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"Hidden" truths that mountaineers often experience

Updated: May 28, 2021

Mountain climbing is widely considered to be one of the hardest outdoor sports there is. the challenges entailed in mountain climbing are generally classified as: “objective” hazards – such as falling rocks, avalanche, falling ice, or mountaineers falling into slopes and crevasses due to weather and altitude;

and, “subjective” hazards, which are caused by, inter alia, the climber’s poor judgment, lack of skill or planning and inadequate conditioning.

While it is undeniable that mountain climbing is not an easy hobby, some “horrors” surrounding the sport are nothing but myths. These myths are among the many reasons why some avoid, even dread, the very concept of mountaineering.

Read on and see the top five myths about mountaineering, "debunked". Who knows, you might just consider giving the sport a try.

MYTH: Altitude sickness affects ALL PEOPLE the same way

DEBUNKING IT: This is false! All people get altitude sickness, just in varying degrees or levels because our bodies react differently to high altitudes. Some may experience altitude sickness while others don't. Some healthy people can adapt to a wider range of altitudes with no problems at all. There are also ways for climbers to try to avoid getting altitude sickness, such as climbing slowly, sleeping low at night after climbing high during the day's outing, eating more carbs, and staying well-hydrated throughout the climb (altogether, part of a steady process known as "acclimatization").

Also, younger climbers have a higher metabolic rate, and like a carburetor on a car, they need more oxygen to perform at their prime than do older persons; so ironically, in some cases, eighteen-year-olds often DON'T do better than forty-year-olds -- because older person have slower metabolism and thus don't have as much of what it is called "the hypoxic need/drive to breathe".

MYTH: The summit is the FINISH LINE or GOAL

DEBUNKING IT: Reaching the summit may be one of the greatest achievements for a climber. But as high-altitude mountaineer Ed Viesturs puts, “The summit is just a halfway point.” Getting back down, safely ,is the real "finish line".

MYTH: Rock climbing is the ONLY skill you need

DEBUNKING IT: Rock climbing isn't the only important skill a mountaineer needs. People who decide to climb mountains should at least know how to camp and hike. One could use some “traditional” navigational skills, too! Knowing how to use a map and compass would come in handy especially when there are dead spots in the GPS system.

Critically, mountaineers must learn to travel over so-called“mixed terrain”( rock, snow, and ice) -- that’s a term of art from the textbook of climbing, which is called Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, first published in 1960.

MYTH: “The higher the mountain, the more difficult it is to climb”

DEBUNKING IT: People always associate the "higher mountain" as the harder one to climb. For example, Mount Everest may be ONE of the hardest to achieve by certain routes, but it isn't as difficult to climb as other known mountains. The Annapurna Massif in the central Nepal Himalaya, for instance, may be only the tenth highest peak, but its technically "easy" north slopes are frequently avalanche-prone, while the south face is much more technically challenging because of its being a nearly vertical wall of ice and rock, where snow doesn't have a chance to accumulate and later avalanche. Statistically, pro rata, "Annapurna" claims more lives than any other of the fourteen highest mountains, because most climbers take the "easier" but more avalanche-prone north slopes.

Thus, it's usually the particular route climbed, as well as a number of other factors, noted below, and not necessarily the height alone of a mountain, that determines its difficulty.

One must always know, therefore:

(1) which route the party climbed on any given mountain;

(2) which season of the year the party attempted the climb (winter, with its extreme cold and winds; spring -- often ideal, especially in the central Himalaya; summer (but often utterly impassable in the central Himalaya because it's subject to the Monsoon snows in summer, but is usually the ideal time to climb in the trans-Himalayan range of the Karakoram in northern Kashmir, where the notorious K2 and the Gasherbrum Group are located); and,

(3) in what "style," the climb was attempted, i.e., with many porters in a so-called "siege-style" assault requiring many the stocking of successive "camps" up the mountain, or in "alpine style," -- where the climbers climb in a small party, carrying all of their need on their own backs up the mountain, without resorting to many or any fixed "camps".

(Of course, the ultimate test in terms of style is climbing "solo" -- but this is not practicable on most mountains.)

A mountain's absolute height, therefore, is just one of many factors involved (usually affecting the duration of the climb, as well as the possible need for some climbers to use supplemental oxygen in tanks, especially if climbing above 26,000 feet, the so-called "Death Zone" where the body cannot "acclimatize" any further, and is in a constant state of deterioration leading to eventual death after a given number of hours).

Finally, throughout all the experience of "Altitude Sickness," one must distinguish carefully between the much more common, typical "mountain sickness" per se, which is not life-threatening, and consists of, e.g., generalized malaise, including headache, insomnia, and lack of appetite, as distinct from the much less frequent, but potentially deadly, altitude maladies such as HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema, which involves accretion of bodily fluids in the lungs resulting in a wracking, bloody cough and, if descent is not immediate, death by drowning in one's own bodily fluids); and HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema, which involves swelling of the brain due to accumulation of excess cerebral fluid, resulting in lack of coordination, extreme lassitude, vertigo, blind spots or blindness, and, if descent is not immediate, inevitable death).

Both HAPE and HACE are a consequence of the mal-adaptation to altitude, where the body instinctively, but incorrectly, retains excess water (in either the lungs or the brain) in order to avert perceived dehydration, actual dehydration being the biggest threat on any high mountain -- because the more rarefied the air, the drier it is and, with each breath, the climber exhales more moisture than he or she can inhale in an unacclimatized breathing cycle. There are medical treatments and medicines for each condition (Diamox, a blood acidifier, for HAPE, and Decadron, a powerful corticosteroid, for HACE) -- but there is no substitute for rapid descent in all of these cases.

All told, there's no doubt that extremely high-altitude mountaineering can be risky, but with proper precautions and preparations, it may be a thing that "even you" can do. Of course, mountaineering at more modest altitudes, such as found in the European Alps or in the American Rockies, presents far fewer health hazards than the Himalaya or Andes. Instances of HAPE and HACE have been known to occur even in the Alps and Rockies, but are relatively infrequent.

In any event, all mountaineering is a physical and spiritual journey, as well as a destination, and an environmentally and psychologically immersive experience that you'll never forget.

Ultimately, one must never forget that it's the very uncertainty of the outcome that creates the element of "risk" that lures climbers seeking "adventure" to the sport in the first place, and which makes it a gratifying and psychologically rewarding endeavor in the end.

As I remarked in my Poem, "Our Way to the Top" in my most recent Book ("Reflections on Mountaineering," A Second Revised and Expanded Edition):

I revel in that special quality of the uncertainty of the outcome,

Regardless of skill, that is experienced during the bond of indulging

Ourselves in the useless and dangerous sheer joy of climbing,

With the reward for success being achievement of that peculiar

Harmony of ceaseless flow and feedback of triumph over problems,

One after another, seriatim.

(p. 17; emphasis added.)

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