Region III Quarterly

Volume 3 - No. 2

April, 1941


By Ernest K. Field,
Park Ranger,
Rocky Mountain National Park.

Since that day in the dim past when the first man went out of his way to climb his first mountain, this question has arisen to harass climbers the world over: "Why do you climb mountains?" It is a question which rarely passes between two climbers, but which is invariably asked by one who has never climbed. It has a multitude of answers, any two of which seldom are exact, and all of which fail to convince the inquirer as to just why we do climb mountains.

A climber knows why he likes to climb but seldom will he, or can he, explain. Perhaps he will say he climbs for the exercise, or for the view from the summit, or - well, just because he likes to climb. Why do climbers suffer great hardship and discomfort in an endeavor to attain, for example, the summit of the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest, in India? Surely not for the exercise, or the view. For the honor? Perhaps, but no climber will say so. In fact, he will seldom say anything, but he knows that the summit represents a challenge to his strength and prowess, and that by reaching it he will have answered that challenge and will have gained a deep feeling of achievement and gratification that has yet to be adequately described.

This psychology holds true not only for the highest mountain in the world, but for every climb. The more difficult the climb, the more intense the challenge; and the more intense the challenge, the greater the thrill when the summit is gained.

Climbers may be divided into two general groups: those who "walk" up mountains, and those who "climb" mountains. Some of our mountains offer no "climb", yet may be "walked" up from any approach; some may only be attained through more or less serious climbing; and of course there are many that have numerous combinations of both walks and climbs.

"Walkers" generally seek the most feasible and perhaps the easiest route in ascending a mountain, while "climbers" reconnoiter for a route that presents the maximum intricacy within their capabilities. For this reason a rugged peak in a climbing area soon becomes known as being "complex", as new routes are pioneered up its sides. As each new route is climbed for the first time it opens other variations of the same route until the peak presents climbs with every degree of difficulty. A peak of this type then becomes an excellent training ground for neophytic climbers, for as their degree of proficiency and technique advances with each climb of increasing difficulty, they may attempt other more intricate routes until they have made all of the accepted climbs. Then, since they now have a thorough knowledge of the peak and its various characteristics, they may do a bit of pioneering themselves.

Too many inexperienced climbers fail to accord the proper respect to the peak they climb, and will first attempt the most difficult route. Experienced climbers generally will seek out the more difficult routes, but climbers with limited experience should never attempt climbs beyond their ability. Black-bordered pictures and terse paragraphs in climbing journals too frequently relate instances where climbers have overestimated their ability, or have underestimated the degree of difficulty of the climb.


Participants in the sport of climbing seem to be increasing, both in numbers and ability, Many mountains that were classified as inaccessible not many years ago now have well-worn trails to their summits. Sheer walls, peaks, and spires have been climbed that a decade ago were branded as "utterly impossible." This trend would seem to indicate that all of our unclimbed summits are destined eventually to show the scrape of nailed boots.

Climbing equipment and apparel have two important purposes: to safeguard the climber, and to aid in climbing. Most equipment, however, is used either directly or indirectly to safeguard the climber. For example, direct climbing aids, such as crampons and ice axes, by nature of their use make climbing safer. The proper use of equipment is a technique that can be mastered only through experience. Certain fundamentals may be learned by studying articles concerning the use of equipment, but the essentials of this technique are acquired only by actually handling and using the equipment under all kinds of conditions.

Mountaineering ascents consisting of direct "walk-ups" do not require any specialized equipment, but on technical climbs involving rock and ice work, nearly every type of standard equipment is used. The climbing rope is, and will remain, the most essential item. Such ropes are made of hemp, linen, or silk. They are very strong, light in weight, pliable, and water repellent, and their cost is in keeping with their high standard of quality. The rope assures the climber of a safe ascent, and if need be, a safe descent over rocks that could not otherwise be negotiated.

Various types of pitons are always carried on technical climbs. A piton is a blade-shaped iron spike four or five inches long, into one end of which an eye is forged, punched, or cast; while others are equipped with an iron ring. Next to the climbing rope, the pitons rank second in importance since they provide belaying anchorage for the rope.

A "belay" is a method whereby a climber secures his companion by snubbing the rope that passes between them. This is done by running the rope over a point of rock or through a steel ring that has been snapped into the eye of a piton which has been firmly driven into a crack in the rook. Quite often climbers use "shoulder belays" to secure the ascent of the person below them. This is accomplished by the climber obtaining a good stance on an adequate foothold and passing the rope that leads to the climber below him, under one arm, across his back, and over the shoulder. His grasp on the rope, in addition to the friction provided as the rope passes across his shoulder is then sufficient to support the ascending climber, if the latter slips.

