Mountaineering is for those who want the extra step up from regular day hikes. You will expose your body to rigors and challenges that it has never experienced before. For your efforts, you will experience spectacular views and push yourself beyond what you thought was possible. From this beginner’s guide, you will understand how to start mountaineering and ascend a summit in no time.
Basic Mountaineering Lingo
Once you start reading about mountaineering, there are important words you should know to understand the conversation. There is a lot to learn about this sport.
In the US, a 10er refers to a mountain of at least 10,000 feet, while a 14er refers to a mountain of at least 14,000 feet. The rest of world, though, goes by meters, so their wording is different. For example, a 4Ker refers to a mountain of at least 4,000 meters while an 8Ker refers to a mountain of 8,000 meters. It is simple to understand.
In addition to that, there are different classes you need to be aware of. If you are walking in a flat area with no danger exposure, then it is a Class 1. Class 2 and 3 are steps up from that with some hazards. Class 4 involves you on your hands and knees, while Class 5 is a technical mountain climbing where people are belaying one another.
Training for the Trip
When it comes to mountaineering especially, there are two aspects that prepare you for the climb ahead.
This involves preparing your body for the challenge of the mountain. Because when you are at 8,000 feet, your body needs to be able to handle the physical tests such as the lack of air, steepness, and distance required of you. Mountaineering is quite an endeavor and your body needs to be ready for it. There are a number of ways to train.
- Build your cardiovascular system by hiking, biking, and swimming. These exercises will increase your endurance and lung capacity. Because as you climb the mountain, the air is going to get thinner and thinner. Your lungs to be ready for that. It will also build your leg strength.
- Go to the weight room. Mountaineering is a lot easier if you have the muscle to carry yourself up a mountain. At your local gym, you can do squats, pull ups, and push-ups to prepare you for the strength draining activity of mountaineering.
- Train with a weighted pack. This is your best option to prepare your body for mountaineering. When you are mountaineering on a multi day trip, most packs can weigh up to thirty pounds. To start, find trails near you that feature elevation change. Then load a backpack with weights. As you progress, build up the weight.
- Use a stair master or a treadmill. If for whatever reason, there are no decent trails near you. Then you should consider your local gym. They will have a stair master where you can train with a weighted pack. Many treadmills also let you change the elevation to help prepare you for your journey.
An alpine climb is quite different from an afternoon hike. Mountaineering requires more than just physical fitness, but mental preparedness. Once you hit your body’s physical threshold, it is going to be screaming for you to stop. The only way for you to power through that is with mental fortitude. You will need to be able to handle the challenges, hardships, and risk along the way. Some ways you can prepare include the following:
- Take cold showers. As you climb in altitude, it will get colder and colder, so a crisp shower is perfect to prepare you for the temperature change. It will harden your skin and prepare you for the rigors of a long climb. Also, you can expect to benefit your immune system.
- Plan for setbacks. In any endeavor, there will be challenges pushing you back. Like all things in life, it happens. Fortunately, you can anticipate it. If you are worried about altitude, you can use training mask. If you fear losing your grip, then you can do pull ups. There is a lot you can to do to prepare.
- Take one breath at a time. Everything ties back to your breath. It is where you can find yourself. As long as you can breathe, then you have life in you. If you reach a particularly steep part of the trail, then focus on your breath. It will keep you calm.
- Think positively. How you think determines your success. When you have a thought, it reverberates throughout your body, so the voice you talk to yourself in determines your results. Once you start mountaineering, you have to tell yourself that you will succeed. You have to envision yourself reaching the top and map out to your brain how you will get there.
Mental clarity is key to a successful climb. It determines everything when attempting a summit. If you have a strong mental capacity, then you have the willpower to overcome any obstacle. It is just a matter of strengthening it to achieve what you want.
Planning a Trip
A great expedition always has a great plan behind it. Without one, you will be sure to falter and run into trouble. Having one, though, will keep you safe, on time, and ready for the challenges ahead.
Lay out a day to day plan. For each day, you need to make arrangements for how far you are going and where you will make camp at the end of the day. Usually, you want an early start time so you do not come back in darkness. How many breaks will you allow in a given day? How long will your expedition be? Consider these questions when outlining your trip.
