The Mountaineering Handbook: Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top

The Mountaineering Handbook: Modern Tools and Techniques That Will Take You to the Top

by Craig Connally

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Modern Mountaineering on Alpine Rock, Snow, and Ice

If your experience as a backpacker or rock climber is drawing you higher; if the cold, remote alpine environment calls you nearer, this book is for you. The Mountaineering Handbook will teach you the skills that will take you to the top. Even if you’re already an experienced mountaineer

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Modern Mountaineering on Alpine Rock, Snow, and Ice

If your experience as a backpacker or rock climber is drawing you higher; if the cold, remote alpine environment calls you nearer, this book is for you. The Mountaineering Handbook will teach you the skills that will take you to the top. Even if you’re already an experienced mountaineer, you’ll find detailed descriptions of the newest and most effective techniques to refine and organize your methods and equipment. The Mountaineering Handbook isn't mired in outdated traditionalism; its new-school techniques are safer, more effective, and more fun for mountaineers at every level. With constant emphasis on light, fast, and efficient mountaineering, Craig Connally shows you how to:

  • Move quickly up and down rock, snow, and ice with appropriate safety systems
  • Manage mountain hazards, including rockfall, avalanche, lightning, and high-altitude illness
  • Select the best equipment for your personal style and objectives
  • Maintain sound nutrition and training according to the most up-to-date science
  • Understand the human factors of mountaineering--the social and psychological forces that influence critical decisions

Connally’s passion for mountaineering is evident in his writing--The Mountaineering Handbook is clever, insightful, and entertaining. He intends to move mountaineering into the twenty-first century, but he’s also determined to turn the traditional how-to book on its ear by injecting personality, humor, and thoughtfulness into every page.

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Modern Tools and Techniques that Will Take You to the Top


The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Craig Connally
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-07-143010-4




Backpackers travel into the backcountry to get a closer look at the scenery—to see a little farther. Mountaineers usually describe their journeys as a means of looking more closely into their own selves—to see a little deeper. Climbing mountains compels that. Every detail, from the smallest to the most obvious, must be constantly attended to, a process both exhausting and exhilarating. Exhilarating, because the criteria for success are absolute and absolutely objective; they are chosen by the mountain, not by the mountaineer. Every person is equal when judged by mountains. Success requires mountaineers to appraise their own physical and mental capacities and to know, or discover, the extent of their reserves of competence, commitment, and courage. Mountaineering does not build character so much as it reveals it, and mountaineering is among the few activities outside of combat in which you knowingly trust your life to the capability and judgment of your companions, and they to yours. On the other hand, as Edmund Hillary put it, "you climb for the hell of it."

Such juxtapositions are part of the appeal—and the cruel irony—of mountaineering, but the definition of mountaineering is neither entirely subjective nor objective. Mountaineering is a component of alpinism, the broad appreciation of mountain regions that includes issues of sport, recreation, tourism, protection of biodiversity and natural resources, appreciation of indigenous peoples and cultures, access, and even sustainable development. I'll touch on these areas in The Mountaineering Handbook, but my principal scope ranges from wilderness-backpacking specific to mountaineering (because hiking is necessary to reach the climb) to basic alpine climbing, though most summits can be reached by easier means. Alpine climbing is traditional ("trad") climbing in the realm above tree line, where mountaineering skills are required. Trad climbing uses ropes, removable anchors, and other climbing hardware, mostly for safety. In a mountaineering context, such climbing can take place on rock, snow, ice, or a combination—even to the extent of climbing rock using crampons and axes.

The Mountaineering Handbook is about decision making. It's not a compendium of legacy techniques or a museum guide to climbing equipment; it's certainly not a gear review. There are plenty of other books devoted to these areas. To make good decisions, you need solid facts. In many cases I'll provide actual numerical data. Don't let this be daunting; you'll never need to memorize these numbers, just use them to separate good information from poorly informed hearsay and old wives' tales. You'll learn exactly how "light" is light, how "strong" is strong, and how "good" is GORP. There's no question this book reflects my own experiences and viewpoints, but for the most part you'll find it technical rather than philosophical. In fact, you may at first find it too technical. That's the nature of technical climbing; it's part of what distinguishes mountaineering from backpacking. Don't worry; you won't need to absorb every detail at first—which is a good thing, because there are plenty of them.

I'm aware that technical climbers tend not to be technical—above all they're practical. I'll be practical, too, and I'll make the technical matters easy to understand and easy to refer to as your experience grows. More than that, I'll give you step-by-step coaching, with text and illustrations, on the best practices of the world's leading alpinists and on the thought processes they go through when confronting technical problems. I'll show you how even the most advanced techniques are basically simple—simple is good for alpinists, because it equates to fast and safe. For example, we'll use a very small number of knots, but I'll show you how the pros tie them quickly with one hand; you won't find this approach in any other text.

