What’s the definition of a mountaineer?

I’d been climbing for several years before I dared to call myself a mountaineer. I suddenly realised it one evening a couple of years ago when I got introduced to someone down a pub with the words, “here’s my friend – he’s a mountaineer.” At the time I thought my friend was taking the piss, but when I thought about it later I realised I’d just come back from an attempt on Gasherbrum II, an eight thousand metre peak in Pakistan and was on my way to bag a few volcanoes in Ecuador. I don’t know what you can call this if it’s not mountaineering – it’s certainly not morris dancing, I knew that much.

Climbing the Banana Ridge on Gasherbrum II. Hmm, yes, definitely mountaineering.
Climbing the Banana Ridge on Gasherbrum II. Hmm, yes, definitely mountaineering.

“Heck, I really am a mountaineer,” I thought to myself, and I felt quite chuffed.

Why had it taken me so long to realise I was a mountaineer? The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) has as its strapline, working for climbers, hill walkers and mountaineers, but what does this mean? Does it mean climbers and hill walkers aren’t mountaineers, and if so, what’s an organisation with a name like that doing working for them? I suppose my own reluctance to realise my status stemmed from my background as a hill walker rather than a rock climber, and that I felt in some way “inferior”, even though either activity forms a good springboard.

Earlier this year Sport England, a government agency that works to encourage public involvement in sport, published the results of its Active People survey to assess the number of people in England taking part in various sporting activities. They discovered that the number of mountaineers had increased from 86,100 people in 2008 to 111,300 in 2010. Although this represents only about a quarter of a per cent of the population as a whole, it still seemed a surprisingly high number for a country whose highest peak, Scafell Pike, is only 978 metres high. In many parts of the world this wouldn’t even be described as a mountain.

But Sport England had helpfully provided a definition:

“Mountaineering includes: climbing indoor, climbing rock, mountaineering, mountaineering high altitude, hill trekking, hill walking, bouldering, mountain walking”
Sport England, Active People Survey (APS) results for Mountaineering

I say helpfully, but even this list requires some explanation, and perhaps a bit of re-labelling. In fact, I think it breaks down into three discrete groups: (i) climbing, (ii) walking, and (iii) mountaineering, and this happens to tally with the BMC’s strapline, working for climbers, walkers and mountaineers. It reflects the fact that the first two feed neatly into the third – in order to be a mountaineer you need to have a bit of each of the climber and the walker.

So who are these types? Here’s a rough description.

Climbers

Multi-pitch rock climbing in North Wales
Multi-pitch rock climbing in North Wales

Indoor climbing – There are plenty of climbers who carry out their sport every week and get very good at it without setting hand on rock or foot on hill. They spend their time on indoor climbing walls and in gyms, and indulge in competitions, complete with stop watches and referees, to be the fastest up a particular bit of wall.

Rock climbing – Rock climbers pursue their activity outdoors on sea cliffs and crags. Usually this will be multi-pitch climbing, where two climbers complete a route in pairs, and the first one climbs the full rope length before anchoring himself to bring up his partner (known as a belay) and climb the next pitch. This group can be further subdivided into sport climbers, who use expansion bolts in the rock to help them climb with safety (frowned upon by many UK climbers), and trad climbers, who insist on putting in their own protection and removing it while they climb to maintain the purity of the route.

Bouldering – Some people dispense with ropes altogether. Their main aim is to complete the most technically difficult moves possible, and seldom climb more than a few metres off the ground. When they fall, as they inevitably do at some point, they’re saved from injury by their companions spotting when they’re about to slip and putting crash pads underneath.

Walkers

Hill walking doesn't have to be especially challenging, as long as it involves a hill
Hill walking doesn’t have to be especially challenging, as long as it involves a hill

Hill walking – Hill walking is where I began my journey to becoming a mountaineer, and is an activity I expect I will still be pursuing long after I’ve retired from mountaineering. Known as hiking in other parts of the world, and tramping in New Zealand, hill walking can involve day walks carrying only a very small pack with food and water for lunch, or multi-day backpacking trips with tent and stove for an overnight stop. It doesn’t really matter, as long as there’s a bit of uphill involved.

