Mountain climbing and ascent styles, a matter of ethics and controversy…

When we think about climbing these days there are too many different activities that come to our mind. If we look into Wikipedia this is the definition of the activity:

“Climbing is the activity of using one’s hands and feet (or indeed any other part of the body) to ascend a steep object. It is done both for recreation (to reach an inaccessible place, or for its own enjoyment) and professionally, as part of activities such as maintenance of a structure, or military operations. Climbing can be done in the outside world or inside via man-made structures”

When I tell my friends that I’m a climber, normally they ask what sort of climbs I do, or what sort of techniques and terrains are involved in the activity. The totally strangers to the subject imagine me hanging from a rope, with black leader globes and a muscle shirt.





Types of climbing

Calling yourself a climber is a quite an open self-definition. “I have hands and feet to move vertically, therefore I am a climber”. But what sort of climbers are out there? There are many different types of climbing and you can find people who is focused in one or few disciplines, or crazy Spaniards like me looking to be proficient in all of them:

Indoor Climbing: With indoor rock climbing, you can train all year round and improve your climbing skills and techniques. For beginners, this activity will give you an idea of what the actual Rock Climbing is.

Traditional Climbing: Traditional or Trad Climbing involves taking rock climbs in routes which do not have permanent anchors to help climbers when ascending.

Sport Climbing: Unlike Traditional Rock Climbing, Sport Climbing involves the use of protection or permanent anchors which are attached to the rock walls.

Bouldering: This is a type of Climbing where you don’t need to leave more than twelve feet off the ground. Know the History of Bouldering, Art of Spotting, and the different Bouldering Competitions.

Solo Climbing: Solo Climbing is the freest and most dangerous type of Climbing. In a nutshell, this is climbing alone, without a partner and rope or protection..

Deep Water Soloing: There are a lot of climbing styles, and Deep Water Soloing (DWS) is one of them. Having to climb a rock and fall on deep water sets it apart from the other styles.

Ice Climbing: This Rock Climbing style involves cold and ice which climbers should deal with. Learn more about Ice Climbing and know if you have what it takes to conquer ice.

Scrambling: Scrambling basically uses hands and feet, when going up ridges, rock faces, or buttresses. Its main feature is the freedom it offers from the use of the different pieces of climbing equipment.

Hiking: Is an outdoor activity which consists of walking in natural environments, often in mountainous or other scenic terrain. People often hike on hiking trails that are clearly marked to facilitate the activity.

Mountaineering: This challenging activity involves hiking or trekking in higher altitudes. It requires different skills in climbing and outdoor survival.





Mountain climbing or Mountaineering is for me the ultimate challenge. Climbing some mountains can be an extraordinarily complex activity that requires extensive preparation and the orchestration of multiples resources. When climbing at high altitude, every single aspect of the whole climbing experience becomes an enormous challenge where all details during training, preparation and the ascent, must be executed with absolute precision. Mountain climbers can’t afford being mediocre and must develop physical and mental endurance, as well aa technical excellence in order for them to progress in difficult terrains and extreme weather conditions. Many of the techniques develop by climbers in the groups listed in the previous lines, are combined with survival skills, project management, meteorology, navigation, and paramedicine.

Mountaineering can be practiced in relatively safe environments, under the supervision of professionals, and with the assistance of consultants, cooks and porters. Mountaineers can be guided through very well defined routes and climbing strategies, using aid climbing techniques (e.g. fixed ropes and aluminum ladders) and focusing only on the physical aspect of the challenge. Mountaineers may opt for organizing and executing the whole climb by themselves with minimum support required to satisfy safety and legal requirements (e.g. weather reports, rescue service and liaising with local authorities)

When we think about all these factors around the climbing activity in a specific mountain, we come up with the controversial concept of Ascent Styles. Both mountain climbers and enthusiasts of outdoor sports consider the Ascent Style a crucial success factor, and many of them believe it’s the only measure of the climber’s ethics and reputation. In my humble opinion, there are too many of these climbers and followers with not enough experience or good criteria to set the standards of what can be considered a true mountaineering activity and remarkable ascent.

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals”. Henry David Thoreau


Ascent Styles

Alpine: Is the most pure, clean and hard form of climbing. Going from basecamp to summit directly and carrying everything required. Previous acclimatization is required. This can be achieved in other mountain, or even in a different and easier route of the same mountain. In the most pure form of Alpine climbing there is no use of tents, and the climbing is done day and night with non-stop. Alpine climbing is however not always the best strategy in certain mountains. More weight allows for more options, less weight allows moving faster.

Semi-alpine: It normally involves acclimatizing in the same route and leaving deposits along the route to facilitate ascending lighter and faster during the summit push (final ascent)

Capsule style: Is a variant of the Alpine style used in routes with high technical difficulties, and its based on the techniques used to open big walls. There is a camp established at the point where difficulties start. The camp has all material required for the whole expedition. From there we move up in the route the time required to finish with all ropes available to protect the route, and we descent to the camp every night. Once we finish the rope, we move the whole camp and we recover the rope to continue with the same strategy. Normally on the summit push the route is not fully protected as before, but alpine techniques are used instead. Once the ascent finished, the whole camp must be dismantled and taken down. Normally on the way up we prepare abseiling points to facilitate this. It’s a very slow process which facilitates acclimatization.

Heavy or Expedition style: From Base Camp (BC) climbers and/or porters and guides prepare and provision advanced camps. The distance between these can be easily covered in just one day. The difficult sections are protected with fixed ropes and bamboo flags, which are used to mark dangerous places and facilitated the progression and descent in difficult conditions. All this process helps acclimatizing. Once all camps are ready and climbers are acclimatized, a weather window is set to execute the summit push.

Combined style: Climbers can do things like starting with Heavy style, then Capsule, and finishing with Alpine.

Guided: One or mode guides work on installing ropes and camps, supervising all actions and taking care of security. There are normally two or three climbers per guide and a maximum ratio of 4:1. Some guided Heavy expeditions go beyond that ratio, leading to controversy and risks exposing all other climbers and professionals in the same mountain.

Guided individually: Normally this means no autonomy for the client climber. It is however a fantastic learning opportunity when the guide focuses the activity in knowledge transfer.

Leaded: A guide takes care of all logistics up to BC or Advanced BC (ABC), being responsible for directing the rope fixing and installation of camps, but not responsible for security of climbers. Climbing leaders must be able to advise climbers via radio at all times.

Consulted: Same as leaded, but with no actions to be taken by the consultant from BC, such as organizing rope fixing and camps. Consultants must however be available for emergencies.



I’m climbing Mt Everest (8848m) from Tibet Side for Cancer Research UK because defeating cancer is yet a higher mountain to climb

I'm climbing Mt Everest (8848m) from Tibet Side for Cancer Research UK because defeating cancer is yet a higher mountain to climb

2 thoughts on “Mountain climbing and ascent styles, a matter of ethics and controversy…

  1. Great read, thanks….!

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