MOUNTAINEERING SKILLS & TECHNIQUES NEEDED
Warm summer rock, crisp winter snow. Time spent in the mountains is simply incomparable. Climbing with friends and exploring wild places together creates strong bonds. To get the most of these experiences, to keep it safe and reduce the risks as far as possible, you need good physical endurance, mental strength and a solid understanding of mountaineering and alpine climbing techniques. Ultimately, climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year.
The essential technical skills needed for mountaineering take some time to learn. The best way to quickly and safely is to learn from a qualified guide. When you’re climbing, your safety and the safety of your partner is your responsibility. No article or video can replace qualified instruction and experience.
We’ve put together a summary of the main climbing techniques required for mountaineering.
- Safety always comes first
- Wear a helmet (think rock fall, ice fall)
- Gloves are a good idea for belaying and rappelling
- Make sure you’re familiar with your equipment
Obviously, this will vary according to the kind of trip you are on:
- Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, avalanche transceiver
- Headlamp: Pack extra batteries
- Sun protection: sunglasses, sunscreen
- First aid
- Knife & gear repair kit
- Stove & lighter
- Rescue blanket (can also be used in emergency under your last layer)
- Emergency shelter (bivvy bag)
- Food & drinks
- Extra clothing
There are many knots that climbers use depending upon the situation. You actually only need to know a relatively small number of knots to climb in safety. However, you do need to know them well, including if you are tired or under time pressure (or even in the dark if you had to). Carelessness can lead to fatal errors.
There are three different types: knots for tying in/ roping up, knots for joining ropes (often called bends) and safety/ friction hitches (hitches are used to connect a rope or sling to another object, such as a carabiner).
These is what we consider the main knots for alpine climbing:
- Figure of Eight Knot Threaded -Tying in to a harness
- Figure of Eight Knot on a Bight - Clipping a rope into something
- Italian/ Munter Hitch - Belaying (and abseiling when you have dropped your belay plate)
- Clove Hitch - Setting up belay points
- Overhand Knot - Joining abseil ropes
- Bowline -Tying in to a harness. Tying a rope off round a tree or similar
- Prusik Loop - For safe-guarding abseils and ascending fixed ropes
- Mule Knot - To tie-off a belay
- Girth Hitch - For connecting slings
- Tape Knot -To join tape abseil slings
- Double Overhand Knot - A large brake knot that can help arrest a fall by cutting into the lip of the crevasse
- Bowline on a bight - In a sling to create a central point at an anchor
- Stopper Knot - Finishing off a Figure of Eight or a Bowline to make it safer
- Butterfly Coil - For rope carrying & storage
- Alpine Butterfly -Tying on in the middle of a rope
And remember: It’s important that knots are tied (aka dressed) cleanly and precisely.
The belay station is your central anchor point and needs to be strong enough to hold a fall.
There are three types: natural anchors, such as a good-sized, large (live) tree or a solid rock spike or thread; fixed anchors – pitons, bolts and rings that are left permanently in place; removable anchors – that you build and remove yourself.
The anchor you build will depend on the circumstances and available options, such as the number and quality of anchors, pull direction and your chosen belay method. Either way, every anchor system has a central point where you clip in your personal anchor and set up the belay. Locking carabiners should always be used for belay anchor connections. It’s important to be able to build anchors safely, quickly and effectively.
To protect the belay anchor – and minimize the chances of high factor fall – the leader should place a good first piece of protection early on in the pitch, sometimes referred to by American Climbers as the ‘Jesus Nut’.
Your personal anchor is your connection to the central anchor at a belay or abseil station. One end of gets girth hitched through both the tie in loop of your harness. A dedicated locking carabiner added to its other end. Remember your personal anchor is for personal use only and is not designed to hold a fall from your partner while they are climbing. It’s also worth noting that tying a knot in your anchor sling, can significantly reduce the strength especially if it’s made of Dyneema. A static fall from a belay anchor could therefore be enough to break a sling if a knot is tied in it.
However, a more important question than “Is this sling strong enough?” is “Have I set up this belay station so that there is no way it could be statically loaded?” Alternatively, you could attach yourself via the rope directly to the belay as it’s dynamic.
Constructing secure anchors is obviously a vital skill. There a number of issues to consider such as belay position and stance, belay from harness or anchor station, equalization methods, using runners, slings or cordelettes.
The importance of belaying skills for alpine climbing is not to be underestimated. We recommend that you:
- Wear gloves and a helmet
- Organise (flake out) your rope before you start climbing (leader’s end on top, belayer’s at the bottom)
- Check your attachment to the anchor
- Use a belay device you are familiar with (alpine tuber, ATC, Reverso, etc.) or a Munter Hitch
- Can belay with both left and right hand as your brake hand
- Think ABC: Anchor-Belayer-Climber in as straight a line as possible, with no slack in the system
- Belay so that you can keep the proper amount of tension or slack in the rope and pay out rope or take in quick as required
- For mountaineering, we recommend attaching your Italian Hitch or belay device directly to the belay station. The big advantage here is that you are not part of the belay chain and cannot be dragged from your position by the pull of the fall with the risk of possible injury or in the worst case losing control of the rope. You can also escape the system if needed (see How to Tie Off a Belay below).
