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Useful Notes / Mountain Climbing

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Because it's there.
Attributed to George Mallory

Mountain climbing, also called Mountaineering or Alpinism, is the recreational climbing of high mountains. The sport dates back to the 1400's, but the most famous period occurred during the early 1900s. Today, it remains a popular sport throughout the world, with each continent or geographic region having at least one summit high enough to pose a physical and technical challenge.



The first recorded successful climb to a mountain's summit was on Mont Aiguille in 1492, an expedition lead by Antione de Ville. Along with a number of other explorative efforts, mountaineering efforts increased during the 18th century, but it wasn't until the mid 1800s that it really began to take off as a major concerted effort. This period of time saw the formation of the Alpine Club, the oldest mountain climbing organization in the world, in Britain and the summitting of most of the major mountains in the Alps, starting with the Wetterhorn by Sir Alfred Wills in 1854. This started the Golden Age of Aplinism, which lasted about 12 years, ending with the successful ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 by Edward Whymper.

With all the home mountains conquered, European climbers began setting their sights abroad. In the United States, climbing had also been going on in the Rockies and Alaska. In Mexico and South America US and European expeditions ventured up increasingly higher mountains in the Andes and Mexican ranges. Mountains in Australia, New Zealand and Africa were also climbed in the period from 1880 to 1900.

Finally, the only mountains left were in the Himalayas, which contained the highest peaks of all, including Mount Everest. The first attempts occurred in the 1890s, but it wasn't until the early 20th century that climbing began in earnest here. Expeditions began ascending many of these mountains and even began climbs on the eight thousanders, the peaks that stand more than 8,000 meters above sea level. During this time, English climber Oscar Eckenstein began developing many of the tools and equipment that continue to be used in climbing to this day.


The drive into the Himalayas continued into the 1950s, and on May 29, 1953 the greatest of all, Everest was finally summitted by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The final holdouts were climbed within the next 11 years. Ironically, the lowest of the eight thousanders was the last to be climbed, due to being under jurisdiction of the People's Republic of China, which had not allowed anyone on it.

Since then, a thriving community of climbers, guides and businesses has grown around the sport. Each year a large number of rank amateurs make the climb up Everest, to the point that permits to climb have become one of Nepal's major sources of revenue. A number of adventure companies will organize expeditions on mountains all over the world. The drawback is that inexperienced climbers can cause problems for themselves and others. Climbing is dangerous in general and the highest peaks have the added danger of not even being able to breathe for the most part.



Hazards can come in a myriad of forms. Avalanches are common on mountains, particularly in areas known as icefalls, where huge chunks of ice can suddenly break off and fall without warning. Crevasses are also common in icefall areas, large gaps that have to be crossed with ladders. The Sherpa of the Himalayas sometimes say if you fall into one, you'll fall all the way to America. Snow, and freezing cold temperatures are constant on high mountains, so freezing to death is likely if one is not careful. The very highest peaks are in what is known as the Death Zone, at altitudes approaching those used by commercial airliners where humans simply can't survive due to a combination of cold, high speed winds, and low oxygen.

These are some of the more common dangers, but the mountains have plenty of surprises that can catch even experienced mountaineers off guard. The events of the 1996 season and 2014 avalance on Mount Everest show what can happen, sometimes just by being around the mountain. And, of course, a number of popular climbing mountains also happen to be active volcanoes...

The most dangerous part is the descent, when climbers are more likely to be fatigued, or have impaired judgement. This is where most deaths occur.


There are a couple of methods to tackling a mountain. One is known as Alpine climbing, and can be done by a single person toting their own equipment up and down the mountain. The aim is to get up and down quickly, or maybe just to enjoy some alone time with nature.

The other method is the expedition. As it sounds, it involves a group of people, lots of equipment and supplies, and often local guides. This is generally the preferred means to climb larger mountains, especially ones that require acclimatizing. The usual procedure is to establish a main base camp near the foot of the mountain, then a series of smaller camps at progressively higher altitudes. Trekking back and forth between them for several week helps the body adjust to the lower oxygen before making a push for the summit.

Mountains have classifications based on their difficulty, though there are several rating systems, using different criteria, but generally the lowest difficulties are those that can be done in a day or two with little more than hiking, while the highest require days and a full load of equipment just to get partway up.

Notable Mountaineers

  • Sir Edmund Hillary & Tenzing Norgay: The first climbers to successfully ascend Mount Everest, and return safely.
  • George Mallory: Legendary British mountaineer, who participated in the first three attempts to climb Everest. There is some debate as to whether or not he was the first to reach the summit, but even if he did, most still credit Hillary since he successfully summitted and returned safely. Mallory did not return from Everest and his fate was unknown until his mummified body was discovered in 1999 with a broken leg and injury about the waist, indicating he died in a fall.
  • William Mathews: British climber who founded the Alpine Club, the oldest mountain climbing club in the world.
  • Edwin James: American explorer of the Colorado Rockies, and first to successfully ascend Pikes Peak.
  • Ed Viesturs: The only American to have ascended all 14 Eight-Thousanders. He was the leader of the 1996 IMAX expedition, which produced the film Everest.

Mountain Groupings

Seven SummitsThese are the highest mountains in various regions of the world. This can change depending on where one draws the boundaries for each region.

  • Africa: Kilimanjaro
  • Antarctica: Mount Vinson
  • Asia: Mount Everest
  • Australia: Mount Kosciuszko (on the island of Australia itself) or Puncak Jaya (on New Guinea)
  • Europe: Mount Elbrus (in European Russia) or Mont Blanc (in France)
  • North America: Denali (formerly Mt. McKinley)
  • South America: Aconcagua

There are also second and third summit lists which have the second and third highest peaks on their regions

Eight ThousandersThe 14 peaks which rise more that 8,000 meters above sea level, at which point what is known as the Death Zone begins, the point at which human bodies begin to degrade. All of them are in the Himalayas.

  • Shishapangma (China) 8027 m
  • Gasherbrum II (China / Pakistan) 8035 m
  • Broad Peak (China / Pakistan) 8051 m
  • Gasherbrum I (China / Pakistan) 8080 m
  • Annapurna I (Nepal) 8091 m
  • Nanga Parbat (Pakistan) 8126 m
  • Manaslu (Nepal) 8163 m
  • Dhaulagiri I (Nepal) 8167 m
  • Cho Oyu (China/Nepal) 8201 m
  • Makalu (China / Nepal) 8485 m
  • Lhotse (China / Nepal) 8516 m
  • Kangchenjunga (India / Nepal) 8586 m
  • K2 (China / Pakistan) 8611 m
  • Mount Everest (China / Nepal) 8848 m (and growing!)

See Scaling the Summit for mountain climbing in fiction.


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