Introduction to Craziness!
Mountaineering is a complex and difficult sport to explain in its entirety without actually experiencing an excursion. Academically speaking, mountaineering can be described as a hike uphill for many hours, often struggling to breathe normally, pushing your body to its limits for the sake of reaching the top of some geological structure.
It’s 90% suffering for 10% glory. That doesn’t sound very enticing to some, but Mountaineering, the sport or activity of climbing mountains, can be extremely rewarding. It can change your view about life, purpose and being, and it can fill you with a sense of accomplishment that can define much of how to live the rest of your life.
Yes, it can be life-changing! It can also be life-threatening if not done properly which is why it’s great that you’re reading this beginner’s guide! If you want the glory of summiting high peaks, you’ve got to prepare. It’s all part of the fun. Mountaineers get a bad reputation for being reckless thrill-seekers, but in reality, there is so much upfront work and preparation that goes into a climb. Climbing mountains is a deeply humbling experience and will leave you quiet, reflective and perhaps changed even on a spiritual level.
Other than a touch of mild insanity, and an insatiable need to stand on top of tall, rocky things, what else could you possibly need to climb mountains!?
You came here to find out how to get started in mountain climbing, so let’s summarize what’s waiting for you in this overview. In order to get started in mountain climbing, you’ll need to know things like what skillset you’ll need to succeed, the essential gear you’ll want, training routine ideas, and some basic knowledge of high altitude safety and operational procedures.
I’ll also talk a bit about how to choose a destination, and how to pack for your excursion. Let’s get started!
Alpinism is not “Rock Climbing”
Mountaineering can range from walking along an alpine ridge for an afternoon to full-on alpinism. Alpinism involves climbing high altitude peaks which are often covered in snow and glaciers and requires a plethora of skills. It’s a sport that can combine many disciplines, including hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, ice climbing and glacier travel.
Depending on the climb chosen, you may have to utilize all of these skills in a safe and efficient manner. It’s crucial to be as prepared and aware as possible in order to maximize your chances of success (whatever “success” may entail) in the mountains. We’ll talk more about other disciplines like rock climbing, in other articles, but for now, just know that rock climbing is a different animal altogether. Rock climbing skills are sometimes needed on alpine excursions, but it’s not really the same thing.
There are countless inspiring and challenging mountains and ranges throughout the world. From the Rocky Mountains in North America to the Andes in South America to Everest in Asia, you could spend an entire lifetime and then some trying to conquer the world’s summits. The more into mountaineering you become, the higher your bucket list grows (literally.) Mountaineering can take you to new heights and show you many distinctive regions and cultures of the world.
You often have to interact with locals when you embark on a climb. For example, the Sherpa people group of the high Himalayas are an extremely interesting group of mountain people whose lives are intimately linked with the surrounding peaks. Mountaineering emerged as a recreational sport (not just some absurd form of transportation) in the United Kingdom in 1854 when Sir Alfred Willis climbed the infamous Wetterhorn in Switzerland.
The more famous Matterhorn is a daunting, alluring and difficult mountain to ascend and started what was known as The Golden Age of Mountaineering and the world’s first Alpine Club (Modica.) It’s been 164 years since mountaineering blossomed and the sport is changing all the time.
There are many well-established routes throughout the world, and yet also many routes awaiting their first ascents. Mountaineering is growing constantly and humans accomplish feats never before imagined! Gear is improving all the time too, becoming safer, lighter weight and more efficient.
Choosing a Destination and Packing for your Trip
Choosing the right climb should consist of an earnest awareness of your skills and those in your climbing party. Location, weather, season, and hazardous condition possibilities should be serious considerations during your planning process. For your first climb, you might want to find a low mountain trail that can be accomplished in one long day.
You will need basic fitness, orientational awareness (being able to read a map and follow a trail) and basic supplies. These basic resources include a map, water, food, clothing layers, compass, sunscreen and a first aid kit which can all fit inside of a decently sized daypack, around 20L or more, if done on a climb without snow or glaciers.
There are many 14,000ft mountains, or 14ers, in Colorado that can be done in the summer as a relatively easy walk-up trail without any snow or glaciers to worry about. However, just because these climbs can be done in a day doesn’t mean they’re a simple walk in the park.
Mountaineering is challenging (though strenuous) and taxing on your body if you flippantly approach your excursions without proper preparations and realistic expectations. It’s important to walk at a pace slow enough to maintain your breathing, especially at high altitudes, which we will discuss in further depth later.
If you’re interested in longer trips, then utilizing maps and online resources such as summitpost.com are necessary for the trip planning process. Many resources can be found in local or nationwide alpine clubs. If you’re interested in planning an overnight trip and the distance is too far to accomplish in one day, then you will have to bring overnight equipment.
For overnight treks, you should have a larger backpack of around 65L or more that can carry weights over 30lbs. You will need a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, cooking equipment (stove, pots, utensils) food, water, headlamps, and clothing layers. When doing a multiple-day ascent, it is worthwhile to set up a base camp in a designated or appropriate campsite and leave the majority of your weight at camp while you attempt your summit push.