When writing this book and getting into the research and fact checking, I was astonished to find that many books and magazines, even the most respected, advise methods that are out-of-date and inefficient, and sometimes downright dangerous—at least that's my opinion. The reason this is possible is that climbing and mountaineering seldom stress systems to their limits. In most cases, just about any reasonable technique will let you muddle through; you just won't be efficient, and you'll sacrifice your safety margin, whether you know it or not. You'll gain experience, but the problem with experience is that it becomes self-validating. In the absence of catastrophic evidence to the contrary, experience takes on the appearance of wisdom, even when it only means making the same mistakes over and over. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills is a classic if there ever was one—I own three editions—and it's helped get a lot of people into the mountains. Nevertheless, part of my motivation in writing this book is to present a more modern and efficient approach to mountaineering, one that's focused on the latest tools and the safest, most practical techniques, while filtering out the remainder. By drawing on a wide variety of sources as well as my own experience, even conducting original research when necessary, I've taken a fresh, new—some might say iconoclastic—approach to general mountaineering that I think you'll enjoy.


Perhaps you're an avid backpacker who's eager for the next level of growth in your exploration of alpinism. You may never have tied into a rope, but your passion to explore higher and more challenging peaks is growing. You're ready for more difficulty and more commitment, ready to extend your wilderness seasons into late autumn and early spring, ready to peer a little more deeply into what you're made of. Perhaps you've looked through the many books on rock or ice climbing and found the content overwhelming. You know that only a fraction is useful to you—but which fraction? What's accurate? What's up-to-date, and what's hopelessly obsolete?

Or you might already be an active rock climber, but you've never hiked farther than from the parking lot to the first bolt. You're nagged by the feeling that there's more to climbing than clipping draws. You are starting to feel the call of the high, the cold, the remote. You're up to the challenge of routes without chalk, but you know there are many skills you'll have to add—climbing snow with confidence and crossing glaciers safely among them. You're impatient with old-school teaching because you know much of it is wrong, but what's right? There's so much contradictory information out there—where to start?

Perhaps you're already an experienced mountaineer with dozens of peaks under your belt, but it's been a while since you sharpened your systems. You have the feeling that your methods may be getting rusty and that you could benefit from the latest advances in lightweight mountaineering, training, nutrition, and new- school methods. You don't want a gear catalog; you want solid information to help organize and update your repertoire of skills.

If you fit any of these descriptions and if you're eager to get more out of your alpine adventures, you'll find this book was written especially for you.

The Mountaineering Handbook will extend the backpacking you already know to new skills that will take you higher into more difficult terrain—the world of third- and fourth-class climbing. I start out with the basics, assuming only that you have backpacking experience (if you need to brush up basic skills, I've put some great references in the Resources section of the Appendix). If you're already a climber, you'll find this book's material on fifth-class climbing to be an eye-opener; its new concepts will answer critical questions on moving fast, building anchors, and self-rescue. If you're looking to update your mountaineering skill set, I'll show you ways to safely increase your speed, efficiency, and enjoyment of the alpine world. Along the way, from beginner to experienced climber, I won't simply give you a long list of optional techniques, as if all were equivalent—that's the approach others take. Instead, I'll show you specifically the best ways to use the most modern, but basic, equipment to deal with the real challenges mountaineers confront—not all of which involve climbing. The equipment and methods I cover will take you safely to the top of nearly any peak in the Sierras, Cascades, Rockies, or Winds—and just about anywhere else. The Mountaineering Handbook is your most direct route from basic material on moving fast and light on the trail (Chapter 3) to advanced topics such as self-rescue (Chapter 25) and glacier travel (Chapter 26), and you'll find a wealth of new information that's unavailable in any other single source. I'll help you build an informed base of knowledge that will open up the great majority of mountaineering possibilities and, should your ambitions take you that way, give you a solid foundation for an even more adventuresome exploration of rock and ice.


Let's Go Climbing Together

Throughout this book I write in the same way I chat with my mountaineering friends, not the way I'd lecture to a class. If you're new to mountaineering and especially to climbing, you may feel inundated by the unique argot climbers use; be sure to check the Glossary in Appendix C and the Index whenever you encounter an unfamiliar term. Mountaineering will also immerse you in unfamiliar circumstances—some of which are potentially life threatening. To help you get a handle on the patois of climbing and to put the subjects I cover in context, how about we enjoy a mountaineering outing together? Along the way I'll describe our prototypical climb and point out the chapters of this book where you can find more detail to inform the decisions you'll have to make when you set out on your own.


Mountaineering is hard to define, for me at least, because it encompasses so many activities and environments, as well as being highly personal. If you want to explore the best of what others have written, and get thoroughly stoked in the process, check out the great books by and about mountaineers that I sketch in Chapter 28; they're about the experiences of mountaineering, not the techniques.

To get an overview of the kinds of climbing (from scrambling to the serious stuff) that we might encounter on our outing, Chapter 8 explains ratings and grade systems and puts them in the context of mountaineering. We'll start out hiking, but to reach the summit, we'll face some snow or ice climbing (check out Chapter 16) and a final section of roped and belayed climbing on rock (see Chapter 14).


