Thursday, November 24, 2005
Alpine climbing! Mountaineering beyond the greenery of Philippine tropical paradise, and a step beyond our known mountain limits. This sport has attracted a few Filipinos who wanted to raise the bar of mountaineering by a few notches. Who wanted something different, or who wanted something more…
Alpine climbing, as the name suggest, is a climb in an alpine environment. A climber would normally see majestic snowed mountain peaks, picture-perfect sunrise and sunsets, unique wildlife, and of course, stunning views from the summits! It’s nothing like the mountains of Philippines, where you’ll normally see greens and blues. Alpine climbing is a whole new experience, a different mountain flavor, an alien world of climbing.
But of course, in this environment, one would experience freezing temperature, cold-biting wind, wet snow and slippery ice, dangerous glacier, and unforgiving blizzard. The key challenge is how to survive the winter-like condition, while cranking your way up the summit.
Climbing at high altitudes (say beyond 12,000ft) has its own set of awe, as well as challenges. Few living things can survive beyond 20,000ft, a good number can survive and thrive between 10-20,000ft though. But don’t expect lush forest and leafy greens, nor herds and herds of grazing animals. Other than the beauty of the quiet peaks of rock and snow, a lucky traveler may find himself catching a glimpse of the unique wildlife (Thar or Deer, Yaks, Leopards) or, simply be amazed by the thick shrubs that can survive the punishing winter wind. The first challenge though, is acclimatization. AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness has caused several hundreds of deaths in the mountains. The human body is designed to live in “thick air” environment. At higher altitudes, air pressure decreases and hence the O2 intake (say at 20,000ft, we only breathe 50% air). The body has to adjust to this change by producing more O2-carrying fluids. If the body failed to acclimatize properly, this fluid will cause disruption in the physiological process causing HACE (High-altitude Cerebral Edema), or HAPE (High-altitude Pulmonary Edema) - -i.e., excess fluids in lungs or skull. Both severe forms of AMS are fatal. Many climbers have aborted climbs (the only cure and option) due to AMS. Obviously, this is the first challenge that must be hurdled by climbers. There are proper ways of acclimatizing - generally, a climb of 1000ft altitude gain per day, with rest days every 3000-ft altitude gain would be sufficient for the body to adjust properly. A faster ascent rate would mean risk of acquiring AMS, and a risk of spoiling that much talked-about vacation plan.
Climbing at high altitudes also means labored breathing and hard cardiovascular activity, as one can only breathe a meager quantity of oxygen. Even a well-acclimatized person will find it hard to sustain long up-hill climbs.
Personal Gears, Tools and Weaponries
To survive cold weather, you’ll need tons of clothing. Although normally, a few thermals, 2 fleece jackets of varying thickness, 1 Down-filled jacket (filling made of geese feather), and a shell jacket (waterproof and breathable, ex. Goretex) are enough to survive sub-zero temperature. Of course a temp of -20C and below will require you to have better rated Down jacket with Shell. I can normally survive a -10C with a thermal, a 2 fleece-layer and shell while trekking, and a Down jacket when camped. If it gets really cold, say a very early morning summit ascent, I normally put on my fleece and Down and Shell for trekking (- -expect to steam out a lot as the temperature gets warmer, though). The key word is ‘layering’. It’s easier to adjust to varying temperature (warmer when trekking up-hills, colder at stops and relatively easier downhill trails) with easily removable layers of clothing compared to, a thick -10C rated Down-jacket, for example.
Pants is easier, a Shell, a fleece, probably a thermal undy. Trekking with just shell at zero-C is not uncomfortable. I just wore fleece plants at camp. Well, unless you’re expecting below -10C.
Sleeping bag! Can’t leave (and live) without it. Die if you lose it. Down-fill of course, rating could be -5C to -25C depending on where you plan to go. I only have a -5C bag, and if the temp goes down to, say -10C, I simply wear my fleece jacket and pants. A poly-bag lining sometimes help, I don’t use one. Others use breathable-waterproof bags. The key idea is - - good heat retention, stick to Down.
