Routefinding Aids

Crossing a snowfield or glacier, especially at night or in a white-out, can feel like being at sea, without landmarks. However, mountaineers have a couple of navigational opportunities denied to mariners. Mountaineers have a solid surface for planting their own landmarks (wands), and they experience changes in elevation that can be measured by an altimeter as a way to show progress.

The thin bamboo wands topped with tiny flags are left to mark the return route. Try to place wands so that on the return, the next one is visible when the last member of the party is at the previous wand. Coordinate communication so the last person doesn't leave that wand until the next one is sighted. The wands can also be used to mark points of danger (such as moats and crevasses), changes in direction, the boundaries of safe areas for un-roped walking in camp, and the location of buried supplies (caches).

An altimeter helps determine your progress and location when you use it along with a topographic map and compass, especially above timberline on a large snowfield with few natural features. You may know that an established camp is located at 11,000 feet, 5 miles due east of the trailhead. By determining the elevation periodically with an altimeter and then finding that elevation on the map along the route, you can find just where you are and how far you have to go. Also relate the altimeter's findings to natural features whenever possible. If you know you are supposed to cross a ridge at an elevation of 9,500 feet in order to keep on the right track to the camp, check the altimeter when you hit the crest. You'll get a good indication of whether you have topped the ridge at the right spot.

A good routefinder uses a variety of tools to stay on route or reach a destination, including compass, map, altimeter, wands, cairns, sun, and visual landmarks. The creative use of several methods becomes especially important when visibility is poor.

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