The mountains on the Earth are amazing geographical formations on our planet, a temptation for many explorers and adventure travelers. Their beauty is calling people to penetrate deep in their valleys, to climb high on their tops, or just to get lost in their stunning landscapes. Roads are leading to the mountains, but these roads are limited. To go further, where the roads can’t go, you have to hike on mountain trails. But even hiking can’t help you to reach the most inaccessible parts of the mountains. You need to climb these places. Let’s get deeper into these activities- from an easy hike to an extreme expedition, and become professional for “conquering the mountains”- these fantastic places on our planet.
There is a great variety of mountain terrains. The mountains can be high, or can be low, can be steep and rugged, or can be soft and plain. They can be located in the tropics, covered by tropical rainforests, they can be in a bare desert, can be covered by grasslands, by alpine forests, or by glaciers and rocks only. You can find a lot of local formations like canyons, glaciers, peak walls, karst hills, caves, lakes, swamps, etc. And all of this is calling us to explore it deeper and deeper.
However, all these kinds of terrain have a different level of difficulty. Paved roads are penetrating or crossing the mountains, where you can just stop somewhere, relax, and take photos. And there are many more dirt roads where you can go only by a 4×4 vehicle, by bike, by horse, or on foot. Once you start walking on foot, you actually start hiking.
Hiking in the mountains
Hiking can vary depending on the level of difficulty, duration, and other factors. The easiest type of hiking is just a walk in the nature, on a well-made road without any incline. From this level, the hiking difficulty grows as the road becomes more and more inclined and uneven, the elevation gain becomes bigger and bigger, until finally you almost climb up and down on a very steep slope without any trails, through a thick forest, grass (sometimes with thorns), stones or on snow.
Various methods are defining the hike difficulty score, usually based on the elevation gain and the walking distance. But again, these factors don’t include the type of the trail (or its completely lacking), and the type of the terrain (it can be swampy, stony, etc.). Add to this your required speed (if you are in hurry to reach the endpoint of your hike before the nightfall), and the weather, which can be harsh and unpredictable- it also contributes to the hike difficulty.
Other ways of exploring- biking, kayaking, skiing and more
Today, there are some other ways to explore not only a mountain but every kind of natural environment. A popular way is to bring your mountain bike. Thus, you can pass the easier sections of your trail much quickly, especially if the trail is descending. As a result, your trip can be much longer in distance. But if the trail ascends steeply, you just proceed hiking, this time even more difficult because you have to carry your bike (in such moments I really would like my bike to disappear, but later I would need it).
You can bring your inflatable boat too. Thus, you can include crossing a lake, a large river, or other body of water. In winter, you can go skiing in the snow, if the conditions allow it. And if you find a horse, you can ride it too.
So, there are various other ways of exploring the mountain, and you have to bring proper gear. And if you have to spend the night in the open-air, you would need more things to bring: a tent, or at least some other kind of shelter, with all accessories for camping. However, if you have to spend a night in the mountain, it is already something more than hiking- you go on trekking.
The term trekking is used for longer hiking, with spending at least one night in the mountain. It is a real journey. As I mentioned above, the main difference is that you have to bring things for the night. Yes, you can sleep in a mountain chalet, in a village house, in a nomad’s yurt, but if you do it for multiple days, you are on trekking.
However, the term trekking includes not only long hiking. Because even the most difficult level of hiking can’t bring you to every point in the mountain. There are places that you can’t access by just walking on foot, no matter how difficult it is. But you have to climb. This is more than a hike and brings you to another level of exploring the mountains.
You must have seen these places- those rugged snowy peaks in the Alps, Himalaya, Karakoram, Pamir, Andes, Caucasus, and other places. You have also seen some almost vertical slopes in canyons, gorges, or karst hills, as well as many other vertical rocky walls. And you probably know that there are no trails on these formations, at least no natural trails (because today there are some touristy places with artificial stairs installed on some rocky walls for the fun of the tourists).
And the only way to explore such places is by climbing. Yes, some of the slopes are not exactly vertical, but still very steep and can be dangerous. Some people can climb almost vertical slopes, even rocky walls, without any equipment. Needless to say, they are exceptions. Most of the other people would put themselves in deadly risks, or simply can’t do it.
However, there is a popular sport that everybody knows, when we talk about Everest or other “glorious” peaks on our planet. It is called “alpinism” in Europe, and “mountaineering” in the rest of the world. The goal of this sport is to reach the top of such extreme places, using certain mountaineering equipment and certain skills.
