Notes on mountain 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.

  • An uphill slope represents challenge. A peak represents achievement. Climbing lets you create your own reward cycle, a source of satisfaction you can go back to again and again (weather permitting).

    Some notes on this theory:

    • The descent doesn't seem to have any symbolic role in this scheme. Personally, I'd just as soon take an elevator down. Other people do things like parasailing and skiing.
    • It can be argued that the satisfaction from a climb is a solitary, selfish pleasure. Your climb didn't benefit the world. Can't you find an activity (like promoting negative population growth) that does?
    • What if the satisfaction fades? What if, like a junkie, you have to climb harder and harder peaks to maintain the same pleasure level, until you reach to point of risking your life?
    • Some people (e.g. my mother) feel that people climb mountains to compensate for lack of accomplishment or recognition in other areas of their life, e.g. the professional area. This is perhaps true. But who's to say which accomplishment is more meaningful? I personally feel that current goal systems - like making a billion dollars and building a garish dream home - are vacuous, and the people who pursue them are compensating for lack of climbing accomplishment.
  • Climbing allows (and often forces) you to explore and extend your physical limitations, and to explore the interactions between mind and body. Athletes find this interesting.
  • Danger. I like a certain amount of danger. It's a cliche - fine - but danger makes me feel alive. This is an evolved trait: there's danger in hunting large animals, exploring new territories, etc. To put it bluntly, the risk-takers got laid, and the cave-cowerers didn't. And here we are.

    In any case, the danger in climbing can be reduced to whatever level you want. You can rope up with experts, wear an avalanche vest and beacon, etc. etc. Walking across a crevasse on a ladder can be a heart-pounding thrill, but if you do it right there's essentially zero danger.

  • Physical pleasure. If you climb within your limits, it feels really good while you're climbing. It can also feel good (the warm, achy feeling) afterwards.
  • The beauty of the outdoors. Let's not overlook this. Nature is the world's greatest artist, at scales ranging from mountain ranges down to the tiniest lichen.

Types of climbing

  • Casual climbing: see a peak, climb it. Walk a few miles on a sunny day.
  • Technical climbing: conditions require that you know something and perhaps have something (a map or equipment). Failure to do so will make the climb difficult and/or dangerous.
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.

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.

Copyright 2024 © David P. Anderson