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Mountaineering is the sport or hobby of climbing mountains and is sometimes also known as alpinism, particularly in Europe. It may be said to consist of two main aspects, rock-craft and snow-craft, depending on whether the route chosen is over rock or over snow and ice. Both require great gymnastic and technical ability, but experience is also very important for the latter.



The dangers which the craft of climbing has been developed to avoid are of two main kinds: the danger of things falling on the traveller and the danger of the climber falling himself. The things that may fall are rocks, ice and snow; the mountaineer may fall from rocks, ice or snow, or into crevasses in ice or snow. There are also dangers from weather. Thus in all there are eight chief dangers: falling rocks, falling ice, snow-avalanches, falls from difficult rocks, falls from ice slopes, falls down snow slopes, falls into crevasses, dangers from weather. To select and follow a route avoiding these dangers is to exercise the climber's craft.

Falling Rocks

Every rock mountain is falling apart due to erosion, the process being especially rapid above the snow-line. Rock faces are constantly swept by falling stones, which are generally possible to dodge. Falling rocks tend to form furrows in a mountain face, and these furrows (couloirs) have to be ascended with caution, their sides often being safe when the middle is stoneswept. Rocks fall more frequently on some days than on others, according to the recent weather. Ice formed during the night may temporarily bind rocks to the face but warmth of the day or direct sun exposure may easily dislodge these rocks. Local experience is a valuable help on such a question.

The direction of the dip of rock strata often determines whether a particular face is safe or dangerous; the character of the rock must also be considered. Where stones fall frequently debris will be found below, whilst on snow slopes falling stones cut furrows visible from a great distance. In planning an ascent of a new peak mountaineers must look for such traces. When falling stones get mixed in considerable quantity with slushy snow or water a mud avalanche is formed (common in the Himalaya). It is vital to avoid camping in their possible line of fall.

Falling Ice

The places where ice may fall can always be determined beforehand. It falls in the broken parts of glaciers (seracs) and from overhanging cornices formed on the crests of narrow ridges. Large icicles are often formed on steep rockfaces, and these fall frequently in fine weather following cold and stormy days. They have to be avoided like falling stones. Seracs are slow in formation, and slow in arriving (by glacier motion) at a condition of unstable equilibrium. They generally fall in or just after the hottest part of the day, and their debris seldom goes far. A skilful and experienced ice-man will usually devise a safe route through a most intricate ice-fall, but such places should be avoided in the afternoon of a hot day. Hanging glaciers (i.e. glaciers perched on steep slopes) often discharge themselves over steep rock-faces, the snout breaking off at intervals. They can always be detected by their debris below. Their track should be avoided.

Snow Avalanches

The avalanche is the most underestimated danger in the mountains. People generally think that they will be able to recognise the hazards and survive being caught. The truth is a somewhat different story. 120 - 150 people die in small avalanches every year in the alps alone. The vast majority are reasonably experienced male skiers aged 20-35 but also include ski instructors and guides. There is always a lot of pressure to risk a snow crossing. Turning back takes a lot of extra time and effort, supreme leadership, and most importantly there seldom is an avalanche to prove the right decision was made. Making the decision to turn around is especially hard if others are crossing the slope, but any next person could become the trigger.

There are two types of avalanche:

  1. The slab avalanche: This type of avalanche occurs when a plate of snow breaks loose and starts sliding down; these are the largest and most dangerous.
  2. The powder avalanche: This type of avalanche is triggered by a small amount of moving snow that accumulates into a big slide. Also known as a "loose snow" avalanche.

Dangerous slides are most likely to occur on the same slopes preferred by many skiers: long and wide open, few trees or large rocks, 35 to 40 degrees of angle, big load of fresh snow, soon after a big storm, on a sunny afternoon. This is a recipe for disaster. Ninety percent of reported victims are caught in avalanches triggered by themselves or others in their group.

When going off-piste or travelling in alpine terrain, parties have a moral responsibility to always carry:

  1. avalanche beacons
  2. probes
  3. shovels (retrieving victims with a shovel instead of your hands is five times faster)

and to have had avalanche training! Paradoxically, expert skiers who have avalanche training make up a large percentage of avalanche fatalities; perhaps because they are overly confident.

Even with proper rescue equipment and training, there is a one-in-five chance of dying if caught in a significant avalanche, and only a 50/50 chance of being found alive if buried more than a few minutes. The best solution is to learn how to avoid risky conditions.

See also avalanche article for further information on the dangers and precautions.

Falls from rocks

The skill of a rock climber is shown by his choice of handhold and foothold, and his adhesion to those he has chosen. Much depends on a correct estimate of the firmness of the rock where weight is to be thrown upon it. Many loose rocks are quite firm enough to bear a person's weight, but experience is needed to know which can be trusted, and skill is required in transferring the weight to them without jerking. On rotten rocks the rope must be handled with special care, lest it should start loose stones on to the heads of those below. Similar care must be given to handholds and footholds, for the same reason. When a horizontal traverse has to be made across very difficult rocks, a dangerous situation may arise unless at both ends of the traverse there be firm positions. Mutual assistance on hard rocks takes all manner of forms: two, or even three, men climbing on one anothers shoulders, or using for foothold an ice axe propped up by others. The great principle is that of co-operation, all the members of the party climbing with reference to the others, and not as independent units; each when moving must know what the man in front and the man behind are doing. After bad weather steep rocks are often found covered with a veneer of ice (verglas), which may even render them inaccessible. Crampons are useful on such occasions.

