We partnered with the Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA) to come up with tips to help you host a safe mountaineering experience. These are best practices, but you’re the expert on the activities you lead. A great Host always thinks about what more they can do to keep everyone safe.
Set the right expectations
If there are health, fitness, or other requirements needed to safely enjoy the experience, make this clear in your experience’s description. This includes providing details about the length of time, exertion and fitness required, and skill levels needed.
Here’s a guide from the ATTA to help you communicate to guests what skill level is needed for your mountaineering experience:
Beginner: Guests should expect some challenge to the climb, but not all the time. Elements of mountaineering occur at some times: a bit of technical rock or ice climbing, maybe a glacier to cross, maybe some unroped scramble – no previous guest skills required beyond the ability to engage in the whole activity duration and to learn and apply new tricks and techniques.
Intermediate: Guests should expect some technical elements, either: rock or ice climb, altitude, crevasses. Roped climbing is required for safety. Little skill from guests is required, and these can be developed during the climb. Guests will need to perform mountaineering skills at a basic level where winds, lower temperatures, precipitation, and fatigue are common. Ability to progress the route level at an adequate speed is typically important (fitness).
Advanced: This is full on mountaineering! Committing routes, technical rock, ice or mixed climbing, glacier, altitude, and /or ski mountaineering. A base level of guest previous competence and experience is required, including long term exposure to vertical and alpine hazards – the necessary additional skills, knowledge and techniques can be provided by the host. Fitness is important as efficiency is safety. Guests must be able to endure harsh weather and living conditions, and fatigue.
Communicate with guests often
Communication is key to a safe and enjoyable experience. Send guests a message to introduce yourself and help your guests feel welcome and prepared. Let them know that you’re available to answer any questions.
You can also anticipate common points of concern before the experience begins. This could include practical matters like if there will be food, snacks, or water provided, if they should bring their own water bottle, and where and when bathroom facilities will be available. Try to address these concerns before guests have to ask.
It may seem obvious, but confirm that all guests are open to feel exposure, to your judgement on route choices, and to the length and difficulty level of the climbs.
- Check guests’ previous experience in concrete terms, including which techniques, what equipment, altitude, exposure, fitness, their ability and examples of their comfort level in exposed terrain.
- Ask to find out what level of challenge or difficulty might be appropriate for your guest.
- If lead climbing, you should find out if your guest has previous experience belaying a lead climber. Depending on the location, length, and conditions of the climb, you may want your guests to have prior experience on multi-pitch climbs.
Hosts should climb well below their ability level when on lead.
- For alpine climbs, as a host, be clear about possible extreme weather and temperatures, long approaches, and the expected climbing skills, plus rough terrain on descents.
Some guests may be doing this activity for the first time, so your communication is key to a safe and enjoyable experience. Try to address any concerns upfront, and make yourself available to answer questions throughout your experience. What may seem normal to you may be difficult or fear-inspiring for your guests.
Follow local regulations & check forecasts
You should have the local knowledge to know if and when it’s acceptable for you to guide and what rules or regulations apply to areas in which you may climb. You should know the weather forecast, and know these sites well enough to be able to anticipate harsh conditions and know evacuation options.
If avalanche risk is a possibility, you should ensure a thorough assessment of conditions before venturing out.
Set expectations with a pre-trip briefing
Before you start climbing, spend the right amount of time teaching or reviewing the necessary skills with beginners, like tying, clipping pro, belaying, falling. As a mountaineering host, you should be constantly assessing your guests’ skills–while staking the rope, walking, and on exposed terrain. Once you’re climbing, keep checking in: ask guests how they’re feeling and observe them to see if they’re comfortable and their skills match what you are doing.
Discuss proper mountain walking and footing technique, as well as any climbing techniques that will help reduce the risk of athletic injuries on challenging terrain. For any roped climbing, review the basic procedures (tie in, belay, clipping, etc) and prepare each guest to be able to double check without direct supervision.
