The 10 Don’ts of Mountaineering According to a Himalayan and Karakoram Guide
As one of the lead guides behind Feeding the Rat Expeditions, Hannam has experienced first-hand what it takes to successfully climb some of the world’s toughest, tallest and most remote mountains – including K2.
Partially due to this experience, he was asked by a well-known outdoor magazine to compile a ‘Top 10 Mountaineering Tips’ article.
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However, having spent most of his life taking the road less traveled, Hannam thought a ‘10 Things Not to Do on an Expedition’ post would be better. It turns out the editor disagreed, but we certainly do.
Hannam shared some of his insights with ExpedReview, advising climbers of every level what they should avoid on any mountaineering expedition.
1. Don’t talk yourself out of going
Based on his first-hand experience, Hannam said plenty of people choose not to go on a mountaineering expedition because they talk themselves out of it.
He pointed out that 90 percent of any expedition comprises things that may not be easy but are entirely doable. It’s that last 10 percent that will push someone out of their comfort zone to achieve something extraordinary.
However, people tend to focus on the hard parts and either find excuses or negatively self-talk until they decide not to go.
“So rather than talk yourself out of the small bit of hard climbing, talk yourself into the rest that is fathomable, trainable and fun,” Hannam said.
“Every day we hear people say stuff like ‘one day’ and ‘it must be amazing to do that’ about things people just like them do regularly,” he added. “The difference is those that do it decide they can.”
2. Don’t under pack
Any ‘Top 10 Mountaineering Tips’ article will include something along the lines of “pack light.” However, Hannam warns that it is possible to pack too light.
While it is important to avoid bringing unnecessary gear and items along – too many cotton clothes, non-essential jewelry, etc. – there are some things that you simply have to bring to maximize your chances of success on the mountain.
“Going light doesn’t need discussion but going too light does,” Hannam said. “Gear still needs to be fit for purpose, and we’ve seen so many people have to change their plans after super-light gear failed to do what something 100 grams heavier would have done easily.”
This is especially true for high-altitude expeditions, for which climbers also need thicker gloves, heavier sleeping bags and more warm clothing layers, in general. Skimping on any of these items is usually a recipe for going home early.
“An extra kilogram combined across your sleeping bag, gloves, shell jacket and eating gear will be easily worth it for the performance it enhances and condition it leaves you in,” Hannam added.
3. Don’t underestimate the expedition difficulty
Believing in yourself is essential on any expedition – as Hannam mentions in his first ‘don’t’ – but he also warns climbers not to take this notion too far.
Climbing the world’s tallest mountains is never easy, and there will be plenty of challenges along the way, from making technical rock or ice ascents to hauling gear up the mountain, among others.
Hannam believes it is essential not to overestimate what you can do. After all, everything is easier when training at sea level than at altitude.
“From your living room, it’s easy to think you will be able to carry 30-kilogram (65-lbs) loads between camps, but that’s an anomaly, not the standard you can plan around,” he said.
“Factor for about two-thirds of what you think you can and take anything higher as a bonus,” Hannam added. “Doing it one day doesn’t mean you can do it the next, so accept that.”
4. Don’t forget the journey is the destination
The sport is called mountaineering because it encapsulates the process of getting to the summit, not just the experience of being on the summit.
Hannam said that climbers sometimes forget to experience the whole process of climbing a mountain: from avoiding the hotel and exploring the starting point to looking out the window on the drive out and experiencing local cultures and sights.
“Don’t be the climber who never learns a single word in the local language, never visits the local markets, never takes local transport, never interacts with local people, never even flips on the local TV station, never steps outside of the climbing bubble,” he urged.
Otherwise, Hannam warned, “don’t go home and think you know anything about the place you just visited.”
5. Don’t skip meals
Appetite and taste perception are significantly reduced at high elevations. At the same time, exercise requires twice as many calories as it does at sea level.
As a result, it is essential to never miss a meal in order to get all the proper nutrition you need on an expedition.
“Eat as normally as possible because above a certain altitude, you won’t be able to replace what you miss, and it’s downhill from there,” Hannam said.
The International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation (UIAA) recommends bringing “palatable, satisfying and easy to prepare” foods and meals to high altitudes. The federation added that having plenty of “energy-dense” meals that can be put into a pocket while climbing is highly recommended.
“Even if it’s just a bar or a mouthful of granola, get carbohydrates into your system at regular intervals,” Hannam added. “Your body is already confused enough, don’t add random kilo-cal input to it.”
6. Don’t skip acclimation days
Acclimatisation is key to any successful mountaineering expedition. The UIAA recommends climbers gradually gain altitude and spend a few days at 3,000 metres (9,850 feet) before beginning any high-altitude expedition.
