Climbing & Mountaineering.

Overview and History

Mountaineering is the activity of walking, hiking, backpacking and climbing mountains.

In Europe the term 'mountaineering' is often used to refer to activities considered to be more demanding, technically or physically, than simple walking, hiking or backpacking and there is often an aspect of climbing, exposure on steep ground and the use of equipment for safety purposes.

While mountaineering began as an attempt to reach the highest point of unclimbed mountains most mountaineering activities now fall within specialised areas:

  • rock-craft such as scrambling, rock climbing and sport climbing
  • snow-craft such as snow ascents, mixed climbing and ice climbing
  • skiing such as alpine and nordic ski mountaineering

All require experience, athletic ability, and technical knowledge to maintain safety.

Rock Craft

Scrambling is the grey area between very steep hillwalking and rock climbing; it lies somewhere within the realm of rock climbing but without the need for the regular use of specialist safety equipment and it often involves the use of your hands as well as your feet to make an ascent. However some of the more difficult scrambles may involve the use of ropes or ropes may be carried as a safety measure. The point where a hillwalk becomes a scramble or a scramble becomes a rock climb is personal judgement call and will vary enormously according to experience and judgement.  

Trad or Traditional rock climbing requires a leader to place his own protection using temporary anchors to add a degree of safety to the sport. As the lead climber ascends the rock a variety of these temporary anchoring devices, known collectively as protection, is used in conjunction with natural rock features such as cracks and spike at points that may be anywhere from a few centimetres to several metres apart depending on the difficulty of the route and the judgement of the climber. The protection is then attached via a carabiner to the climbing rope. Once the rope is attached the belayer below is responsible for tending the rope and stopping the climber in the event of a fall.  The term gained popularity in the late 1980s to differentiate from the development of Sport Climbing routes-climbs that were pre-protected with bolts.

Sport climbing differs from traditional in that the climber depends on fixed, pre-placed rather than removable protection. Sport climbing routes often follow technically difficult lines up imposing rock walls Sport climbing often emphasises technique and strength rather than reaching a summit. Falls are frequent, though seldom serious, as climbers constantly push the limits of gravity and ability.

Snow Craft

A snow ascent is to snow-craft what scambling is to rock-craft; the exact point winter hillwaking becomes a snow ascent and a snow ascent becomes an ice climb varies from person to person. The angle of the ascent can be between 20 and 45 degrees and either short or long with varying degrees of snow quality. All of the above will affect the seriousness of the ascent and may vary during the course of the route.

All snow ascents have common skill set however:

  • Avalanche awareness, safe movement on steep ground, step kicking
  • Ice axe skills - self arrest, step cutting, snow anchors
  • Crampon skills - alpine techniques and front pointing

As the ascent becomes steeper other skill may be required

  • Rope management, belaying techniques and abseil techniques
  • The ability to place rock, snow or ice protection

Mixed climbing combines attributes of rock and ice climbing. The routes are often summer scrambles/rock climbs or ground that is too loose to be climbed in an unfrozen state. A mixed climb may include sections of rock climbing and ice climbing. The skill set is technically similar to rock climbing with the above skills also required.

Ice climbing is different from mixed climbing with routes having a higher proportion of water ice sections. Routes are often found on frozen waterfalls, rock slabs covered with ice, and glaciers. Protection is chosen based on the type of slope and the texture and quality of the snow and ice and the availability of rock protection. Equipment may include ice screws and snow anchors.

Ski Mountaineering

Ski Mountaineering is an activity that combines the techniques of ski touring with those of mountaineering. In mainland Europe skiing is seen as a useful skill to acquire and as enjoyable a form of mountaineering as rock-climbing or ice climbing. In North America it is often the only sensible way to travel in deep winter snow: easier than walking on the uphill and as exciting or scary as you care to make it on the descent.

Modern equipment is light and efficient. Light skis, lift heel bindings and climbing skins allow easy ascents and modern boot, ski and binding design allow a much greater degree of control and safety than was previously available.

Recent winters mean that Scotland may not be a first choice ski mountaineering destination but there are always a few days when the sun shines and the snow cover is good enough.

Skill set can include any or all from snow-craft plus the ability to ski on off-piste snow conditions.