If you’re interested in higher alpine climbs, I highly suggest hiring a guide for your first trip. There are many advanced technical skills required for glacier travel, such as roping up, crevasse rescue, walking in crampons, self-belay, self-arrest, and many more. An excellent resource for learning about more advanced mountaineering techniques is Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers. It is considered the ultimate resource by many mountaineers and alpinists and many even refer to it as their Bible.
However, it is not a substitute for proper training by a certified guide, it is merely an additional resource to aid in your pursuits. If you want to take a mountaineering course, which I highly suggest, you will need some personal gear to bring. You will need a properly fitting harness, several locking carabiners, a helmet, mountaineering boots, crampons, an ice axe, a headlamp, a pack and proper attire to match the weather conditions of your location.
I would consider this the minimum gear required and depending on your guide or course, you may be required to bring more. Alpine climbs are considered more advanced and thus won’t be discussed at great length in this article.
What to Wear
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing,”-Alfred Wainwright
When dressing for a climb, be aware of the expected conditions for your climb and dress accordingly. Check the weather reports, and if possible, watch a weather camera for the mountain that day. Bring a variety of layers and plan to do several adjustments throughout your climb. Talk to locals and other people who have done the climb as well.
You will probably be a bit chilly as you start the climb, but you’ll quickly warm up once you start ascending.
If you’re doing a summer walk up a Colorado 14er for example, then you will want a variety of moisture-wicking layers. Avoid cotton at all costs… COTTON KILLS! It will absorb moisture, preventing you from regulating your body’s temperature and causing chafing.
It’s best to wear clothing that is a mixture of synthetic materials such as polyester, nylon, or better yet, merino wool. It’s super important to always pack additional layers as temperatures can be variable and unpredictable in the mountains. Always bring your rain gear.
How do you dress for cold and wintery ascents? LAYERS, LAYERS, LAYERS!
How do you outfit yourself for sub-freezing temperatures, strong winds, and even stronger wind chill, without being overheated and sweaty while essentially working out in the intense cold? You don’t want to carry too much, but you want to have enough to maintain a stable body temperature throughout the climb.
You’ll start your climb in the dark, when it’s the coldest, and be climbing down in the afternoon, with all sorts of possible weather curve balls thrown in between.
You need above all windproof, waterproof, insulated, and breathable clothing which can be accomplished with multiple layers. This goes for your tops, bottoms, and gloves/mittens.
The first thing you put on is your insulating base layer. You want to go for either wool or synthetic. Absolutely no cotton (“cotton kills” because cotton retains moisture, leaching heat from your body when wet and cold).
Second, you’ll need warm, insulating mid-layers. This would be a fleece and a down jacket or equivalent.
Third, you need your wind and water protection: your hard shell. You can either go for more breathable, and less insulated, or you can go for more insulated and less breathable.
This is all about personal preference and how your body reacts to physical exertion. If you sweat a lot, I would consider going for a lighter shell in order to promote breathability to let out the sweat. Most shells come with pit zips, which are literally just zippers around your armpits to aid in ventilation.
For your feet, you will need moisture-wicking socks. Merino wool will be your best friend here. It’s important to have socks that can wick away moisture so as to prevent painful blisters from occurring. I highly recommend boots that provide ankle support, especially if you are a novice navigating scree and talus fields (loose rocks.) If you are doing a summer climb, waterproof may not be necessary and can be too warm at times.
However, if you expect to encounter any snow or creek/river crossings, then it’s worth it to wear waterproof boots. As you move up to more difficult climbs, the insulation of your boots becomes more important as well as their rigidity. Consult your local gear shop and read online reviews as you begin to make these purchases.
Your footwear can be crucial to make or break your trip and you should place a high emphasis on proper fit before making a purchase and embarking on your climb.
There are a variety of additions and preferences to be considered based on what works best for you individually.
It’s best to experiment and read online reviews, talk to friends and talk to people at gear shops. In summation, layering adds versatility to your outfit and the ability to remove/add on warmth when needed.
In order to train for a mountaineering expedition, you’ll need a proper blend of aerobic and anaerobic cardiovascular training, strength training, flexibility training, and skill development in addition to cross-training and adequate rest and recovery. Training should be taken with a consistent approach, steadily increasing the regimen, adhering to set goals and maintaining a good diversity (The Mountaineers.)
Basically, you want to be in good shape and practice a lot of cardio mixed with strength training. You won’t regret doing lots of running, biking, and squats when you’re cruising up the mountain. Depending on the difficulty of your climb, some mountains will require more training than others.
Not being well trained for a climb can be dangerous, as you are often far away from rescue services. You need to be able to ensure that you can safely return home from your climb. Remember, going to the top is optional, but getting down is mandatory!
Much of the training for mountaineering can be mental. It takes a strong will and lots of mental fortitude to be able to endure a hard climb and potentially, even suffering.
