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.

7 Answers 7


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.

  • 7
    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
    Commented Apr 15, 2012 at 3:38
  • 4
    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.
    – davidryan
    Commented Apr 18, 2012 at 13:39
  • 1
    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
    Commented Aug 22, 2012 at 6:19
  • I feel like everyone I know that has climbed El Cap is a rock climber. More specifically people tend to call it Big Wall climbing. I wouldn't consider it mountaineering because you aren't climbing to make a summit, you're just climbing a large rock feature. I'd have to agree with @Greg.Ley
    – tsturzl
    Commented Jan 29, 2016 at 6:01

The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has a definition of Mountaineering right here: Welcome to Mountaineering Scotland.

The British Mountaineering Council 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.


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.

  • 1
    I'm not sure this is an answer - but I do really like it. I'm going to tell my climbing buddies.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented May 23, 2014 at 8:19

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.

  1. Context

    • Mountaineers sooner or later must climb ice and snow and camp for days at a time in high altitude.
    • Rock climbers climb rock and in winter the rock that forms on climbs that are quite small in relation to that of what a mountaineer will climb. Rock climbers focus on climbing rocks and ice covered rocks and then going down. The face they are on may take days but it will not generally be above 18k feet. Climbers will seek to be on YDC 5.0 and above and need a rope.
  2. Terrain

    • Mountaineers may be in terrain 5.0 and under and above. They are the ones that go to the top of the world.

    • Rock climbers don't seek the top they seek to climb and their aim is improve at the context strength game. The more sheer the face , the more impossible to find a hold yet manage to, that is the rock climber. They may even do seemingly impossible holds all day lone 100 feet off the ground.

  3. Goals

    • The Mountaineer wants to go up, up, up and climb mountain tops and use as much gear as they need to get there. They typically make base camps along the way for support and to retreat to for 2nd attempts.

    • Climbers have rope and chalk or ice axes. Hope this helps. A good climber may not make a good mountaineer and a great mountaineer may not make an incredible rock climber.

  4. Mindset

    • The mind of the mountaineer is that of a survivalist.

    • The mind of a rock climber is that of a sportsman.

  5. Pain tolerance

    • Both are game to suffering, only the mountaineer is game to suffer the most. To loose body parts, team mates, they are game to face mother nature at the hardest.
  6. TL;DR

    • Many a great Mountaineer has never done super hard free solos taking only 2 hours.

    • Many a great rock climber has never been to the top of Everest.

  • 1
    Hi there - welcome. Can you please edit your answer so we can read it a bit more easily. A spacing, punctuation and spelling check would really help. See How to Answer for more guidance.
    – Rory Alsop
    Commented Jan 27, 2016 at 18:10

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.


Mountaineering is one of them terms that means different things to different people. To me mountaineering is spending time ascending mountains, simples.

I would argue that rock climbing is a skill you may or may not use in the process of mountaineering.

For example ascending the north face of the eiger (one of the most classic and famous lines in mountaineering) requires lot's of rock climbing. So this to me proves that rock climbing is part of mountaineering as a general activity.

Mountaineering is broader though and also includes activities such as skiing (see ski touring, etc), hiking, scrambling, via ferrata, etc. etc.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.