Trekking – There’s a blurred line between trekking and hill walking which is hard to define, but trekking is usually meant to describe classic multi-day routes further afield in more remote locations, where it’s not possible to obtain food along the way or carry all your own food for the trek. It’s therefore necessary to hire transport such as mules, yaks or porters to carry expedition equipment. A logical extension to this is to hire a cook and kitchen tent, and treks are therefore often done as a group to share the cost.

Mountaineers

High altitude mountaineering tends to involve a lot of walking on glaciers while roped together
High altitude mountaineering tends to involve a lot of walking on glaciers while roped together

Alpine mountaineering – True mountaineering begins when climbing moves off rock, and walking moves off sand and soil. Snow, ice and glaciers mean that different skills are needed. In the case of alpine mountaineering these skills tend to be more technical. Alpine mountaineers will climb huge technically difficult faces rife with “objective” danger (ie. danger that is out of your control) such as rockfall and avalanche. In addition to the rope work associated with rock climbing, they need to be able to climb on ice using ice axe and crampons.

High altitude mountaineering – In the greater ranges, where the mountains are bigger and the air is thin, technically difficult can become impossibly difficult due to the effort involved and the need to properly acclimatise. High altitude mountaineering therefore tends to bring mountaineering closer to the realms of walking than climbing. Stamina, and the ability to camp for days where the oxygen is thinner become more important than climbing ability, and technical routes often involve more snow slogs and glacier walking, where crevasse danger is ever present.

So which one are you?

I’ve done a bit of all of these – I need to have done in order to tackle the mountains I do – but I’m definitely more in the realms of the walking and the high altitude stuff. My heart is in the outdoors, the silence and the scenery, and the need to be doing something technically difficult isn’t really what interests me. Having said that, I’ve definitely got more enjoyment out of mountains with a technical element, as long as they’re not too technical.

But there remains one unanswered question. According to Sport England, if you do any of the above then you can call yourself a mountaineer. So what then is alpine mountaineering and high altitude mountaineering? I hesitate to call it true mountaineering, as this sounds incredibly snobbish. But what do we call it – any ideas?

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28 thoughts on “What’s the definition of a mountaineer?

  • December 15, 2011 at 8:48 pm
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    Forgive my twitter nickname (@Locomountaineer) which is a bit of a joke. Judging by the above I could call myself a mountaineer.

    – Countless hill-walks.
    – Many multi-day mountain treks.
    – Two ascents of Mt Toubkal (4,000m) – ok, one was slightly more successful than the other, which was a wee bit wintry.
    – A couple of Scottish Gd I and Gd II winter climbs/descents.
    – A couple of European lesser hills (c1500m)
    – A few indoor climbing lessons
    – A completed Mountain Leader Training course (but no assessment).

    BUT…

    My view is that the definition is not as laid down above. The definition was formed way back, when I first thought – I WANT TO BE A MOUNTAINEER.

    The image in my mind wasn’t of a chap in lightweight walking trousers with a lunch box and a trekking pole walking along a heathery upland moor (something I often do). The image was of a bloke with two ice axes, a rope and jumar, a dusting of spindrift on his goretex and a climbing helmet – maybe even with a touch of frost on his facial hair.

    Do I seriously consider myself a Mountaineer? NO.

    I am a hill-walker and mountain-walker who occasionally has a go at mountaineering stuff. Perhaps maybe a new title – outdoorsman/woman.

  • December 15, 2011 at 9:25 pm
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    Hi Carl

    Thanks for the response. Sounds like you’re where I was a couple of years ago, when I’d never even considered myself to be a mountaineer until a guy down a pub told me I was.

    You’re a mountaineer in my book (a mad mountaineer judging by your Twitter name!), but perhaps you just need to do a bit more of it to convince youself.

    But I like the Outdoorsman – I can definitely handle being one of them. 🙂

    Cheers,
    Mark.

  • December 20, 2011 at 7:43 am
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    Hello, I have been thinking about this myself recently. I want to consider myself a mountaineer. I hike up mountains mostly, in any weather. I was only hiking in snow two days ago. I completed the Wainwright’s in just over 12 months, I am now working on the Welsh Nuttals over 12 months. I do walk and jig up a local hill as fitness. I am planning a 6,000m peak next year in the Himalayas and currently getting in shape for that. I haven’t used an ice axe and crampons much, but had a go. I am about to buy some plastic boots and then of course ice axe and crampons. I also camp out wild on my own. I am certainly an outdoors woman. I am a member of the BMC. Can I call myself a mountaineer? It is the mountains I love. I only see hills a use for fitness.