You will likely encounter many moods during the climb, especially if it’s super long and difficult, and maintaining a good mood and not getting lost in negativity is crucial to a successful summit bid. Make sure you are very aware of the risks and challenges posed by your specific climb route, and that you are mentally prepared for the task. An important aspect of mountaineering is knowing when to turn around.
Don’t let your ego and pride cause you to push yourself and your party to the brink of death. Know physical and mental limits, and make the proper safety calls when appropriate. Remember, climbing mountains is for fun! It’s not important enough to foolishly risk death!
Mountain Class Systems
Not all mountains are created equally, and because of this, there are many ways to rank the difficulty of a climb. Climbing rating systems were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Britain and Germany. Ratings used internationally today include seven systems for rock, four for alpine climbing, four for ice, and two for aid climbing.
It’s important to know the rating, or grade of your climb, to ensure that you’re embarking on a trip that’s a reasonable level of difficulty for your skillset.
For climbs in the United States, you will often see The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). This is a class system ranging from 1-5 that can refer to walking or technical climbing:
● Class 1: Easy hiking on a good trail.
● Class 2: More difficult hiking that may be off trail. You may also have to put your hands down occasionally to keep your balance. May include easy snow climbs or hiking on talus/scree (loose rocks of varying sizes). Class 2 includes a wide range of hiking and a route may have exposure, loose rock, steep scree, etc.
● Class 3: Scrambling or un-roped climbing. You must use your hands most of the time to hold the terrain or find your route. This may be caused by a combination of steepness and extreme terrain (large rocks or steep snow).
● Class 4: Climbing. Handholds and footholds are required for upward or downward progress. Rope is sometimes used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal. The terrain is often steep and dangerous.
● Class 5: Technical climbing. The climbing involves the use of rope and belaying. Rock climbing is Class 5. Note: In the 1950s, the Class 5 portion of this ranking system was expanded to include a decimal at the end of the ranking to further define the difficulties of rock climbing. This is called the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The decimal notations range from 5.1 (easiest) to 5.14 (most difficult). Recently, the rankings of 5.10 through 5.14 were expanded to include an “a”, “b”, “c” or “d” after the decimal (Example: 5.12a) to provide further details of the ranking (14ers.com)
You will also see this rating system for the overall difficulty of a climb, particularly in mountain ranges outside of the United States, including the Alps, Andes, and the Himalayas. The original words are French:
● F- Facile – Easy: Easy climbing, little or no belaying, well protected. May involve crevassed but straightforward glaciers.
● PD – Peu Difficile – A little difficult: Moderate climbing, usually requires some belaying, possible rappel on the descent as well as exposed scrambling, crevassed glaciers.
● AD – Assez Difficile – Fairly difficult: Belayed climbing, in addition to large amounts of exposed but easier terrain. A wide range of protective systems are needed.
● D – Difficle – Difficult: Climbing at a fairly high standard. D routes either involve many hundreds of meters of moderate climbing or a harder but shorter route.
● TD – Tres Difficile – Very difficult: TD routes usually have very long sections of hard climbing. Climbers need to move very fast and be very efficient to keep guidebook time.
● ED – Extremement Difficult – Extremely difficult: ED routes are further broken down into ED 1 to 4. The 1938 route on the North Face of the Eiger is considered ED 2. (Climbing Rating Systems.)
For more information on mountain grade systems, please visit http://www.mountainmadness.com/resources/climbing-rating-systems.
It is extremely important to have a high level of respect for altitude. Your body acclimates when it creates more red blood cells to deal with lower oxygen levels. There is not much training you can do beforehand to prepare for exposure to thin air and therefore it is crucial that you act wisely and intentionally when climbing to higher altitudes.
The best tactics are to allow your body time to adjust to the higher altitude by not going too high too quickly. Drink lots and lots of water, rest, and do aerobic activities when you first arrive at your base altitude. Climb to a higher altitude and sleep at lower altitudes in order to let your body acclimate.
You can measure your blood oxygen levels either at a doctor or with personal devices, such as pulse oximeter, in order to monitor and ensure you’re at a safe level. If at any point you feel symptoms and signs of altitude sickness, then head to a lower altitude IMMEDIATELY! These symptoms can include: dizziness, headaches, muscle aches and nausea (Altitude Sickness: What to Know.)
This article is not intended for medical advice, so please seek out medical advice and take the proper training before embarking on serious altitude endeavors. Recommended courses include Wilderness First Aid or Wilderness First Responder.
Even with all these warnings, I promise you that mountaineering is fun, exhilarating, life-changing, and viewpoint altering!
Now that you’ve made it through this beginner’s guide, you’re ready to begin thinking about embarking on your first mountaineering trip. Hopefully, you’re aware and accepting of all of the complexities, many of which barely had the surface scratched in this piece. The biggest takeaways are to do your research, (which you’re already doing – great job!) and to prepare as much as possible for your climb.
“Climbing a mountain represents a chance to briefly free oneself of the small concerns of our common lives, to strip off nonessentials, to come down to the core of life itself. Food, shelter, and friends – these are the essentials. These plus faith and purpose and a deep and unrelenting determination.”
– Mateo Cabello, Of Mountains and Men