Mountaineering Technique Part 2

Safety Considerations

The mountain walking techniques presented here are designed to reduce the hazards of rock fall and loss of control leading to a fall. Carelessness can cause the failure of the best-planned missions.

  • Whenever a rock is kicked loose, the warning, "Rock!" is shouted immediately. Personnel near the bottom of the cliff immediately lean into the cliff to reduce their exposure, and do not look up. Personnel more than 3 meters away from the bottom of the cliff may look up to determine where the rock is heading and seek cover behind an obstacle. Lacking cover, personnel should anticipate which way the rock is falling and move out of its path to the left or right.
  • If a soldier slips or stumbles on sloping terrain (hard ground, grass, snow, or scree) he must immediately self-arrest, digging into the slope with hands, elbows, knees and toes. If he falls backwards and rolls over he must immediately try to turn over onto his stomach with his legs downhill and self-arrest with hands and toes.
  • When traveling through steep terrain, soldiers should be trained in the use of the ice ax for self-arrest. The ax can be used to arrest a fall on solid ground, grass and scree as well as snow. It may also be used as a third point of contact on difficult terrain. If not in use the ice ax is carried in or on the rucksack with its head down and secured.
  • Navigation

    Navigation is the process of determining one’s present position, the location of a target objective, and selecting and following a route between these two points. Navigation consists of three distinct stages: orientation, navigation, and route finding.

  • Orientation is simply figuring out exactly where one is. The use of the map, compass and identifiable terrain features, assisted by an altimeter and GPS, is the foundation of good navigation.
  • Navigation includes the determination of the objective’s location and the direction from the soldier’s starting point to the objective. The same skills and equipment used in orientation are essential for good navigation.
  • Route finding is picking the best line of travel that matches the equipment and capabilities of the team. Good route finding incorporates a comprehensive awareness of terrain, a solid base of mountaineering experience, good judgement and sound tactical instincts.
  • a. Compasses. The magnetic compass is the simplest and most widely used instrument for measuring directions and angles in the mountains. The lensatic compass is most commonly used in the military and can be employed in a variety of ways for either day or night navigation.

    b. Altimeters. The altimeter is a vital piece of navigational equipment that can save valuable time in determining position through elevation.

    (1) The standard altimeter is a modified barometer. A barometer is an instrument that measures the weight of a column of air above itself and displays the result on a scale marked in units of pressure, usually inches of mercury, millimeters of mercury, or millibars. Since air pressure drops uniformly as elevation is gained, it can be used to read altitude by means of the altimeter’s scale, marked in feet or meters of elevation above sea level. By measuring air pressure, the altimeter/barometer gives the navigator new techniques for position finding, route planning, checking progress and terrain identification. It also gives the navigator valuable weather information specific to his immediate location.

    (2) Changes in the weather are usually accompanied by air pressure changes, which are reflected in the altimeter. As the air pressure drops due to the approach of inclement weather for instance, the displayed elevation will rise by a corresponding amount. This means that a barometric pressure change of one inch of mercury equals roughly 1,000 feet of elevation. If the altimeter displays an elevation gain of 300 feet, a loss of barometric pressure of .3 inches has occurred, and bad weather should be expected.

    (3) Altimeters come in two types: wrist-mounted digital altimeters and analog altimeters, usually attached to a cord.

    (4) Because the altimeter is sensitive to changes in air pressure it must be recalibrated whenever a point of known elevation (summits, saddles, stream-trail intersections, survey monuments, and so forth) is reached. This is especially important when weather fronts are moving rapidly through the area.

    (5) The altimeter may expand or contract because of changes in temperature. This can result in faulty elevation readings. Although some altimeters are temperature-compensated, rapid ascents or descents sometime overcome the adjustment, causing them to give poor readings.

    (6) Keep the altimeter at a constant temperature. This is best accomplished by storing the altimeter (analog) in a pocket or on a cord around the neck, or on the wrist under the parka and hand gear (digital).

    (7) Even though altimeters can be precise they are affected by both pressure and temperature changes and should be monitored carefully. The soldier should become familiar with the specific altimeter he employs and understand its capabilities and limitations.

    c. Global Positioning System. The GPS is a space-based, global, all-weather, continuously available radio positioning navigation system. It is highly accurate in determining position location derived from a satellite constellation system. It can determine the latitude, longitude and elevation of the individual user. Location information is also displayed in military grid coordinates.

    (1) The GPS provides precise steering information as well as position locations. The receiver can accept many checkpoints entered in any coordinate system by the user and convert them to the desired coordinate system. The user then calls up the desired checkpoint and the receiver will display direction and distance to the checkpoint. It can also compute travel time to the next checkpoint.

    (2) Because the GPS does not need visible landmarks to operate, it can provide position (accurate up to 16 meters) in whiteouts or on featureless terrain. It also does not compound navigational errors as compass use can.