    0love the post, got me thinking. Outdoor adventurer? I am certainly a mountain walker and mountain hiker, not really a climber, though does a scramble along some of our wonderful ridges count as climbing? Grad 1 or 2 scrambles certainly are above a hike!

    Kind regards,

    Melanie

  • December 21, 2011 at 7:22 pm
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    Why bother with names ?….in the immortal words of the philosopher “Popeye ” ….. I am what I yam what Iyam what iyam whatiyam whati……………….

  • January 4, 2012 at 8:51 pm
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    Hi Melanie,

    You’re definitely entering the realms of mountaineering once you start tackling Himalayan 6000ers. In Nepal 6000m peaks are often labelled as ‘trekking peaks’ but this is more because they involve treks followed by 1 or 2 day alpine style assaults (as opposed to laying siege to a mountain expedition style) than because you can trek up them. Most definitely require mountaineering skills such as use of ice axe, crampons and ropework.

    But Robin has reminded me, a great film was made in the 1950s which neatly shows what the art of mountaineering is all about. Who needs an ice axe when you have spinach and toilet plungers 😉

  • May 22, 2012 at 8:02 am
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    hi there…im been hiking tropical mountains here in the Philippines for quite some time now..a little bouldering, indoor climbing, and occasional trekking…

    been studying books and documentaries about mountaineering, based on internationally accepted definition of terms, the technical skills required, the equipments used, the level of experience, and the kind, feature, and altitude of terrain mountaineers tackle… im way too far from these standards…so im not a mountaineer…!

    i can proudly say im a hiker, outdoorsman, or backpacker maybe…

  • June 22, 2012 at 6:29 am
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    Hello,
    I was discussing this very topic with a friend and I suggest that the use of technical means to achievea mtn objective might be a good dividing line between mountaineering and the rest.
    If we accept the definition found in many a dictionary
    “2. : a person who climbs mountains for sport” or
    “Sport England’s” def then just about everybody who walks in the Mtns qualifies.
    So to differentiate the “high end” of the continuum how about “World Class Mountaineer”
    for people who go to remote foreign lands to climb really big mtns?
    Still too pretentious?
    (Yes I know what you mean I’m still searching for a more palatable synonym for “Peak Bagger”)

  • June 22, 2012 at 8:03 am
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    Hmm, not sure about that one – that would make me “world class” then, and many more people who are worse climbers than I am. 😉

    As for the technical definition, what about mountains like Aconcagua, where the False Polish and Normal routes are non-technical, but I don’t think there are many people who will tell you that’s not mountaineering expedition (or at least not anyone who’s climbed it)!

  • June 23, 2012 at 2:14 am
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    Yes coming up with a non-pretentious descriptive title for ‘true mountaineers’
    as opposed to the growing host of ‘pretenders’ is a tough one– and I’ll leave you to it! 😉
    As to the definition how about—
    Mountaineering – the use of expeditionary and/or technical means to achieve a mountain objective.
    This short def should cover both high altitude/expeditionary and alpine mountaineering while differentiating from the rest. A better definition would probably have to be longer! 😉

  • June 23, 2012 at 6:46 am
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    Yes, I like your definition for ‘true’ mountaineering – I think it covers it very succinctly!

    I don’t know whether we should call anyone a ‘pretender’ though. We’re all just doing what we enjoy, after all. I still get called a climber from time to time, even though I rarely do any of the three activities listed under climbing, so I’m probably a bit of a pretender myself in that case. 🙂

  • August 6, 2012 at 3:36 pm
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    Great article. As someone who has worked in the outdoor industry (retail) for 10 years and climbing for twice that, this is a discussion that comes up more than politics or theology! I do feel like you missed something though. Something important – the concept of clean ethics, or style, and therefore the unmentioned category of the genuine Alpinist.

    I do not mean alpine mountaineering, which is just mountaineering but steeper, but real alpinism, which is about climbing well, and bettering yourself for it. You touched on the idea with your mention of trad climbing and purity of routes. Alpinists usually, though not always, come from the climbing rather than a walking background. Alpinism is about routes more than summits. It is about climbing cleanly (minimal damage to the mountain, Leave No Trace ethic, as light and fast as possible) and independently. This means no support other than legally required, such as Sherpa partners rather than guides, and no ‘cheats’ such as supplemental oxygen, or fixed lines placed by another party. Alpinists by the true definition will always forsake their own goal to participate in rescue. These ‘rules’, or better principles, of alpinism are possible at any altitude, even 8000ers, though the routes will of course be less technical the higher you go.