There are a few basic skills that are of fundamental utility to mountaineers. These include wilderness navigation, mainly the use of map and compass but including electronic tools such as altimeters and GPS receivers. You'll find a fresh approach to basic and intermediate navigation in Chapter 4. Having a handle on mountain weather forecasting will save you considerable grief, too, and that's covered in Chapter 6. Wilderness first aid is too complex to be covered in a single chapter or even by a book. Sign up for a hands-on course in first aid for wilderness environments after you read the introduction and overview in Chapter 21; there's an excellent text listed in Appendix B, Resources.


Fast and light has lately become an in-crowd phrase among mountaineers, or at least among marketing departments that want to sell to would-be mountaineers. You'll find it's more about skills and attitude than about equipment purchasing. I start out in Chapter 3 discussing specific techniques for moving fast on the trail. Then I devote Chapter 17 to methods mountaineers use to go light, trading skill for weight without jeopardizing safety. Throughout the book I emphasize making lightweight a priority when selecting and using equipment. In every chapter you'll find constant emphasis on moving fast in the mountains, with special detailed sections on speeding up rock climbing in Chapter 14 and snow climbing in Chapter 16. If you follow my advice, you'll be carrying significantly less weight and moving faster than others who haven't gotten the message.


Of course, you could do as many others do and simply head for the mountains on fair-weather weekends. If you want to get the most out of your outings, as well as be able to make the most of light and fast techniques you'll learn from this book, you'll want to invest in endurance and strength training specific for mountaineering. New-school training is the subject of Chapter 20. To keep your body optimally hydrated and fueled so you can sustain a successful pace on our outing, you'll want to devour the contents of Chapter 19, Performance Nutrition for Mountaineers.


From whatever direction you approach it, mountaineering—especially lightweight mountaineering—places unique demands on equipment. Selecting the best equipment for your personal objectives is important, and having good guidance is important for avoiding the vast quantities of seldom-used gear that most of us have accumulated through years of ill-considered acquisitions. Finding specific guidance focused on mountaineering is difficult. Most equipment that you'll find in outdoor shops is intended for recreational backpackers with no interest in lightweight mountaineering. Don't expect the annual reviews of popular magazines to be focused and impartial, much less critical. The basics are covered in Chapter 18. I avoid mentioning specific products and emphasize the reasons for demanding or rejecting salient features of footwear, backpacks, clothing, sleeping systems, shelter systems, mountaineering stoves, and water purification; and of course, I offer my own "ten essentials" list. Be prepared for a number of surprises in this chapter. Since our outing will involve technical climbing on snow and rock, you'll want to inform your climbing gear selections by reading Chapter 10, Equipment for Rock Climbing, and Chapter 15, Equipment for Snow and Ice Climbing. You'll find much more than just gear lists; these chapters are about the practical use of mountaineering hardware. A fundamental choice for all mountaineers is the selection of a climbing rope; the options are actually somewhat complex and involve choices of climbing style, as you'll learn in Chapter 9, which serves as an introduction to a climber's decision-making processes.

Even after you've acquired the equipment you'll need, you'll want to give it a thorough going over in the days before our climb. This not only helps to sublimate your cabin fever, but it ensures that everything is in working order, that stresses from the last outing have been repaired, and that consumables have been replenished.


We meet Friday after work, drive to a restaurant near the mountain, and revel in gluttony, knowing that we'll face high-calorie-burn days on our climb (that's the excuse anyway). Then we drive to the trailhead, throw out our bags next to the truck, and crash in the darkness. Saturday involves a tough hike to our base camp, so we get up at first light and go through the ritual of equipment sorting, ensuring we'll have what we need but don't carry duplicates. We've checked the weather report according to Chapter 6, and the sky above doesn't suggest trouble, so we'll be able to use lightweight bivy sacks instead of tents; no need for water purification, as you'll learn about alpine water sources in Chapter 18; we've got home-dried meals—those and other factors will keep the weight of our packs very manageable. After a light breakfast of body-builder powder in cold water, we hit the trail in lightweight boots. We begin our on-the-go hydration-nutrition plan, consuming an ounce of maltodextrin gel and 7 ounces of water every 20 minutes, as Chapter 19 recommends. And we hammer. Our light packs allow us to maintain about 3 miles per hour up the trail until we come to a decision point, where we head cross-country. You've plotted this point on your map because you've read Chapter 4, so when we think we've reached it, you confirm by taking a compass bearing on a nearby gully. Fortunately there's a use trail, so we can keep moving fast, as we've agreed. The use trail soon becomes indistinct; we've moved from the sub-alpine ecosystem into the alpine—the world above tree line.

Excerpted from THE MOUNTAINEERING HANDBOOK by CRAIG CONNALLY. Copyright © 2005 by Craig Connally. Excerpted by permission of The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Craig Connally puts many years of mountaineering, ski mountaineering, and climbing rock and ice into his engaging writing. More importantly, he has applied his advanced degrees in science and his career as an engineering manager to sort out and explain what works and what doesn’t in the mountains.

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