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I’m Not Afraid of Heights, I’m Afraid of Falling…

February 4, 2011

“Climbing is a series of calculated risks.”  That is usually my response when people ask about the dangers of mountain climbing.   Although it is partly tongue-in-cheek, there is a lot of truth to it as well.  I would  be lying to say there aren’t risks associated with climbing.  But there are risks associated when you step out your front door too.  That is what Risk Management is all about.  So I usually add to my original statement that, in climbing, you know the risks when you head out, you prepare for them, and you have a plan.

Snow School 101 - with the 2010 Mt. Hood participants; Luke, Lynn, Mary and Tom. Photo by Colin Stapp

Discussions about mountain climbing are usually followed with questions of what mountain climbing is like.  Do you scale sheer ice walls with those little ice picks and dangle thousands of feet off the ground?

No, you don’t.  That is ice climbing

Mountain climbing in its most simple form is…walking on snow.

Typically, you are roped together in a 3-4 person team and you have safety tools like an ice-ax and crampons (the spikes clipped onto your boots).  It also helps to know why you have these items and what to do with them…that is where Snow School comes in.  All Climb to Fight Breast Cancer climbs provide Snow School.

On any guided trip there are the basic lessons you will learn before you set out to climb a mountain.  Walking, maintaining your balance, using crampons, roping up with a team, falling and self-arrest are all topics covered in Snow School. The first lesson is, quite simply, walking on snow.

It make sense if you think about it; preventing a fall in the first place is easier than stopping yourself if you fall. Once you get comfortable walking around on a mild, snowy slope you move into how your balance plays into it.  You learn about being “in” and “out of” balance, while walking and stopping for breaks.   You learn to be efficient while climbing and use the rest-step and breathing techniques to help you.

Then you add your crampons and ice-ax to the mix. It is more embarrassing than dangerous, but most everyone has at one time or another “cramponed” themselves in the pant leg with one of those spikes.  So you learn how and when to use your ice-ax and crampons so that you can avoid that occurrence.

After the skill building for balance and walking, you learn how to fall.  More importantly, how to stop yourself. So you fall feet first, head first, and sideways.  You fall by yourself and then roped together with your team.   You learn how your climbing partners can help you and vice versa.

There is some psychology to Snow School – what you may not realize as you are going through all the lessons is that you are building your confidence, learning new skills and working together as a team. You practice because practice makes perfect.

When it comes time to summit your peak you realize, you are actually not afraid of heights. You are savoring a view of the world most people don’t get to see. You are not afraid of falling because you are prepared.


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