There’s a magnet on my refrigerator that I bought the last time I was in Alaska. On it, there’s a simple drawing and a line of text that says, “The Mountains are Calling.”
It’s not hard to get caught up in the thrill and romanticism of mountain climbing, and when those majestic peaks call to you, there’s no choice but to answer. But when you take up your backpack and boots, in pursuit of those snow-covered slopes, do you really know what you’re getting into? Mountaineering is the name of the game, and there are certain rules that you need to follow in order to have a safe and fulfilling trip.
So, if you want to know how to get into mountaineering, you’ve come to the right place. Below, you’ll find everything an aspiring mountaineer should consider before answering the call.
What is Mountaineering?
Before we dive in, let’s take a look at what you’re signing up for. Mountaineering overlaps quite a bit with backpacking and ice climbing, but generally speaking, the goals are different. With backpacking, the idea is (usually) to stick to established trails to complete a loop or an out and back hike while camping along the way. Ice climbing is also pretty straightforward – you’re trying to scale a vertical, or near vertical, route without moving too far from where you started.
Mountaineering, on the other hand, only has one goal: summiting. You want to reach the top of the mountain, which means you’ll probably start off on established trails, like backpacking. As you get higher, and the environment becomes more harsh, you’ll likely need to do some ice climbing as well. But as a mountaineer, your journey won’t truly end until you reach the top.
Learn from an Expert
Books are a helpful resource, but mentally understanding how to conquer a mountain is a lot different than knowing the physical steps. If you’re a rock climber, you wouldn’t learn how to build or clean an anchor for the first time when you’re 80 feet above the ground with no one to guide you through the process, right? There’s a chance that you could do it properly, but there’s also a chance that you could miss a minor detail. Mess it up, and you’ll freefall those 80 feet back to the ground.
Mountaineering is similar, in that there’s some nuance and instinct that you only pick up by being on the mountain. To learn these things the safe way, it’s best to make your maiden voyage with someone who knows what they’re doing.
You have a couple options for this. First, and most preferable, you have an expert mountaineer as a friend who can take you out. Unfortunately, only a small number of you will know someone like this, so your second option is to hire a guide. The American Mountain Guides Association is a good place to start.
Otherwise, for more of a group setting, your third option is to take a class. A professional will take you and several other people to a location where you can learn beginner and advanced level techniques, giving you the skillset you need for your first solo trip. REI provides class options, but there are other organizations that offer this sort of training as well.
Mountaineering brings a whole new set of challenges to the table that many people won’t be familiar with. Here are just a handful of different skills that you’ll want to pick up:
- Moving through snow. Good footwork is essential on snowy slopes, and there are few techniques that you’ll want to learn to help you progress up the mountain. Glissading, step-kicking, and plunge stepping are just a few.
- Using crampons. Crampons are an essential piece of gear to have in your arsenal. They’re a winter traction device that allows you to grip slippery terrain of all different gradients. With practice, you’ll learn when to put them on, when to take them off, and how to use them effectively while climbing.
- Using an ice axe. Though not every route will require you to bring an ice axe, many will, so it’s good to know how to use them. Self-belaying and self-arresting are vital skills for any mountaineer to know, and it’s usually best if you learn them from a professional.
- Roped travel. You’ll often find yourself hiking in a group, everyone connected to a rope for safety. Should someone fall, the rope may catch on you and pull you with them, so you need to be fast with your self-arresting technique. Knowing how to belay, when to use a rope, and how much slack to give are also important for any mountaineer to keep in mind.
Certain aspects of mountaineering can be quite dangerous, especially if you don’t know what you’re doing. Navigating crevasses, for example, can be a harrowing experience if you don’t have any prior history doing such things. And if someone you’re hiking with happens to fall into a crevasse, you need to know how to create an anchor and a Z pulley to perform a rescue.
Set a Goal
Goals give us something to work towards and provide a way for us to track our progress. Most mountaineers have dreams of climbing Mount Everest, but that’s a pretty lofty ambition to start with. If you live in an area with mountains nearby, pick one of your local peaks to be the first on your list to conquer.
Keep your ambitions low at first, and try to limit yourself to some of the smaller peaks. The idea isn’t to knock the biggest mountain off your list first, but rather to gain endurance and stamina in the mountains. Less technical routes give you a “breaking in” period, without throwing you into the deep end. There will be plenty of time for Everest and Denali later; first, you need to make sure that your body and your mind are prepared for the challenges ahead.
Start Training – Physically
A certain level of physical fitness is required for mountaineering. An uphill climb through snow and ice, and the thinner air will make it challenging, even if you consider yourself a reasonably fit person already.
Most people need several months’ worth of training before they’re ready to summit their first mountain. Spend a lot of time working on cardio, doing activities like biking, swimming, or running. Strength training is also important, giving your legs the power they need to get up to slope, and your upper body the strength to carry your mountaineering backpack.
But really, the best way to train for mountaineering is by filling a backpack with weight and walking up elevation. If there’s a mountain or hill nearby, use it as a training ground. If you live in a relatively flat part of the world, like I do, then going up and down several flights of stairs can get the job done.
