Monday, December 17, 2012

Planning Strategies

When I first began climbing I didn't plan or strategize at all. I would start late, or underestimate the size or difficulty of a particular climb. Consequently, I wouldn't always succeed on my chosen route.

There are many days now where I don't succeed, but for different reasons. The objectives I've chosen over the last few winter seasons have been more challenging, and success frequently happens only after several attempts and the right set of weather conditions. This, however, is not due to a lack of planning.

On the east coast, where terrain is small, it's easy to think that "shooting from the hip" will work as a strategy for planning. Usually things work out for the best. When it comes to approaching, climbing and descending on bigger routes though, I don't usually wing it and expect things to work out well.

Whenever I go somewhere I feel unfamiliar with I make a plan. If the route is straightforward and the weather is clear that plan might be as simple as a few mental notes about terrain and key route features. When the weather isn't expected to be clear or I'm navigating in the dark, and the approach, climbing, and descent are complicated I usually have a much more detailed plan. In this post I'm going to detail some planning strategies that many guides use to avoid getting lost, disoriented or stuck in a bad place at a bad time (usually when you'll get stuck).

Planning is common sense and yet it's overlooked by many folks. If you can begin planning more acutely for your trips you'll have greater confidence when the going gets tough. Remember, you're planning so things don't go wrong, not planning for if things go wrong. Here are a few important points you can use while planning your 1-2 day climbing objectives.

  1. Do your research - this means looking at guidebooks, maps, using the internet and trying to contact other climbers that have climbed the route, or climbed in that area in the past. Come up with a navigation plan, a reasonable time estimate and a required gear list.

  2. Develop an ERP - an Emergency Response Plan has information about what to do if things go wrong. This information can vary depending on the type of objective and it's location. This is usually information about where the nearest hospital is, emergency phone numbers for the local land manager (if there's an emergency number, sometimes you have to call 911), contact information for people in your party and perhaps a SOAP note/incident report form. You'll want to make sure your partners know what to do as well. Give them a copy of the ERP to keep in their packs as well. Sometimes I'll keep this emergency information on my smartphone. Storing emergency numbers as Google contacts ensures you have them when you get a new phone.

  3. Watch the weather - Watching the weather is really important. In the mountains the difference between getting to the top and turning back frequently amounts to differences in weather conditions. If you have the ability to choose your days outside you'll have better weather. This is tough if you are a weekend warrior.

  4. Carry the right gear - You'll want to choose the right ice tools and crampons for your route, or the right type of rock shoes for the style of climbing, an appropriately sized pack, the proper rack, and the right amount of food, water and clothing. If the climbing is easy you can bring less gear. If the climbing is more technically demanding things feel safer and easier with more gear. You can climb longer pitches, stop less often to belay and move with confidence because youll have gear to protect cruxes. Light is right on each route, but to go as light as possible  on every type of route your gear closet is going to be full and heavy.

  5. Don't carry too much - You can go a little hungry or a little thirsty if you know you're getting down at the end of the day, and bring less clothing if you can keep moving. During the winter the only extra clothing I have is a puffy jacket (gets worn when I follow pitches and for leading easier pitches) and extra gloves. Extra crap slows you down.

  6. Think about "alternative" first aid kits for shorter objectives - If the shit really hits the fan, what is a dinky little backcountry first aid kit going to do? Absolutely nothing. As a guide we carry a lightweight practical kit to address small issues. This is for client care. During personal climbs (even on very "full" day or single push routes) my first aid kit is nothing more than duct tape, a headlamp, a lighter and ibuprofen (benadryl in warmer weather for allergy stuff too). I'd be surprised if my partners carried anything more than that. Most of them might bring less. There really isn't much you can do in the field to address severe trauma except stabilize the injured area and get help. Band-Aids, ace bandages, gauze, etc won't help these things so you might consider leaving them at home.

  7. Trade the first aid kit for a useful communication tool - Part of doing your research is finding out what forms of communication work for areas you'll be visiting. If you have cell phone coverage, it's probably a good idea to bring it along. However, you might need a HAM radio, SPOT or Satellite phone and the knowledge of how those devices work. Self sufficiency is, and always will be the name of the game as a climber, but not having a form of emergency communication when it's easily available is negligent.
In an upcoming post I'm going to discuss the navigational planning aspect in greater detail. I'll look at navigation tools and techniques for creating tour plans which help you develop an idea of how long your route will take, where to go, and what type of elevation change is involved in your route.