Alpinism or mountaineering is an exciting (but dangerous) sport, and we all have heard about multiple victims of extreme mountain conditions or accidents. Many alpinists do it just for a prize of glory and look at it as a normal sport. However, there are some other people, for whom mountaineering itself is not the goal, but only a tool to reach a certain extremely difficult geographical spot.
In such cases, mountaineering is only a part of a bigger journey, a part of an adventure that can involve many other ways of traveling, including hiking, biking, kayaking, skiing, etc. Yes, if you only want to reach the top of a karst hill in China, or a certain flat point over a steep canyon slope, using mountaineering skills and equipment for only one day. But if you want to reach the tops of an 8000er in the Himalayas, or even more- to explore a mountain region passing through various mountain terrains, you need to arrange a longer trip, sometimes weeks, even months-long, called expedition.
Expeditions are the highest level of travel activity. While vacations, tours, hikes, cruises, or just private trips by your car are focused only on certain destinations and routes on the Earth, the goal of an expedition can be every spot on our planet, including the most inaccessible places, although the difficult off the beaten areas are preferable. Yes, nobody goes on an expedition to Paris or London, because these cities are enough touristy and easy to explore by many “normal” tourist ways.
But exploring places like Amazonia, Chang Tang Plateau of Tibet, Greenland or Bouvet Island is possible only by an expedition. Yes, there are some tourist activities even in such places, but they can allow you only to “touch” the place. However, if you want to experience this place deeply, you can do it only by going on an expedition.
And expeditions are not an easy thing. It is not a tour that you can find in a travel company. Yes, there are a few companies that organize real expeditions, but again, it is different than a tourist activity. It is joining an adventurous team, usually with an element of surviving. There are also solo expeditions, but even they are almost impossible without the support of other people.
Now, let’s back to the mountains, and to those expeditions focusing on exploring the mountains, especially those including mountaineering. To go on such an expedition, you would need some certain skills, equipment, and organization.
Expeditions are not for everyone. It requires a proper mindset, proper conditions of the body, and proper skills. Yes, the activities that an expedition can include are different in level of difficulty and have different requirements. It depends also on whether you join a group, or go solo. And obviously, a solo trip is more difficult than in a group.
In general, hiking is the easiest part. The stronger is your body, the more difficult levels of hiking you can pass. If you are a part of a group, you just follow others and you are ok. They can guide you, and they can help you in some situations. But if you are solo, you need more skills.
This is very important if you don’t want to get lost. There are many ways to know where is your location at any time. Until recently, people used only a paper map and a compass. There are also various trail signs in many parts of the world, using written words, or just some color marking. But if you lose the trail, at least you need to know the right direction. Good knowledge of the area on the map can help you because the summits and valleys around you can give you a good orientation too. However, now everything is easier for us because we have GPS.
Depending on where is your mountain, there can be various weather conditions. A lovely sunny day is perfect weather for a hike and every other mountain activities. But we all know that in the mountain the weather can change suddenly.
If you are in a warm-weather place- in the Tropics, or far from the Tropics but during summer, you can expect heavy rain, fog, wind, and the most dangerous- thunders and lightning. So, watch the weather forecast before you go, and bring a raincoat and warmer clothes. However, if there are thunders and lightning, you can’t do too much. Just try to avoid lonely trees and open high places. Deep valleys covered by forest are the safest place. It is also better don’t move too much and if possible, be free of metal things and electric devices. And if you can find shelter, it would be best.
In winter, avoid hiking during a cold snowstorm. Yes, you can wear very well, and you can prepare a lot of things to make a fire and drink hot tea. But there is more- during snowstorm everything can turn into an unclear white mass, and your trail can be lost under the deep snow. You can not only lose your trail, but you will also walk very difficult in the deep snow, and you can easily fall into some holes or other dangerous places. So, if you are caught by a snowstorm, try to find a shelter. You can try to make a shelter in the snow too. And wait until the storm is over. Again, follow the weather forecast, and prepare accordingly.
There are avalanche places in the mountains. Depending on the conditions, various types of avalanches can fall on the high slopes. And they are a serious threat in the snowy mountain. A large number of fatalities in such areas happen due to an avalanche.
Several types of avalanches can occur in the mountain slopes, depending on several factors- temperature, snowfall, terrain, and human movement. Yes, most of the avalanches are caused unintentionally by humans.
