Saturday, August 20, 2011

Colorado Mountaineering 101

Mt. Sopris at sunrise in Colorado
Nothing like an alpine sunrise....

As population grows and the popularity of mountaineering grows with it, more and more people are drawn to Colorado’s mountains and high country. Busy days on Grays & Torreys or Longs or Elbert are downright crowded. I take solace in the fact that the vast majority of the climbers I meet in the mountains are good people. The unfortunate side effect, however, is that more and more people are taking to the mountains unprepared, uneducated, and otherwise ill equipped for the unique hazards and environment of the alpine world. This seems particularly true on the 14ers. Many people have seemingly become addicted to a numbers game, trying to tick as many off the list of 53 (or 54 or 59 depending on how you count) 14ers as fast as they can.

The following post is aimed for those that maybe are just starting to forage into the mountains and maybe aren’t quite as knowledgeable just yet or for anyone who wants to review the mountaineering basics. The discussion engages with the following broad topics:

-Objective Hazards
-Subjective Hazards
-Difficulty and rating scales
-Environmental Ethics
-Conditioning & Training


I will split the focus of this discussion into two groups; one aimed at “walk-up mountaineering” (class 1, 2, and some 3 routes that don’t require a rope or rock/snow protection) and technical mountaineering (class 3, 4, and 5 routes that require specialized technical gear, i.e. a rope, SLCDs, wired nuts, ice axe crampons, etc).


In all reality, this style of mountaineering comprises the majority of the alpine mountaineering in Colorado. Of the ultra-popular 14er list, almost all of them can be climbed in this style, though some require skill at scrambling and dealing with loose rock and exposure. As a result, many people have come to think of these routes, such as Grays Peak Trail or the Mount Elbert Trail, as simply long hikes, as safe and tame as their backyard hikes back home. The truth, however, is that ANY high mountain over about 11,000 is particularly dangerous and should be approached with respect. Even the “easy” routes on the high peaks expose you to an unforgiving environment of crashing boulders and fierce lightning (see “Objective Hazards”) and many expose you to terrain where even one bad step could lead to disaster. Several people every year die on these supposedly “easy” alpine routes.
Near the summit of Mt. Elbert
The upper portion of the North Mount Elbert trail

Having the right gear can greatly improve your chances of making a summit as well as help keep you safe.

Shoes- Good hiking or mountaineering boots are essential. Tennis shoes, skate shoes, Birkenstocks, or anything less are simply not safe in the alpine environment. Good shoes will protect your feet from rocks, sharp plants, weather, the strain of so many miles, over-zealous marmots etc. Foot injuries not only can ruin your chance at success but can possibly leave you dangerously stranded in unforgiving positions. Spend the money on good shoes; they protect you better, keep you drier, and last much longer, saving you money and headaches in the end.

Clothing- Go light and synthetic. Forget cotton! Especially blue jeans. Smartwool socks, or some equivalent, nylon pants, and a waterproof shell-type jacket like Gore-Tex is ideal. Keep in mind that the weather changes rapidly in the mountains and a good downpour is inevitable if you climb mountains long enough. Good days can turn wet in a blink (see: Weather). Always be prepared to keep yourself dry. When cotton gets wet, it stays wet making you cold and uncomfortable. Hypothermia is a real danger even in the summer months in the mountains.

Other essentials- sunglasses, compass, map, first aid kit, plenty of water (I’d bring 140 oz for a log day and means to get more if necessary), hat, gloves, and of course a camera.

Technical Mountaineering
For those of you that maybe have some experience under your belt and have done, I don’t know, maybe 20 walk-up routes and a few class 3 scrambles and are starting to think more grandly about your alpine climbing, the realms of technical mountaineering might be for you. Great mountains like Longs Peak, Vestal Peak, Petit Grepon, Hallet Peak, Crestone Needle, all beckon with their outstanding technical routes. While some of these peaks have class 3 “standard” routes, you get the sense that the people climbing Kiener’s Route on Longs, the Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle, or some other class 5 climb are the ones having the most fun. In many ways, you are right.
The North Face of Longs Peak in Colorado
Rappeling the North Face of Longs Peak
While technical mountaineering might be fun and have the ability to take you to exhilarating positions achievable in no other fashion, it is important to remember that alpine climbing is dangerous. Many very great climbers have been killed climbing mountains, Alex Lowe, Rob Hall, Micah Dash, and Johnny Copp come to mind just to name a brief few off a very long list. All that being said, alpine climbing is also very rewarding, but it goes require a lengthy list of gear in addition to what is needed for walk-up mountains.

