Text by Deborah Wade, Photos by Saori Hattori | Yamnuska Mountain Adventures
Most folks in Canada are likely able to conjure an image of a “mountaineer” in action. That image might be of a puffy-clad bundle in blizzard-like conditions, tightly secured to a pointy mountain pinnacle by a collection of rainbow-coloured ropes and gear.
Others might picture a smiling, ruddy-cheeked, still puffy-clad bundle under a clear blue sky, absorbing every inch of the wondrously peaceful landscape unfolding all about. In common with both images is someone perched atop a mountain.
How that person got there is what the world knows as “mountaineering.” If you are someone who wishes, at some point in life, to perch atop a mountain, there are some fundamentals to learn and appreciate. For all its beauty, the alpine can be a hazardous place. Let’s make sure you get up, and back down, that mountain safely and with a great big smile on your face.
Getting to the top of any mountain means starting out at its base. Hiking is the logical first step in the mountaineering progression. The good old fashioned “one step in front of the other” will (eventually) take anyone to the top of a mountain. With such gusto and enthusiasm, anything is possible.
Time spent on different trails builds not only stamina, but also an appreciation for the magnificent, yet undeniably challenging, terrain and conditions of the Rocky Mountains. Wise alpinists bolster themselves with solid knowledge of the area, well-honed navigational techniques, and capabilities to deal with injuries in the wilderness.
“Know before you go” is the mantra most live by in the mountains. The next progression involves getting comfortable with scrambling. Walking right to the top of a mountain is a lofty desire, but rather unrealistic. Many summits in the Rockies, however, can be gained without the complication of ropes and climbing gear.
Scrambling, by definition, is easy climbing that requires the use of hands and feet, but not ropes, belays or protections. Without a clearly defined trail, hands might be needed in order to literally “scramble” up a ridge or route. Think of it as a bit more physical than hiking, but less technical than rock climbing. Remember, no ropes are required for easy and moderate scrambling.
For those peaks that are unscramble-able, that require serious effort, skill and depth of experience, there is mountaineering: a combination of rock, ice and snow climbing along with hiking and scrambling. Because the overall elevation of the Canadian Rockies is lower than other ranges throughout the world, the area provides an excellent first exposure to climbing at elevation. In other words, there is no better place than your own backyard to climb to the top of your first mountain.
Perhaps the wisest move any aspiring mountaineer can make, while still on level ground, is to first learn about the mountain terrain and region, and how best to survive in it. No one wants to put themselves, nor anyone else, at risk when in the backcountry. Introductory courses, led by certified mountaineers, range from one day to several weeks, or even several months. Making a bid for the summit is that much more straightforward, and safe, with a knowledge base fortified with hands-on practice and professional expertise.
From the top of the mountain, the world is infinite and exquisite; a never-ending horizon offering wonder and possibility. Those willing to take the time to learn, listen, understand and respect the mountain can master the fine art of summiting. Big pay offs involve big effort. So, go summit that mountain, in whatever manner works for you. Once at the top, breathe in and enjoy the view!
- Yamnuska Mountain Adventures is based in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, in the heart of the Canadian Rockies. A mountaineering school and mountain-guiding company, they offer trips, programs and training courses from beginner to expert level, including in wilderness first-aid. Check out MORE from Yamnuska here.