Any time you’re on lead, check with your guest to make sure they’re comfortable safely belaying a lead climber: review and practice these skills and any others you may want or need your guest to know.
Make sure you set up a clear communication system between you and your guest for belaying, and practice this before the climb.
Check that your guests have all the food, water, and gear they will need during the experience. Since guests may be out of their comfort zone, they may need more of certain items than a climber would, so if you can anticipate these needs, you can make the experience even better.
Provide the right gear
Let your guests know what gear they’ll need in advance, including if you’ll provide any gear and find out if a guest plans to bring their own gear. Any gear you provide for your guests should be in good condition, and fit each guest properly. If you don’t provide gear in your experience, you’ll still want to check your guests’ equipment to make sure it’s not only inadequate and in good shape, and that they’re using it correctly. Here are some tips for evaluating mountaineering equipment:
- Any climbing gear should be of a certified provider (e.g. UIAA, CE), in good shape and properly sized and fitted. Climbing gear may include safety gear (ropes, protection, harness, etc) to catch falls, or gear to assist in the climbs (ice axes, crampons, crevasse ladders, fixed ropes, etc)
- Check that all gear fits them well, is in good shape and functions.
- Pay special attention to their clothing – guests might underestimate the conditions they will have to endure and overestimate how good their gear is.
- Appropriate mountaineering boots (specific to the type of mountaineering you are doing), should be broken in and properly sized.
- For overnight stays, technically specialized gear that can withstand the elements and is light as possible may be needed.
- Each route might have very unique challenges – altitude, big walls, snow caves, etc – and you as the host have the expertise to select and advise on the correct equipment.
You should carry (and know how to use) a first aid kit for stabilizing an injured guest and safely evacuating them, even if they’re unconscious.
It’s also a good idea to know if and where you have cell service coverage and have means to communicate with the outside world to activate emergency services if needed.
Choose the proper conditions
Talk with your guests about the range of conditions you’ll encounter, including what temperatures to expect, wind, precipitation. Let your guests know how these conditions will affect the approach, climbing, and descent, as well as how the camping life might be and the surfaces (rock, ice, snow) will react. You can also tell them how they can best prepare for these conditions, as well as unexpected but possible challenges. In addition to weather and rock conditions, you may be exposed to the effects of altitude, so be sure to talk with guests about acclimation or signs and symptoms of altitude illnesses, which can be serious if not addressed.
You should be able to tell when conditions are too dangerous for your guest’s ability level. Don’t continue with your plan if there is an unreasonable or unexpected risk to your guests.
Keeping mountaineering up: always choose safety
Make sure you have a well thought out clear plan that matches your guests, they understand, and they know specifically what to do if they become exhausted, scared, overwhelmed, stuck, lost or injured. As a host, you can help prevent some of the more common sources of injury for mountaineering by following good safety practices, including these tips:
- Watch out for poor walking technique and repetitive movement without resting.
- Always check and double check anchors, safety knots, etc
- Ask the guests to verbalize any observations they have on safety.
- Ensure climbing and belay techniques are effective – demonstrate and help your guests ingrain good habits.
- There are many different safety systems that you know and might choose to use – ensure guests have learned enough before doing it without direct supervision. Always ask your guest if a safety technique is 100% clear to them.
- Hosts and guests should both wear helmets while climbing and belaying. Use extra caution around other climbing parties and groups, and stay mindful of potential falling rock.
- Communication systems on the mountains are key to safety, so practice these before you climb.
- Weather can bring sudden unexpected and dangerous conditions, such as lightning, wind, and hail, especially in alpine climbing, so stay conservative and retreat before you top off whenever necessary.
You want to have an emergency action plan that you have practiced before an experience, and the means to evacuate guests if the unexpected happens. YIf you’ll be more than an hour away from medical care, it’s best practice to have a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) or Wilderness Advanced First Aid (WAFA), along with CPR certification (or equivalent). Find out more about making an emergency plan
Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA): Courtesy of the Adventure Travel Trade Association. ©2021 Adventure Travel Trade Association. All rights reserved.
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