Modern alpine climbing seems to privilege a “fast and light” attitude which minimizes the gear required, logistics, and duration of exposure to the alpine environment. This “alpine style” of mountaineering (as opposed to “expedition style”) also has its shortcomings particularly in dealing with adverse weather changes and possible emergencies, as some contingency gear has likely been left behind.

The appropriate gear is of course going to vary route to route. Rock routes will require cams, wires, and possibly even some aid gear with snow and ice requires ice screws axes and crampons. Some routes might require both. That in mind, what follows is a basic rack configuration for traditional climbing with an eye toward “easier” alpine routes like Wham Ridge on Vestal Peak (II, 5.4) and Kiener’s on Longs Peak (III, 5.4) up to “moderate” climbs like Ellingwood Arete on Crestone Needle (III, 5.7). In other words, the rack for a climb like the Yellow Wall (V, 5.10, A3) is going to be considerably more involved. Anyone interested in doing a route like that (hopefully) can figure out their rack configuration for themselves.

The basics:
-climbing shoes (maybe approach shoes for low class 5 routes)
climbing gear
climbing gear....
-belay device (Black Diamond ATC Guide or Gri-gri)
-rope (probably 2, or just team up with someone who also has one)

Webbing & cord
-8 to 12 shoulder length slings
-2 to 4 double length slings
-6 to 8 quickdraws
-cordellete (maybe a web-o-lette also)
-smaller cord, 5-7 mm, for prussic loops

Rock protection

-set of wired nuts
-double set of spring-loaded camming devices (SLCD) such as Black Diamond Camalots, or Wild Country Friends, etc. Metolius and other also make excellent SLCDs (often called simply “cams” although hexes and tri-cams are “cams” as well)
-set of hexagonal chocks (hexes)
-set of tri-cams


-ice axe
-12-point crampons
-three to four ice screws
-three to four snow pickets
-avalanche beacon


-10 to 12 regular caribiners
-4 to 6 locking caribiners
-nut removal tool

traditional climbing in Unaweep Canyon
Traditional-style climbing in Unaweep Canyon, Colorado


What food to bring on an alpine climb is always a question. Even for short, day-trips I would always advise you to bring more than you think you need. For day trips on strenuous mountain routes at altitude, it is important to consider a few things when bringing food: sometimes your body needs energy fast, bring some sort of food item that is rich in simple carbs like breads and sugars. A good mix of simple and complex carbs is ideal. Trail mix with chocolate pieces is an excellent source for both. It is also important to consider the strain you are putting on your muscles. Remember you are climbing 4,000 feet or more of elevation for many of Colorado's high mountains, and doing so with a decreased ability to process oxygen. Support your muscles with lots of protein, especially after a mountain climb. While protein shakes and supplements tend to be overused by body builders (a normal diet should suffice your body's protein needs to build muscle) they can help in these extreme workouts to keep your muscles from being broken down to the point of weakening your performance.

Hydration: For a climb such as the many available in Colorado, we are sometimes limited on how much water we can expect our bodies to carry. Water is heavy, weighing 8.34 pounds per gallon (124 ounces). For long days on a mountain where I know I will be above treeline for much of the day I will carry at least a gallon just for myself. Many people would tell you to carry even more, especially if you are aren't used to dealing with the altitude. Carrying more water rather than less is always a good idea but only to the point where you aren't over-burdening yourself and making your day harder. Many mountains require a full day's worth of hiking and climbing, you want to go as light as possible. And remember that more often than not water is just below treeline and we can fill back up on the way out. Another important consideration about re-hydration is electrolytes. No, electrolytes are not just some term made up by sports drink companies to sound cool and gimmicky, electrolytes are salts in your body that perform a number of important roles. When you sweat, you probably have noticed that it is very salty. Replacing these salts is very important during extreme workouts. Sports drinks and salty foods help replace your electrolytes, and they even make "shot blocks" or gummy chews that are rich in electrolytes.

Mount Sopris
Clouds build over Mount Sopris (12,953') in Garfield County, Colorado
Weather is of particular importance to mountaineers as we are frequently in locations where weather is both more frequent, severe, and dangerous. Imagine being 6 pitches up Ariana (IV, 5.12a) on the Diamond or scooting along the Knife Edge on Capitol when a fierce thunderstorm arrives. In July and August big scary storms arrive almost daily at times. It is helpful to know a few things about weather to help keep yourself as safe and comfortable as possible during your climbing.