The whole array of safety device is similar to rock climbing: seat harness, carabiners, slings, ropes, ascenders, prussic cords, etc. In addition, snow and for-your-ice-only hardware items are used, such as ice screws (for bolting anchors in ice) and snow stakes. Trekking aids such as general-purpose ice axe, or ski poles could prove to be very useful. The so-called ‘technical’ ice axe is normally shorter, lighter in weight and has a slightly different curve and minor features that would cater an ice climber (the one normally used for climbing frozen waterfalls). But a mid-sized straight-shaft design would normally suffice a general mountaineering activity.
Plastic boots are indispensable for prolonged walk on snow. This is a very sturdy piece of gear, provides very good insulation as you are wearing ‘inside boots’, crampon-compatible, but cumbersome to use as it’s heavy and rigid. Well, we don’t want frostbites, so heavy or not, it’s a must have. Crampons are also indispensable especially on icy or iced terrain. You will need the ‘claws’ to grip for your dear life. And of course, it’s a must for ice climbing as you will rely heavily on the front points for foothold.
The Question of Technical Climbing
A lot of my friends from the club often wondered how I managed to climb a good peak without the “techy” gears. Well, not all tall peaks are “technical”. There are many big mountains that do not require complex technical procedure to climb. I climbed Kilimanjaro (19,300ft) in Africa with a mere old hiking boots, few layers of winter clothing, a weak and sick body, a sprained by hopeful soul. No ropes, no crampons, no rock scrambling, just pure walk. Mt Aconcagua at ~23,000ft (highest in South America), is almost purely non-technical as you would also need to walk your way up the summit (with the exception of the last ridge section – the Canaleta, which requires crampons as the trail is very loose, and the vertical fall potential spells death). Even some really huge mountains (the 8000-meter peak family, those beyond 26,000ft), like Cho Oyu in Nepal – 6th highest mountain, is friendly enough to allow a walk-in approach. Of course you may need to rope up for safety, but at least it doesn’t require significant technical skills and upper-body climbing endurance.
Ice climbing is a totally different extreme climbing sport. It’s like “rock climbing” on ice. Obviously, both rock and ice climbing are technical sports, requiring special climbing skills and tools. Some people have mistaken that alpine climbing is the same as ice climbing. Well, most gears are probably common, and some alpine mountains have some tough section that may require a bit of ice climbing, but generally, these are very different discipline. As an analogy, hiking and climbing a mountain (say Mt Banahaw, or Apo, or Halcon) is a totally different discipline from rock climbing (say climbing the rock walls of Montalban. (And by the way, rock-climbing is also different from ‘sports climbing’, the one that you normally see in Power Up or Play-Underground). Not all alpine climbers do ice climbing, and vice versa; similarly, not all Philippine mountain climbers are rock climbers and vice versa. I know a few rock climbers who actually hate hiking and climbing mountains.
Most snow-and-ice environment may require “semi-technical” skills and tools. Probably the minimum is the use of crampons (normally with plastic boots) and ice axe, and likewise, the proper use of rope system for protection (usually on highly crevassed site, or dangerous ridge). Some peaks are “semi-technical” in nature, in the sense that, it will require some skills and gears (rope-works, safety procedures, extra gears), but not so much to have a need to sweat out climbing vertical for days and days on end. Everest is a good example of a semi-technical peak requiring a lot of safety procedure (ex, the trek thru the treacherous Khumbu Ice fall), and some minimal vertical climbing (ex. 40-ft vertical climb of Hillary step).
The question of going technical then depends on the climber’s interest, and so much on the requirement of the peak that he/she is planning to summit. For me, I took the technical mountaineering course (and in fact I did some Ice Climbing), to simply prepare myself to tackle any dangerous approach, and hopefully a good preparation for Everest, but not to continue on this stuff that I’ll climb steep peaks and ice for the rest of my sorry life ;). Unless you plan to climb K2 (2nd highest), or Trango Tower, or a peak like Ama Dablam, you probably would not need to invest a lot of time and effort in vertical climbing. You can actually climb a relatively shorter technical peak on fixed ropes (ex. Ama Dablam in Nepal). Some outfitters actually offer a climbing trip on a technically challenging peak but using this procedure. Call it cheating, but hey, your objective is to climb that damn peak. Of course that would still require you to have the necessary skills and endurance (ex. use of ascender, how to rope-transfer, etc.), - -except that the hard and dangerous task, of ‘leading’ a climb, is done by a professional guide. (The lead climber does ‘real’ climbing and is responsible for putting in rope anchors. Succeeding climbers simply use the top-anchored rope for climbing using a rope-ascending device). The team that I was with, when I climbed Pokalde in Nepal, was able to top the technical Ama Dablam using fixed ropes, and to think - -they’re relatively new in this sport.
