Mountaineering Technique

Mountain travel encompasses the full spectrum of techniques used to negotiate steep, rugged terrain. Mountain walking on rock and snow, technical rock and ice climbing, skiing or snow shoeing, rappelling, and stream crossing are the key travel skills a military mountaineer must possess.

Basic Principles

Up scree or talus, through boulder fields or steep wooded mountainsides, over snow or grass-covered slopes, the basic principles of mountain walking remain the same.

  • The soldier’s weight is centered directly over the feet at all times. He places his foot flat on the ground to obtain as much (boot) sole-ground contact as possible. Then, he places his foot on the uphill side of grass tussocks, small talus and other level spots to avoid twisting the ankle and straining the Achilles tendon. He straightens the knee after each step to allow for rest between steps, and takes moderate steps at a steady pace. An angle of ascent or descent that is too steep is avoided, and any indentations in the slope are used to advantage.
  • In addition to proper technique, pace is adapted to conditions. The mountaineer sets a tempo, or number of steps per minute, according to the pace of the unit in which he is moving. (Physical differences mean that the tempos of two people moving at the same speed will not always be the same.) The soldier maintains tempo and compensates for changes of slope or terrain by adjusting the length of his stride. Tempo, pace, and rhythm are enhanced when an interval of three to five paces is kept between individuals. This interval helps lessen the "accordion" effect of people at the end of the file who must constantly stop and start.
  • The terrain, weather, and light conditions affect the rate of climb. The more adverse the conditions, the slower the pace. Moving too fast, even under ideal conditions, produces early fatigue, requires more rest halts, and results in loss of climbing time. A soldier can only move as fast as his lungs and legs will allow. The trained, conditioned and acclimatized soldier has greater endurance and moves more efficiently. Rest, good nutrition and hydration, conditioning, acclimatization, proper training, and the will to climb are key to successful mountain operations.
  • Breaks are kept to a minimum. When a moderate pace is set, the need for rest halts decreases, the chance of personnel overheating is lessened, and a unit can cover a given distance in a minimal time. If possible, rests should be taken on level ground avoiding steeper inclines.
  • 1. During the first half-hour of movement an adjustment halt should be taken. Soldiers will loosen or tighten bootlaces as needed, adjust packs and add or remove appropriate layers of clothing.

    2. Following the first halt, a well-conditioned party may take a short rest every 1 to 1.5 hours. If possible, soldiers lean against a tree, rock, or hillside to relieve the shoulders of pack weight, breathe deeply, hydrate, and snack on trail food. These halts are kept short enough to avoid muscles stiffening (one to two minutes).

    3. Later in the march longer halts may be necessary due to fatigue or mission requirements. At these halts soldiers should immediately put on additional clothing to avoid chilling—it is much easier to keep a warm body warm than to warm up a cold one.

    4. After a climb, a good rest is needed to revive tired muscles.

  • The rest step is used for steep slopes, snowfields, and higher elevations. It controls pace and limits fatigue by giving the lungs and legs a moment to recuperate between steps. Pace is kept slow and rhythmic.
  • 1. After each step forward, the soldier pauses briefly, relaxing the muscles of the forward leg while resting his entire bodyweight on the rear leg. The rear leg is kept straight with the knee locked so that bone, not muscle, supports the weight.

    2. Breathing is synchronized with the rest step. The number of breaths per step will change depending on the difficulty of the climb. Steeper slopes or higher elevations may require several breaths per step. When the air thins at altitude it is especially important to breathe deeply, using the "pressure breathing" technique. The soldier exhales strongly, enabling an easier, deeper inhale.

    3. This slow, steady, halting rest step is more efficient than spurts of speed, which are rapidly exhausting and require longer recovery.

  • Downhill walking uses less energy than uphill but is much harder on the body. Stepping down can hammer the full bodyweight onto the feet and legs. Blisters and blackened toenails, knee damage, and back pain may follow. To avoid these problems the soldier should start by tightening bootlaces to ensure a snug fit (also keep toenails trimmed). A ski pole, ice ax, or walking stick will help take some of the load and give additional stability. (Refer to Chapter 11 for techniques and use of the ice ax.) Keep a moderate pace and walk with knees flexed to absorb shock.
  • Side hill travel on any surface should be avoided whenever possible. Weighted down with a rucksack, the soldier is vulnerable to twisted ankles, back injury, and loss of balance. If side hill travel is necessary, try to switchback periodically, and use any lower angle flat areas such as rocks, animal trails, and the ground above grass or brush clumps to level off the route.
  • Techniques

    Mountain walking techniques can be divided according to the general formation, surface, and ground cover such as walking on hard ground, on snow slopes and grassy slopes, through thick brush, and on scree and talus slopes.

  • Hard Ground. Hard ground is firmly compacted, rocky soil that does not give way under the weight of a soldier’s step. It is most commonly found under mature forest canopy, in low brush or heather, and areas where animals have beaten out multiple trails.
  • 1. When ascending, employ the rest step to rest the leg muscles. Steep slopes can be traversed rather than climbed straight up. To turn at the end of each traverse, the soldier should step off in the new direction with the uphill foot. This prevents crossing the feet and possible loss of balance. While traversing, the full sole-to-ground principle is accomplished by rolling the ankle downhill on each step. For small stretches the herringbone step may be used—ascending straight up a slope with toes pointed out. A normal progression, as the slope steepens, would be from walking straight up, to a herringbone step, and then to a traverse on the steeper areas.

    2. Descending is best done by walking straight down the slope without traversing. The soldier keeps his back straight and bends at the knees to absorb the shock of each step. Body weight is kept directly over the feet and the full boot sole is placed on the ground with each step. Walking with a slight forward lean and with the feet in a normal position make the descent easier.