Basic Weather- In most of the northern hemisphere the prevailing winds come from the west bringing weather patterns along with them. This is not always the case. Large scale low-pressure rotation and atmospheric anomalies can sometimes bring weather in from almost any direction. The cloud types of most concern to mountaineers are nimbostratus (long sheetlike clouds that produce protracted though typically non-violent rain storms) and cumulonimbus (towering thunderheads that produce high wind, heavy rain, and lightning).


Objective hazards are hazards that are inherent in the objective itself. In other words, venturing into the mountains is full of possible dangers that are unavoidable. Mountains are a hostile environment, there is a reason why we don't build our town and cities on the slopes of these high peaks. Dangerous from rockfall, weather, avalanches, animals, etc, will always be present in the alpine environment whether we like it or not. It is always important to keep these things in mind whenever we venture into the outdoors. While objective hazards are present and beyond our control, there are many things we can do to minimize our exposure to these possibly deadly hazards. If we always aware of our surroundings and never climb directly beneath other climbers, etc, we can minimize the danger rockfall presents us. If we understand snowpack and wear avalanche beacons we can minimize the possibility of being killed in an avalanche. Knowledge and understanding of the alpine environment is your best bet here. Don't skimp your edification, it can save your life!


Subjective hazards are hazards that you and your group members bring in yourselves. This could include things like dangerous ego, lack of knowledge/skills, oppressive fears (such as of heights), negative group dynamics, etc. Misjudging yourself and others around you can be hazardous on the mountain, and climbing outside of your limitations is a sure way for your adventure to end in disaster. The best way to reduce the potential subjective dangers of any climbing outing is to know and understand yourself and your limitations, park your ego, and climb for the right reasons (i.e. for fun and not for "ticks" or bragging rights)


I am often asked by friends new to mountaineering or climbing just what the grade scale numbers mean. What is the difference between class 3 and class 4? What is the difference between a 5.7 climb and a 5.10 climb? Just what is a 5.13 like? And what about those letters? Is it really possible to accurately and effectively subdivide a grade like 5.10 into four, lettered subgrades? Not to mention Aid and protection ratings and the vague Roman numeral grades.

Pyramid Peak
The class 3 "Green Couloir" on Pyramid Peak
You hear a lot of numbers thrown around in discussions of route difficulty. It's important to remember that any attempt to reduce something as complex as a mountaineering route to a few numbers is bound to be flawed. Any class rating is an oversimplification at best and is certainly not capable of telling the full story about the route you will experience. Attitude, body shape, climbing style, etc, will play major factors in a route's perceived difficulty. Difficulty ratings also don't incorporate other issues, such as protection, rock quality, belay/rappel anchors, weather conditions, rock conditions, etc. Difficulty ratings are also subject to local interpretation, and you might here terms like "soft" or "sandbagged" applied to certain crags. Rifle Mountain Park, a famous limestone sport area, is often called "sandbagged" as climbers sometimes claim that they struggle to climb there at the level they are accustomed to at other crags. It is also important to note the difference between gym, sport, traditional (trad), and alpine climbing. A person comfortable at 5.10 on bolts or at the gym may panic on a 5.7 trad climb. Alpine routes especially bring their own unique difficulties, and even low 5th class (which I have labeled as "easy") can be quite advanced considering the length of these routes and the objective hazards of a mountain environment. Always seek as much information as you can before attempting a route. Consult locals, buy route guidebooks, and surf your favorite web-beta climbing site like Summitpost to maximize safety.

That being said, difficulty projections can be useful to gain a rough idea of the technical demands a given route will entail. A knowledge of the scale, therefore, is useful. Consider the following article as a rough guideline to understanding the current system for grading terrain in the United States. The truth is, however, that the only way to really understand a grading system such as the Yosemite Decimal System is to experience the rock and subsequent ratings for yourself.

Otto's Route on Independence Tower
The famous pitch 4 (5.9 R) of Otto's Route on Independence Tower
The original Yosemite Class System was created by the Sierra Club in the 1930's to taxonomize the difficulty of various hikes in the Sierra Nevadas. Class 5, defined as technical rock climbing, encompassed such a large group of rock that it was sub-divided mercilessly. This decimal extension was created and developed in Southern California to classify the difficulty of various routes at Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks. The "old-school" scale started at 5.0 was capped at 5.9, resulting in a lumping of the hardest climbs into the 5.9 grade. As climbers and their gear got better, even harder climbs were being sent, and the need arose to open the scale. As a result, old-school 5.9 climbs sometimes seem more difficult than modern 5.9. The YDS scale has now been pushed to 5.15b, though only a handful of such routes exist in the world.