There are courses on how to avoid an avalanche, how to survive it, and how to help others who are hit by an avalanche. I would strongly recommend attending such a course if you are going to “attack” snowy mountains. Or at least you can check more information here:
High altitude sickness
It is another thing that you face when you attack high mountains, at least higher than 3000 m altitude. Normally, if you are in good health, you shouldn’t have serious problems, but only some headaches, some fatigue or tingling, and it can happen only if you go to the highland without any acclimatization. Anyway, have in mind that at high altitude, even with good acclimatization, you can more easily feel tired, than on the sea coast.
But for areas over 5000-5500 m altitude, lack of acclimatization can be dangerous. This is the place where you can get two severe forms of altitude sickness which can be fatal- pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. If you look at the map of the world, you will not see any constant human settlement in such altitude- staying there more than 2-3 months can harm human health, even with the best acclimatization (in 6000 m humans can survive not longer than 2 years).
And the harshest area in the mountains is over 8000 m- the so-called “Death zone”. No matter how acclimatized you are, you can’t survive there more than 2-3 days- it is beyond all the human body’s abilities to adapt. That’s why people who climb the 8000ers often use oxygen bottles to reach the peaks.
There are acclimatization rules for high altitude, and if you are going to conquer such highlands, you have to know these rules. In general, ascending must be slowly, with no more than 600 m a day, and sleeping in a lower place than you are in the middle of the day. And if you want to attack extremely high peaks, your acclimatization should be much longer- for at least 2-3 weeks.
Now, let’s back to the other ways of exploring the mountains.
If you are going to include biking in your mountain conquering, you need to be well-prepared for this too. First, choose the right bike. It should be a mountain bike, with thicker tires and shock absorbers. And the lighter is your bike, the better. You have to bring all the basic tool kit, especially for flat tires. And you need to know what to do if your bike has a problem.
Descending on a slope by bike looks very exciting, and it really is, but be careful. If the slope is too steep and bumpy, you can easily fall from the bike. And falling would be not so funny, it can be dangerous. Remember, if your front wheel stops too fast for some reason, but your body keeps the speed, you can roll forward and fall badly. Yes, a helmet can help in such a case, but the risk of breaking the arm is very high.
Here you need to know how to use an inflatable boat, or a canoe (if you can bring it, or someone supply you with it). You need skills to know more about the various body of waters and their currents. Then you need skills on how to row your boat without rolling upside down. If you are in the middle of a lake, you can expect stronger currents and wind, and you need some practical experience on how to deal with it.
You just need to know how to practice this sport. Skiing on tracks arranged in the winter resorts is exciting, but using ski for trekking is another story. First, you need to know how to move when descending, and how to ascend by ski. Then, most of the trails would be probably hidden under deep snow. Different snow thickness and different snow quality can seriously affect your advance in the mountain. And again, be aware of snowstorms and avalanches.
This is an advanced level of mountain exploring skills. It is because to practice mountaineering, you need to have all the other skills described above, and to add more to them. What you need to add is mainly climbing skills.
But this is not easy. You can easily learn hiking, biking, even skiing, and kayaking, without joining a course. Climbing, however, is different. Yes, you can learn it by yourself too, but much more difficult, and most importantly, risky.
With some rare exceptions, most people can’t climb too much without certain equipment. You need mountaineering (climbing) equipment, but you also need to know how to use it. Ok, let’s say that your mountaineering accessories are supplied with a technical guide (yes, the accessories are not so difficult or complex). But you need to learn how to apply them in various kinds of terrain.
The slopes can be different- they can be more than 45°steep, but also they can be vertical, even overhang. Also, the surface can be different- from dry hard granite to unstable ice or snow. In the mountain, all these conditions can be met in various combinations. So you need skills what to do when facing these conditions. Add to this some other factors like weather, your body condition, as well as whether you climb solo or in a group- all this requires much more advanced skills.
So, for mountain climbing (mountaineering), joining a course is highly recommendable. You will learn how to move your body on the slope, how to step, how and when to use this or that accessory, or a combination of all, where is safer, where is more dangerous and what decisions you have to make in all these conditions.
Additional trekking skills
In addition to all of these skills, if you go on an expedition for a long time, you need to know how to spend the night, how to supply yourself with food and water, how to protect yourself from hostile animals, etc.
So, you go on week-long trekking. If there are no hotels or other accommodation places, you have to bring your tent with all its accessories. Installing a tent is easy, but there can be some exceptions, especially on steep slopes. In some cases, you may need just a hammock, and you need to know how to install it in certain conditions.
