All About Mountaineering…


Before I began to focus my research on mountaineering, I developed a list of questions about the sport that I hope to answer over the next several weeks. As I learn about mountaineering and am able to answer these questions, I will record my answers below!

1. When, where, and why did mountaineering begin?

  • Earliest climbing was for religious purposes.
  • Developed in early 1800s (during the Enlightenment) by an elite group of male European naturalists, scientists, explorers, and their local guides.
  • By 1855, mountaineering had become more of a sport than a scientific excursion.
  • Was originally seen as a reckless and unjustifiable wast of time, a practice of rich thrill-seekers.
  • Increased public wealth from Industrial Revolution and better transportation helped increase participants.
  • Provided climbers with athletic training, adventure, and physical/emotions escape from urbanization.
  • Joy of discovery, desire to survey uncharted terrain, quest for scientific insight, and competition to conquer major peaks also brought climbers to the mountains.

2. Who were the first mountaineers?

  • The first mountaineers were elite male European naturalists, scientists, explorers, and their local guides.

3. When, where, how did women become involved?

  • Maria Paradis (30 year old French maid) was first women to summit (Mont Blanc 1808). She is not considered a true mountaineer because of her monetary motivation and failure to ever climb again after Mont Blanc.
  • American mountaineering clubs that developed in late 1850s allowed women to join before similar clubs in Europe.
  • Medical advances that disproved perceived women fragility and emerging women’s rights movement attracted more women.
  • Allowed women to break free from Victorian society’s insistence on female passivity.
  • Henriette d’ Andeville (44 year old French seamstress) climbed Mont Blanc in 1838 in a 14-pound outfit that included a black boa. Extensive amounts of luggage including hand cream and 18 bottles of wine were brought on the climb. She climbed for a love of the mountain and to provide a feminine perspective on reaching the summit. She is considered the pioneer of women's mountaineering.
  • Elizabeth Le Blond (member of upper-class British society) was not only an important figure in the development women’s mountaineering, but was also a pioneer of winter mountaineering. Her sense of adventure and desire to break free from the "shackles of conventionality" drove her to make hundred of first ascents, including the first “manless” climb and many "guideless" climbs. She helped found the Ladies Alpine Club in 1907 and became its first president. From this position she encouraged many young male and female climbers.
  • Annie Smith Peck (member of American middle-class) became the first woman to make mountaineering her profession. She began her mountaineering career 1895 when she climbed the Matterhorn at the age of 45. A desire to climb mountains unclimbed by women prompted Peck to make many summits, including Peru's Mount Huascaran (1907), which was considered at the time to be the highest peak in the Western World. Throughout her career, Peck gave many lectures, authored several books, and used her success to promote feminism.
  • Miriam O'Brien Underhill (member of American upper-middle-class), although not the first manless climber, was the most "articulate advocate and chief innovator" of the practice. She believed that it was not only necessary to climb guideless, but also manless in order to further develop her mountaineering skills. She climbed many mountains, including the Matterhorn, on all-female teams. Her manless climbing ended in 1933 when her new husband, Richard Underhill, became her climbing partner. The pair made numerous first ascents in the Rocky Mountains and were charter members of the Four Thousand Footer Club.

3. Standard Gear?

  • Rope
    • Rope is your "safety net."
    • Originally made of natural fibers, such as manila and sisal.
    • Nylon ropes were developed during World War II. Early nylon ropes were made from many tiny nylon pieces bunched into strands and twisted together. These ropes were very stiff and stretchable.
    • Today, synthetic ropes, called kernmantle ropes, are manufactured especially for climbing. These ropes have a core of nylon filaments and are covered in a smooth, woven nylon casing. Kermantle ropes are the only ropes approved by the Union Internationale des Associations d'Alpinisme (UIAA) for climbing.
    • Sold in a wide variety of thicknesses, lengths, colors, and for a variety of different climbing purposes.
    • Should be cleaned frequently and constantly inspected for damages.
  • Runners
    • Loops of webbing or cord.
    • Can be tied (inexpensive, can be tied and untied) or sewn together (stronger, lighter, less bulky).
    • Used specifically in belaying and repelling.
    • Made in variety of lengths and thicknesses.
  • Carabiners
    • Metal snap-links.
    • Used for belaying, rappelling, clipping into safety anchors, and more!
    • Made in many shapes and sizes.
  • Harnesses
    • Distributes the force of a fall over a large percentage of the body, compared to the method of simply tying a rope round the waist, as was done by mountaineering pioneers.
    • Can be purchased or constructed from webbing.
    • Chest, seat, or body harnesses are available.

