A week or two ago, I asked for opinions about where the line is between hiking and mountaineering. The general consensus was pretty much in line with my own view: Once things get technical (that is, you need specialized gear or techniques to keep moving forward), you're no longer hiking.
Actually pinning down the line between technical climbing and a tough, exposed hike, though, isn't as easy as it might seem. One person's death-defying ridgewalk is another person's easy stroll in the park. Guide to Climbing Stewart Green even includes some "challenging and difficult hiking" in his definition of mountaineering. It has to do with consequences, too: If the hike is difficult or exposed enough that a misstep can have very serious consequences, you're probably edging toward the climbing end of the equation.
My process for deciding whether or not to tackle exposed terrain is pretty simple: I already know my own hiking abilities, so I make sure I know the terrain (and weather) too. Then I decide whether or not I can safely extract myself if I end up in over my head. I also check in with my brain to see if crossing that exposed terrain is actually worth the effort and risk. If the answer to the last two questions is "yes," I do a final check-in with my gut sense and, as long as I feel okay about the prospect, I go for it.
How do you decide whether or not to tackle a trail with some degree of exposure? Leave a comment!
Photo © Lisa Maloney: My dramatic reenactment of a hike with lots of exposure.