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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?