After this initial period, the UIAA recommends that climbers climb high and sleep low, gaining no more than 500 vertical metres from one camp to the next.
Following these steps helps climbers avoid Acute Mountain Sickness, the mildest form of altitude sickness and a malady caused by rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen.
“Everyone’s done it, thinking the rules don’t apply to them and that getting in a day faster will be better,” Hannam said. “And plenty of people have had wretched nights in their tents in the self-induced hell of being unacclimated. One way or another, your body has to attune to the altitude.”
“Altitude gets all people at some point, and the way to normalise it is simply to go easy,” he added. “The metabolomics happen when you sleep, not when you’re punching up the glacier, so chill out, go easy and aim to sleep higher each night.”
7. Don’t forget to enjoy the experience
Hannam’s seventh ‘don’t’ follows very much in the mold of the fourth. He said that too often, he’s seen climbers experience tunnel vision on an expedition, with getting to the summit as their only aim.
As a result, they miss out on the little things that turn the recollection of an incredible expedition into a lifelong memory. While the primary purpose of the trip is to climb, it is far from the only thing.
Hannam argued that climbers who don’t forget this make the most of their experience.
“A lot of expedition climbing is fun, but it’s easy to forget that,” Hannam said. “Things always seem against the clock, or the weather, or against the load, and it’s easy to see breaks in the hard stuff as more than a sign of weakness.”
“Enjoy the sunrises over Central Asia, the sound of the camels before dawn, the fact you are in places 99.9 percent of the world will never see,” he added. “Don’t act like this has been forced on you.”
8. Don’t get stuck in a climbing rut
One of the reasons people choose to climb for fun is partially because of the challenges it provides.
Therefore, it is not uncommon for climbers to be challenged by certain parts of any expedition. However, Hannam said that too often, when these challenges arise, climbers fail to meet them.
“Don’t let your personal climbing limitations limit the climbing,” Hannam said. “Several times, we’ve seen climbers ready to throw in the towel at a section of blank wall just because they couldn’t get their minds around aiding a few meters on pitons.”
“When entire seracs the size of supermarkets rip down mountains each afternoon, you pulling on a bit of hammered gear is irrelevant,” he added.
9. Don’t race straight home after the summit
Hannam’’s ninth ‘don’t’ builds upon the fourth and seventh. Too often, he sees climbers reaching the summit and mentally returning home right away.
He likes to remind people that reaching the summit is not the end, usually just the beginning of the end. There’s still plenty of expedition to experience and more incredible scenery to take in.
Hannam encourages climbers to build in some spare time at the end of an expedition to slowly return to the starting point, taking in everything they missed in the nervous excitement and anticipation of heading to the mountain.
“Once the turn around comes, don’t flee for the exits like it’s a bomb drill,” he said. “For a start, it won’t make much difference because the world turns at its own rate, not at yours. But also because the post-climbing phase is where you get the chance to relax.”
“Sleep a bit more. Sit and watch the things you couldn’t on the way in. Stop thinking only about climbing,” Hannam added. “The same places going in can be different on the way out without the focus of an expedition directing every action.”
10. Don’t turn around before you have to
Plenty of things can happen to stop an expedition dead in its tracks, from inclement weather and acts of God to severe illness.
As a result, it is important to take advantage of good weather and good fortune and keep going for as long as possible.
Plenty of parts of a high-altitude mountaineering expedition will be incredibly challenging. Still, it is important to recognize this is a moment for perseverance and push ahead for as long as is safe and possible.
“Don’t decide it’s impossible from 500 metres away,” Hannam said. “Get yourselves within striking distance of a problem before deciding if it’s surmountable or not, and give it a shot in proportion with what you can get away with.”
“When it stops moving forward, rethink, but not before,” he added. “Many seemingly impossible problems were found upon closer inspection to be doable. We’ve all been wrong before.
BONUS: Don’t take the expedition too seriously
Despite what we see in the most popular mountaineering documentaries and films, climbing does not need to be a life or death activity.
Heading on a mountaineering expedition is a way to challenge yourself and accomplish something you won’t normally do in your day-to-day life.
Hannam said it is essential to keep this in mind and not take the expedition too seriously to get the most fulfilling experience.
“It’s climbing, not curing bone cancer, and it’s not worth dying for,” he said. “Don’t spoil an otherwise visionary trip by turning it into some sort of [military] selection-like process that the world depends on.”
“Routes will work, or they won’t. Weather will co-operate, or it won’t,” Hannam concluded. “There will be good days and bad. Learn to look at yourself from the outside and realize that it’s just people climbing mountains. That’s all.”