The 4 Pillars of Mild Mountaineering

The move from walking to mountaineering can be daunting – there are new skills to master, new judgements to make, new risks to evaluate. It’s highly likely that every element of a day out will feel more consequential than a walk. That’s part of the appeal, but how do you know if you’re biting off more than you can chew? And how can you zero in on what to work on to take on bigger challenges?

Desmond Tutu said “there is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time”, meaning that even things that are daunting and overwhelming can become accomplished if you break them down into manageable chunks. I take this approach to mountaineering, by breaking adventures into 4 component parts: physical, technical, weather/conditions and navigation. My system is simple – I use a ‘pick 3’ system: a day in the mountains can be challenging for any 3 of these, but never all 4. So if a route is physically and technically hard, and the weather or conditions are bad, the navigation needs to be easy. Maybe one day I’ll feel ready to take on all 4, but not yet…

It’s been a process to get confident enough to take on 3 challenges in a day. When I first started serious winter walking, I took a ‘pick 2’ approach – if it looked like a technically challenging and long route I’d only do it on a day with good weather and if it was easy to navigate. If I wasn’t feeling good about my navigation skills I’d only attempt it if there was a physically easy option and good weather forecast.

The beauty of this is that it doesn’t just help me evaluate a certain route on a certain day, it gives me some idea of what to work on and how. If I find myself repeatedly avoiding one of the elements, I probably need to improve my capabilities in that area; physical abilities can be improved through exercise and training, technical skills through tuition and guidance, navigation through learning and practise and weather resilience through optimising and learning to get the best out of my gear.

You might feel more comfortable using a ‘pick 1’ or ‘pick 2’ rule depending on how confident you feel about your capabilities, and everyone’s definition of challenging will be different, but I find this a useful way to think about the details of a day (and a great way to discuss and make plans with others). One thing’s for sure, it’s much easier than trying to swallow the whole elephant in one go.