- Use fall training at a climbing wall to practise leader falls and improve your belay skills.
Climbing calls are important so that everyone knows exactly what is happening. They might sometimes seem a bit excessive – especially at the climbing gym – but they help to prevent misunderstandings. In the mountains, once a lead climber is out of sight, they can become essential. Bear in mind that climbing calls might differ slightly in other countries. Before you climb, make sure that you and your partner have agreed on which calls you are using before you leave the ground.
These are the standard calls:
- On Belay –The belayer tells the climber they are ‘on belay’ and can 'climb when ready'
- Climbing – The climber tells the belayer they are ‘climbing’
- Slack – To tell the belayer to give out some slack
- Take – To tell the belayer to take in all the slack and hold the rope tight
- Watch Me! – To alert your belayer that you are making a difficult move in where you might fall
- Rock! – Watch out (for falling stone)
- Safe or Off belay (climber)– To tell your partner that you are secured safely at the next belay anchor and no need the belayer.
- Off belay (belayer) – Remove the rope from your belay device and reply ‘off belay’
On a busy route, it makes sense to use each other’s names, so that no other rope team can get the wrong message.
At times, you might even be out of hearing range of your climbing partner. The wind might make communication difficult. It’s a good idea to agree on rope signals when voices can’t be heard, such as a certain number of tugs on the rope. For example, if using double ropes, taking in lots quickly on just one rope means your partner is safe (off belay). Although on long, wandering routes these can sometimes be hard to feel.
Of all the tools in your mountaineering toolbox, the Italian or Munter Hitch is one you will need to rely on a lot. It’s quick, requires minimal gear, and has a wide range of uses:
- It’s an important backup if you forget or lose your belay/abseil device.
- It’s faster than using a belay device on short sections
- If your rope is so frozen you couldn’t get it through a device, it will still work with an Italian Hitch
It’s worth knowing how to temporarily tie off a belay to a fallen climber to free up both hands to say adjust an anchor or get out of the system.
To do this, we use a Mule Knot. You can use it to tie off either an Italian Hitch or a belay device attached directly to a belay. It consists of a Mule Knot backed up with an Overhand Knot.
- Lock the Italian Hitch by holding the brake strand of the rope.
- Make a loop in the rope the same side as the brake hand.
- Pull some slack rope in the loaded strand of rope to the climber and make a bight.
- Fold the bight over the rope and push it through the loop.
- Tighten the knot by pulling on the upper strand.
- Pull any slack through the Mule Knot.
- Back up the Mule Knot with an Overhand Knot around the loaded strand.
- Lock the belay device with your brake hand.
- Pull a bight of rope through the locking carabiner and pull it behind the loaded strand of rope going to the climber.
- Twist it to form a loop, then fold another bight of rope over the loaded strand going to the climber before pushing it through the loop.
- Remove any slack and pull the knot tight.
- Now you have your Mule Knot, a slip knot around the climbing rope.
- Pull in any slack through the mule knot as needed.
- Back up the Mule Knot with an Overhand Knot.
- Always make sure at least remains on the rope as the brake hand.
- Tie the mule knot as close to the carabiner as you can.
- When releasing a Mule Knot, untie it carefully with brake hand on rope – and watch your fingers don’t get caught.
Abseiling, or descending a rock face with a rope by using friction to safely control the rate of descent, is an important technical skill for climbing in the mountains.
Abseiling is also one of the most dangerous techniques used by climbers as it often becomes routine and the risks can get overlooked or ignored. Following proper abseiling technique and using it carefully will allow you to safely make your way down almost any rock face or ice fall.
Making sure your anchors are solid is obviously essential. Back up with a second anchor point wherever possible. Always carry tape or cord for constructing or extending anchors.
Long abseils might require joining two ropes. We recommend using an overhand knot, but make sure the tails after the knot are about 20-30 centimetres long. This knot is less likely to snag as it slides down over edges easier as there is a smooth side.
Use a belay device you are familiar with. Remember, different abseil devices provide different levels of friction. And this will also depend on the diameter of the rope you are using it with.
When abseiling, keep the rope clear of loose rock and sharp edges. If you are in doubt, use some form of rope protector.
These are the core skills and techniques that you need to be able to use securely:
- Make sure both yourself and the ropes are secured to the anchor before starting the descent.
- If it won’t be possible to see the bottom of the rope once you have thrown them down the cliff, tie a knot in them. Always consider using a Prusik or another back-up system to protect you in a worst-case scenario.
- Before you commit, check that your belay device and screw-gate are properly set up and that all gates are securely closed.
- Always check by sitting in your abseiling system before removing your safety sling.
- Keep the rope clear of loose rock and sharp edges.
- In high winds or in terrain with obstructions, such as trees and large blocks, keep your ropes flaked with you as you descend, rather than throwing them down as they might just get stuck. You can store the ropes loosely in your backpack and then pay them out as you go. - Sometimes, on bigger mountain routes, it’s safer to lower the first climber to search out the route and make sure you get your ropes to the correct place.
