Lessons from and for the alpine

26th Aug 2017

I have been reading lots about mishaps, accidents and even deaths in the trail running, scrambling and hiking worlds recently and, for obvious reasons, it really strikes home. Some of these incidents are more serious than others, but, based on experience, competence, terrain and how one views a situation, even a seemingly benign trail hike in the alpine can quickly turn bad if a party is not comfortable, prepared, or equipped to handle it.
Alpine environments are dramatic and beautiful and covering terrain under your own power can be incredibly rewarding, however the alpine is dynamic, unpredictable and can be very dangerous.
Kilian Jornet and Will Gadd have both recently put up excellent posts about a few of the lessons that they’ve learned and continue to learn about alpine outings. I urge you to go and check them out. This is a brief summary of their posts:
-Mountains are rad and moving through them is rad.
-Mountains and mountain sports involve a lifelong learning process. It seems like the longer people spend in them the more they realize how little they actually know about them.
-The alpine can change dramatically day to day and even throughout a day. Understand aspects, the impact of the sun (especially when snow and ice are involved) and always be alert for potential hazards (watch for clouds and storms rolling in, understand what’s above you that could fall on you etc…). Learn by watching, always be attentive.
-Know what gear you need to be safe in the environment you’re in. There is a real push towards romanticizing “light and fast”, especially with alpine running, and it is indeed inspiring and liberating, which is great, but light and fast can also quickly turn towards cold, tired and hungry, to being in serious in trouble, to having accidents with serious consequence. Think of that extra bit of gear as training and really, most safety gear is so light these days that it hardly counts.
-Know what you don’t know. That includes knowing yourself and being honest about your actual limits and competency is. Knowing how good you aren’t in different terrain is often more important than knowing how good you are, even worse is thinking you’re better than you are. ---The counter to that is that the only way to learn is to go out. Get out as much as you can and in as many varieties of terrain as you can. You’ll expand your bag of tricks and knowledge that way, but take those steps incrementally. It’s also a good idea to take courses and learn the fundamentals from trained professionals. You can learn so much from them about how they move, how they assess dangers, make decisions etc…
-Don’t get yourself into a situation you’re not comfortable with. Don't be pressured into making bad decisions. Also, know your partners, as well as their competence and comfort levels.
-Start early and bail early. It is far better to start early to give yourself contingency and then to turn around before things go south. At least you will have gotten out and will have made it home to talk about it.
-Especially for more pure alpine objectives, don’t become fixated on an objective. Narrowly defining success by getting to a summit, or finishing a traverse is far too limiting and can force you into bad decision making. Have more general goals like getting home, framing it by "attempting" a route, moving in an area etc... Know when you have to let go of your A goal and make sure you have a retreat option. Be cool with it, view it is a success. The cool thing about mountains is that they aren't going anywhere in our lifetime (well, maybe some glaciers, but that's a different post...)
-Have a look at a map and weather before you go and let people know where you’re going, always!
-When scrambling, moving along a ridge, or working up steep snow/ice make sure your feet are secure. You should only move as fast as your feet are secure.
-Get out there and check things out. You never know until you go. You can learn a lot by going out in questionable conditions and just observing what’s happening, but be extra conservative on those days.
-Fitness is not a replacement for technical competence in mountain environments. In fact, it can almost be a detriment because you can get yourself out there farther and faster before you realize you’re in over your head.
-Instagram, Facebook etc... can be deadly and misleading. Remember those pictures and recaps never tell a full story (I am as guilty of this as anyone).
-Do a recap of what you learned and saw, what you did right, or wrong and what you need to work on at the end of your day
-Having an "epic" can be a (harsh) way to learn, but it is mostly a sign that you messed up. Assess what you did wrong and learn from it.
-Every day is a good day to come home
Play safe, learn lots and have fun out there!