Where to Climb
To go high? Or to go technical? Should I climb the highest peak of a continent? Should I aim for an 8000m peak mountain?
Climbing has its start- interest, personal challenge, whatever. Overtime, one will probably develop a personal goal. Most will probably just “try” once or twice, then the interest will wear off, then due to other personal interest and plans, may eventually abandon the glorious out-of-the-country outdoor life. A few will pursue, and will have this Great Grand Plan!
Deciding on where to go could be difficult without this ‘grand plan’. Whereas a plan-path can be easily and neatly laid out if you know the end in mind. An Everest attempt will probably dictate you to climb several ‘test’ peaks of 15-20,000ft, then, a course on technical alpine climbing to primarily develop skills on safety, and a bit of vertical climbing, then higher altitudes from 20-25,000ft, and if all went well, the final attempt to climb Everest. This will probably cover a period of 4-6 years. (I’m on my 3rd year in this very plan and I still feel I need another 4 years, or more).
A simpler plan of climbing Alaska’s Denali (20,320ft), for example, would cut the ‘Everest program’ by more than half and could probably be accomplished by climbing 2 minor peaks (say 14,000 and 18,000), a safety climbing course, a sturdy body, and a lot of luck.
1. Gaining Altitude. Summit objective between 10,000 and 20,000ft is easier to plan, as you can go almost anywhere (except Australia/New Zealand area) in the world to find a good choice. Most people choose to climb the popular summits as ‘preparatory’ climb. Examples are +18,000-ft Mt Elbrus, highest in Europe, and +19,000-ft Mt Kilimanjaro, highest in Africa. Others would choose to visit Nepal to climb an 18-21,000-ft peak (relatively easy peak but are actually higher than most mountains outside Asia).
A climber would probably shy away from peaks of the same altitude range but with a more extreme condition (Ex. Vinzon Massif of Antarctica)
2. Steep, vertical and dangerous. Some outfitters and training institution offer technical training on moderately high peaks. This is a two-fold program, learn, and then use what was learned in an actual climb. Examples are Month Blanc in France, or other areas of the Alps, or a low-altitude peak in New Zealand (ex. Mt Aspiring), and even some trekking peaks in Nepal.
3. More altitude. There are few mountains outside Asia that are above 20,000 ft. Examples are Alaska’s Mt Denali or McKinley at 20,320ft (highest of North America), some mountains of the Andes range (Mt Aconcagua at 23,000 – highest of South America, others). Of course the entire range of Himalayas in Asia will offer more choices- - from the western part (Karakoram range of Pakistan), to the east (Nepal mountain ranges), and even southern-most part (Hindukush range, and Bhutan).
4. Really big mountains. Talk about an 8000m peak (>26,000ft), and you’ll think of Himalayas! Nepal, Pakistan, and China! Huge mountains are not uncommon in these countries. These mountains though are for the serious ones, the professionals, those risking a big deal (say, a risk of losing their lives?!) just to top a peak. Most aspiring mountaineers will probably tackle Cho Oyu first, before any other 8000m peaks. Out of the 14 of this 8-thousander family, Cho Oyu is probably the easiest and safest peak to climb.
Climb a mountain! What else?! Taking climbing to the next level would mean, getting your passport renewed, getting whatever visa you’ll need, spending a fortune for the airfare, and simply sweating your way up that big hill.
The Philippines has so many superb places to visit, but unfortunately a limited array of mountains to climb. Our highest is only 10,300ft (Mt Apo). We don’t even have a local opportunity to walk on snow, unlike Japan or Korea, or New Zealand -which also have small mountains but at least offer some interesting hikes and climbs on snow. To go higher, or to go wilder, we have to leave our comfort zone, to say our temporary good-byes to Maculot, Guiting-Guiting, Banahaw, or Mayon, and visit remote places to have a taste of the great outdoors, a place beyond our tropical realm. Worried? Stick to one simple rule - - “Just climb it”!