Class difficulty/Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

This rating system is how you will find almost all climbs in United States rated. A discussion of each difficulty level and a UIAA quivalent follows.

CLASS 1- Trail walking. This includes everything from paved concrete at the easier end of the level to very steep but well-defined alpine trails. Using your hands for balance even occasionally is not necessary.

CLASS 2- Off-trail traveling on uneven terrain or very rough trails that require considerable attention to footwork. Hands are possibly used on occasion for balance but not relied upon for significant periods.

CLASS 3- Scrambling. Hands are now used for upward movement for significant intervals. Holds may be selected and tested but are plentiful and very easy to grip. Third-class terrain is rarely, if ever, fully vertical. Most people do not need a rope to ascend class 3 and downclimb it facing outward.

CLASS 4- Easy climbing. Hands consistently use for upward movement. Holds often selected and tested. Often close to vertical with very good and abundant holds. Some people may want a rope on class 4 terrain. Most people will downclimb class 4 terrain facing inward.

CLASS 5- Technical climbing. Requires considerable knowledge of ropework, knots, and protection to climb. Almost everyone will climb fifth-class rock with a rope. Most people rappel, rather than downclimb, a class 5 pitch. Class 5 covers such a large group of rock that has been sub-divided mercilessly. The "old-school" scale started at 5.0 was capped at 5.9, but advances in the sport necessitated the need for an open ended scale. As a result, old-school 5.9 could seem considerably more difficult than modern 5.9. The modern scale has now been pushed to 5.15b, though only a handful of such routes exist in the world. The following is a sort of vague and general breakdown of the YDS system:

5.0-5.4 Very good and plentiful holds. This is generally considered "easy" climbing. Usually less than vertical with large jug holds or many otherwise positive holds. Sometimes there seems to be some overlap with easy class 5 climbs and harder class 4 climbs.

5.5-5.6 Easy moderate. Getting a little more challenging now. Often vertical with very good and plentiful holds or slabs with easy-to-find edges. Cracks with plentiful accompanying face holds and comfortable, solid jams might also fall in this range.

5.7-5.9 Moderate. This is probably the most popular range and the domain of the weekend warrior. Reasonably athletic, first-time climbers with no experience can sometimes climb at this level on top rope, especially 5.7s and 5.8s.

5.10-5.12 Advanced climbing. Rock of this level requires considerable technique and skill. Requires use of very small holds and advanced techniques like side-pulls, gastons, stemming, etc a great deal. Very difficult cracks with the bare minimum of accompanying face holds. Many climbers never achieve this level, 5.12 in particular. Usually requires considerable time investment to acquire.

5.13-5.14 Elite climbing. Let's face it, climbing at this level is for the very best. Poor holds, monster overhangs, little rest, gymnastic ability, all qualities you are likely to find on a route at this level. Climbing 5.13s and 5.14s requires many hours of dedicated perseverance and considerable natural ability.

5.15- Virtuoso. Only a handful of climbers in the world have ever achieved this level and all are essentially household names. Chris Sharma, Tommy Caldwell, and a handful of others complete the list.

Sport climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park

Safety Ratings

Since the YDS system accounts only for the technical difficulty of the hardest move, a need arose to somehow quantify the quality of protection, and therefore safety, of a given route. Consequently, James Erickson developed a safety grade based on movie ratings. It is important to note, however, that these ratings are given with the assumption that the leader has placed gear perfectly as the route allows. In other words, in inexperienced hands ANY climb can get the most dangerous rating.

G: Good. Protection is more than adequate, with placements available to minimize the fall factor. A leader who places gear properly should never be in danger of hitting ledges or the ground in the event of a fall.

PG: Pretty good. Protection is considered adequate, although moments where there is ledge-fall potential may exist. It is rare to see either a G or PG rating attached to a climb, as it is only when a climb has unique dangers that such is noted.

PG-13: Moderate. Protection is generally good with perhaps a section where there is potential for a long, risky fall. This rating is often applied when protection for a climb is not quite adequate but not bad enough to merit a full R or X rating.

R: Runnout. Even with perfect gear placements there are long sections of unprotected rock where if a lead climber fell they would be subject to a long, dangerous fall likely resulting in serious injuries.

X: Extremely runnout. Similar to the R rating, only taken to an extreme. If a leader falls on an X-rated climb, death is a real possibility.

Grade Ratings
The Diamond, the ultimate mountaineering objective in Colorado
The American system also includes a Roman numeral "grade" that attempts to evaluate a climb in terms of both time required and technical difficulty. The grading system attempts to combine factors such as: length, commitment, routefinding, difficulty of hardest pitch, average pitch difficulty, number of technical pitches, and others.