    I have heard many say that the genuine spirit of alpinism is dying as the culture and business of high-altitude tourism grows, but I disagree.

    These people do exist, in the thousands in fact. You just don’t hear about them so much because because they are humble. They do not often write books, make movies, or seek sponsors. They are not on the same routes as you on the mountain, and so are often out of sight, climbing new peaks, new lines, or repeating more aesthetic lines away from the ‘normal’ routes!

    The ultimate aspiration of the alpinist is first ascents of new peaks or new lines in the best style possible. Above all, they understand that no mountain is ever conquered, but simply sometimes permits your passage.

    There is a deep psychology behind ‘clean’ climbing that is very difficult to explain. Why are these principles so important? It is because climbing for some is about self improvement and achievement by fair means. You want to be a better person? Then dispense with the ego and your bragging rights, solo a new, hard, beautiful line in perfect style and tell nobody. That is alpinism. The funny thing is, though climbers can rarely find the words to explain it, they will always know exactly what you mean when you try to speak of it and agree with you!

    Myself, I have been alpine climbing for years at all altitudes and on all mediums, yet I would never presume to call myself an alpinist. Nor a mountaineer for that matter as I’ve always thought of mountaineers as those who come from hill walking. If anyone asks, I am very happy to be called ‘climber’.

  • August 9, 2012 at 9:54 am
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    Hi Bob,

    Thanks for this. You make some very interesting points, and you’re right, I briefly touched upon ‘ethics’ with reference to sport and trad climbers, and perhaps should have mentioned it in relation to alpine mountaineering as well.

    Is it a separate category in its own right? I’m not sure. The issue of ‘ethics’ potentially cuts across all of the categories above (I use the word in inverted commas deliberately: it’s not in itself unethical if you choose not to adhere to all of the strict rules of conduct you mention). For example, I’m sure many a long distance hill walker has carried their tent for many days and agonised over whether to allow themselves to check into a hotel for a night.

    The ethics debate can also be a highly emotive subject. It’s one I’m probably not best qualified to write about and usually prefer to stay out of (though I did describe it in more detail in my post about Cerro Torre: http://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2012/a-short-history-of-cerro-torre/). I would put the alpinists as a subset of the alpine mountaineers, though I expect I may offend someone in doing so. 😉

    Regards,
    Mark.

  • October 22, 2012 at 4:49 pm
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    It seems all of you hesitate to label yourselves mountaineers or alpinists. I would feel the same, although I seem to have less experience than the others that have responded so far.

    Perhaps it’s better to forego the self titling and let non-climbers (friends, family, whatever) call you whatever they want.

    “You want to be a better person? Then dispense with the ego and your bragging rights, solo a new, hard, beautiful line in perfect style and tell nobody. That is alpinism.” This resonated with me. It seems like if you in fact were an alpinist and true to the philosophy it’s unlikely you’d spend much time thinking of yourself as such. This is an interest post Mark, and I don’t mean to suggest otherwise, but for me it’s more of a theoretical rather than practical issue. Whatever the true criteria for being a mountaineering, as soon as you exercise that title you’ve already eroded your claim to the title a bit. Of course, at some point it simply becomes undeniable. When Ueli Steck in Reel Rock 5 calls himself an Alpinist, there’s just no way around it, but even then you can still see the reservation he has in adopting the title (if you’ve seen the video of his Eiger North Face speed ascent, that’s what I’m talking about, except on youtube it’s truncated so you don’t always see Steck’s commentary).

  • October 22, 2012 at 11:00 pm
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    Thanks, BP. Sorry if I’m being a bit slow, but why does exercising a title erode your claim to it?

  • October 22, 2012 at 11:28 pm
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    If as bob suggests “true alpinism” involves (a) hard routes, and (b) not speaking about your accomplishments, it’s hard to explain why you’re an alpinist while remaining true to the alpine spirit.

