Mountain climbing is a hazardous pursuit played out on snow, glaciers, rock and ice. Toss in extremes in weather, thin air and altitude and you have a volatile mix that most of us consider a challenge.

While athletic ability and experience make the best and safest mountain climbers, these climbers also use technical knowledge to safely make it to the peak and back down again. You may have found that climbing the wall at your gym gives you great satisfaction and may whet your ambitions to climb real rock, but you should know a few things about the dangers in mountain climbing, dangers that only crampons, ice picks and luck can change the outcome of.

Climbing Hazards

Climbing dangers can be divided into two types: objective failures and subjective hazards. Objective failures refer to hazards not under the climber’s control, including poor weather, avalanches, altitude and solar radiation. Mountains are in a constant state of erosion from wind and water. Overnight temperatures may have temporally glued rocks to the slope, but with the coming sunlight the rocks loosen and fall away.

Experienced climbers know how to read ice, to see where ice will fall and what time of day it is the safest to cross a stretch of ice. Meanwhile, avalanches kill hundreds of people each year and come in two types: loose snow and slab. A slab avalanche occurs when a section of snow breaks loose. They are large and the most dangerous. A hard slab will slide downhill in a solid layer or in large portions, flattening anything in its path. Soft slab avalanches break up more easily but still pose a serious threat. Loose snow avalanches start as a small amount of tumbling snow and roll into a growing, deadly mass. Avalanches are typically triggered by climbers who take a wrong step or make the wrong move. Victims are knocked down and deluged under snow, sometimes crushing and eventually suffocating the victim. Others are pushed off a cliff and fall to their death.

Crevasses are deep chasms in glaciers that can be hidden underneath thin sheets of ice and snow. Only an experienced climber can identify a hidden crevasse just like an experienced fly fisherman can read a stream to find trout. Rope and picks are the only safeguards against a crevasse, stopping a free fall into these massive slits that can be thousands of feet deep.

Weather can also change rapidly. Speak with any experienced climber and they will tell you that rain, snow and lightning can stifle a climb and bring you to your knees. High winds can also cause hypothermia while whiteout conditions can cause climbers to literally walk off an unseen edge.

There is also less oxygen at higher altitudes, making it difficult to breathe and can lead to altitude sickness, which has symptoms similar to carbon monoxide poisoning, the flu or a hangover. At about 8,000 feet, altitude sickness can occur. Altitude sickness can lead to high-altitude cerebral edema and high-altitude pulmonary edema, both of which can be fatal within 24 hours if not treated. A high-altitude cerebral edema swells the brain with fluid due to the high altitude, while fluid accumulates in the lungs with a high-altitude pulmonary edema.

Peak Performance

Subjective hazards are those caused by the climber and can range from equipment failure and fatigue to poor technique. Mistakes and lapses in judgment can prove deadly. Undertaking a hiking trip means hardcore training. You will need to build strength, increase stamina and acclimatize to altitude.

Hit the gym and exercises like squats, bench presses and military presses will help build strength. Since you carry all your gear with you on a climb, hiking with a full pack is smart. Endurance training with continuous movement and high-intensity intervals will get you to where you need to be. Running, mountain biking, hiking or walking up and down stairs with your pack are all good options. You also need to mentally prepare for pain and cold. Mountain climbing is major exertion on your body and willpower. Just when you feel your body giving out on you, you need a burst of adrenaline to continue, because if you don’t you could die.

Many climbers start out with second-hand gear, so it is important to examine gear and replace equipment when it shows signs of being worn. Each climber is different, and only through experience will you know what equipment works best for you. A retailer that specializes in climbing with get you the gear you need to safely progress from smaller rocks
to major climbs.

With less oxygen and constantly climbing upward, fatigue quickly sets in and can cause a climber to make a misstep that could be their last. To combat fatigue and keep your body fueled, you will need fluids and food. The general rule is 3 to 4 quarts of water a day, but that will depend on where you are climbing. In warm climes you may need more water, or less in colder ones.

Remember to drink before you are thirsty. If you are thirsty that means you are down on water. If your urine is yellow, it means you are becoming dehydrated. Your evening meal should be a carbohydrate-heavy dinner consisting of something like pasta. At least 60 percent of your meal should consist of carbs. A protein will help keep you warm as you sleep, however, as it is harder to digest. During a climb, carbohydrates provide fuel. Energy bars that contain carbohydrates, protein and fat as well as other nutrients will give you energy during the climb. Carry your bars in your pockets so they don’t freeze and are easier to eat.

Higher Ground

Mountain climbing is not an adventure to be blindly embraced. Only experience, endurance and luck can ensure your survival. In emergency situations, perils on the ground can sometimes dictate the need to look up for an escape. If a mass evacuation is called for and all routes out of town are blocked, living in or near mountainous terrain may be a benefit for you and your family.

As part of your bug-out plan, incorporate long-distance hiking and mountain climbing to get to your safe area, which may be several feet above sea level. However, never make the mistake of waiting until the last minute to test these plans with every member of your group. Make the special arrangements needed for group members with limitations, such as the disabled or elderly, and prepare an action plan for pets as well. This is a perfect example of how becoming proficient in a challenging, recreational activity can get you prepped and ready to respond when disaster strikes.

Safe Spelunking

Spelunking, or the exploration of caves, introduces us to an underground world of beautiful rock formations, waterfalls, streams and tight crawl spaces that open into vast rooms. It is also cold, muddy and fraught with dangers. Here are some safety tips that will get you in and out.

EQUIPMENT CHECK: Helmets protect against low ceilings, falls and other protrusions. A hands-free light like a headlamp allows you to climb and balance without the need to hold a flashlight. Always have a backup light in case your primary fails.

GROUP TRIPS: Always go caving with at least one other person, but the more the better. More people means there are more to aid in the case of an injury. Also make sure someone above ground knows where you are going. Send a text before going in.

MOVE WITH CAUTION: Caves can be slippery or have low ceilings, and the ground is often uneven. Use caution as you may need to crawl or climb vertically. Research the cave you are entering so you know what to expect.

This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Winter 2016 edition. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.

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