During the trip

Get off on the right foot by making sure that everyone understands the route. Gather the crew around a map and take time to discuss the route and make contingency plans in case the party gets separated. Point out on the map where you are and associate the surroundings with the piece of paper in front of you, orienting the map to true north if you wish. This is a good time for everyone to make a mental note of the main features the party will see during the trip, such as forest, streams, or trails.

Along the way, everyone needs to keep associating the terrain with the map. Ignorance of the territory is definitely not bliss for any daydreaming climber who gets separated from the party. Whenever a new landmark appears, connect it with the map. At every chance—at a pass, at a clearing, or through a break in the clouds—update your fix on the group's exact position. Keeping track of progress this way makes it easy to plan each succeeding leg of the trip. It also may turn you into an expert map interpreter because you'll know what a specific valley or ridge looks like compared with its representation on the map.

Look ahead to the return trip

The route always looks amazingly different on the way back. Avoid surprises and confusion by glancing back over your shoulder from time to time on the way in to see what the route should look like on the return. Fix in your mind this over-the-shoulder shape of the route. If you can't keep track of it all, jot down times, elevations, landmarks, and so on in a notebook. A cryptic few words— "7,600, hit ridge"—can save a lot of grief on the descent as a reminder that when the party has dropped to 7,600 feet, it's time to leave the ridge and start down the snow slope.


Your brain is your most valuable navigational tool. As the party heads upward, keep asking yourself questions. How will we recognize this important spot on our return? What will we do if the climb leader is injured? Would we be able to find our way out in a white-out or if snow covered our tracks? Should we be using wands or other route-marking methods right now? Ask the questions as you go and act on the answers. It's a matter of think now or pay later.

Mark the route if necessary

There are times it may be best to mark the route going in so you can find it again going out. This situation can come up when the route is over snow-fields or glaciers during changeable weather, in heavy forest, or when fog or nightfall threaten to hide landmarks. On snow, climbers use thin bamboo wands with tiny flags on top to mark the path. (Chapter 12 explains the construction and use of wands.) In the forest, the recommended marker is brightly colored crepe paper in thin rolls. Plastic surveyors' tape is also used.

One commandment here: REMOVE YOUR MARKERS. Markers are litter, and mountaineers never, ever litter. If there's any chance you will not come back the same way and will not be able to remove the markers, be especially sure to use the crepe paper, which will disintegrate over the winter. The plastic tape, on the other hand, might outlive the careless climbers who put it there.

Rock cairns appear here and there as markers, sometimes dotting an entire route and at other times signaling the point where a route changes direction. These heaps of rock are another imposi tion on the landscape, and they can create confusion for any traveler but the one who put them together—so don't build them. If there comes a time you decide you must, then tear them down on the way out. The rule is different for existing cairns. Let them be, on the assumption someone may be depending on them.

Keep track

As the trip goes on, it may be helpful to mark your progress on the map. Some climbers even note on the map the time that streams, ridges, and other landmarks are reached. Keep yourself oriented so that at any time you can point out your actual position to within 1/2 mile on the map.

Part of navigation is having a sense of your speed. Given all the variables, will it take your party 1 hour to travel 2 miles or will it take 2 hours to travel 1 mile? The answer is rather important if it's noon and base camp is still 5 miles away. After enough trips into the wilds, you'll be good at estimating wilderness speeds. With a watch and a notebook (or good memory), you can monitor the rate of progress on any single outing. Here are some typical speeds for an average party, though there will be much variation:

• On a gentle trail, with a day pack: 2-3 miles per hour.

• Up a steep trail, with full overnight pack: 1-2 miles per hour.

• Traveling cross-country on gentle terrain, with a day pack: 1,000 feet of elevation gain per hour.

• Traveling cross-country up a moderate slope, with full overnight pack: 500 feet of elevation gain per hour.

In heavy brush, the rate of travel can drop to a third or even a quarter of what it would be on a good trail.

Continue reading here: On the summit

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