Then, most probably you can’t buy food and water in the mountain. So, you need to know how to choose the best food to bring, how to cook it, and if need (in some more extreme cases), how to find it in the forest or a river. Finding water is very important too, and in many cases, you have to boil it too.
Finally, you need to protect yourself from some hostile animals- snakes, biting insects, or big carnivores (bears, wolves, tigers, wild pigs, and other animals). There are some rules and experiences from many trekkers what to do in certain areas if there are such animals- what to do if you meet them, and how to avoid an attack.
I would add one more skill here- the skill to arrange your backpack best, optimizing it between the necessary things you would need, and its weight. In some critical cases, it can be very important, even life-saving. And when mention life saving, let’s go to the most important skills in the mountain below.
Surviving skills and skill to save others
Needless to say, these skills are very important. No matter what other skills you have, mountains are not designed to fit our human nature, but we have to adapt to the conditions there. In general, to obtain surviving skills, and especially a skill to save others, first, you must be good at the other basic skills described above.
In some cases, the mountain can put you in a highly risky challenge, even in a deadly situation. Snowstorm, avalanche, severe altitude sickness, thunderstorm, getting lost in the middle of nowhere without any shelter, food, and water, attacked by animals- first, you need to know how to avoid all these things. But if something like this happens anyway, you need to know what to do to survive.
And finally, if you are not alone, you need to know how to help those who are in a disaster. Yes, sometimes the mountain offers us the greatest test for our human nature- to save the life of others. Usually, to do this, besides all of the skills described above, you need something more- real love, in an extreme situation.
All these skills are very important, and the better are you in them, the safer and more professionally you can conquer the mountains. However, many of these skills need certain equipment. So, let’s talk about it.
Depending on your form of attacking a mountain, you would need different equipment. If you just go on a short and easy hike, you don’t need anything (except your camera for nice photos). But as I shared above, your mountain journey can vary from the easiest walk to an extremely difficult and long mountain expedition.
For a short hike within a day, depending on the hiking level of difficulty, the weather, and your condition, you would need certain equipment. First- you need proper shoes or boots- strong, durable, comfortable, and waterproof. Then, you need proper clothes- again comfortable, protecting you from heat, cold, sunburn, insects and thorns bite, and again waterproof.
Sun radiation is always stronger in the high mountain. So, a good hat, a bandana, and sunglasses can be very proper, especially on sunny summits with glaciers and snow. Then, if you go on hiking with steep, uneven and rugged slopes, you would need hiking poles (yes, you can do it without them, but you would be more tired; or you can find a wooden stick in the forest, but it is not always available). Finally, you would need additional things for bad weather- a raincoat (poncho) or a waterproof jacket for rain. And if you have to hike in deep snow, you may need gaiters and snowshoes.
Biking, kayaking and skiing equipment
If you want to add more ways of exploring the mountain, like biking, kayaking, or skiing (in winter), of course first you would need a mountain bike, a canoe or inflatable boat, or ski. Then, you would need some other additional accessories, related to these basic exploring tools, especially your bike. For example, you would need a toolkit to stick a flat tire, to fix some other parts of the bike, and if need, some additional easy to bear spare parts.
Mountaineering (climbing) equipment
Now, this is more advanced. There is a whole set of mountaineering accessories that you would need to climb a mountain. Depending on the place that you are going to climb, you may not need the whole set, but only some of its accessories. But be sure you bring all the necessary things.
The full mountaineering set includes rope (one or more), harness, helmet, crampons, belay or rappel device, carabiners, ice axe, then some additional things like gloves, slings, etc. These things can add additional weight in your luggage, but they are necessary if you want to climb an alpine mountain peak and back in safety.
Long trekking equipment
All of the above is for short trips. Again, for longer mountain journeys you have to think about the night, about your shelter, your food, and water. So, you would need a tent (preferably lightweight) or a hammock, with a mat, and a sleeping bag. Then, in the darkness, you would need a light, and the best sources of light are the headlamps.
For your food, you would need a cooking set, by which you can not only cook your food but also boil your water and make hot tea. Finally, for all of these things, you would need a proper backpack. It has to be enough large- at least 70-80L. At the same time, it has to be comfortable, and you should always think about reducing weight.
Nobody likes thinking about the worst, even when he or she goes to a difficult and risky expedition. But it happens. You can buy the best insurance in the world, but it can’t save you when a disaster happens. Yes, it can help later, but only if you survive. As I shared above, skills and knowledge are very important, but without proper equipment, your skills are limited.
