Getting around in the mountains

The basic and predominant approach to movement in the mountains is walking. Walking is a common human motor ability and there is presumably no need to explain how one walks in the mountains. Of course, terrain in the mountains is significantly different from the usual environment a person finds herself in, and for this reason it is not beside the point to remind you of a few features of walking in the mountains. It is common knowledge that mountain terrain is rocky, markedly uneven, and unstable. The general advice for walking in such terrain is to walk with a so-called wider step. This means to step with the left and right legs slightly more to the side of the imagined line of direction of your movement. In this manner your stability is increased when swaying from side to side, making walking in uneven terrain safer. Step on and step off using the entire flat sole of your climbing shoes and transfer your weight to the landing foot gradually. If you step on your heel or step off with your toe you will lose stability; the rear foot, with the entire surface of the sole placed on the ground, offers good traction for regaining balance, especially in moments when you can’t complete a step: for example, if a rock comes free under your landing foot. Walk judiciously in the mountains and preferably with shorter steps, especially when descending, as this will protect your joints. The use of telescoping poles makes walking in more difficult terrain noticeably more pleasant. This is especially true when descending, where their use can protect the joints of your legs. When stepping with the feet during walking, keep at least one pole jammed in the earth so that it can offer resistance to help you maintain balance if you fail to land your step.


Video: Common walking in mountain terrain. Stones, stones, stones… Walking in the mountains should be balanced and calm. In this type of terrain, concentration is necessary, as every step requires caution.

On trails

In the mountains, highly frequented paths most often take the form of trails with a gravel surface. Be careful of small pebbles which can slip out from under you, especially if they are on a firm foundation. Here as well it is necessary to step with the entire sole of the foot and to transfer your weight to the landing foot gradually. It is also good to pay attention to the smoothness of the rocks, particularly in areas where the terrain is composed of limestone. Constant rubbing from shoe soles can smooth limestone down to an almost glassy surface. It can be slippery even in dry conditions, and especially so in wet conditions. In such situations it is necessary to slow your pace considerably, and to transfer weight to your foot carefully after each step, while checking to see whether your foot is displaying a tendency to slip as you transfer your weight.

A footpath passing through scrub.

A footpath passing through scrub.

A footpath on a mountain meadow.

A footpath on a mountain meadow.

A footpath in ridge areas.

A footpath in ridge areas.

A footpath in scree is rather unclear.

A footpath in scree is rather unclear.

Off trails

Grass

A march through grass is not particularly fun in the mountains. Grass rarely grows in the mountains on quality soil. In the absolute majority of cases, the underlying foundation of grass is either rocky scree or weathered rocky terrain. In flat sections there are rocks under the grass, and therefore the grass acts only as a hindrance that blocks our view of where we’re stepping. In these situations you have to proceed slowly and take care not to sprain an ankle. Grass on slopes is mostly concentrated in individual patches, and on a weathered rocky base they hold poorly and don’t offer much certainty for walking. Proceed in such a way that the patch is loaded vertically, as if in the direction of the centre of the earth. Any loading perpendicular to the surface of the terrain risks tearing out the patch. You should particularly avoid loading it with your toe or the edge of your shoes, which could easily cut the patch. If you’re feeling unsure while descending a steep grassy slope, turn so that you’re facing the slope, then descend backwards. You can help keep your balance by using your hands. The most effective way to grasp individual blades of grass is to grip the stalks at the bottom, close to the ground, with your palms and all the fingers of your hand pointing downward. Slightly clench your hand at the fingers, as if you were grabbing someone by the hair, and press down on the patch from above, as if you were trying to press it against the slope. The grass on a slope is particularly unpleasant when wet. The stalks get wet and lie flat under the load of the water. Each stalk becomes a small, wet, slide. At the same time the soil under the grass grows damp, and there is a greater risk that it might pull out. In wet conditions it is critical that you use heightened awareness and proceed along the grass with caution.

Advancing through grass in the mountains.

Advancing through grass in the mountains.

Scrublands

The middle to higher altitude segment of a mountainside tends in European conditions to be covered by pine scrub (that is, underbrush consisting of brushy procumbent pine growths). Further South in the Alps the scrub often alternates with or is completely replaced by rhododendron underbrush. The rhododendron scrub can seem more exotic, when in bloom even romantic, but passing through either type is practically the same challenge, and not an easy one at that. In lower sections the scrub is more overgrown, exceeding human height. The open space that the scrub occupies can be very extensive, sometimes even all the way to the bottom of the mountain valley. Passing through such terrain is quite difficult. High scrub blocks your perspective and sense of direction in the terrain. Walking through high scrub is not even possible, your climb turns into a kind of mucky crawl through the bush. Your feet don’t even reach the ground, you step on procumbent branches and limbs near the ground and hang on to branches with your hands. It is an unstable position in which everything rocks and sways.

Passages through scrub are arduous.

Passages through scrub are arduous.

In higher areas of the mountains the scrub is smaller, and while passing through a field of scrub may be easier, it is still unpleasant. For this reason, as a matter of principle, avoid passages through scrub! From many perspectives, whether in order to save strength or time, it is to your benefit to circumvent the scrub. When you have to pass through scrub, then do it in the narrowest spot of the scrub field.

Advancing through spaces in the scrub.

Advancing through spaces in the scrub.