Ice Slopes

For travel on slopes consisting of ice or hard snow, crampons are a standard part of a mountaineer's equipment. While step-cutting can sometimes be used on snow slopes of moderate angle, this can be a slow and tiring process, which does not provide the higher security of crampons. However, in soft snow or powder, crampons are easily hampered by balling of snow which reduce their effectiveness. In either case, an ice axe not only assists with balance but provides the climber with the possibility of self-arrest in case of a slip or fall. On a true ice slope however, an ice axe is rarely able to effect a self-arrest. As an additional safety precaution on steep ice slopes, the climbing rope is attached to ice screws buried into the ice.

True ice slopes are rare in Europe, though common in mountains located in the tropics, where newly-fallen snow quickly thaws on the surface and becomes sodden below, so that the next night's frost turns the whole mass into a sheet of solid ice.

Snow Slopes

Missing image
Part of the Haute Route on French, Swiss border; two alpinists can be seen following the trail in the snow.

Snow slopes are very common, and usually easy to ascend. At the foot of a snow or ice slope is generally a big crevasse, called a bergschrund, where the final slope of the mountain rises from a snow-field or glacier. Such bergschrunds are generally too wide to be stridden, and must be crossed by a snow bridge, which needs careful testing and a painstaking use of the rope. A steep snow slope in bad condition may be dangerous, as the whole body of snow may start as an avalanche. Such slopes are less dangerous if ascended directly than obliquely, for an oblique or horizontal track cuts them across and facilitates movement of the mass. New snow lying on ice is especially dangerous. Experience is needful for deciding on the advisability of advancing over snow in doubtful condition. Snow on rocks is usually rotten unless it be thick; snow on snow is likely to be sound. A day or two of fine weather will usually bring new snow into sound condition. Snow cannot lie at a very steep angle, though it often deceives the eye as to its slope. Snow slopes seldom exceed 40. Ice slopes may be much steeper. Snow slopes in early morning are usually hard and safe, but the same in the afternoon are quite soft and possibly dangerous; hence the advantage of an early start.


Crevasses are the slits or deep chasms formed in the substance of a glacier as it passes over an uneven bed. They may be open or hidden. In the lower part of a glacier the crevasses are open. Above the snow-line they are frequently hidden by arched-over accumulations of winter snow. The detection of hidden crevasses requires care and experience. After a fresh fall of snow they can only be detected by sounding with the pole of the ice axe, or by looking to right and left where the open extension of a partially hidden crevasse may be obvious. The safeguard against accident is the rope, and no one should ever cross a snow-covered glacier unless roped to one, or even better to two companions.


The primary dangers caused by bad weather centre around the changes it causes in snow and rock conditions, making movement suddenly much more arduous and hazardous than under normal circumstances. Whiteouts make it difficult to retrace a route while rain may prevent taking the easiest line only determined as such under dry conditions. In a storm the mountaineer who uses a compass for guidance has a great advantage over a merely empirical observer. In large snow-fields it is, of course, easier to go wrong than on rocks, but intelligence and experience are the best guides in safely navigating objective hazards.

Summer thunderstorms may produce intense lightning which are attracted to the highest points on the ground. If a climber happens to be standing on or near the summit, they may now in fact be the highest point. There are many cases where people have been struck by lighting while climbing mountains. In most mountainous regions, local storms develop by late morning and early afternoon. Many climbers will often begin ascents "alpine style"; that is before or by first light so as to be on the way down when storms are intensifying in activity and lightning and other weather hazards are a distinct threat to safety.


