Monday, May 17, 2021
May 17, 2021

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Mountaineering raises the stakes of hiking and backpacking


BEND, Ore. — Mountaineering is for the people who look up at a mountain and decide, “that is the place I want to be.”

It is like hiking, or backpacking, only with much higher stakes.

“Mountaineering entails everything that includes going to the summit or at least trying to go to the summit,” said Cliff Agocs, an owner and guide for Timberline Mountain Guides. “You don’t have to make it to the top to have been mountaineering, but that is what you are trying to do, is make it to the top. It implies that there is an objective of reaching that summit.”

There is a definite skill set required for trekking up a mountainside, often with snow, ice or loose gravel. It is not just a hike through the woods or an overnight camping trip. Perhaps no skill is more critical than preventing falling, which could be fatal when being several thousand feet up a mountain.

“You need to know how to secure yourself and your team to the mountain so you don’t fall completely,” Agocs said. “That requires a range of skills of how to anchor into ice, to snow and to rock. You need to know how to be able to climb those things effectively and confidently.”

Agocs, who has been a professional guide for 12 years through the American Mountain Guide Association, is part of a team with 10 guides who have either been trained or are in training to be alpine guides. Timberline Mountain Guides permits allow for them to lead tours up all the high peaks throughout Oregon.

Central Oregon has multiple treks to test mountaineering skills. Broken Top, South Sisters and Mount Jefferson all have peaks requiring different skill sets to reach the top.

“You don’t have to have a lot of technical knowledge (to summit Middle Sisters) and that might contrast with something like Mount Jefferson, which I consider the hardest summit in Oregon,” Agocs said. “There is some walking but there is a point where you have to pull out a rope because the terrain is steep enough where falling off has real consequences.

“You have to be able to use the tools that are specific to the mountains that are going to keep you safe and are going to be used to help to maintain personal control on the mountains.”

Packing for an overnight mountaineering trek is similar to a backpacking trip: a tent, sleeping bag, food, water and water filters, the 10 outdoor essentials are still needed. But mountaineering may require crampons — toothed metal devices that fit over the soles of the boot to provide more traction — an ice ax and trekking poles and a helmet.

“The most important thing is going prepared,” said Ben Nichols, a gear tech at REI. “Not having the right gear, or getting out there and being over your head knowledge-wise or skill-wise. You always hear about rescues at South Sisters and they are trail runners with a water bottle and that is all they got.”

While scaling a mountain the proper clothing is a vital part of the equipment needed. This is why Nichols, for example, says he never goes on an outdoor trip without a puffy coat in his pack.

“Everyone says ‘cotton kills,’ ” Nichols said. “It doesn’t breathe; it doesn’t wick moisture. If you are doing something like mountaineering where you are working hard and sweating, you will end up with a wet shirt. Once you cool down you are going to get really cold. As opposed to wool or something synthetic that will wick moisture away you are going to stay dry and stay warm”.

Knowing the conditions of the area helps dictate what additional gear is needed.

“We think of the terrain and all the challenges of the specific route that you take,” Agocs said. “If we are going to be climbing Mount Jefferson, then we are going to need some sort of rock protection, if we go in the winter or spring and we think we are going to encounter ice, then we are going to need ice screws.”

A prudent move for someone trying to go mountaineering for the first time might be to solicit a trained guide familiar with the terrain.

“Reaching out to a guide,” Agocs said, “is a great way to learn and develop the skills from someone who can point out the things that you don’t know.”