Fast and light in the mountains; a phrase synonymous with alpinism.
Covering ground quickly is important if we aspire to climb alpine routes, reach higher peaks or even trek long mountain trails. It means that we can return to the valley before the afternoon thunderstorms start, avoid getting benighted (where many a tale of an epic begins) and allows us to camp at lower elevations on big peaks. In many cases, for these reasons, being fast and light in the mountains is actually safer.
Moving fast and light in the mountains, is a phrase which can be interpreted as taking minimal, lightweight kit. It can result in the purchase of expensive and constantly evolving equipment to shave off the grams. Lighter kit will make us faster, we tell ourselves.
Then there is the misunderstanding of the concept of speed. Being faster means, climbing faster, being stronger, running up mountains, right?
Wrong. Being efficient in the mountains is the key to what actually makes us faster. Efficiency is neither rooted in speed nor expensive equipment, it is based upon skill and experience.
“Efficiency is the key to speed in the mountains”
It is possible to practise elements of efficiency anywhere. It doesn’t rely on physical strength and means that we can move through the mountains in a more enjoyable way, not with sweat pouring into our eyes, panting for breath.
Here are my top tips for being more efficient in the mountains, and therefore being fast and light in the mountains:
1. Get organised
Being organised is one way we can be fast and light in the mountains. If you don’t have to completely unpack a bag at a stop, or can eat a snack without having to take your bag off, then we save time. When packing we should consider what we will need and when, and pack in that order. Remember to have items regularly needed close to hand, like gloves and a hat in winter, waterproofs on a rainy day or suncream on a hot day.
2. Make fuel and hydration accessible
It goes without saying, that keeping the calories going in and staying hydrated is important in the mountains, but how efficient the process can be made is often is neglected. Making food accessible is the first important step. Having snacks in pockets, not your pack, means that you don’t have to take a bag off to access food.
Consider the packaging the food comes in. If I’m going to be moving fast I like to take snacks out of the packaging and put them in a resealable bag. I may also cut food into bite sized chunks. If I’m wearing bulky gloves I will think about how easily I’ll be able to open packaging with gloves on and come up with glove friendly solutions.
For fluids, I now use a collapsible bottle with a sports top. The bottle can be put in a pocket of a jacket so I can easily drink when belaying or walking in. It is also light and packs small when empty. In the past I used a hydration bladder, but I’ve mostly moved away for these for several reasons. What they are undeniable good for is enabling hands free hydration. I do still use them on occasions, like when it’s hot on long alpine rock routes.
3. When you stop, you don’t stop
When I have a leisurely day out in the hills, breaks are for enjoying views and relaxing. Things change when I need to move fast and light in the mountains. Under these circumstances breaks need to be about doing all the things I can’t do when I’m moving. During stops we need to go for a pee, change layers, put harnesses on, rope up, sort kit, eat, drink, apply suncream, as well as take a quick photo. All done in the right order and as quickly as possible.
4. Start slow, stay steady and stop less
One of the biggest things that turns an 8 hour day into a 12 hour day is the amount of times a team has to stop. Reducing stops makes a massive difference to the time gained in a day. To achieve fewer stops in a day it is important to keep a steady pace, not to allowing lactic acid to build in the muscles and breathing rate to get out of control. Starting slow so not to burn out and keeping a constant, steady pace throughout the day is the key. The pace should be at a speed which is comfortable to maintain a conversation, or near to this, and your breathing and heart rate remains steady. It might feel slow, especially if everyone is passing you*, but will result in less stops and ultimately be faster by the end of the day.
*I break this rule if it means getting ahead of a queue on a route.
5. Efficiency of movement
When watching someone who is efficient in the mountains they don’t actually look like they are moving fast. In fact, they often look like they are moving quite slowly. Despite this, like a trick of the eye, they pull away up hill and out of sight. Their unhurried, deliberate movement is simply extremely efficient, it is difficult to describe in any other way. Efficiency comes from experience of moving across mountainous terrain. They have excellent balance on rough ground, can instinctively spot where to place their feet and can see the easiest route through complex terrain.
Apart from time in the mountains, and training on similar terrain, it is difficult to short cut this. One simple exercise is to try and walk or climb as quietly as possible. Doing this focuses the mind on precision, balance and planning of where to move to, by practising this movement consciously it will accelerate the process of it being unconscious. It is also helpful to practise in the footwear you plan to use on the routes you aspire to do.
Whether you are on an Alpine route, in the Greater Ranges, doing a traverse of the Cuillin Ridge, Isle of Skye or a long distance trek, being more efficient in the mountains enhances the experience. On my Mountain Expedition Preparation Courses I spend time help people to achieve this.
What are your best tips for travelling fast and light in the mountains? Join the discussion on my facebook page.