be a disaster.
This testing usually only takes a second or less, and when you feel secure, then settle the foot gently into or onto the rock and shift your weight. Until you walk on scree, you may never realize how lurching your normal gait is. Up here, you shift your weight from one foot to the other very smoothly —visualize an amoeba flowing one pseudopod at a time.
On the same topic of mountain travel:
Practicing load distribution for mountain travel
For proper mountain travel, it is a really good idea to practice ahead of time, walking slowly and smoothly. You also should pay attention to your normal walk and figure out which foot is your natural lead. If you have to jump over an obstacle or a small ditch, which foot do you instinctively extend and land on? This is your lead foot.
A dyed-in-the-wool climber might practice leading with the other foot until he was equally comfortable on either lead, but you should be aware of your natural lead.
When you come to a tricky spot, you will instinctively want to lead into it with your natural lead foot. You should do this whenever possible, even if it means a little shuffle before that step to get your weight off your lead foot.
If you come to a spot where you must make a very long step, it is best to take this step with your uphill foot, again even if it means a little shuffle before. This keeps your weight closer to the mountain, which helps you defy gravity.
As you cross areas of unstable rock, you will constantly be scanning for good footing. Small alpine plants grow in some of the most hostile rock environments imaginable, and you should keep an eye out for them.
They are usually small and dull-colored, so you will have to look carefully. The roots of this vegetation stabilize the rocks considerably, and a tiny clump of sedge or rock jasmine can give you a secure place to plant your foot, at least for a few seconds.
Some places will allow you to pass, but only if you keep moving. In these spots, you must flow along with great smoothness. The slightest lurch between steps can start the whole area sliding. As soon as you do come to a place that will hold you for more than a second, stop and look around to re-assess your route.
Load distribution in your pack can make a real, telling, difference in mountain travel. When walking in moderate terrain, you want the center of gravity of your pack to be fairly high because it is less tiring. In extreme terrain, however, you will want that center to be no higher than the bottom of your shoulder blades. A higher center of gravity makes it too awkward to maintain the fine balance required to navigate in the high country.
Also, you should figure the total pounds you can safely carry in extreme country is about half what you are comfortable carrying in more moderate situations.
Read next: Wilderness First Aid Basics
The dangers of glaciers
If you have come to be in the high mountains of Canada or Alaska by reason of an airplane crash, you may well find yourself on a glacier since they are apt to be the most suitable emergency landing fields available. Glaciers also look like the easiest routes to walk out on. Beware! Looks are ever so deceiving.
Glaciers are riddled with crevasses that may be hundreds of feet deep. Often, especially in winter, these crevasses are completely hidden by snow. That snow may be solid enough to support your weight, and you will pass over never knowing what is below you. But then again, it may not hold you, in which case you will never be found.
The only safe way to travel on a glacier is roped with a partner or roped to a secure self-belay point. We recommend that aircraft carry at least 100 feet of rope of at least 1200-lb. strength, preferably a good rappel line, so that survivors can safely get off a glacier. If you are roped with a partner, you want to keep at least 50 feet between you, so if either one breaks through, the other person can dig in and arrest the fall.
It is important when traveling roped that you don’t allow slack in the line — this makes it a great deal more difficult to arrest a fall.
Self-belay, if you are traveling alone, means that you secure one end of the rope to some object buried in the snow firmly enough that it will hold you if you fall. Now you will walk out with line around your waist, letting the line out a little at a time.
When you have let out just under one half the length of your rope, you bury another object, secure the rope to it, and now work your way back the way you came, letting the line out around your waist as before.
When you reach the first buried object, you dig it up and carefully work your way back to the second object, taking the first one with you. Then you will belay yourself out another half rope length and bury the first object and repeat the process, sort of 2 steps forward, 1 step back until you have reached your destination.
The objects you use for your “deadmen” could be folding shovels, pack frames, aircraft seats, or whatever is available.
Unless you are an experienced mountain climber with proper climbing gear, attempt glacier travel only if you absolutely have to.
High mountains are a world all of their own, and though they may look terribly forbidding, they can be a reasonably safe environment if you are careful. Take a few hints from the mountain sheep who are at home on the high peaks.
Mountain sheep rarely run anywhere. Mostly they pick their way at a careful walk. They have excellent eyesight and spend a great deal of their time looking around. There is a lot we humans could learn from the mountain sheep and the awesome mountains where they live.