Climbing equipment

Climbing parties should be made up of not more than three persons on any one standard climbing rope of 120 feet in length, as under normal conditions no less than 50 feet of rope should be provided between each climber. The most experienced climber should assume the responsibilities of the leader and be first on the rope; the climber ranking second in ability should be next on the rope to insure the proper belaying technique for the leader. The climber with the least experience should be last on the rope. The above placement is for a party of three. The leader and the end man tie their respective ends of the rope around their waists with bowline knots, and the middle man ties into the middle of the rope with simple overhand knot tied into a loop of the rope. Thus the three are tied together on the same rope. If the rope is long enough to accomodate more than three climbers, still allowing at least 50 feet of rope between them, it is a good policy to place the climber with the least experience or ability between two experienced climbers. Quite often a member of the party is especially proficient in a certain phase of climbing, and takes over the lead when his particular specialty is encountered. As the leader advances up a difficult pitch, the second man will constantly watch his movements, feed out the proper amount of rope as needed, never allowing it to become too tight or too loose, and provide the proper belay. In this manner, if the leader slips, the second men will be ready to "catch" his fall.

The ability to "catch" a climber's fall is an art. As the climber falls, the rope should be taken up as rapidly as possible, but when the climber reaches the end of his fall the second man should reduce the jolt to the leader, and also reduce the strain on the rope and belay, by the proper manipulation of his weight. All this has to be done in two or three seconds. It may be seen that the leader would fall nearly twice the length of that amount of rope that is between himself and the second man. For this reason, the leader places pitons at strategic points as he climbs. The piton is driven into a crack in the rock with the piton hammer, and a carabiner (an oval or pear-shaped steel ring equipped with a spring snap) is snapped into the eye or ring of the piton. The rope is then snapped into the carabiner. If the leader fell within the next few feet of climb, he would not come hurtling down past the second man, but merely dangle from the piton, firmly anchored by the belay of the second man.

If the leader places his pitons wisely, almost any pitch, however difficult, may be climbed with reasonable safety. As soon as the leader reaches a secure stance at a location large enough to accomodate another climber, or just above such a place, he will tell the second man to start climbing, and will secure him as he climbs with a shoulder belay or another piton, keeping the rope free from slack. As the second man reaches the pitons and carabiners placed by the leader, he unsnaps the rope from the carabiners and generally snaps the rope into the carabiner behind him so that he may be secured by the man below, as well as by the leader. The last man will unsnap the carabiners from the pitons as he reaches them, and if possible he will also recover all the pitons. Frequently a piton is impossible to remove, but the policy is to remove as many as possible. If the leader of the party drives a piton, he knows how well it is driven and how much strain it will stand. When a piton is left in the rock there is a possibility that another party of climbers may pass over the same route and use the same piton, not knowing how secure it may be. In the interests of safety, a piton of unknown origin or age in an important spot should be left alone, insofar as possible.

It will be readily seen that climbing and rope technique cannot be learned from books. Only by experience can a climber attain that degree of coordination and cooperation essential to safe climbing. If, for example, the second man fails to catch the fall of the leader, the weight of the fall could very easily pull him from the rock, and their combined weights continue to jerk off the rest of the climbers.

Ice technique, involving the ascent or traverse of steep ice fields, calls for three specialized items of equipment in addition to the climbing ropes. These are the ice axe, crampons, and ice pitons. The ice axe is made along the same general design of a pick mattock, only, of course, much lighter in weight, smaller, and of finely tempered steel. Its hickory handle is about 34 inches in length, with a steel spike and ferrule at one extremity, and on the other a steel head, one end of which is pick-shaped and the other end chisel-shaped. It is used to cut steps in ice, provide a belay for the rope that is looped around the shaft which has been plunged handle first into the snow, and to provide security for the climber through hand use. Crampons are steel, spikes that are strapped to the soles of the boots to provide better footing for the climber on snow or ice. It is sometimes difficult to overcome the tendency to walk on the ball of the feet or on the toes when using crampons on steep slopes, but the crampons should always be placed flat on the ice so that all the spikes engage. Ice pitons are longer than rock pitons, and generally have serrated edges and a ring fixed in one end. These are driven into the ice and used to provide a belay for the climbing rope which safeguards the climber.

The fundamentals of ice climbing are the same as for rock climbing. Only one properly belayed climber should move at any one time, and in addition to being constantly on the lookout for falling rocks which have a habit of converging in ice filled gullies, ice climbers should plan their climb both as to time of day and location so that the danger from snow avalanches is minimized.

In a discussion of apparel, the climbing boot takes the spotlight. The two general types of boots are nailed boots and soft-soled boots. There are a number of kinds of nails, most of which are similar in that they are placed around the edge of the boot to provide footing in minute footholds. Other smaller nails are placed in the center of the sole. Some edging nails are made of soft iron, while others are made of hard steel. When a boot equipped with soft nails is placed on a foothold, the tiny particles of quartz, or other hard rock penetrate the iron, causing a "non-skid" traction. Steel nails tend to dig into the rock with equally good holding ability. The nailed boot is a very popular all-purpose boot since it will hold well on either wet or dry rock and provides good footing in snow or ice. Some climbing boots have soles made of rubber or rope. These are superior to nailed boots on dry rock, and because of their light weight they are often carried by climbers for use when conditions permit. Felt-soled boots or slippers are sometimes worn on very wet and slippery rock.