Don’t forget that altitude sickness will also be something you have to deal with at elevations above 8,000 feet (sometimes lower, depending on circumstances). It’s uncomfortable at best, and life-threatening at worst, so it’s good to know the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness and take appropriate measures. You can find out everything you need to know in our guide on altitude sickness prevention:
Start Training – Mentally
Most sports are at least moderately difficult in one way or another. However, few can match mountaineering, due to the fickle nature of the environment, the level of athleticism and technical skill required, and the inherent dangers found on the mountain.
When it comes to this sport, your mental preparation is almost as important as your physical preparation. Be aware that it won’t be an easy journey, you’ll feel like giving up often (especially on multi-day expeditions), danger lurks around every corner, and random mountain weather may prevent you from summiting altogether. If that’s okay with you, go for it! The experience will be rewarding whether you make it to the top or not.
Acquire Essential Gear
Mountaineering is a different beast than regular hiking and rock climbing, though some gear can be used interchangeably. To get you started, though, here are some of the basics that you’ll need for every mountain you climb:
- Mountaineering Boots: Few things are more important than your footwear. Your feet are going to take quite the beating, traversing for hours upon hours up rocky, snowy, slushy, icy, and altogether uncomfortable terrain. As such your mountaineering boots need to be comfortable, waterproof, and able to attach themselves to crampons. A stiff sole is also helpful for support on vertical climbs.
- Crampons: In case you’ve never heard of them, crampons are a type of winter traction device that can be attached to the bottom of (some) boots. A few different styles have a universal fit, which means they’re compatible with any type of boot. However, some have bails that connect to welts found on your mountaineering boots, providing a more secure fit.
- Climbing Harness: You’ll be connected to a rope some of the time, both as a safety measure for technical climbs, and as a “just in case you fall” attachment to another climber. That being said, you’ll need a harness for the rope to tie into. Standard rock climbing harnesses are fine to use, though ones specifically designed for mountaineering a more lightweight and comfortable.
- Climbing Helmet: Falling rock and ice are common occurrences on the mountain. If you slip and fall, there’s also the chance that you’ll hit your head. Any standard rock climbing helmet will prevent needless head injury, while giving you a secure place to keep your headlamp.
- Ice Axes: No mountaineering leaves home without their ice axes. Many times, you’ll only need one for ascending steep slopes or self-arresting; however, there may be some technical climbs that require you to use two.
That’s just the beginning, though. Longer expeditions mean that you’ll have to spend a couple nights on the mountain, in which case you’ll want a mountaineering tent. You’ll also need a rope, unless one of your partners has one that can be shared. Other items worth considering are an ice picket, pulleys, slings, accessory cords, carabiners, an altimeter watch, a single propane burner, a hydration system, and the 10 essentials.
Pick a Route
…and know your maps. Basic navigation is an unspoken requirement for anyone looking to enter the mountaineering world. But first, let’s talk about setting a route.
Picking a route.
Your initial step is going to be choosing a mountain to climb in the first place. If you don’t know where to start, various guidebooks and websites can give you some options in your area. Always check the difficulty, elevation gain, trail resources, and distance before settling on a route. It’s an important to have a realistic understanding of what you can accomplish, and this mindset usually comes from having completed routes in the past, either with a guide, class, or solo.
Next, you’ll want to check permits. With mountaineering being an increasingly popular sport, the mountains are starting the get crowded, and mountaineers of all skillsets are beginning to need permits to access routes. Always check with landowners/managers before starting a climb.
Finally, get a sense of how long it will take you to climb the route, in addition to the type of climbing that you should expect to take part in. Some mountains only take a day to conquer while others can take weeks. Have a good grasp on how much time you have to complete a route, and always make sure you give yourself a buffer – you never know when bad weather or other factors might slow you down.
The type of climbing should also be considered, as not all mountaineering routes are built the same. For some, you might not even need crampons. Just a good pair of hiking boots, and maybe a set of microspikes for the occasional patch of slush. On other routes, you’re not going to make it very far without a pair of ice axes, a rope, harness, and crampons. Always know what you’re getting into before you leave, so you can plan accordingly.
Once you’re set on a route, it’s time to make sure you know where you’re going. Many mountaineering routes start off on defined trails, before they often fade away into barely recognizable paths. While highly trafficked mountains are a lot easier to climb, some more obscure peaks can quickly throw you off course.
Always start by getting a grasp of the topography before you leave. Make something of a mental map of the route, so even if you do get lost, you have a basic understanding of where you need to go. Know how to use a compass, and bring a recently updated map with you to use alongside your compass. The GPS on your phone might be convenient, but batteries die and technology breaks, so it’s good practice to stick with the old school method. If you want a backup to your backup, consider buying a mountaineering watch with GPS capabilities. I find that they’re more reliable than a phone, when you’re in a pinch.
Plan for Emergencies
It would be naive to think that nothing will ever go wrong while you’re out on an expedition. Hopefully your trips will be smooth sailing, but nevertheless, contingency plans save lives.
First things first, make sure someone back home is aware of where you’re climbing and how long you intend to be gone. If they don’t hear from you by a certain time, they can call emergency services to instigate a search and rescue.
On your end, I’d suggest carrying a personal locator beacon, or something similar. If you can afford a satellite phone, or if you have another way of contacting civilization when you’re outside of cell service, I’d recommend bringing that as well.