    (3) During route planning, after choosing critical checkpoints, start point and objective, enter their coordinates as way points. The best use of the GPS is to verify these as they are reached, as a backup to terrain association and compass navigation.

    (4) Since the 21-satellite constellation is not yet complete, coverage may be limited to specific hours of the day in certain areas of the world. The GPS navigational signals are similar to light rays, so anything that blocks light will reduce or block the effectiveness of the signals. The more unobstructed the view of the sky, the better the system performs. Although the GPS can be used in any terrain, it is performs best in more open areas such as the desert.

    (5) Because the GPS requires horizon to horizon views for good satellite reception its use can be limited in the mountains. Canyons, deep valleys, saddles, and steep mountainsides are all problematic spots to use for shots. Ridgelines, spurs, summits, open valleys, or plateaus are better.

    (6) When using GPS in regions with questionable surveying and mapping products, operational datum of the local maps must be reconciled with the datum used in navigational and targeting systems. Identify the spheroid and datum information on the pertinent map sheets and then check that the GPS receiver has the compatible datum loaded. If not then you must contact the S2 for updated datum or maps. Otherwise, the GPS will show different locations than those on the map.

    (7) Extremely cold temperatures (-4 degrees F and below) and high elevations will adversely affect the operation of the GPS, due to the freezing of the batteries and the LCD screen. Battery life and overall performance can be improved by placing the GPS inside the parka or coat.

    d. Navigation Techniques. The choice of movement technique often determines the route and navigational technique. For navigation, three techniques can be used: dead reckoning, terrain association, or altimeter navigation. The three are not mutually exclusive and are normally used together, with one chosen as the primary technique. The GPS can be used to supplement these techniques, but due to the problems associated with the restricted line of sight in the mountains, it should not be used as the main technique.

    (1) Dead Reckoning. Because of the complex nature of mountainous terrain, dead reckoning is usually of limited value on most movements. The compass is generally employed more to support terrain association and to orient the map, than as a primary navigational aid. The main exception is during periods of limited visibility on featureless terrain. Heavy fog, snowy or whiteout conditions on a snowfield, glacier, large plateau or valley floor all would call for dead reckoning as a primary navigational technique.

    (2) Terrain Association. The standard terrain association techniques all apply. Handrails, checkpoints, catching features, navigational corridors, boxing-in areas, and attack points are all used. When a small objective lies near or on an easily identifiable feature, that feature becomes an expanded objective. This simplifies the navigational problem by giving a large feature to navigate to first. The altimeter may finalize the search for the objective by identification through elevation. Rough compass headings are used to establish a general direction to the next checkpoint; used when the checkpoint headed toward is a linear feature, and not a precise point. The shape, orientation, size, elevation, slope (SOSES) strategy is especially valuable in mountain terrain association and should be practiced extensively.

    (a) After extensive study of the map and all available sources of information it helps to create a mental image of the route. This will enable the navigator to make the terrain work in his favor. Avoid brush for speed and ease of movement; the military crest of spurs and ridgelines generally provides the best route while providing terrain masking effects. When clear cut, burned-over, or large avalanche slide areas are encountered, it may be necessary to box or contour around them as they may be full of slash or brushy second-growth small trees. Old-growth forest provides the easiest travel.

    (b) The following situations will result in objects appearing closer than they actually are:

  • When most of the object is visible and offers a clear outline.
  • When you are looking across a partially cleared depression.
  • When looking down a straight, open road or track.
  • When looking over a smooth, uniform surface, such as snow, water, or desert.
  • When the light is bright and the sun is shining from behind the observer.
  • When the object is in sharp contrast to the background.
  • When seen in the clear air of high altitude.
  • When looking down from high ground to low ground.
  • (c) The following situations will result in objects appearing farther away than they actually are:

  • When only part of the object is seen or it is small in relation to its surroundings.
  • When you are looking across an exposed depression.
  • When looking up from low ground to high ground.
  • When your vision is narrowly confined.
  • When the light is poor, such as dawn, dusk, or low visibility weather; or when the sun is in your eyes, but not behind the object being viewed.
  • When the object blends into the background.
  • (3) Altimeter Navigation. Altimeters provide assistance to the navigator in several ways. They aid in orientation, in computing rates of ascent or descent, in resection, and in weather prediction.

  • (a) When moving along any linear feature such as a ridge, watercourse, or trail which is shown on the map, check the altimeter. The point where the indicated elevation contour crosses that feature is your location.
  • (b) The navigator frequently finds it necessary to determine his position through the use of resection. A modified resection can be performed by shooting an azimuth to a known, clearly visible summit or similar feature and then plotting the back azimuth on the map. By determining your present elevation and finding where that particular contour crosses the back azimuth you should locate your position. This can be difficult when in low ground, as mountain summits can rarely be clearly seen from valley floors. In addition, most mountaintops are so large that there is usually no specific point to shoot at. In this case, the soldier should take multiple azimuths to known features. If he is located on a good linear feature he will have a decent idea of where he is. The altimeter can be used to verify elevation and establish a notional linear feature—a contour line. The point where the resecting back azimuths cross the contour line is the navigator’s location.
  • (c) Using the altimeter to calculate rates of ascent can help in sound decision-making. Rates of travel, along with weather conditions, light conditions (time of day), and the physical condition of the team, are all key variables that can influence the success or failure of the mission.
  • (d) Altimeters can be used as barometers to assist in weather prediction.
  • e. Approach Observations. Watch the mountain during the approach march, studying it for climbing routes. Distant views can reveal large-scale patterns of ridges, cliffs, snowfields and glaciers. General angles of the large rock masses can be seen from afar.

