Thursday, 14 October 2010

Hillwalking and Mountaineering

Whilst in the Alps, it became clear to me - a sudden, striking epiphany - that there was a path I needed to take, a progression of my ambitions, which led towards far higher ascents than I was hitherto used to. Not because I want to tick off ever higher peaks in some purely mathematical strategy but instead when staring at these leviathans as I walked between them, I wanted instead to summit them, experience them directly, and relish those rare moments of complete peace, gazing out across the topography of the landscape around me in a way that can only be appreciated from altitude. I love hillwalking - it provides for me a sense of release and pleasure that no other aspect of my life provides. Mountaineering is a more intense distillation of those emotions.

Backpacking in its broadest sense, about which this journal is written, has always occupied a fond and special place in my heart. The prospect of hauling on a pack and simply
going has always been a source of liberation and jouissance. That’s why independent travel has long been as fundamental to me as the hills. Mountaineering can be seen as a progression of that - the continuation of the concept of going wherever your feet can carry you - but, conversely is also a completely different path. Rock climbing - arriving at a roadside rock wall and scaling it - does not particularly thrill me. Perhaps one day it will, but not yet. Getting to the top of the Eiger, for example, by whatever means, and those precious moments spent on the summit, would be far more important to me than the technical achievement of doing it via the North Face. In that sense, mountaineering is for me simply the logical extension of hillwalking but with an added skill-set. Winter is much the same. However, that added skill-set is a most serious and important one. As Stuart Johnston and Terry Adby have observed, the line between hillwalking and mountaineering has blurred to the point of nebulousness - for most hillwalkers, scrambling is as much as part of a day in the hills as walking. From Grade I to Grade 2, the true segue from hillwalking to mountaineering begins and aspects of both disciplines feature in both Grades. So why has this happened to me? I don’t know. For over 150 years, since the Golden Age of Alpinism, people have asked why we climb mountains and never has a single response found favour with me. Barrington, Mallory, Bonnington, Messner - they all had answers as to ‘why’. Some were cleverer than others. I don’t have answers - I just know it’s something I love.

So when I returned from the Alps, I began to plan for 2011. It was always going to be an important year - the birth of our first child being far and away the most significant and life-affirming event (any day now). Consequently, I had to plan my free time as there would not be as much of it as I’d have hoped for so I need to make optimum use of it. Further, I still want to take the Mountain Leader award at some point in the next few years and anything I learn as I develop a mountaineering and winter skill-set will enhance my experience and knowledge within that theatre too.

The focal point of the year would be the Classic Haute Route in August/September 2011. I’ll post on that in due course, but this 12 day trek, very often above 3000m and with several 3,700m+ summits, would require a skill-set that required developing. In and of itself it would prove invaluable experience. Thus, in order to prepare for it, I decided that an indoor rock-climbing course and a winter mountaineering course would adequately commence that process. The former, easily done in London, I can do in the winter months and is an 8-10hr course designed to engender an understanding of the basic principles of ropework, belaying and climbing. The latter, a 5-day intensive course in the Cairngorms in February 2011, will build on the wall-climbing course and my own experience, teaching me the fundamental winter, and mountaineering, skills I’ll need to progress to mountaineering in the Alps. Skills such as:

  • Winter navigation and route finding 
  • Movement over winter terrain 
  • Use of ice axe and self arrest 
  • Crampon techniques 
  • Simple ropework and belaying 
  • Winter emergency procedures 
  • Avalanche prediction and snow stability 
  • Snow and avalanche hazards 
  • Winter mountaineering equipment selection 
  • Cold injuries and health
  • Shelters in winter and, particularly, snow

This is a slow process - it is not something to be learnt overnight and a patient, steady evolution will permit new skills to bond with my own experience, perception and outlook. I don’t expect to be mountaineering in the Alps without a guide next year - of course not - but I do expect to be adding far more Grade 1 scrambles to my hillwalking in the summer and spending more time in Scotland in late 2011 and early 2012 - reaping the rewards of the experience garnered through more time in the Alps. Backpacking is about freedom and there is no greater key to freedom than educated experience.

My first step has been to upgrade and add to my gear. I will be posting specifically on that imminently when final purchases are made. My second step, inextricably linked to the first, has been to get some rudimentary reading done. Andy Kirkpatrick is a superb orator and has a clean, crisp, down-to-earth writing style which is easy to digest. He has penned dozens of articles on selection of kit and techniques as well as a rather enjoyable book - Psychovertical. I am slowly devouring all of them. The dangers of mountaineering, at the elite level (it’s dangerous at all levels, of course, but there tends inexorably to be less public fascination with weekend warriors) are well told by any number of writers - Joe Simpson, Jon Krakauer, Kirkpatrick himself - as well as others more legendary - Messner and Harrer, for example. There are also two very useful resources I have been perusing these last few weeks - Johnston and Adby,
A Hillwalker’s Guide to Mountaineering, Cicerone Press 2003 and Cunningham and Fyffe, Winter Skills: Essential Walking and Climbing Techniques, UKMTB 2007. Between them, these two books provide a basic grounding in all the skills and issues required to understand the path towards mountaineering for those of us used to hills rather than mountains and for those of us for whom 3-season hillwalking might now be extended to include all-year, technical, hillwalking.

It’s an exciting period for me - a sharp diversion from the path I have been on for some years which heralds the evolution of new skills and the opportunity for new experiences. 


  1. Maz - sounds an excellent plan. A chap I know who has a lot of experience in the alps and has climbed in the Urals, said to me that a good 5 day course in the Scottish mountains in the winter is always good prep for the alps, when we discussed the subject. Although he says it is far too cold !

  2. In early February, I guess it'll be even colder than I am expecting!