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I think the title speaks for itself. I have done a basic google search and I do not find the references to be sufficient. I'm looking for a short synopsis that would educate a layman such as myself.

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5 Answers 5

up vote 15 down vote accepted

There are two interpretations of 'Mountaineering' depending on the context in which you use the word:

  1. Mountaineering is any activity in a mountainous environment. It includes rock climbing, ice climbing, hiking, orienteering, skiing, and 'mountaineering' in its own right (see below)...

  2. Mountaineering as a specific activity is usually used to include climbing of a whole mountain, encompassing a wider variety of skills than simply rock climbing. For example, climbing up a cliff face might be rock climbing, but climbing Everest is mountaineering as it requires ascending a complete mountain, and uses skills from rock climbing, ice climbing, survival, navigation, endurance etc.

But there is a grey area in this. Is climbing El Capitan in Yosemite rock climbing or mountaineering? What about if you climb an unclimbed face of a mountain in the Himalaya, but without trying to summit the mountain? At the end of the day, it boils down to the seriousness of the adventure.

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Overall I like the answer, but there is less grey area than you might think. No climber/mountaineer would claim that El Cap is a mountaineering endeavor. I suppose that might be hard to explain to the non-initiated, though. – Greg.Ley Apr 15 '12 at 3:38
I wouldn't refer to a climb of El Cap as a case of mountaineering. It's a specific, technical, and specific-scope activity. Mountaineering is wider in scope, range, skillset and focus. From another side, all mountaineers will have climbing experience, but the same can't be said in reverse. Especially where indoor climbing has increased in popularity. Even climbing breaks into trad, sport/lead and indoor, whereas mountaineering incorporates climbing, hiking, outdoor skills, greater emphasis on survival skills, weather, navigation, etc. – ddri Apr 18 '12 at 13:39
The nose, not mountaineering in my opinion, but that is only one route, what about the east/west buttresses, maybe the gully past the east buttress would not be rock climbing and maybe more mountaineering. (just trying to be more specific to get a better answer for readers) – BillyNair Aug 22 '12 at 6:19

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has a definition of Mountaineering right here:

The British Mountaineering Council (BMC, link: has a great wealth of articles about the topic, which I can only recommend.

Typically "Mountaineering" involves the use of technical equipment in order to navigate through the terrain, like ropes, ice axes or crampons. As opposed to a leisurely walk on a paved road, or hill walking. It encompasses most of the more adventurous activities which take place in the mountains.

Rock climbing as such is defined as an athletic activity which comes in different flavours: Bouldering, indoor climbing, Traditional climbing, sport climbing, deep water soloing and so on. Usually a mountain face, sea cliff or boulder is either climbed up on or traversed. Although technically it can be done without any equipment, the bare minimum that is necessary are the specifically designed rock climbing shoes.

Personally, I'd consider a hike which requires basic navigating/orienteering skills, and goes into more difficult mountain terrain to be mountaineering. Everything which involves climbing up a wall with hands and feet, thus using rock climbing techniques and equipment, would be rock climbing. "Via ferrata" routes I would rather classify as mountaineering since it does not involve rock climbing techniques as such and uses specialised equipment.

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Mountaineering refers to ascending a natural feature, although it doesn't necessarily imply summitting, nor must it be rock, as the same can be applied to the ascension of glaciers.

Mountaineering has a subset of various skills which include climbing, skiing, hiking and scrambling. You can hike, ski, climb and boulder without mountaineering.

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I would consider "Rock Climbing" as something in the Class 5 definition of the YDS grading system.

Wikipedia definition

Class 4 and 6 might also be considered "rock climbing" but I've been climbing for nearly 2 decades, and I would say class 5 = rock climbing.

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According to my father (a self-identified mountaineer), the difference is as follows:

A rock climber encounters a cliff on a mountainside. He spends some time studying it, finds the most interesting route, climbs up and back down, and calls it a day.

A mountaineer encounters a cliff on a mountainside. He pulls out his map, finds a route around it, and continues up the mountain.

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I'm not sure this is an answer - but I do really like it. I'm going to tell my climbing buddies. – Rory Alsop May 23 '14 at 8:19

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