Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Seasonality of Mountaineering (Part 2 of 2)

We left off in the preceding article with March. We have accumulated snow all winter and now things are changing.

In April and May, the battle for domination starts to shift from the bad weather to the good and the snow pack continues to consolidate and firm up, eventually reaching isothermal (a consistent temp throughout) and becoming good for summer glacier climbing conditions.

Now don’t take this to mean that you can’t climb mountains at other times, in fact you can climb mountains in any month of the year here, and even have a good time and good conditions doing it. A few years back I wrote piece about winter climbing about capturing small windows of good conditions in the off season here in the Cascades. Trying to have safe and successful climbs outside of the typical season requires tenacity and even more attention to subtle details and current conditions. Traveling on a snowpack that has not yet consolidated almost always required flotation of some sort. AAI guide Dylan Taylor previously authored a piece on snow locomotion where he described the options for that.

During the mid-summer months, the snowpack receeds on a daily basis. The days are long and the sun is usually shining more often than not. A mountaineers concerns start to shift from surface conditions to coverage issues. Crevasses start to be revealed, things like moats, bergschrunds, and talus slopes start to become factors that require some consideration. This trend continues through fall until the cycle starts over again. Lately, the winter snow hasn’t been able to keep up with the summer warmth in most parts of the world and the glaciers are shrinking.

So what do these seasons mean for mountaineers? There is always something to climb and something to learn at any point in the cycle. It might not be your preferred activity, ascent or style, but there is always something to be learned. In my mind, that is kind of what it means to be a mountaineer. Not someone with a helmet, ice axe, and 40-feet of webbing, but rather a person who is knowledgeable about the mountains, intimately familiar with their features and conditions, and skilled in the techniques that it takes to travel in them safely, regardless of the season or conditions.

Learning these thing is a lifelong process and even those that have spent countless days in ranges across the globe always have something to learn, a new way of seeing things, and they have to adapt to both subtle and substantial changes from season to season and place to place. It think this is one of the many facets that makes mountaineering such an engaging pursuit and leads many people into a mountaineering lifestyle rather than treating it like a hobby of sorts. Many mountaineers choose to live in a place where they can be close to the mountains and be a part of these seasonal transitions.

Here in the Cascades, mountaineer’s are hanging up their crampons for the season and eagerly anticipating the first substantial accumulations of the winter season. Any day now we should get a big dump and the hardcores will get out their rock skis and battle out the seasons first turns. As the winter wanders on, savvy climbers will keep an eye on conditions and hope for a window to get up a route in winter conditions under fair skies. Into the spring, the short winter days will lengthen and our vitamin B starved bodies will start to long for the long walks on the glaciers and winding trails through lush undergrowth, and the heavy, moisture laden air of the Cascade summer, and the feeling of dry granite under our finger-tips and toes.

As mentioned above, all climbing areas have their own cycles. For example, now is the prime time for rock climbing in the desert southwest whereas a month ago you would have probably died of heat stroke in the direct sun. The summer mountaineering season in South America is just a few weeks from kicking off. The monsoon season in the Himalaya is just coming to and end and the technical climbing season is about to begin.

So, stay tuned in and turned on to make your free-time line up with the seasonality of mountaineering and go climbing!

--Coley Gentzel

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