This article is all about how to plan a mountain walk or climb. On the one hand we almost certainly want it to be enjoyable, but also challenging leaving us feeling fulfilled. At the same time, it should be safe and not overstretch us leading to an accident.
Here’s one way of thinking about this tricky balancing act.
There are three main groups of factors that anyone should consider when planning a mountain walk or climb, and indeed continually during the walk or climb itself. This is all part of a continuous, dynamic risk assessment. These factors are broadly the same, whether it is summer or winter (and apply to many other adventure activities too).
Level of Personal Challenge
Under ‘personal challenge’, I am referring to the all the many aspects that determine our own (and our group’s) current level of ability and performance. This will include:
- Experience and competence.
- Personal skills – Such as ability to navigate, or climb at a certain grade etc.
- Clothing and Equipment – Having with us the equipment necessary for the task in hand and the knowledge of how to use them. This could include ropes and climbing equipment; tents or emergency shelters; or ice axe and crampons if it is winter etc.
- Psychological – Having the right mental preparation and being in the right frame of mind for what we are doing.
Difficulty of Route
The difficulty of the route is, of course, a major factor in planning a mountain walk or climb. This includes aspects such as:
- Technical grade.
- Length or distance of route.
- Level of danger.
- Navigational difficulty
Any consideration of the mountains is inextricably linked to a consideration of the weather. Sensible mountaineers will always study the weather in detail and make it an integral part of the plan for their walk or climb. It’s also vital to consider the weather at every altitude that is relevant too. The summit can be very different to the valley. Important details about the weather include:
- Wind – Speed and Direction.
- Temperature – Too hot cab be just as bad as too cold!
- Freezing level.
- Precipitation – Rain or snow.
- Cloud – Also mist and fog.
- Snow and avalanche dangers.
Planning the Perfect Mountain Day
The Perfect Day
A plan for the ideal mountain walking or climbing day will balance these three groups of factors perfectly. It will be just challenging enough to give us a sense of satisfaction and achievement, and will have pushed our own development on another step. We are likely to have learned something and ‘grown’ in the process. The route may have been a personal goal or target that we have now achieved. The weather may have thrown problems our way, but nothing that we weren’t prepared for or couldn’t handle.
We can imagine this as a perfectly prepared and presented pizza – a perfect circle with all the right ingredients in the right proportions.
The Unfulfilling Day
However, if we don’t put enough ingredients into our pizza, including enough dough, then the pizza plate will only be half covered. There will be a big slice missing and we will still be hungry.
For a mountain walking or climbing day, this is rather like having a very easy day, that is so far within our comfort zone that we are not stretched in the slightest. There is nothing inherently wrong with a day like this. We can have many highly enjoyable days like this. It’s just that if we only ever did days like this we would never be challenged, never learn anything new, and never develop our skills and our experience.
The Accident Day
We can go too far the other way too. We can try and cram too much onto the plate of pizza, piling on the dough and the ingredients. But something will have to give, and we will inevitably end up with a great mess of pizza on the floor.
These are the days when accidents are likely to happen. We take on too much, overstretch ourselves and get out of our depth. The route is too difficult for our current level of ability and experience, and the weather throws further obstacles our way. There is no margin for error as our plate is too full. This is when we fall, slip, get lost or stray into avalanche danger.
Planning Different Mountain Days
We can use this ‘pizza’ concept to help keep us on the right lines when planning a mountain walk or climb. Usually, there will be one of these groups of factors that becomes more prominent on any given day. If this is the case, then that group of factors will take up a little, or a lot, more space on our pizza plate. So that we don’t overload the pizza plate, it follows that there is much less space for the other two groups to take up. So we must reduce their involvement accordingly.
The Personal Skills Day
On a day like this, we are likely to want to ‘push’ the personal and group factors to the edge of the comfort zone. Perhaps we want to undertake a physically demanding walk; or experiment with new clothing or equipment; or try some new rope techniques; or improve our navigational skills. We will stretch ourselves in one or more ways.
So the pizza is already taken up with very large portion of ‘personal challenge’. There is less space on the plate for the effects of the weather and a route that is inherently difficult. It is therefore sensible to try these things when the weather is on our side and on routes that are not in themselves difficult, complicated or dangerous.
The Hard Route Day
On other days, the over-riding aim may be to do something technically difficult. For example, we may wish to try and lead our first E1 rock climb. In this case, it is the nature of the difficulty of the route that occupies the biggest portion of the pizza.
A sensible choice might be an E1 climb on a safe and accessible single-pitch crag, rather than attempting a route on Ben Nevis with its navigational challenges and where the weather may quickly turn against you.
The Bad Weather Day
At other times, we may already know that the weather forecast is poor and is likely to limit what we can do. We could stay inside, but still want to go out and do ‘something’.
In bad weather a suitable choice might be to do a route that is easy, safe and not complicated and to stay well within the limits of our current skillset and level of fitness.
Many mountain accidents are almost destined to happen in the planning stage. If not at this stage, then the foundations are laid during the walk or climb when the situation changes but we have failed to recognise it. We are not aware that our pizza is becoming dangerously overloaded in one or more areas.
To plan an enjoyable, challenging but safe mountain walk or climb consider the three groups of factors related to your personal experience and skills; the route itself; and the effect of the weather on the environment around you. Allocate each of these the right amount of space on your pizza plate. Keep an eye on this throughout the day and throughout your climb or walk.
Don’t be over-ambitious, or ‘greedy’, and end up with pizza splattered all over the floor.