The 11th Essential for the Mountains: Knowledge and Experience

Most mountaineers have heard of the ten essentials before… but just in case you haven’t, these are the critically important pieces of equipment required to stay safe and respond to emergencies while hiking, climbing, and exploring the mountains. However, on a recent backpacking trip, a friend of mine asked me what I would say is the 11th essential – if I had to name one. This question threw me for a loop… there are many good potential answers. However, the most important thing you need, in my opinion, is also the hardest to get: A substantial degree of knowledge and experience. Let’s dig into the details.

Knowledge and Experience Are the 11th Essential. What Does That Mean?

The ten essentials are defined by the Mountaineers (the organization that came up with the list) as the minimum required gear needed to respond positively in emergencies. With this definition in mind, I can’t think of a better 11th essential than the knowledge gained through experience in the mountains. This is something you cannot just buy in the store (I’m not talking about route knowledge you can get from a guidebook).

Those who have spent weeks or months of their life outdoors in the backcountry know what knowledge I am talking about.

  • This includes muscle memory – like being able to walk on a rocky trail without constantly staring at your feet.
  • It is intuition as well – like being able to read the clouds or notice a change in the direction of the wind.
  • It is also experience – like knowing what questions to ask because you remember what happened the last time you didn’t.
  • Lastly, it includes the ability to stay calm in emergencies or when something goes wrong – because you have been there before. 

This type of knowledge is something you can only gain through time – a lot of time – spent outdoors. Which begs the question, ‘how do you safely gain the knowledge you need to explore the mountains without getting into trouble in the first place?’

Mountain Membership: The Old Way of Gaining Knowledge

In the decades before 14ers become an Instagram trend and thousands began climbing their slopes, the backcountry was a relatively quiet place in Colorado. Those who wanted to learn how to hike, climb and explore the high country typically connected with those already doing it to learn from them over time.

These mentors passed on their own experiences and wisdom to help people gradually learn and gain knowledge without having to put themselves at serious risk. Their mentor was always nearby to step in if they misread the clouds or forgot something important. The risk was actively managed by someone who typically knew what they were doing.

Now Most People Learn Alone and Face the Risk Alone

The days of mountain membership are quickly fading, as tens of thousands of people now climb the most popular 14ers in Colorado. With such numbers, it is impossible to provide them with the careful and consistent mentorship that early mountaineers had access to. Instead, most people today learn from blogs just like this one, trying to pick up what they need to know before they head out into the field.

However, this approach has real risks because there is no mentor in the field to help them realize they don’t know what they don’t know. While many people wisely take time to work up to more dangerous and serious climbs, others naively set out to climb class three and four peaks without even bothering to look up the route or bring a map. It makes it difficult to know whether you are moving to quickly on your own, or whether you are moving at a safe and manageable pace.

My Advice for Gaining the 11th Essential On Your Own Without Unnecessary Risk

The best way to gain the knowledge and experience required to stay safe in the mountains is to find a mentor to teach you. While it is much harder to do so than it was in the 90s, there are still many dedicated climbers on the 14er.com forum and on many facebook climbing groups who are happy to take you out with them and share what they know.

For those who can’t get a mentor or are interested in learning on your own, here are a few tips to keep in mind to ensure you stay safe as you gain experience over time. Mistakes will be made – so try to ensure you leave space for managing them.

1. Leave a detailed copy of your plans with someone.

This is a fundamental rule for staying safe, yet every year a few people go missing and are not noticed for days or weeks because they didn’t tell anyone where they were going. Always follow this best practice, especially when alone.

2. Be conservative while planning ahead and packing.

It’s easy to manage when things go as planned… not so much when opposite occurs. Leave yourself a comfortable margin by working extra time into your plans and bringing backup gear – like your rain jacket, even if rain isn’t forecast.

3. Bring a Satellite Messenger or Personal Locator Beacon.

Accidents are more likely among those new to the mountains. If you are spending a lot of time outdoors, getting a SPOT device is a good idea. These allow you to call for help even in areas without cell signal. Here are a few of the best options.

4. Take time to write down what you are learning.

The brain learns more quickly when you give it time to process what it’s experienced. At the end of each hiking or camping trip spend some time writing down the things you learned, mistakes made, and successes to help lock them in for the future.

5. Bring knowledge in paper and picture form.

If you don’t have much knowledge on an area, make up for it by bringing detailed maps, route photos, and GPS routes with you. They cannot make up entirely for experience, but they give you a big leg up over those with nothing.

It Takes Time to Gain the 11th Essential

The most important thing to remember is not to rush things along. While it is possible to climb a class three peak for your first fourteener, that does not mean it is a good idea. Taking time to do a few class one and two mountains first will not only make your climb a bit safer – but it will also make it more enjoyable and less stressful. I recommend picking a more demanding peak as a goal and planning a series of training climbs that gradually get more challenging. This is the best way to gain experience without throwing yourself into a dangerous situation.

The 11th Essential: Knowledge and Experience

You can read a thousand books about fourteeners but still not have the experience of someone who has climbed one of them. Take time to build that experience by working with a mountain mentor or taking steps on your own to push yourself gradually and learn with more challenging climbs. By doing so slowly, you give yourself a big safety advantage over those who go too far, too fast. Safe travels on the trails!

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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