Mountain Vocabulary

Autumn this year is perfectly lovely in Wyoming. It’s been in the high sixties and sunny almost every day these past few weeks. Last weekend Matt and I spent the night in Denver to see a concert, but primarily to buy ALL THE PUMPKIN SPICE THINGS at Trader Joe’s. We left with pumpkin ravioli, pumpkin croissants, pumpkin butter, pumpkin cereal… you get the picture.

While reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire over the past few weeks, which takes place in & around Arches National Park in Utah, it occurred to me that there exists an entire vocabulary for the mountains, some of it even distinct to the high altitude – the Rocky Mountains here, the Alps, the Himalayas, the Canadian Rockies. Enjoy the quick vocabulary lesson, and comment with any additional words you find yourself hearing or using!

1. Trailhead – A very good place to start, eh? This is the beginning of the trail, usually next to a road or parking lot, and marked by a sign detailing the  name and mileage of the trail on which you’re about to embark.

2014-10 blog_trail

2. Switchback – If you’ve ever been near a real mountain, you’ve taken a switchback, which simply describes the sharp zig-zagging route a road or trail must take up a steep incline to both prevent erosion and encourage ease of accessibility, for either legs or engines.

3. Tree Line – Quite literally the “line” of elevation at which trees can no longer grow due to environmental limitations like persistent cold, high winds, and lack of moisture. Though typically associated with higher altitudes, actual tree line elevations vary widely by location. In Rocky Mountain National Park, the tree line varies from 10,700 to 11,600 feet above sea level, whereas cool summers in Chile result in a much lower tree line, at around 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. What the tree line really means is excellent sunrise views and terrible thunderstorm conditions.

Matt and I above the tree line below Longs Peak, in the background
Matt and I above the tree line below Longs Peak, in the background

4. Scree versus Talus – [pronounced TÄ-luhs] Scree is loose rock piled up toward the base of a mountain, produced by much rockfall over a long period of time. It is by nature unstable and difficult to walk on. A talus deposit is a large area of scree. They are often used interchangeably, but “scree” is more fun to say.

5. Cairn – [pronounced KAY-urn] Cairns are used to mark trails, especially in places (like scree fields) where other trail markers, such as colored plastic stapled to tree trunks or spraypaint, is difficult. Cairns are just stacked towers of small stones to guide you on your way.

A cairn + a large stick toward the summit of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming
A cairn + a large stick toward the summit of Medicine Bow Peak in Wyoming

6. Summit – The highest point of any distinct mountain is its summit. Sometimes you can reach summits just by hiking without any technical equipment, but oftentimes roped climbing is required. Matt believes no hike is complete unless a summit was reached.

7. Couloir – [pronounced KOO-lawr] Often filled with scree or snow, a couloir is the steep ravine-like feature on a rocky mountain, or between two such peaks. Many backcountry skiers (and snowboarders) talk about skiing down couloirs, which I regard as highly technical and challenging!

Two couloirs can be seen to the left of this photo, in the Snowy Range Mountains
Two couloirs can be seen to the left of this photo, in the Snowy Range Mountains

8. Belay – [pronounced buh-LAY] In a rock climbing context, this is when the climber’s partner is controlling the opposite end of the rope, primarily to catch the climber (via the rope and a metal belay device) should he or she fall.

Me belaying my brother Ben up a climbing route in Medicine Bow National Forest
Me belaying my brother Ben up a climbing route in Medicine Bow National Forest

9. Anchor – At the top of a rock climb or pitch (see below), a climber can build an anchor out of specialized climbing protection gear, or can utilize a fixed anchor, if available, which usually consists of two drilled bolts in the rock, and maybe some other metal gear, like chain links or steel carabiners.

10. Pitch – Climbing routes can be single pitch or multi-pitch. A pitch describes a portion of the vertical length of a climbing route in which a typical 60-70 meter climbing rope can be used. For example, if you are looking to complete a 50-foot rock climb, that would likely be a single pitch route, since you can easily use a 60m climbing rope to reach the top and be lowered back down to the group through an anchor. If, however, you are looking to ascend a 2,000-foot mountain, there will be numerous pitches. Between each pitch is an anchor point so that the first climber can belay the second climber up behind them, and on and on.

11. Rappel – [pronounced rah-PEHL] “Rapping” for short, this is a technique many climbers use to descend from the top of a pitch or climb. Firefighters, military personnel, and other emergency workers also rappel to travel down steep terrain quickly. Usually the person rappelling wears a harness of some kind and attaches a metal rappel device to both the harness and the rope to descend.

12. Glissade – [pronounced gliss-AID] If you’ve reached the summit of a snowy mountain and you need to quickly descend, one option is to glissade, which is just a fancy word for sliding on your butt down a snowfield. If the sliding gets out of control, simply use your handy ice axe to dig into the snow over your shoulder, thereby creating friction and slowing your descent to a comfortable pace.

Get outside this weekend, even if there aren’t any snowfields or talus deposits near you! Love to all.

2 thoughts on “Mountain Vocabulary

  1. Pingback: Banff National Park, Canada – The Taker of Seeds: A Blog of Vacillations

  2. Pingback: Rest & Relaxation + Nature – The Taker of Seeds: A Blog of Vacillations

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