  • Though it is unlikely that his intention was to reach a summit, tzi ascended at least 3,000 m in the Alps about 5300 years ago. His remains were found at that altitude, preserved in a glacier.
  • The first recorded mountain ascent in the Common Era is Roman Emperor Hadrian's ascent of Etna (3,350 m) to see the sun rise in 121.
  • Peter III of Aragon climbed Canigou in the Pyrenees in the last quarter of the 13th century.
  • On April 26, 1336 the Italian poet Petrarch together with his brother and two other companions climbed to the top of Mont Ventoux (1,909 m). He wrote an account of the trip, composed considerably later as a letter to his friend Francesco Dionigi. Therefore, April 26, 1336 is regarded as the "birthday of alpinism", and Petrarch (Petrarca alpinista) as the "father of alpinism".
  • The Rochemelon (3,538 m) in the Italian Alps was climbed in 1358.
  • In 1492 the ascent of Mont Aiguille was made by order of Charles VIII of France. The Humanists of the 16th century adopted a new attitude towards mountains, but the disturbed state of Europe nipped in the bud the nascent mountaineering of the Zurich school.
  • Leonardo da Vinci climbed to a snow-field in the neighborhood of the Val Sesia and made scientific observations.
  • In 1642 Darby Field made the first recorded ascent of Mount Washington, then known as Agiocochook, in a part of Maine later called New Hampshire in New England.
  • Konrad Gesner and Josias Simler of Zurich visited and described mountains, and made regular ascents. The use of ice axe and rope were locally invented at this time. No mountain expeditions of note are recorded in the 17th century.
  • Pococke and Windham's historic visit to Chamonix was made in 1741, and set the trend of visiting glaciers.
  • In 1744 the Titus was climbed, the first true ascent of a snow-mountain.
  • The first attempt to ascend Mont Blanc was made in 1775 by a party of natives. In 1786 Dr Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat gained the summit for the first time. Horace-Bndict de Saussure, the initiator of the first ascent followed next year.
  • The Jungfrau was climbed in 1811, the Finsteraarhorn in 1812, and the Breithorn in 1813. Thereafter, tourists showed a tendency to climb, and the body of Alpine guides began to come into existence as a consequence.
  • Systematic mountaineering, as a sport, is usually dated from Sir Alfred Willss ascent of the Wetterhorn in 1854. The first ascent of Monte Rosa was made in 1855.
  • The Alpine Club was founded in London in 1857, and was soon imitated in most European countries. Edward Whymper's ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 marks the close of the main period of Alpine conquest, during which the craft of climbing was invented and perfected, the body of professional guides formed and their traditions fixed.
  • Passing to other ranges, the exploration of the Pyrenees was concurrent with that of the Alps. The Caucasus followed, mainly owing to the initiative of D. W. Freshfield; it was first visited by exploring climbers in 1868, and most of its great peaks were climbed by 1888.
  • Trained climbers turned their attention to the mountains of North America in 1888, when the Rev. W. S. Green made an expedition to the Selkirk Mountains. From that time exploration has gone on apace, and many English and American climbing parties have surveyed most of the highest groups of snow-peaks; Pikes Peak (14,147 ft.) having been climbed by Mr. E. James and party in 1820, and Mt. Saint Elias (18,024 ft.) by the Duke of the Abruzzi and party in 1897. The exploration of the highest Andes was begun in 1879-1880, when Whymper climbed Mount Chimborazo and explored the mountains of Ecuador. The Cordillera between Chile and Argentina was attacked by Dr. Gussfeldt in 1883, who ascended Maipo (17,752 ft.) and attempted Aconcagua (23,393 ft.). That peak was first climbed by the Fitzgerald expedition in 1897.
  • The Andes of Bolivia were first explored by Sir William Martin Conway in 1898. Chilean and Argentine expeditions revealed the structure of the southern Cordillera in the years 1885-1898. Conway visited the mountains of Tierra del Fuego.
  • The Alps of New Zealand were first attacked in 1882 by the Rev. W. S. Green, and shortly afterwards a New Zealand Alpine Club was founded, and by their activities the exploration of the range was pushed forward. In 1895 Mr. E. A. Fitzgerald made an important journey in this range.
  • Of the high African peaks, Kilimanjaro was climbed in 1889 by Dr. Hans Meyer, Mt. Kenya in 1889 by Halford John Mackinder, and a peak of Ruwenzori by H. J. Moore in 1900.
  • The Asiatic mountains were initially surveyed on orders of the British Empire. In 1892 Sir William Martin Conway explored the Karakoram Himalaya, and climbed a peak of 23,000 ft. In 1895 Albert F. Mummery made a fatal attempt to ascend Nanga Parbat, while in 1899 D. W. Freshfield took an expedition to the snowy regions of Sikkim. In 1899, 1903, 1906 and 1908 Mrs Fannie Bullock Workman made ascents in the Himalayas, including one of the Nun Kun peaks (23,300 ft.). A number of Gurkha sepoys were trained as expert mountaineers by Major the Hon. C. G. Bruce, and a good deal of exploration was accomplished by them.
  • The first mountains of the arctic region explored were those of Spitzbergen by Sir W. M. Conway's expeditions in 1896 and 1897.
  • The American Alpine Club was founded in 1902.
  • The 1950s saw the first ascents of all the eight-thousanders but two, starting with Annapurna in 1950 by Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal. The world's highest mountain (above mean sea level), Mount Everest (8,850m) was first climbed on May 29 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay from the south side in Nepal. Just a few months later, Hermann Buhl made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat (8,125m), which was even more remarkable considering he accomplished it solo, which ended up being the only eight-thousander to be solo'd on the first ascent. K2 (8,611m), the second highest peak in the world was first scaled in 1954. In 1964, the final eight-thousander to be climbed was Shishapangma (8,013m), the lowest of all the 8,000 metre peaks.

See also




cs:Alpinismus de:Bergsteigen es:Montaismo fr:Alpinisme it:Alpinismo ja:登山 pl:Wspinaczka grska pt:Montanhismo sl:Gorništvo tr:Dağcılık he:טיפוס הרים


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