Notes on Climbing

random trip report

Material on climbing, partly personal observations, partly from the RMI Mt. Rainier climbing class.

Here's a checklist for climbing Mt. Shasta.

Why do people climb?

Climbing is hard and sometimes dangerous. So, why do people climb? Why, in particular, do I climb? Here are some factors. Please mail me if you have something to add.

A poem by Wilhelm Muller

(translated by Mirian Abramowitsch)

The Signpost

Why do I avoid the paths
That other wanderers tread,
and seek out hidden trails
through snowy, rocky heights?

I have done nothing
that I should shun people --
what foolish longing
drives me into the wilderness?

Signs stand on the paths,
pointing toward the towns,
and I walk aimlessly,
without rest, seeking rest.

One signpost I see standing
immovable before my gaze;
one road I must travel
from which no one has ever returned.

Types of climbing

Of course, there's a continuum. And how you approach a climb is a personal choice. Sometimes it's fun to be casual; sometimes it's foolish.


At its most basic, climbing is about generating a high level of energy output, sustained for a long period (my guess is that 8 hours of hard climbing burns as many calories as running a marathon). This involves several interrelated physiological elements:

Heat management
Your body is most efficient when it's at a comfortable temperature: neither sweating nor shivering. Achieving this requires some forethought. Climbing consists of alternating periods of moving and resting. When you're moving, you produce lots of heat, and you have to dress lightly; when you first start walking, you should be cold. For example, if it's above freezing and not windy you might wear poly long-johns top and bottom. If it's in the 20's you might wear an additional fleece layer, but no shell. You can do a lot of fine-tuning with headgear and gloves.

When you're resting, you have to avoid getting cold. Generally you are a little sweaty; you can't let this evaporate all at once. Put on a shell immediately, or if it's below freezing, a down parka.

You need lots of oxygen to use energy. Normal breathing doesn't suffice, especially at high altitude. There's a technique called pressure breathing. Inhale quickly, and fill your lungs completely, expanding both ribcage and diaphragm. Then exhale explosively; this will puff out your cheeks and make a noise of some sort. If you exhale normally, your breathing rate will be too slow. If you're a runner, you know about pressure breathing, but it might not occur to you to use it while walking.
Nutrition and hydration
Eat and drink constantly while climbing. Not necessarily while you're moving - this can be dangerous - but eat and drink something at each rest stop. What you eat now is your fuel two hours from now.

How to walk

When you're climbing up a steep slope, try the rest-step technique: start with your weight on you downhill leg, and lock that leg. Note that you can relax in this position. Then lift your downhill foot, take a quick step up, and transfer weight to your other foot. Pause and rest for a split-second. Repeat.

Over several hours, these moments of rest add up. Also, on snow, the rest-step encourages you to drive your foot (toe or edge) into snow, which gives you a better grip.

Going up a steep slope, use your edges by either side-stepping or duck-walking. This saves your calf muscles.

Try using a walking stick. This shifts effort from legs to arms, and reduces shock on knees and back. Ski poles can achieve the same effect, and they also help you keep your balance with a heavy pack.

On a level rocky trail, reduce your effort by picking your steps carefully. Go around instead of over. Take shorter steps instead of longer.

Walking on scree or loose rock is an art that I can't explain. It's a dance-like art form, and it uses 100% of your brain and visual processing system. Some people, like Mike O'Brien, seem to be naturally good at it. The most important thing is safety - avoid rocks that will tip when you step on them. I look for rocks with low potential energy - i.e., nestled down among other rocks. On the other hand, sometimes it's better to skim along the top edges of a sequence of tilted rocks.


The logistics of technical climbing are daunting. There are lots of things: Gaiters. Crampons. Sweaters and fleece. Shells. Parka. Gloves - liners, fleece, shells. Hats. Balaclava. Food. Water. Sunglasses.

You have to remember them all; in some cases you have to decide whether to take them, or which ones to take. And you have to decide how to pack, so you can find the things you need quickly. At a rest break, for example, you need to have your parka or shell out and on in about 10 seconds, and water and food in your mouth within a minute.

Copyright 2019 © David P. Anderson