So, let’s focus on the surviving equipment. It is accessories that can save you in dangerous situations and can help you to save others. Here is the list of the main surviving accessories:
- Firestarter. Yes, you need a gas bottle to cook your food, but fire can be not only used for cooking. In a harsh snowstorm, in danger of hypothermia, a fire starter can help you make a hot tea or at least hot water, thus saving your life.
- Two-way radios. Although their signal has limited range, it is stronger than any other signal in every mountain terrain, and they can help you in case that you are in a group, but for some reason have lost the others.
- Paper map and compass. Don’t rely only on your GPS. Sometimes it can’t work properly, or your batteries can run down. Without electricity, a paper map and a compass can be your only guide.
- First aid kit. It includes medicines in case you are bitten by something poisonous, as well as medicines for help against altitude sickness and other diseases. There are also things to help you treat injuries, burns, and other body harms.
- Emergency whistle. If you are stuck in a place that you can’t move, and others try to find you, an emergency whistle can drive their attention to you.
- Avalanche transceiver. With this you can more easily find people buried by an avalanche, thus saving their life.
There are more accessories like cords, knives, bells, etc. and in an emergency, they can contribute to saving your life too. And all these things are not too heavy, so there would be no problem for you to bring them in your backpack.
Other necessary equipment
In addition to all things described above, you would need several more accessories. Some of them are almost survival (like your mobile phone with installed GPS, maps, etc.), while others are mostly for your great experience and memories.
So yes, bring your mobile. But since there is no signal in many parts of the mountains, if you can get a satellite phone would be better. Along with it, bring as many power sources as possible- batteries and power banks with cables, depending on the type of your electronic devices, and your trekking duration.
Finally, don’t forget your camera. Yes, you can make good photos with your mobile, but if you take a better camera, particularly GoPro for photos and videos, it can bring you unforgettable memories from your adventures. And the last thing- a drone (if possible). Yes, it is a bit bulky and heavy, but if you can arrange it as a part of your journey, it would be perfect.
Now, let’s talk about the organization.
For the success of your journey, everything needs a good organization. Again, if you just go on an easy hike, you don’t need anything special. You can just go- alone, or with friends. But if you go on a longer and more difficult trek, or a serious expedition, you have to decide- solo or in a group.
Group or solo
Of course, joining a group makes your journey easier, cheaper (depending on the type of the tour), and much safer. Besides, sharing the same adventures with others brings a unique experience and memories. When you join a group, you can share your luggage- many things are not mandatory for every individual. For example, if you are 10 people, 5 two-person tents would be enough. Thus 5 people in your group can bring tents, and the other 5 can help with something else.
But if you go solo, that’s a different story. Nobody can help you in a dangerous situation. If you have to pay some cost, you pay it in full. And you have to bring everything yourself, which can be very heavy. But at least do as the famous explorers do- they prepare in advance, contacting other people who help them with the logistics, arrange help for emergencies, and in general, they follow the expedition from distance.
Finally, it is another thing that you have to consider for some mountain areas with special regulations. First, many country borders are passing on the mountains. And if you want to hike these mountains, you would eventually hike in border areas. Many countries require additional permits for that, and you have to research it in advance and prepare for it in advance. And if you have to cross the borders, it can be even more complicated, sometimes impossible.
There are border areas completely closed for foreigners. There are also some other completely closed areas- natural, or tribe reservations, or military areas. You have to consider this too. Some reservations are not completely closed, but again require special permits or organized tours.
Finally, if you want to climb the high peaks on the Earth, they are not free too. In many countries, peaks higher than 5000 m require mountaineering tax. The higher is the peak, the more expensive is the tax. No wonder that peaks like Everest and K2 are among the most expensive peaks in the world. And if you want to conquer them, you need money.
Maybe you have noticed that I use the phrase “conquering the mountains” in this post. But let me make it clear- you can’t conquer the mountains. You can only experience the excitement of a conqueror, that’s why I use this phrase. However, the mountains are created millions of years before the first human made his first step on the Earth. So, we are only guests there, and we should go there with respect.
Get more inspiration from the video below:
Check some books about mountaineering, conquering the mountains and survival:
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Hi, we are Krasen and Ying Ying. Krasen is from Bulgaria, and Ying Ying is from China. We are passionate about geography and history, and we believe that the best way to experience it is by exploring the Earth in reality, not in a school, and not virtually.
So, we created this blog Journey Beyond the Horizon, where we share geographical knowledge, travel guides and tips how to experience it when you explore our planet, and a lot of inspiration.
And we wish you a happy journey, not just virtually, but most of all- in reality.