    (1) Closer viewing displays these patterns and angles on a smaller scale. Fault lines, gross bedding planes of rock, cliff bands, and crevasse zones become visible. Snowy or vegetated ledge systems appear. Weaknesses in the mountain walls, such as couloirs or gullies, may present themselves.

    (2) Most of these features repeat themselves at increasingly finer levels, as they are generally derived from the overall structure of the particular mountain group. A basic knowledge of mountain geology, combined with the specific geological background of the operational area, pays off in more efficient travel.

    f. Natural Indicators of Direction in the Northern Hemisphere. Southern slopes are sunnier and drier than northern slopes, with sparser or different types of vegetation. Northern slopes can be snowier and, because of more intense glaciation in past ages, are often steeper.

    Note: Opposite rules apply in the Southern Hemisphere.

    g. Winter Route Selection. The following must be considered when selecting a route in the winter.

    (1) Conduct a thorough map reconnaissance considering the weather, individual ski abilities, avalanche danger, vegetation, water features, terrain relief, and the size of the unit.

    (2) Weather conditions will affect the chosen route. During calm weather, your rate of movement will be significantly faster than during periods of inclement weather.

    (3) Individual ski abilities will affect your rate of movement, constrain your choice of terrain, and impact on your route choices.

    (4) Avalanche danger zones must be identified by map review and data gathered during route planning. During movement, snow pits, shovel tests, and ski shear tests must be conducted prior to crossing an avalanche danger zone. Bottom line: avoid avalanche danger areas. If you must cross one, cross above the starting zone or below the run-out zone.

    (5) Vegetation can work for you or against you. Thickly forested areas usually have a deep snow pack. For weaker skiers, forested areas are full of potentially dangerous obstacles. On slopes with an angle of 30 to 45 degrees that are sparsely vegetated an avalanche danger is still present. If the weather turns bad, forested areas provide welcome relief from wind and blowing snow.

    (6) Water features provide valuable navigation aids. Under deep snow pack small creeks and ponds may be hard to locate. Large frozen lakes and rivers can provide excellent means of increasing your rate of march.

    (7) During ski movements, efficient use of terrain will greatly improve morale and reduce fatigue. While traveling in mountainous terrain, do not needlessly give up elevation gained. Maintain a steady climb rate and avoid over exertion. Avoid north, east, and south facing slopes when the avalanche danger is high. Avoid cornices and be aware of their probable and improbable fracture lines. Weather and tactical situation permitting, travel on the windward side of ridgelines. If weak skiers are in the group, stay away from restrictive terrain with sheer drop-offs. When touring use climbing skins to maintain control and lessen lost time per hour due to individuals falling.

    (8) The following are additional hints for navigation in snowy conditions:

  • Keep the compass warm.
  • If no terrain features exist for steering marks, use your back azimuth and tracks to maintain course.
  • Limit steering marks to shorter distances since visibility can change quickly.
  • Never take azimuths near metallic objects. Hold the compass far enough from your weapon, ice ax, and so on to get accurate readings.
  • Make frequent compass checks.
  • Preset azimuths on your compass.
  • Use a steady, unshifting wind to aid you in maintaining course.
  • h. Problems. The following conditions and characteristics of cold weather and mountainous regions make accurate navigation difficult.

    (1) In winter, short hours of daylight, fog, snowfall, blizzards, whiteouts, and drifting snow, especially above tree line, drastically limit visibility. At times, an overcast sky and snow-covered terrain create a phenomenon called flat light, which makes recognition of irregularities in the terrain extremely difficult.

    (2) Heavy snow may completely cover existing tracks, trails, outlines of small lakes and similar landmarks. Because the appearance of the terrain is quite different in winter from that in summer, particular attention must be paid to identifying landmarks, both on the ground and from aerial photographs.

    (3) Magnetic disturbances, caused by large ore deposits, are frequently encountered and make magnetic compass readings difficult and sometimes unreliable.

    (4) Handling maps, compasses, and other navigation instruments in low temperatures with bare hands is difficult. Removing hand wear may only be possible for short periods.

    (5) Keeping count of pace is extremely difficult in winter and mountain environments. Thick vegetation and rough, steep slopes hamper attempts at accurate pace counts. The most reliable method is the use of a 50-meter long piece of field wire or rope.

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