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A Beginner's Guide to Mountaineering: Background information when reading Halfway to Heaven

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Halfway to Heaven

My White-knuckled - and Knuckleheaded - Quest for the Rocky Mountain High

by Mark Obmascik

Halfway to Heaven by Mark Obmascik X
Halfway to Heaven by Mark Obmascik
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  • First Published:
    May 2009, 288 pages
    May 2010, 288 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book

A Beginner's Guide to Mountaineering

This article relates to Halfway to Heaven

Print Review

Mountain climbing, or mountaineering, is the sport of attaining or attempting to attain high points in mountainous regions, mainly for the pleasure of the climb. Before the 18th century, climbing for sport was rare. Humans did ascend high peaks, but generally only out of necessity or for religious reasons (many ancient religions such as the Mayans and Greeks built mountaintop shrines, and it is believed that pilgrims have been journeying to the foot of Mount Kailash in Tibet since well before recorded history).

The birth of contemporary mountain climbing came in 1760, when Horace Benedict de Saussure offered prize money for the first summit of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe (no attempt was successful until 1786). The first summit of the Matterhorn came in 1865. The activity became increasingly popular, with mountaineers looking for ever greater challenges, culminating in the summit of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world, on May 29, 1953. The invention of better, lighter climbing gear over the decades has enabled more and more people to participate in the sport. It is no longer just for the elite climber; thousands of "regular people" summit mountains every year.

In addition to the typical gear most people would take on a backpack trip, mountaineering requires some specialized equipment:

  • Good quality mountaineering boots, which differ significantly from hiking boots - the toes and soles are more rugged, with less flex to accommodate crampons.
  • Crampons – Metal "teeth" that are attached to hiking boots, providing extra traction when walking on hard snow or ice.
  • Helmet – Protects from falling rock.
  • Trekking poles – A pair of light-weight, adjustable poles, used to assist with balance. They also reduce stress on the lower half of the body by absorbing some of the impact of walking over difficult terrain.
  • Ice axe – Used to provide extra stability in snow and prevent slipping. It can also be used to stop the climber from sliding all the way down a snowfield. Finally, it is used to chop steps in snow or ice to make footing more secure.
  • In Class 4 and 5 climbing, the use of a rope, harness, and anchors may be necessary.

Even with the appropriate gear, mountaineering is a dangerous sport. Lower air pressure and lack of oxygen can lead to severe headaches, nausea and lethargy, collectively known as altitude sickness. The afflicted individual may eventually acclimatize, but altitude sickness can lead to high altitude cerebral or pulmonary edema (an edema is a swelling caused by fluid trapped in the body's tissues), either of which can be fatal. In addition there are a whole raft of other potential conditions that can afflict climbers, from snow blindness to what is politely known as high altitude flatus expulsion, which is caused by the differential between the lowering external pressure and the relatively high pressure within the body.

Despite the many different ways to achieve injury or death on a mountain, the most common cause of injury is, as you would expect, falling.

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Article by Kim Kovacs

This "beyond the book article" relates to Halfway to Heaven. It originally ran in May 2009 and has been updated for the May 2010 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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