4. Snow Gear?

  • Ice Axes
    • Provides balance, a point of security to prevent falls (self-belay), and a means to stop a fall (self-arrest).
    • Today's axes are 40-90 cm long, compared to the 5-foot alpenstocks of mountaineering pioneers.
    • Longer axes are better for cross-country travel, while the shorter axes (less than 60 cm) are best for ice climbing. Mid-size axes (60-70 cm) can be used for alpine climbing.
    • Should be secured to climber with a "leash".
    • Clean regularly and sharpen when necessary with a hand file.
  • Crampons
    • Attached to boots when surfaces are too hard or slick for boots to maintain sufficient traction or penetration.
    • Today's crampons have 12-points, compared to the 10-point crampons of early European Alpinists.
    • Made of chrome-molybdenum steel.
    • There are 2 main varieties of crampons: rigid and hinged.
    • Rigid crampons are preferred for ice-climbing. They are inflexible and heavy.
    • Hinged crampons are preferred for general mountaineering. They are more flexible and lighter than rigid crampons.
    • Crampons attach to boots with either 4-straps, 2-straps, the "Scottish" system, or step-in/clamp-on bindings.
  • Wands
    • Enable climbers to mark their paths and retrace their routes.
    • Can be purchased, but many climbers make their own with green-stained bamboo garden stakes and a bright-colored, durable, and water-repellent material, such as colored duct tape.
    • Climbers mark wands with their initials and date.
  • Ski Poles
    • Better than ice axes for trekking over low-angled snow.
    • Helps take weight off lower body.
    • Adjustable poles are available to suit the conditions of various terrains.
  • Snowshoes
    • Permit effective travel in soft snow.
    • Often more practical than skis.
    • Bindings include crampon-like metal toothed plates that increase traction.
  • Shovels
    • Utility and safety tool.
    • The only practical tool for uncovering an avalanche victim.
    • Also used to dig shelters, construct tent platforms, and excavate a path on a snowy route.
  • Snow Anchors
    • Used to anchor belays and rappels. Also provide intermediate points of contact.
    • Snow flukes and pickets are common snow anchors.
    • Snow flukes are aluminum plates with a metal cable attached, which are buried in the snow.
    • Pickets are stakes driven into the snow.

5. Glacier Gear?

  • Ice Ax
  • Crampons
  • Snowshoes (or skis)
  • Wands
  • Prusik Slings

6. Ice Gear?

  • Gloves or Mittens
    • Necessary for protection against cold and abrasion.
    • Should have rubberized palm to help grip climbing tools.
  • Boots
    • Plastic or Leather.
    • Plastic boots are preferred for winter ice climbs. They are warmer, drier, and more compatible with hinged crampons than leather boots.
    • Leather boots are preferred for moderate condition alpine ice climbing.They are lighter, better for rock climbing, more comfortable for hiking, and more compatible with hinged crampons than plastic boots.
  • Crampons
  • Ice Ax (or other ice tools, such as an ice hammer)
  • Ice Screws
    • Developed during 1960s. More advanced than early ice pitons, which were "blade-type rock pitons with holes, notches or bulges to increase their grip in ice" (Graydon & Hanson, p. 371).
    • Typically 7-9 inches.
    • Can be used for winter and summer climbs.
    • Several varieties can that be screwed, hammered, or hooked into ice.
  • Head Protection (helmet)
  • Eye Protection
    • Goggles or Sunglasses


Brown, R. (2002). Women on high: Pioneers of mountaineering. Appalachian Mountain Club: Boston.

Graydon, D. & Hanson, K. (Eds). (1998). Mountaineering: The freedom of the hills (6th ed.). The Mountaineers: Seattle.

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