    Consider how you described yourself as an alpinist on account of the kinds of summits your currently working on (Gasherbrum II and Ecuadorian volcanoes). You’re not unique. I imagine many people might describe themselves as alpinists on account of their accomplishments and immanent projects. If I were to make the argument that I were an mountaineer that would be my first inclination, but the act of making such an argument in and of itself seems inconsistent with what it means to be an alpinist. Even if you don’t provide an explanation, calling yourself a mountaineer or alpinist begs the question in an uncomfortable way, and often incites follow up questions that encourage you to fall into that trap.

  • October 22, 2012 at 11:33 pm
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    Not that I’m criticizing you for calling yourself a mountaineer. As I’ve said, at some point it becomes undeniable, but I still think there’s a reluctance around exercising the title and I think that reluctance is tied up with what it means to be a mountaineer.

  • October 23, 2012 at 7:48 am
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    Heehee, I’m sure you’re right, but I’m in danger of disappearing in a puff of logic. 😉

  • May 6, 2013 at 8:43 pm
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    You certainly know how to start an argument or in lighter mode, discussion. I enjoyed your article but the comments were even more revealing. Thanks and cheers Kate

  • May 6, 2013 at 9:13 pm
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    Ah, well, I am a Yorkshireman, after all. We’re not known for our diplomacy. 😉

  • June 16, 2013 at 10:17 pm
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    The definition of mountaineering seems to imply skill and intent. “Sport” mountaineering might be a good way to differentiate people who enjoy the mountains for aesthetics, to attain a personal goal, or climb, “just because its there” versus high-altitude peoples who live and work in the mountains. In the U.S. there seems to be a high threshold for determining who is “experienced” from novices and newbies. Half the equasion is creating a personal identity. The other half is how others define YOU–with plenty of overlap and interaction between the two. You redefined yourself, after someone called you a mountaineer in a pub. Others perceptions of us are integral to how we see ourselves. That said, there is a mountaineering subculture that confers status based on skill, achievement, ethics, but also based on one’s fluency with the language, the gear, and the rules and expectations of the culture. I’ve also noticed in forums that members of the mountaineering community can be very unforgiving of others’ mistakes, and that sizing people up or making judgments–both positive and negative–based on their skills can be a significant part of being an established mountaineer.

    I don’t think I will ever be able to truly call myself a mountaineer. My skills and experience do not justify it, but I am happy to be a “mountain enthusiast.” I like that term better than “novice” or “beginner” because there is no status attached to it, and no expectation of making forward progress in skill or status. I can simply enjoy the mountains on my terms, without worrying about the approval of the larger–and infinitely more skilled and better equipped–mountaineering community.

  • May 29, 2015 at 9:00 am
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    I started climbing Mt Kenya as a porter in 1986 with an Englishman mountain climber/Instructor by the name of Andrew wielochoski.He encouraged me to join his students groups on rock climbing training and courses. I developed a passion for walking, hiking and trekking for multiple days in our beautiful hills and mountains and later Andrew gave me all the special gears for rock and ice climbing.In 1996 i led 5 British climbers and became the first African to climb the Heim glacier on Mt Kilimanjaro. I also climbed the little Penck and the Arrow glacier on the same Mountain. Rwenzori mountains are my favorite. There also some smaller but extreemly hard mountains like the Oldonyo Lengai in Tanzania and Mgahinga in Rwanda.Just like in the Alpines, east Africa hosts all the highest and many other mountains and hills. the highest peaks on Mt Kenya Batian 5200m and Nelion 5100m can only be technically approached and in 2001 i made a solo ascent to both peaks climbing up from the south east face and descending down the west ridge with a night at the howels hut on Nelion.
    So in view of these, should i then consider myself as a mountaineer or a mountain guide or both? i have never thought about it before
    Asante
    Chris Muriithi

  • May 30, 2015 at 11:32 am
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    That’s a great story, Chris, thanks for sharing. I take my hat off to you and all you have achieved in the mountains of East Africa.

    If you’re not a mountaineer then I’m a Masai warrior! 😉

  • September 16, 2015 at 8:31 am
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    ..perhaps we should consider a ‘recreational mountaineer’ title to anyone who are not yet a ‘true bloodied mountaineers’..?

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  • April 26, 2016 at 4:44 pm
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    I’m off to Yr Aran and Snowdon next month (hence how I ended up on this site) and my parents said to me, “I hear you’re off mountaineering in North Wales”, which made me laugh! I said, “well, I’m walking up a hill, yeah!”

    I’ve no desire to be a mountaineer and no matter your definition, walking the Watkin Path is not mountaineering!

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