Climbing trousers must be full cut to eliminate binding, and must be made of a sturdy material. They should be cuffless, or of the knicker variety so that there is no danger of the climber catching his foot in a cuff. A jacket or coat should be worn or carried to insure against wear and tear on elbows and back.

A small frameless pack is generally worn to carry items such as the lunch, first aid kit, gloves, rain jacket, and extra clothes and boots. A pack with a frame will sometimes become wedged in a chimney or a crack, causing the climber trouble in releasing the pack, while still retaining his balance and hold.

In a sport of this nature there are, of course, certain potential hazards. If climbing is done in the best approved manner and the correct equipment is properly used, the risk is reduced to practically nil. Two perils are almost always present, however. These may be coped with to a certain extent by skillful leadership and planning, but the dangers of falling rocks and a sudden adverse change of weather will continue to be of chief concern.

Rocks may be dislodged by climbers higher on the peak, by the thawing of underlying ice and snow, by rain and wind; or they may just fall. By selecting a route that present the least possible exposure to falling rocks, by constantly being on the alert, and by using great care with the rope (which may brush rocks on to those below) this hazard is considerably reduced. A climber has only to hear the sinister explosion as a rock strikes near him, to vow forever to keep out of the way of these high-velocity missiles. In making traverses of rock-swept gullies or at other exposed places, the climbing rope should always be used, no matter how simple the climb. Only one climber should move at a time, while the others keep a vigilant lookout for falling rocks, being ready to warn the climber and secure him if he is struck; or themselves to "make" for cover.

The security of rocks used for handholds, footholds, and belays should always be carefully ascertained before the climber's weight is placed. Judging the strength of the rock used for holds is another of the fine points of climbing. At times a seemingly solid rock or ledge will collapse under the weight of the climber, while a small rock will hold firm. Examining the texture of the rock, searching for minute cracks, and tapping the rock with the piton hammer are some of the ways in which climbers judge the strength of their holds. Occasionally the nature of the climb necessitates a delicate traverse over unsound rock. Under such circumstances, pitons should be used freely, and the second man should keep up to super-alertness, as he belays the leader.

Much climbing is done at relatively high altitudes subject to sudden and severe storms. Climbers may start a climb under a warm and clear sky, only to be lashed by rain or snow when as often happens, the most difficult part of the climb is reached. Here again wise leadership is necessary. If it seems advisable to turn back as storm clouds gather, the return trip or descent should be made before the party reaches a point where it would be more hazardous to turn back than to cope with the storm. Many famous climbs however, have been made in spite of weather almost beyond human endurance. Frequently climbers may bivouac in relative security during a storm. When it is believed that the storm will be of short duration, this is generally the wisest plan, provided, of course, that a threat will still be open regardless of how severe the storm becomes; that it is not too late in the day; and that the weather prognosticator knows his signals.

Any climber who has previously huddled on a small ledge on the face of a rock wall, with wind-driven rain pounding into him, will not be without the proper apparel. It is always advisable to carry a light-weight rain jacket or parka and an extra sweater on any climb where there is even the remotest possibility of a storm; and proportionately more extra clothes on high-altitude climbs where freezing weather may be encountered.

Summer storms often bring another hazard in addition to numbing rain, wet and slippery rocks, and stiff climbing ropes. Where lightning will strike is not predictable, but the fact that there is lightning in the vicinity, and electricity in the air, generally is evident. Under certain conditions an induced current of fatal voltage may be absorbed even though the lightning "strikes" many feet away. For this reason it is imperative that climbers on exposed rock seek immediate shelter on the approach of a lightning storm. Though there is generally little danger of a direct hit while the climber is on the face of a cliff, he may receive an induced charge of electricity from the lightning that would momentarily stun him, causing a fall. If no shelter or security is available, the climbers should rope themselves to the wall and remain there until the storm passes.

Most climbing involves a certain amount of scrambling around on sheer walls and rock faces. This alleged hazard seems to be the limiting factor and the moot point between those who climb and those who would rather not. Climbers realize that there is a certain amount of potential danger, but non-climbers argue that the danger is actual and real. Non-climbers say, "But what if you should slip and fall?" Climbers answer by saying, "But we don't slip and fall - why should we?"

Let's look at it this way: Assume that some boards one foot wide were placed end on end for 100 feet on level ground. Any person would be able to walk the length of these boards without the remotest danger of falling or stepping off. Yet place these boards on a narrow scaffolding 1,000 feet in the air, and the same person would probably lie flat on his stomach and hang on with tooth and nail, on the same width of boards that he so calmly strolled over when they were on the ground. Why? Because he fears the consequences, should he fall. But why should he fall - he easily walked the boards when they were on the ground. Does not this illustration take some of the "alleged" hazard out of climbing? A climber doesn't think of falling just because he is traversing a narrow ledge high on the face of a cliff; he has attained a certain intimacy with high places, and he sees in such a climb not a hovering catastrophe, but a stimulating adventure. Climbing should not be considered reckless and foolhardy - rather let us think of it as a thrilling sport engaged in by those with a keen sense of adventure and a love for the out-of-doors.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005