The entire discipline known as high-altitude hiking consists of a range of different activities, and tends to be rather inaccurately classified among the mountaineering inter-disciplines. Yet it is worth noting that what is most commonly understood as being part of the concept of high-altitude hiking – that is, the crossing of mountain ranges, ascents to summits or cols, ridge hikes in high-altitude terrain – is in its essence the earliest form of mountaineering, and it is therefore accurate to include high-altitude hiking among the traditional mountaineering disciplines. This tradition began in the 18th and 19th centuries, when mountain ascents accomplished in a style which nowadays we would classify as high-altitude hiking constituted the very pioneering achievements by which mountaineering began. Even today there are no exact boundaries drawn between mountaineering and high-altitude hiking. In its later development mountaineering has advanced more toward actual climbing; mountaineering’s activities made a fundamental shift to the vertical faces of mountains and cliffs. This evolutionary shift of the location in which the activity is carried out resulted in a conceptual shift as well. “Mountaineering” became an ever less accurate term for ascents achieved using older forms. Since the name includes the term “hiking”, we must explain this concept as well. In common, hiking and touring the primary motive is based on a desire to explore the terrain. In common hiking the hiker is not seeking out challenges, and for this reason, its field of movement includes trails and paths, or terrain that is at least passable. We can consider hiking on foot in the mountains along marked trails, trekking (distance walks in the mountain), etc., as such a form of hiking activity. On the contrary, the mountaineer is looking primarily for sporting achievement, as part either of the traditional or the gymnastic concept. In short, the mountaineer’s objective is not merely to go touring. The mountaineer wishes to achieve (climb) an ascent (a mountaineering route) and overcome its challenges.
High-altitude hiking is a form of mountaineering where there is a desire to reach the top, but it is accompanied by a desire to experience the region or mountain range. In order to effectively service both motives, the ascents must be easier. One of the characteristic features of high-altitude hiking is the lower level of difficulty of the hikes, which as a rule is dominated by walking or movement through light mountaineering terrain classifiable as UIAA levels I through II, reaching higher levels only rarely; as a rule, hiking consists of events carried out at levels no higher than UIAA level III. And yet even hikers themselves are not quite clear on this. Many talk about high-altitude hiking while conducting all-day tours at levels II-IV in winter conditions. Here the subjective approach plays a role, as the question of personal motivation slowly takes the stage: why is the person carrying out the given tour? The high-altitude hiker is not considered a sport climber, but is driven by a desire to experience a picturesque trail or terrain yet unknown, and would rather circumvent any difficult passes and thereby simplify the line of ascent. Only if he sees no other way to finish the chosen hike will he attempt complex passages with an entirely classical mountaineering approach using intermediate protection, stances, etc.
Ascents in high-altitude hiking are directed toward the summits of mountains, or can consist of crossing mountain ridges, crossing higher mountain cols, crossing mountain glaciers, etc. Mountaineering equipment and protection techniques are used during the climbing sections of the route or while on a glacier.
High-altitude hiking can be classified either by the environment in which it is performed or by the method with which it is performed.
The concept of high-altitude hiking can include the more challenging forms of mountain hiking, typically defined as movement on foot through mountain terrain above the tree line. High-altitude hiking can be accomplished in mountains characterised by rocky passages, in very altitude mountains, or in extremely high altitude mountains; a hike can be carried out either mostly through valleys with col crossings or summit ascents, or along ridges with summit crossings.
Typically, high-altitude hiking is carried out in a specific region from one point of departure (e.g. a mountain lodge), from which the hiker embarks on individual day tours and crossings. In this form of high-altitude, hiking combined ascents to summits tend to be combined with crossings of the valley-col-valley type, and ridge hikes tend to be shorter.
One particular form of high-altitude hiking is trekking – distance crossings often lasting multiple weeks or, in more extreme cases, months. In general these can be divided into distance crossings in regions that are relatively cultivated (equipped with hiking infrastructure), where the route is typically structured so that the hiker will be spending the night in mountain lodges or (in worse cases) in bivouacs, and hikes through lesser known mountain regions, often entirely outside of civilisation. In the European trekkers’ concept this typically consists of remote routes in extremely high-altitude mountains such as the Himalayas, Karakoram, or Andes. Trekking routes often lead more through valleys and over cols, while mountain ridge crossings are less common.
Another significantly different activity, which is often classified as high-altitude hiking, is the climbing of so-called protected routes, that is, basically original mountaineering routes that are protected by artificial means (steel rope, chains, stemples, or ladders). These artificial routes are called klettersteig in German speaking countries, or via ferrata in Italy. Indeed, it is the case of the klettersteig that shows the ambiguity and obscurity of the concept of mountain or high-altitude mountain hiking as opposed to mountaineering. The original intent was to make mountaineering terrain accessible to hikers, however on protected routes an entirely new, separate discipline developed which defied classification. On one hand a klettersteig can be considered part of the recreational/consumerist approach to mountaineering (climbing that downplays the ingredients of your own invention and choice); on the other hand, protected routes make previously inaccessible passages accessible to hikers/non-mountaineers, all while offering it to them in the form of a makeshift variant of technical (or also “technological”) climbing.
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