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Climber Speak
by Maureen Dolan and Rob Meyer



Mountaineers use a whole slew of words, both technical and slang, that are alien to people outside climbing circles. Following is a handy glossary of common technical phrases, medical terms, and colorful slang to help guide you through climber speak.

Acetazolamide (Diamox®): Drug used to prevent and to treat altitude sickness. Typically administered in tablet form.

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): Illness experienced by 75% of individuals at elevations over 10,000 feet and by some individuals at elevations as low as 6,000 feet. Initial symptoms include headache, decreased appetite or nausea, malaise, decreased energy, and irregular sleep. AMS often occurs when an individual is ascending too rapidly. The best treatment is descent.

Anchors: Point where the rope is fixed to the rock.

Arete: Sharp, narrow ridge formed as a result of glacial erosion.

Ascenders: Mechanical devices used both to grip rope and to serve as a protection point.

Belay: Device that will stop and hold a falling load.

Bergschrund: Crevasse that separates flowing from stagnant ice at the head of a glacier.


figure eight knot Figure Eight Knot
Beta: Insider information about a climb.

Bivouac (often shortened to: bivy): Makeshift camping site, usually used when climbers are too tired to continue, severe weather sets in, or climbers are lost.

Bivy Sack: An uninsulated, wind-proof bag used to protect a climber from wind or precipitation.

Blood Pressure (BP): Force exerted by the blood against the walls of the blood vessels. The stretching and contraction of these vessels maintain blood flow through the vascular system. Blood pressure decreases slightly during sleep and increases during exercise.

Buttress: Part of the mountain or rock that stands in front of the main mountainface.

Carabiner: Snap link, metal loop, or ring that can be snapped into an anchor and through which rope may be passed.

Cheesegrater, to: To slide down a slab while scraping the knees, hands, and face.

Cirque: Semi-circular or amphitheater-shaped bedrock feature created as glaciers scour back into the mountain.

Climbing Skins: Strips of synthetic material or mohair attached to the bottoms of skis during an ascent. They enable a smooth forward glide but impede any backwards slipping.

Col: Low spot or pass along a cirque or arete.

frostbite Frostbite

Core Body Temperature: The temperature of the vital organs, including brain, heart, lungs, and intra-abdominal organs.

Crampons: Iron spikes attached to the soles of shoes to prevent slipping when walking on ice..

Crampons Front Points: The sharp fang-like points protruding from the front of modern crampons.

Crevasses: Open fissure in a glacier surface.

Dead Man: Anything that can be buried in snow and used as an anchor. Typically tied off with webbing. Examples: buried skis, ice axe, backpack.

Dexamethazone (Decadron®): Drug used for the treatment of HACE. Improves lung function and myocardial performance.

Figure Eight Knot: Classic knot often used in such places as the end of a rope, forming a loop.

Frostbite: Freezing of living tissue. Frostbite occurs when tissues have lost sufficient heat so that ice may form. The freezing and subsequent thawing damages cells, dehydrates tissues, and depletes oxygen.

Gamow Bag® (pronounced gam - off): Portable fabric chamber which, when inflated with a foot pump, simulates the greater air pressure found at lower altitudes. Used to treat and stabilize climbers with all forms of mountain sickness.

Glacading: Method of sliding down a mountain. Can include sitting, standing, and crouching.

Headwall: Steep back wall of a .

High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): Extreme form of AMS resulting from swelling of brain tissue. Symptoms include headache, loss of coordination (ataxia), weakness, and decreasing levels of consciousness. Treatment usually involves descent and administration of drugs, including calcium channel blockers.

High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): Severe form of AMS in which the lungs fill with fluid. Symptoms include: persistent cough, shortness of breath at rest, severe fatigue, and tightness in the chest. Treatment typically includes administered oxygen, rapid descent and steroids.

Hypothermia: Usually defined as a core temperature below 95° F. Symptoms include decreasing level of consciousness, resulting ultimately in disorientation, increasing atrophy, decreased ability to think, and ultimately unconsciousness and death.

Hypoxemia: Low blood oxygen levels.

Hypoxia: Oxygen deficiency.

Ice Axe: Extremely versatile and essential tool. Used as a walking stick, for balance, for belays, anchors, self-arrests, and for climbs. A mountaineer on steep snow or ice should never be without an ice axe.

Lama SA-315B: Helicopter used in search and rescue efforts on Denali.

Lateral Moraine: Rocks, silt, and boulders deposited along the sides of alpine glaciers.


lenticular cloud Lenticular Cloud
Lenticular cloud: Lens-shaped cloud often sitting on or over the summit of large mountains. Presence indicates very high winds aloft.

Medial Moraine: Rocks, silt, and boulders deposited on top of existing glaciers. Results when two alpine glaciers flow together.

NIFEDIPINE (Adalat®, Procardia®): Calcium-channel blocker; a type of medication sometimes administered to treat HAPE. Affects the amount of calcium found in your heart and muscle cells. Relaxes blood vessels, which in turn relieves the work load placed upon the heart.

Objective Hazards: Dangers that are out of the immediate control of the climbers. Examples include avalanche, rock falls, severe weather.

Parajumpers (PJs): Trained personnel who parachute from planes in order to execute rescues.

Prussik Knot: Knot used commonly in glacial climbing. Can be used to belay oneself along a rope or used as an ascending device.

Pulse Oximeter (Pulse Ox): Device used to measure blood oxygen saturation and pulse rate.

Rappel: Descending on a rope.

Saturation (Sat): Arterial oxygen saturation or SaO2, reported as a percentage.

Self-Arrest: Method of stopping an otherwise uncontrolled slide down snow or ice. Involves digging the pick portion of the axe into the snow.

ice axe Ice Axe

Serac: Isolated block of ice that is formed where the glacier surface is fractured.

Snowbridge: Snow covering a crevasse and rendering it invisible to a climber.

Thermister: Temperature sensing device.

Water Knot (aka Web Knot): Popular knot for tying two ropes of the same thickness. Very strong knot, but difficult to untie. Most common technique for tying two ends of webbing together.

Webbing: Nylon webbing used for many purposes during climbs. Used as an intermediate link between the anchor and the climbing rope.

Whipper: Very long fall.

Wind Chill: Perceived temperature of exposed body surfaces. Helpful in giving an indication as to how quickly exposed tissue will freeze.

Zipper: A long fall preceded by the sudden collapse or popping of one's anchor system.

Maureen Dolan and Rob Meyer are NOVA Online Production Assistants

Photos: (3) Ronald G. Warfield; (4) Galen Rowell/Corbis.

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