If we wish to achieve a high level of safety during an event in the mountains, careful preparations are necessary. And any preparations must out of necessity require a plan. The foundation of every plan must be a strategic decision – we have to choose our objective. Without knowing what we want to achieve we can’t do anything well. The goal may be the summit of a mountain, a mountain lodge, or the crossing of a particular route, such as passing through a mountain valley, the crossing of a mountain ridge, or a col, etc. At the same time we cannot forget that we must also make it back to our base, and by extension return home. Only with awareness of our objective can we be capable of considering how to get there, how to carry out the journey, and what we will need for it. Or define the resources and tactics with whose help we will achieve an established strategic goal. This method of planning has been known to the human race since the dark ages, and it still helps people keep going.
The three-point method
First we have to define where we are actually headed in the mountains. It is essential to become familiar with the chosen region, to get to know the countryside, and to know what to expect there. Getting to know the countryside or the region is a practically endless process. During the course of the event as we draw near to the area and ultimately pass through it, we must continually monitor the appearance of our surroundings, what’s going on where. This process of monitoring does not cease during the event and constantly continues on.
For a better idea, this process is likened to the lens of a camera as the photographer gradually zooms in to a scene. The first point of view (1x zoom) we call the “view from home”, the second point of view (2x zoom) we call “the view from the window”, and the third point of view (3x zoom) we call “the view from the event”.
1st point of view – “the view from home”
At this point in planning we begin to familiarise ourselves with the target area while still at home. We collect all possible information such as maps, guidebooks, articles in technical journals, information on the internet, conversations with people who know the given area, etc. In this way we create our first picture of what awaits us. On one hand we realise in what climate zone our selected mountain range can be found and what weather will predominate there. In exotic regions, it’s not a bad idea to get information about what diseases can occur, and what vaccinations to secure in advance. We will also learn whether this is a glacial or non-glacial mountain range, rocky or merely hilly. If it is rocky, then what level of complexity may be encountered on our route. Much can be assessed from awareness of the geological composition and development of the mountain range. High altitude mountains may be identified by a range of common characteristics, but what differentiates them aside from their mere geographical position (and therefore the predominant climate in the past and present) is indeed their composition and development; that is, the dominating defining formation of their geomorphology – the relief of the selected region.
All of this information contributes to our decision of where to go, what we select as our objective. An objective appropriate to our capabilities must be chosen in order that we might be capable of achieving it. At the same time we must equip ourselves with hiking and/or mountaineering gear and apparel essential for achieving our goal. At this moment we will already have to consider the tactics which we will then put into play during the event, as the tactics we select (or the “manner in which we proceed”) will force the prerequisite of having sufficient equipment.
Certain information must be determined prior to departure in its freshest form. For the period of our visit a weather forecast for the given region can be determined ahead of time. In the winter season it is possible to prevent avalanche hazards by looking at it from this point of view, in mountain ranges near developed nations the degree of avalanche hazard currently reported can be determined. A view of other possible hazards can be obtained through study of the natural conditions of the given region. Climatic conditions are important depending on the geographical position, the geology informs us of the possibility of insufficient water resources, much can be determined from information about the predominant form of vegetation, but also notable fauna of the region – many species can represent a direct threat.
Already at this first point of view of planning it is incredibly important to think up a backup plan. It is a very important topic, and we will return to it later.
2nd point of view – “the view from the window”
This point of view can be found most often at a mountain lodge or a camp when looking from the tent but also perhaps at the train station after exiting the train, from the funicular, or in a parking lot where we have just arrived by car, etc. It is that moment when we are now there, and we are asking the question whether or not to head out to where we planned.
Above all we can see what sort of weather is dominating the target region, how much the wind is blowing and from what direction, in winter, how much fresh snow there is. It is an undisputed advantage to now obtain the most current weather forecast. In recreational mountain areas there is usually an information centre, mountain rescue services usually provide fresh information, and so forth.
At this moment it is high time to once again review the entire plan and assess how realistic it is when confronted with objective reality. That is, whether it isn’t time for potentially implementing the backup plan, or paring down the original plan.
3rd point of view – “view from the event”
Now this isn’t planning in the true sense of the word. During the event we are rather finally seeing for ourselves whether everything is going according to plan. We monitor whether we are going down the right path, we are observing the developing weather, and under snowy conditions the quality of the snow layers as regards the risk of avalanche.
As far as planning is concerned, we can at most modify our plan, whether by change of tactics or refocusing on our backup objective, or – in the event of extremely unfavourable conditions – a complete retreat back to our starting point.
1st point of view – the view from home
Conditions – climate in the region, weather forecast information from the media and the internet, information from locals (e.g. lodge, mountain rescue)
Terrain – study detailed maps at 1:25,000 scale, guidebooks, photos, study of nature conditions, selection of route, alternative route (backup plan), retreat routes, distance, height above sea level, elevation gain
People – who will be a member of the group, who will lead (leadership, responsibility), what advancing tactics are chosen, the physical condition of group members, experience and skills of members, whether they have necessary equipment available, having a time schedule
2nd point of view – the view from the window
Conditions – how is the weather, visibility, wind, precipitation, temperature, atmospheric pressure, how has the weather changed when compared to yesterday, snow conditions, whether new snow has fallen, and if so, how much, and are there snow drifts, where are the windy and non-windy sides, the open degree of avalanche hazard, and whether any avalanches have already occurred
Terrain – relief of the terrain, passability of the terrain, firn fields, whether snow is melting, whether rocks or slabs of ice are falling from the mountain face, slush streams, the incline of the slope, the orientation of the slope, whether a step has fallen through or is sliding, what options there are to take steps differently
People – what people are actually here, who will go, the condition of the group members at the starting point, who is making the decisions, who has authority, whether the selected advance tactics will function, equipment check, will other equipment be needed, check the schedule, check flashlight batteries
3rd point of view – view from the event
Conditions – development of the weather, visibility, wind direction, whether there is new snow, and how much, whether a snowpack has formed, whether the sun is shining, whether the snow is thawing
Terrain – do I know where I am, have I become lost, what is above me, could something fall on me, what is under me, where will I fall, does the terrain require protection, orientation of the slope, what is the steepest section
People – will the established advance tactics be upheld, spacing between the team or close configuration at the appropriate time, is discipline being maintained, are the weaker members lagging behind, is the group being torn apart, what is the current condition of the group members, is someone afraid and wanting protection
Backup plan and retreat route
Nothing doing, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that one of the possible variations on our event can be the situation when our original plan simply cannot be achieved. We can have this realisation at various stages during the course of the event, whether during planning or right in the event. At that moment it is exceedingly important to have a backup plan in place, or if the event is already in progress, a retreat route.
More in e-book.
Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains
Available for download from Apple iTunes (in the Books section).
For example U.S. store – link
Another countries – look on the page Download
Another possibility is Google Play. This version is a simplified (as PDF).
Mountaineering Methodology – Part 4 – The Mountains
Available for download from Google Play.