Approach Observations

Keep an eye on the mountain during the approach hike, studying it for climbing routes. The distant view reveals gross patterns of ridges, cliffs, snowfields, and glaciers, as well as the average angle of inclination.

As you get closer, details of fault lines, bands of cliffs, and crevasse fields show up. Gross patterns seen from far away usually are repeated in finer detail when viewed closer. Ledges revealed by snow or shrubs from a distance often turn out to be "sidewalks" with smaller ledges between. The major fault lines, or weaknesses, visible at a distance are usually accompanied by finer, less obvious repetitions.

If the approach skirts the base of the mountain, it can be viewed from various perspectives. A system of ledges indistinguishable against background cliffs may show clearly from another angle with the sky behind. The change of light as the sun traverses the sky often creates revealing shadows. A study of these lengthening or shortening shadows may disclose that apparently sheer cliffs are only moderately angled slopes.

The presence of snow often promises a modest angle and easy climbing, because it doesn't last long on slopes greater than 50 degrees. But beware of nature's illusions. Rime ice adhering to vertical or overhanging cliffs can at first appear to be snow. Deep high-angle couloirs (gullies) often retain snow or ice year-round, especially when shaded. And what look like brilliantly shining snowfields high on the mountain may actually be ice.

As you near the peak, look for climbing clues: ridges with lower average inclination than the faces they divide; cracks, ledges, and chimneys leading up or across the faces; snowfields or glaciers offering easier or predictable pitches.

Spot climbing hazards. Study snowfields and icefalls for avalanche danger, and cliffs for signs of possible rockfall. Snowfields reveal recent rockfall by the appearance of dirty snow or the presence of rock-filled "shell-craters." If the route goes through avalanche and rockfall territory, travel in the cold hours of night, or very early morning before the sun melts the ice mortar bonding precariously perched boulders and ice towers.

Throughout the approach, follow the old mountaineering dictum to "climb with your eyes." Keep evaluating hazards and looking for continuous routes. When the route information gets too complex to remember, begin making quick sketches during rest stops. These memory aids can prove invaluable during a climb when a critical exit gully, for example, becomes lost from view.

While you're at it, keep an eye out for emergency campsites, water supplies, firewood, and anything else that might make your return trip easier and safer.

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