Trekking efficiently, finding basecamp, and picking the right route requires the ability to route-find and navigate this complex terrain. While mountains are as much about adventure as achievement, it’s a good idea to plan ahead, research, and practice navigation skills before leaving home. This due diligence will keep you on the road to success and safety.
As a big mountain guide and owner of Madison Mountaineering, Garrett Madison says, “There are two types of expeditions in regards to route planning. Peaks that have been climbed before and those that are unclimbed. How you go about finding the best route to the mountain and to the summit are different but rewarding in their own ways!” Below we will lay out how to prepare yourself from before stepping foot outside your door to returning to town after a climb attempt—that hopefully includes a successful summit.
Develop a big picture of the region, the mountain, and the climb. List specific and overall challenges. Obstacles and terrain hazards might include a road that frequently washes out in the monsoon, a river that floods in spring, a calving glacier, crevasse-filled serac bands, and so on. Build a timeline that considers these factors, meaning when you might encounter them on your journey. Incorporate multiple options, alternate routes, and other climbing objectives. Have a Plan B for every situation and contingency. Quite often, Plan B ends up saving a summit, or even lives. This detailed planning will prepare you for the worst so you can anticipate the best. Here are some pointers:
Luke Smithwick, a world-traveling big mountain skier, says, “I start with the region and read everything I can about it. You can take the name of a town or lake or mountain and search on Google and get some leads.” Once you have some names, dig deeper. Luke adds, “You’ll usually find some information on the climbing or a climber’s name. I call or email folks; they’re pretty cool about sharing info.”
Once you narrow your search, you’ll find more specific info like topos, approach, basecamps, etc.
If you are a member of the American Alpine Club, you will have access to the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library (https://americanalpineclub.org/library). Your membership provides you with 30 minutes of research free of charge from an AAC Library Staffer, over the phone or via email. More intensive research maybe be arranged for a fee.
On your hard-copy map, you can jot down key notes like where to camp, how many miles each segment is, elevation gain, and so on. If using Google Earth or a GPS, print the image in case of technology failure. Create a rough topo of the actual climbing route. Note features like ridges, towers, couloirs, seracs, and glaciers. Plot a course of ascent and add photos, which will allow you to get a sense of location while climbing.
On your initial foray onto the mountain, note terrain features, conditions, and optional paths in case of changes in conditions. Be thorough in plotting the best route. Even in remote regions, paths are often marked on topo maps. Avoid short cuts. These tend to create long and often dangerous episodes. One might be tempted to take a more direct line between point A and B to save time. But more common than not, shortcuts lead to rough terrain, steep ridges, and dead ends.
Again, plan with safety in mind. Madison says, “For safety, we try to keep to ridgelines, or a face of the peak that doesn’t have ‘hangfire’ above, like an ice cliff that could break loose and come tumbling down. I like to stay out of couloirs that are a natural funnel for rockfall or snow avalanches from above…. That said, sometimes that is the best way up, and staying to one side of the couloir is the most reasonable approach. When climbing glaciers, generally we try to stay in the middle and weave our way around crevasses, staying away from steep walls where avalanche debris could accumulate.”
Plot landmarks on your physical map. Drop those on your device and record GPS coordinates. Keep an eye on nearby peaks to develop a sense of place. Advise other group members of location and have them note it on the map. Avoid splitting the group up on these initial forays—for safety and group cohesion. These basic measures create a shared base of knowledge and promote communication. As the expedition progresses, these elements might salvage a bad situation or save lives.
Use wands or cairns: Wands are bamboo or wooden poles you can stick in the snow to demarcate a path or mark a crevasse. Cairns—piles of stacked rock—play a similar role in drier sections of the mountain. Trust the markers you place yourself. Old wands might mark a crevassed path that is no longer safe. Cairns might lead to a herder’s cave vs. a trail to basecamp.