Learn the Lingo: A Glossary for Newbie Mountaineers

We woke up at 3am for our alpine start, pulled on all of our layers (five for me) and drank strong coffee.

I secured my crampons, adjusted my headlamp and fell into step behind our Shasta Mountain guides, Eric and Jenna. This was the beginning of what would be twelve hours of putting one foot in front of the other. Having never climbed a snow-covered mountain before, I started out at Level 1 with the lingo. Sometimes just not being able to follow the conversation can be intimidating, so if you’re also a newbie when it comes to mountaineering, hope this little glossary can help kickstart you to a new adventure.

Shasta Vibes

  • Alpine Start: Let the 24 hour clock that includes regular meal times and the idea that the day starts when the sunshine shows itself fall away. The snow on the mountain will change as the sun hits the route and the summit, in order to ensure harder snow and a safer climb, you need to beat the sun on the ascent. 2am might be the start to your day, so enjoy a coveted 9pm bedtime.
  • Boot Pack: When we looked up the West Face of Mt. Shasta, we saw nothing but smooth white snow. This meant that there was no trail to follow, no boot pack, instead we would need to make our own. Luckily for us, at times our photographer would sprint ahead to get the shot, creating a boot pack that we could step in. As a novice, having footsteps to step right into made me feel more comfortable. When we came down and spoke to other climbers, we let them know there was now a solid boot pack in the West Face.
  • Crampons: When my mom saw a photo that my partner, Mark Chase, put on Instagram she asked if there was snow on the mountain and if I was wearing spikes on my feet. Double yes. Mom had never seen crampons, a traction device that you strap onto the bottom of your boots so that you have extra security on glaciers and snowfields.
  • Dialled: Perhaps the most comforting word an industry pro can say to you, whether it’s about the route, your equipment or your mindset going into a climb. If you’re dialled then you’re ready, tuned in and the conditions are perfect.
  • Fall line: The fall line is the most direct route from top to bottom based on the mountain’s topography. If you were to drop a ball from the summit, or from where you’re standing on the mountain, this is the route it would take to get down. That’s going to be the most direct route, but it’s not always the route you’re taking based on safety.
  • French technique: This is a way of climbing that helps you make the most of the spikes on your crampons. This technique is a twist on one foot in front of the other, instead you are moving in a diagonal and crossing one foot over the other before bringing the next foot up. Here are some visuals. I found it helpful to count out steps at this point, “Right, left, axe,” was sure to be heard by anyone near me on the mountain.
  • Getting Good Purchase: We call it “getting good purchase” our guide Eric explained as he showed how you might need to roll your ankle a bit on the traverse to assure that all the spikes of your crampons were being used to best secure you. Using half your spikes could mean you are twice as likely to not have a strong footing and slip. This quickly became a top priority.
  • Glissading: This means that when you go eight hours up Shasta, your headache is throbbing, misery hill tried to hand you to yourself on a stake, and you’re feeling nauseous… there is still hope. Depending on the interaction of sun, snow, wind, and weather you might need to trek back down the mountain (if you aren’t skiing) but there is another option: glissading. This means essentially sliding down the mountain on feet or seat. We found ourselves quite lucky with the state of the snow and able to slide our way down in long glissade trails, it reminded me of tobogganing with my siblings as a kid. Our guides even brought little glissading pads with them for the descent, highly suggest.
  • Ice Axe: This tool will likely transform from a terrifying object into your bff during your time on the mountain. It’s important to know the names of all of the different parts of the axe so that  you know what folks are referring to. This is also your tool for self-arresting, so it might save your life or the life of a climbing partner.
  • Post-holing: Depending on weather conditions, when the snow fell, and how the sun is interacting with the snow, you might have hard snow to walk on top of during your climb. You might however have softer snow and each step might mean your foot is breaking through the surface of the snow and you’re going ankle to knee deep under the surface with each step. Each step then requires bringing your foot back out to make it to the next hole. The snow can be described as sloppy. The movement might be slow and tiring, we were making great time moving up our route until we started post-holing. The extra effort to lift your legs at 12,000 ft can make a significant difference.
  • Self-Arrest: This is a most essential technique, it can save your life and practice is of the utmost importance. On steeper slopes you will likely give up trekking poles for an ice axe and if you were to slip and fall this is the technique that allows you to jam the pick of your axe into the slope and stop you from sliding. Here’s a visual reference, but you definitely want to practice yourself before you find yourself halfway up a mountain.
  • Short-roping: If you’re a newbie climber and you’re able to go with a guide or a more experienced climber, I would suggest doing so. That person might tie a piece of rope between the two of you and keeping it taut can help arrest small falls and slip, this is called short-roping. If you’re not as pro at self-arresting there’s a chance the guide will be able to do so for both of you in case of a fall. Or if you’re feeling the altitude and generally a bit weak, short roping can be used for group management to keep you on pace and in sight.

Faith BriggsFaith Briggs is an avid runner and documentary film maker from Brooklyn, New York. She’s passionate about sharing contemporary stories from diverse communities and can always be found with her camera, whether in the photographer’s pit during New York’s fashion week or in the cloud forests in Honduras. She lives by the motto #goodvibesonly and loves to show that women and girls, quite literally, run the world. You can follow Faith’s journey as Director of Toughness here and social channels including: Twitter | Instagram