Grade I: Short climb requiring a couple hours or less of any difficulty. Single or two-pitch climbs are usually graded I though the numeral is not usually included on the difficulty rating.

Grade II: Half a day to 3/4 of a day of any difficulty. Most 14er hikes in Colorado are graded as II. Otto's Route on Independence Monument near Grand Junction, Colorado is usually graded II.

Grade III: Most of a day with some technical climbing. Long semi-technical climbs such as Ellingwood Ridge on La Plata Peak in Colorado can also receive a Grade III rating.

Grade IV: A full day of technical climbing with the hardest pitch being at least 5.7 in difficulty. The Casual Route on Longs Peak is Grade IV.

Grade V: Requires a day and a half with the hardest pitch being at least 5.8 in difficulty. Very long multi-pitch climbs often requiring aid climbing. The Yellow Wall on the Diamond is usually graded V.

Grade VI: Multi-day climb with many technical pitches requiring difficult free climbing and aid as well. Most of the famous routes on El Cap in Yosemite are Grade VI as well as climbs such as the Hallucinogen Wall in Black Canyon National Park and the North Face of Mt. Hooker in the Wind River Range.

Note: While the grading system specifically lists criteria such as "takes multiple days," advances in the sport have proven these factors as unreliable. Grade VI routes on Halfdome and El Cap, after all, have been climbed in a day or less by modern pioneers.

Aid Climbing
The last component you are likely to see in a rating for a climb in the United States is an aid rating. Aid climbing occurs when terrain becomes too difficult for a leader to climb free and resorts to climbing on gear itself, rather than the rock. Pitons, gear grabbing, etriers, cam hooks, etc, are all components of aid climbing. Personally, I don't do a lot of aid climbing as of now, so the following descriptions are greatly in-debted to Mountaineering: The Freedom a the Hills, a book that anyone interested in alpine climbing should own.

A0: Fixed protection in place.

A1: Easy aid placements where virtually every placement is capable of holding a fall.

A2: Placements are fairly good, but may be tricky to place. There may be a couple of bad placements between good placements.

A3: Hard aid. Several hours to lead a pitch with the potential of 60-80 foot falls, but without danger of grounding or serious injury. Requires active testing of placements.

A4: Serious aid. Fall potential of 80-100 feet with bad landings. Most placements hold only body weight.

A5: Placements hold only body weight for an entire pitch, with no solid protection such as bolts. A leader fall at the top of a A5 pitch means a 300-foot fall.

A5+/A6: Occasionally people have proposed an A6 grade for several climbs, though many deny the possibility that such a grade can exist. Supposedly, and A6 climb is like an A5 with body weight placements for an entire pitch but with bad anchors as well.

Aid climbs can also be rated C0-C5 which means basically the same thing except that a route can be climbed without the use of pitons, bolts, or drilling. This category is called "clean aid". Once a route has gone clean it is expected that subsequent climbers will honor this style and not further mar the rock.

This article, written by Richard Jensen, is an intriguing read and will help provide an empirical understanding of aid climbing. Further investigation of climbing figures like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Jim Beyer, Layton Kor and others will help you understanding more about the sport of aid climbing in America and its illustrious history.

trad climbing in Unaweep
Unaweep Canyon, Colorado


Regardless of how you feel about wilderness and environmental issue there are a few things you should know and a few strategies to keep yourself safe, protect the environment, and be courteous to your fellow outdoor enthusiasts. The so-called "No Trace" camping etiquette will minimize your impact on the natural environment we are traveling through.

Please refer to the following post for a more detailed discussion of environmental ethics in the alpine environment:

No-Trace Camping Ethic


Climbing mountains is difficult stuff. If you go into it with too lackadaisical of an approach to your training, you might just get walloped. While usually being under-fit results in you having to fight that much harder to reach the summit and recover that much longer, it can be downright dangerous. Consider the following points when designing your training program:

-Don't hurt yourself! There is no quicker way to ruin a summit bid than to kill it before it even starts! Start slow and ease your body in.

-Gain elevation. Running and walking on the flats is good but climb some hills too, and do so at higher elevations too if possible.

-Work the muscles. Balance your cardio hikes and jogs with muscle work as well. Focus on squats, calf raises, and core training.

-Eat well. Avoid the sugary stuff, lay off the alcohol, and (as always) never smoke!

-Work out 3-4 days/week. Make sure to give your muscles a break, they need it in order to rebuild.

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