Scrub can also make a passage considerably unpleasant in winter, when it is much harder to avoid. Shorter scrub often isn’t visible underneath the snow; likewise, summer paths and trails also can’t be seen. Often the first sign that we’ve entered scrubland is that all members of the group suddenly drop deep into the snow, often up to the belt or chest. This is very unpleasant, especially with a heavy pack on your back. Tangled scrub branches make it difficult to pull free, and during a sudden drop there is often risk of injury to the legs.

Under certain conditions a scrubland can be crossed on snow shoes or skis. It is necessary to bear in mind, however, that skis damage brush, and therefore this form of advance is avoided out of respect for the outdoors. At the same time, there is a very real danger here that if you fall through with snow shoes or skis on our feet, you may not only damage them but also suffer injury. The safest and most comfortable approach is therefore to detach your skis and snow shoes, carefully cross along the stronger limbs of the scrub until you reach terrain with no brush, and then give the area wide berth.

Video: Scrub can completely engulf you, inside it you are perfectly surrounded by an inaccessible green wall, and you can’t see anything properly.

Scree

The primary cover in mountain valleys, the lower sections of a mountainside, in dry valleys, and gorges in mountain faces, consists of scree and talus deposits. In lower sections the scree is formed by large boulders scattered with smaller stones. The higher and closer to the rock face, the more the scree is composed of smaller and smaller pebbles.

In lower sections you can move through talus composed of large boulders by weaving your way between the boulders or climbing along the tops of the larger boulders, jumping from one to the other.

Scree fields with remnants of snow in the summer season.

Scree fields with remnants of snow in the summer season.

The first method of weaving between boulders is a more certain movement; we recommend it to less experienced high-altitude hikers and to anyone carrying a heavy backpack. It is essential to bear in mind that advancing among the large boulders of a talus field is slow and rather arduous; you’ll take many steps up and down. When using the second method of passing through a talus field with large boulders, where you attempt to move along the tops of the boulders, you must be nimble and graceful in your movements and maintain a good sense of balance. You can’t do this with a heavy backpack, nor is this method of movement a good one if the boulders are wet or covered in snow and therefore slippery. First look for a path roughly 5 metres long, cover it using a quick hopping pace, and then stop so you can plan out the next section of the path. Check the stability of the various boulders and estimate whether a landing or sharp step will cause you to slip out of your stable position. When hiking in a group, maintain spacing of roughly 5 metres, as mentioned earlier. This should suffice for a member up in front who runs into a wobbly rock to inform the people behind, who will then have enough space to adjust their route accordingly.

The more closely you approach the cliff face, the smaller the stones are that make up the scree. At first they are rocks about the size of a horse’s head, there tend to be lichens growing on them, and their stability is relatively proper and firm. This is old talus that has already settled and is more or less firm. Here is it best to select a path along the tops of the rocks, once again you should always make a 5 m planned movement forward, then stop and look around for the next sequence of movement.

Stones in a scree field.

Stones in a scree field.

Higher up, the scree becomes very small. The rocks are the size of floor tiles and smaller, until the scree even looks like gravel. Proceeding through such scree is unpleasant, the scree often slides down under your feet after a step. Therefore, proceed in a mostly diagonal or switchback course upward. It’s as if you’ll finish each step twice: first tamp down the rocks on the spot with the sole of your shoe, stabilise yourself, and only then shift your weight. Wherever the scree is mixed with earth or sand, you can use the side or the toe of your shoe to nudge it into a step, stabilise it with a slight stamping motion, and then transfer your weight to it.

If the group is progressing through fine scree, it is ideal that you move close together, one after the other. The reason is that many stones come free when hiking and tumble down the slope. If the spacing between the individual members of the group is too large, a rock knocked loose could accumulate a significant amount of speed and endanger the members of the group further down.

Particular care should be paid during a descent through small scree. Here, on the contrary, you can select a route that leads straight down. Step on your heels, but at the same time lean slightly forward. That way you can better handle losing your balance, when the small scree slides out from under you. When descending along small scree it is impossible to keep the rock from slipping slightly. As you proceed downward, a mound of rocks begins to form under your legs. As soon as this mound gets larger in size, you should step to the side and stop. The pebbles immediately next to you will slide down and come to a stop after a while. Then you can continue your descent. If a group is descending small scree, there are a number of possible formations. On a wide scree field it is best to proceed in a row next to each other. That way any larger rocks that come loose will not fall on anyone. If the scree field is narrow, then descend in a column, one after another. Here there is a correlation – the more unsteady the slope, and the greater the risk of larger mounds of pebbles or even rockslides, the larger the spacing should be between group members. In critical situations, when a rockslide is imminent, only one person at a time should descend the slope.

Pebble scree under a cliff face.

Pebble scree under a cliff face.

Footpaths in pebble scree under a cliff face.

Footpaths in pebble scree under a cliff face.

Cliffs and snow

Climbing along a cliff is not the predominant method of movement for a high-altitude hiker, and yet it does happen. Mostly this consists of a complexity of up to UIAA Level II. It doesn’t make for a challenging climb, but is enough to require certain training in climbing along a cliff. High-altitude hikers should regularly visit practice rocks and train basic climbing skills. Likewise with climbing in crampons in snow, and above all along firn on a steep slope, it requires a certain level of training. More about movement on cliffs can be found in the Free Climbing section (MM – Part 1).

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Title Part 4Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-10-9

MMPublishing, 2013

Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).

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Title Part 4 GPMountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains

ISBN 978-80-87715-15-4

MMPublishing, 2014

Available for download from Google Play.