- Take precautions to avoid losing control or abseiling off the ends of the rope.
- If you are the first to abseil, make sure you use a Prusik Loop or similar braking knot and tie a knot at the end of the rope.
- Subsequent members of the team to abseil do not require a back-up Prusik Loop if the first person down remains alert and keeps both ends of the rope under control, and pulls them in case of emergency to stop or slow down the abseiling person.
- Abseil smoothly and directly down.
- At the next abseil position, secure yourself and the ropes to a new anchor point and continue. Keep yourself and your ropes attached to anchor points at all times.
- Do a test pull after the first climber completes the abseil.
- Don’t forget to remember which rope is the correct one to pull, the last person to abseil could mark it with a carabiner.
- When pulling the ropes, make sure to always pull the inner rope to avoid it blocking itself against the ring.
- The last climber to abseil should check where the rope will run if you have you pull it and make sure it avoids narrow cracks that it might get caught in.
Finally, when abseiling, stay focused and work as a team, checking each other until you are all safely down.
Wear a helmet!
If you lose your belay device, it’s important to be able to abseil with an Italian Hitch.
You want to be able to scramble securely and climb well in mountain boots for men and women. On alpine routes, you might even be forced to take your climbing shoes off and continue in your boots by the weather.
Understanding how to best use passive and active protection and rack pro, carabiners and slings to prevent tripping are essential skills.
Make sure you are comfortable walking in crampons and know how to use your ice axe to self-belay when moving in snow and ice. Being able to self-arrest is obviously essential. However, it’s definitely better to quickly react to a trip or stumble by self-belaying than it is to end up sliding and having to self-arrest.
Ascending snow can be hard work, make sure you are familiar with the most efficient techniques for kicking steps – and for descending too.
And always check the avalanche risk.
For mountaineering, it’s an important skill to be able to build snow anchors for protection when traveling on a glacier, crossing steep slopes, or in crevasse rescues.
Snow anchors can be built using a variety of objects, such your skis or ice axe. However, snow pickets are the standard piece of equipment to build an anchor in either horizontal (aka T-slot or Deadman) and vertical placements.
Snow itself can also make reliable anchor. In the right conditions, a snow bollard can be completely solid. It’s a great all-purpose anchor when all you’ve got is snow, and it can be used as a crevasse rescue anchor. Other useful belay techniques in snow include: sitting belay with an anchor; ice axe boot belay and carabiner ice axe belay with hip belay.
Glaciers are slow-moving masses or rivers of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains. They can contain deep cracks and fissures. Glaciers often conceal serious hazards, from crevasses to falling ice and weak snow bridges. To travel safely across a glacier, it’s common to rope up.
For a three- or four-person team, all of the climbers will tie into the rope using a knot such as a rewoven figure eight on a bight or a butterfly knot.
Whichever knot you use, for increased safety you should use both a locking carabiner and a non-locking carabiner in opposing directions to clip the rope to the belay loop of your harness.
Keep a sensible distance between each member of the party. For a team of two, keep a distance of 15 to 20 metres with minimum three brake knots in between; when climbing as a three, keep a distance of 10 to 12 metres with a minimum of one brake knot in between. For larger teams, keep a distance of about eight metres, a brake knot is not necessary. The end climbers store the excess rope using a butterfly coil inside their mountaineering backpacks at each end to use for a potential rescue.
Make your way across the glaciers with the rope on your downhill side and your ice axe in your uphill hand.
Keep slack out of the rope as you walk.
Stay alert and be ready to react (team arrest) if a rope mate falls.
The best way to prevent a team member from falling into a crevasse is to move carefully together to prevent it from occurring in the first place. In some situations, a climber will be able to self-rescue by climbing up the rope using a Prusik, or other knots or clamping devices.
Team crevasse rescue is challenging and complicated and no article or video can replace qualified instruction and experience. There are many possible rescue scenarios. It will depend on the number of climbers roped together, which climber needs rescuing and certain other factors.
The main steps to crevasse rescue are basic steps are:
- Stopping the fall (team arrest)
- Building an anchor
- Transferring the weight of the climber onto the anchor
- Preparing the lip of the crevasse
- Setting up a hauling system
- Extracting the fallen climber
Important: Make sure that all rescuers are connected to the anchor at all times.
A self-locking pulley reduces friction and enables optimized force transmission – which makes hauling easier, especially for small rope teams with two to three people.
Climbing and mountaineering are dangerous. You assume all responsibility for your own actions. You should always climb within your ability and after undertaking professional training. Failure to do this may result in serious injury or death. The advice here is intended to provide an overview and cannot replace training and instruction.
TYPES OF CLIMBING
In many ways, sport climbing is more accessible than traditional rock climbing, both in terms of equipment and the skills required.
WHAT CLIMBING GEAR DO YOU NEED?
Climbing covers a whole load of different disciplines, all with their specific types of gear, techniques and training.