  • Snow Slopes. Snow-covered terrain can be encountered throughout the year above 1,500 meters in many mountainous areas. Talus and brush may be covered by hardened snowfields, streams made crossable with snowbridges. The techniques for ascending and descending moderate snow slopes are similar to walking on hard ground with some exceptions.

    1. Diagonal Traverse Technique. The diagonal traverse is the most efficient means to ascend snow. In conjunction with the ice ax it provides balance and safety for the soldier. This technique is a two-step sequence. The soldier performs a basic rest step, placing the leading (uphill) foot above and in front of the trailing (downhill) foot, and weighting the trail leg. This is the in-balance position. The ice ax, held in the uphill hand, is placed in the snow above and to the front. The soldier shifts his weight to the leading (uphill) leg and brings the unweighted trail (downhill) foot ahead of the uphill foot. He shifts weight to the forward (downhill) leg and then moves the uphill foot up and places it out ahead of the trail foot, returning to the in-balance position. At this point the ax is moved forward in preparation for the next step.

    2. Step Kicking. Step kicking is a basic technique used when crampons are not worn. It is best used on moderate slopes when the snow is soft enough to leave clear footprints. On softer snow the soldier swings his foot into the snow, allowing the leg’s weight and momentum to carve the step. Fully laden soldiers will need to kick steps, which take half of the boot. The steps should be angled slightly into the slope for added security. Succeeding climbers will follow directly in the steps of the trailbreaker, each one improving the step as he ascends. Harder snow requires more effort to kick steps, and they will not be as secure. The soldier may need to slice the step with the side of his boot and use the diagonal technique to ascend.

    3. Descending Snow. If the snow is soft and the slope gentle, simply walk straight down. Harder snow or steeper slopes call for the plunge step, which must be done in a positive, aggressive manner. The soldier faces out, steps off, and plants his foot solidly, driving the heel into the snow while keeping his leg straight. He shifts his weight to the new foot plant and continues down with the other foot. On steeper terrain it may be necessary to squat on the weighted leg when setting the plunge step. The upper body should be kept erect or canted slightly forward.

    4. Tips on Snow Travel. The following are tips for travelling on snow.

    (a) Often the best descent is on a different route than the ascent. When looking for a firmer travel surface, watch for dirty snow—this absorbs more heat and thus hardens faster than clean snow.

    (b) In the Northern Hemisphere, slopes with southern and western exposures set up earlier in the season and quicker after storms, but are more prone to avalanches in the spring. These slopes generally provide firm surfaces while northern and eastern exposures remain unconsolidated.

    (c) Travel late at night or early in the morning is best if daytime temperatures are above freezing and the sun heats the slopes. The night’s cold hardens the snow surface.

    (d) Avoid walking on snow next to logs, trees, and rocks as the subsurface snow has melted away creating hidden traps.

  • Grassy Slopes. Grassy slopes are usually composed of small tussocks of growth rather than one continuous field.
  • 1. When ascending, step on the upper side of each hummock or tussock, where the ground is more level.

    2. When descending a grassy slope, the traverse technique should be used because of the uneven nature of the ground. A climber can easily build up too much speed and fall if a direct descent is tried. The hop-skip step can be useful on this type of slope. In this technique, the lower leg takes all of the weight, and the upper leg is used only for balance. When traversing, the climber’s uphill foot points in the direction of travel. The downhill foot points about 45 degrees off the direction of travel (downhill). This maintains maximum sole contact and prevents possible downhill ankle roll-out.

    Note: Wet grass can be extremely slippery; the soldier must be aware of ground cover conditions.

  • Thick Brush. For the military mountaineer, brush is both a help and a hindrance. Brush-filled gullies can provide routes and rally points concealed from observation; on the other hand steep brushy terrain is hazardous to negotiate. Cliffs and steep ravines are hidden traps, and blow downs and thickets can obstruct travel as much as manmade obstacles. When brush must be negotiated take the most direct route across the obstacle; look for downed timber to use as raised paths through the obstacle; or create a tunnel through the obstacle by prying the brush apart, standing on lower branches and using upper limbs for support.
  • Scree Slopes. Slopes composed of the smallest rocks are called scree slopes. Scree varies in size from the smallest gravel to about the size of a man’s fist.
  • 1. Ascending scree slopes is difficult and tiring and should be avoided, if possible. All principles of ascending hard ground and snow apply, but each step is carefully chosen so that the foot does not slide down when weighted. This is done by kicking in with the toe of the upper foot (similar to step-kicking in snow) so that a step is formed in the loose scree. After determining that the step is stable, weight is transferred to the upper leg, the soldier then steps up and repeats the process with the lower foot.

    2. The best method for descending scree slopes is to come straight down the slope using a short shuffling step with the knees bent, back straight, feet pointed downhill, and heels dug in. When several climbers descend a scree slope together, they should be as close together as possible (one behind the other at single arm interval) to prevent injury from dislodged rocks. Avoid running down scree as this can cause a loss of control. When the bottom of the slope (or run out zone) cannot be seen, use caution because drop-offs may be encountered.

    3. Scree slopes can be traversed using the ice ax as a third point of contact. Always keep the ax on the uphill side. When the herringbone or diagonal method is used to ascend scree, the ax can be used placing both hands on the top and driving the spike into the scree slope above the climber. The climber uses the ax for balance as he moves up to it, and then repeats the process.

  • Talus Slopes. Talus slopes are composed of rocks larger than a man’s fist. When walking in talus, ascending or descending, climbers should always step on the uphill side of rocks and stay alert for movement underfoot. Disturbing unstable talus can cause rockslides. Climbers must stay in close columns while walking through talus so that dislodged rocks do not reach dangerous speeds before reaching lower soldiers. To prevent rock fall injuries, avoid traversing below other climbers. All other basics of mountain walking apply.
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