The Drakensberg Mountains

The Drakensberg Mountains. Photo by Jaco van Tonder

Unlike several other adventure sports, mountaineering is not something that can be attempted by novices. Conditions encountered on mountains are often too extreme for solo novices to survive should something go wrong. Sudden changes in weather conditions have been responsible for many deaths on mountains, even relatively low mountains in temperate climates (think Table Mountain, for example).

With this warning made explicit, it is also true to say that mountaineering can be a source of profound and deeply rewarding experiences. Nineteenth century Romantic poets saw mountains as an apt natural metaphor for the depth and wonder of powerful emotions, and equated the exploration of mountains with the in-depth exploration of the self and human nature. One can easily see how being immersed in the splendour of natural beauty and the wonder of mountainous regions can be compared to the sublime. Who can find themselves gazing down on the world, in the presence of nature’s awesome power, and not be moved? Similarly, who can doubt that mountain climbing would be worth the time needed to gain proper experience and knowledge about the endeavour?

It is no secret that one cannot learn how to actually undertake a climb from only reading relevant books and talking with experts. Learning is achieved through doing, and doing is a risky business. You can, however, start simple, learn the basics and get experience on an on-going basis: this, in turn, will increase the appropriateness of undertaking a difficult or dangerous climb without more experienced guides. It is also important to know that not everyone is going to lead a climb up Kilimanjaro or K2, and that there are less dangerous climbs that can get one in touch with nature and with oneself: an appropriate comparison is to say that not everyone is going to own a supercomputer with superior graphics cards even though they’re avid gamers. One has to be realistic about expectations.

This article will briefly discuss some of the basics that are generally regarded as being necessary for anyone wanting to start a climbing career.

The first aspect that needs to be addressed is the physical condition of the potential climber. All climbers need to be in good health, have good levels of fitness (you don’t have to be able to complete an iron man triathlon, however) and be able to endure tough exercise and adverse weather conditions. In terms of strength, remember that you’ll be required to carry your own weight and the weight of your backpack and supplies over long distances.

Knowledge of and familiarity with the climbing gear is also of fundamental importance. Basic equipment includes ropes, harnesses, knot tying, belay devices, lead climb devices, protection gear and more. Knowing how each piece of equipment, or technique, works is critical for safe climbing, and practicing how to use the equipment/technique is essential.

Climbing will undoubtedly require that you learn how to correctly tie and correctly use a variety of different knots. An improperly tied knot could cost someone (including yourself) their life, and using the incorrect knot in a situation could create a bad situation that could easily have been avoided. Every kind of knot attends to a different need; certain knots will afford one slack and allow for movement while others are designed to reliable hold a person’s body weight.

Clothing is also very important. Mountaineering is not about fashion, and a day that starts off at ground level being relatively warm, might end, on the mountain side or top at freezing temperatures. A well-equipped climber will carry the correct type of clothing able to keep them alive and well despite fluctuating temperatures. Good climbing clothing is often highly specialised and can be expensive. This is not an area where you’d want to cut costs or corners: do not under equip yourself in terms of clothing!

Another potentially lifesaving fundamental of climbing is knowledge of first aid. Injuries are common in climbing, and because of the difficultly of access to, and often the remoteness of, location, you’ll be the best medical help should an injury occur. This is to say that the more advanced your knowledge is, the more help you could be should disaster transpire. Additionally, there is also a risk of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) which basically consists of altitude sickness and frostbite. These two conditions are very severe if left untreated, and can be avoided and cured by a climber with the necessary equipment and training.

One last fundamental to get to grips with is the need for preparedness. Before any climb, you’ll need to “learn the mountain”. This usually includes conducting a thorough study of good information concerning weather conditions and patterns, possible natural events/disasters (mudslides, torrential rains, flash floods, falling rocks, earthquake and avalanches), the orientation of the mountain, and possible areas of injury. A route will also have to be plotted. It is always important to gain as much information on the mountain as is possible before setting out.

As already stated, mountain climbing is not for the overly confident. It is a dangerous sport and should be paid its dues in the form of respect that experienced climbers typically offer to Mother Nature. It is not to be taken lightly: if, however, it is something that appeals to you, then get started and enjoy the beautiful mountains located in South Africa.