Logo Jim Frankenfield
jim@mountain-guiding.com; 1-877-604-0166

Mountain Guiding; Mountain Safety
An Experienced Professional

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Guiding Newsletter

"Safety Soapbox" Archive - May 2002


Skill Development

It's easy, and common, to just get into climbing and keep progressing without thinking about what skills you might need. The skills you'll want to work on acquiring will depend on the type of climbing you want to do and where you want to do it. But in addition to the movement skills and the proper use of basic equipment there are other things which it might be a good idea to learn about.

Here is a list of a few things that come to mind, but I'd encourage you to make up your own list and to prioritize according to the kind of climbing you do. Then begin to take the appropriate classes as your time and budget allow. No matter how long you've climbed there is always more to learn, and if you've been through your list once then review it, re-prioritize it, and seek out more in-depth instruction than you had time for on your first pass.

Wilderness Medicine

This is more than First Aid but in reality less than EMT work. First Aid fills in the brief period of time between something happening and the response of somebody with medical training and equipment. In the wilderness this time isn't so brief and you may need to assess the injuries or illness in more detail yourself. You'll have to decide whether to seek outside help or self-evacuate. And you may need to attend to an injured or ill person for some significant amount of time. A Wilderness First Aid course is a minimum and is not really sufficient to do all of the above. A Wilderness First Responder course is considered the standard. Some continue on to get Wilderness EMT training, although your ability to actually do much at this level will be hindered by a lack of equipment and supplies anyway.

In about 25 years or so of climbing and other mountain recreation I've needed these skills twice (neither was while guiding). In one case a friend had taken a serious fall and had multiple trauma injuries. It was necessary to stabilize the situation (which was exposed to further falls as well as falling rocks from above), assess the injuries, and take care of him overnight until a technical short-line helicopter evacuation was possible the next day. In the other case I was injured myself by falling rocks and it was necessary for us to self-evacuate ourselves out of the immediately threatened area before shock precluded it. Then we had to asses the injuries, stabilize our situation (stopping bleeding etc), and finally to obtain an outside evacuation without unnecessarily calling it a life-threatening situation.


There are various forms of self-rescue and a variety of techniques that may be necessary. On glaciers you may need to get yourself out of a crevasse, or help haul out a partner who can't get out on their own. On a rock climb you may need to handle a leader fall resulting in injuries. In a developed area you may only need the basic skills required to stabilize the situation, free yourself from the system, and go for additional help. In a more remote setting you may need to assist your partner up or down a route, maybe in its entirety or maybe as far as a good solid ledge where you can take care of the most immediate needs and then go for help yourself. Every situation is different which is why it's a good idea not to learn certain methods by rote memorization but to build a set of skills and techniques which you understand.

These are skills I've never needed to use in a true emergency situation. I hope I never do, but if something happens in one of the remote regions I like to travel to there are very good odds that I'll be able to handle it as well as anyone could.


In mountaineering it is only a matter of time until you find yourself in a howling white-out having to get someplace. The skills that first come to mind are usually map and compass skills, but there are numerous other ways of finding your way around as well. Being able to use a map, compass and altimeter in any combination to help you find your way is a great advantage. As is the ability to "read the terrain".

This is a skill I've used many times in varying conditions. Descending Mt Hood is a classic example, and a fairly easy one. That can be done with a compass alone although an altimeter is useful. Finding the way out from the Middle Sister area in early spring is also a place where good navigation can prevent problems. Descending to trailhead level too far south of Pole Creek leaves you with an unpleasant and/or lengthy trip to the trailhead. An altimeter alone can help prevent this. I think the worst conditions I've traveled in were during a trip across the Snaefells Peninsula in Iceland, where the winds were so strong I could only travel with them and the blowing snow was thick I couldn't see anything.

Avalanche Safety Skills

If you're going to be traveling in mountainous terrain in winter then you should have some background in assessing the hazard, avoiding risks which are greater than you really care to take, and handling the burial of somebody in your group if necessary. This involves a lot more than digging a snowpit here and there, and you should learn from somebody with enough knowledge and first hand experience to do more than rehash to you the technicalities which were taught to them. It's a complicated subject but you can learn to get to the bottom line effectively.

These are skills I use all the time, other than handing a burial. I've never had to do that. However, I've been very lucky on two occasions when I was very close to being carried through the trees or swept off an ice climb. Most of the professionals I know have had close calls. While they are very knowledgeable they also spend a lot of time in avalanche terrain, and none of us can assess the hazard with absolute certainty. Anyone who has no first hand stories to share hasn't spent lots of time traveling in an area with an avalanche prone snowpack, no matter how much formal education they may have. And what this means for you is that you can expect to have close calls as well, even after learning what you can. But hopefully you won't have many and you'll be able to manage the risk as well as any consequences. Just as most of the professionals I know have been able to.

These are just a few of the skills which come to mind. Give some thought to the type of climbing you do and where you do it. Then make your own list, and begin to acquire the skills you need as time and money permit. Of course this may help your partners as much as it helps you (or more). So encourage them to do the same thing. I don't like skiing or winter climbing with people who haven't invested in an avalanche course and safety equipment, and on some trips I won't even consider it. Things like self-rescue are harder to expect, but I certainly prefer to climb with people who have some rescue skills as well as some wilderness medical training.


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