Make a meal plan. When on an expedition, your body will be screaming for food. It helps to have food at the ready to feed it. Set aside food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so you are not unprepared. When you keep your body fed, it will prevent altitude sickness.
Get a Permit. For any climb these days, you need a permit. It is a requirement. A permit limits the human and traffic impact. As such, you need to be sure to talk to the appropriate group or body to make sure you get one with plenty of time to spare. With one in hand, you will have a great trip.
Set a party size. If you are climbing, then you need to be in a group of at least two people. It is for your own safety. If you get into trouble, then you have your friends to help you out. In a national park or wilderness area, a group will not be larger than twelve to limit the environmental impact. On snow, the impact matters a lot less, so larger groups are permitted.
Watch your impact. These days, there are more and more people on the trails. It is not uncommon to pass by multiple people while hiking, so it is ever more important to be conscientious of one’s environmental impact. In a cold environment, waste takes longer to break down. This makes the phrase “pack in what you pack out” more relevant. If you have to go number two in the wild, then use a bag to store it.
Go with a guide and porter. If you are a beginner, then the best option is to go on a guided group expedition. That way you will learn skills along the way from experts and get help from your fellow climbers. For every mountain out there, you can bet that there is a guide willing to lead an expedition up the summit. If there are porters with you, then they will help to carry the load.
If you are in the continental United States, then most of the mountains you will encounter will be one day trips where you start in the morning. Once you get some day trips under your belt, then a multi day expedition is the next step. Here is a list of gear for different types of expeditions.
One Day Lower Class Expedition
- Day pack, ideally, this pack will be light and not too bulky. It can hold all the gear listed below and then some. The backpack should hold a rain jacket, paracord, and food.
- Water and iodine tablets, if the route you are traveling on is near a water source, then iodine tablets should be fine. They are best for short trips because they are light. You do not want to weigh yourself down with a stove to purify your water. You need plenty of water to prevent altitude sickness. If water is not nearby, then you will have to bring your own.
- Rain jacket, if there is one thing the outdoors has a common habit of doing, it is to change a lot. One second it is sunny out and the next it is pouring rain outside. You want a rain jacket to keep you dry even if everything else is getting soaked.
- Headlamp, mountains can be long and difficult. Most people never realize how long something will take them until they mountaineer. If you get a headlamp, then you are saving yourself the trouble of scrambling down the mountain in the dark. Getting one will keep you safe.
- Food, for most people, I recommend to not bring a stove if it is only a day trip. It saves you room and weight. In general, two meals and some snacks should be plenty for a day trip. It will give you the energy you need for the journey ahead.
- Small first aid kit, as a kid, I used to get lots of cuts and bruises when I roamed outside. It is no different now, except I bring a first aid kid along with me. If you bring iodine tablets, you can use them to sterilize any wound. Tape comes in many kits, so it is a great friend for bandaging and, if necessary, making makeshift gloves.
One Day Technical Climb
The gear listed below is in addition to that shown above. This kind of trip requires more of you, so you need to be more prepared for it. In these kinds of climbs, there will be more climbing and scrambling.
- Helmet, you should select one that is reputable and plenty adjustable. In the Winter, a helmet will go on a beanie, but the Summer will see it go on your bare head. It should be flexible and durable, ready for any falling rock that could land on your head.
- Rope, most mountaineering rope you find will be 60 to 70 meters in length. It needs to be treated and waterproof. In the mountains, there are a lot of opportunities for moisture to sink in, so it is best to play it safe and get waterproof rope.
- Ice axe, this is a versatile tool that will help you head up the mountain. You can protect yourself from a fall, get a footing, and dig holes with it. With one in hand, you can be sure to be ready for any challenge that you may confront.
- Boots, depending on the season, boots are critical for your success. If you head up and there is no snow, then regular boots should be fine. If there is ice, then you want ice boots; these will give you a grip on the slippery slopes. Aim to get ones that are waterproof and durable.
Multi Day Expedition
When doing a multi day expedition, you have to plan more. It is required to do well on a longer trip.
You will also need more gear.
- Tent, you want a four season tent. This will be the most expensive piece of gear you get, but it is well worth the money. If you buy a good one, it will protect you from nasty weather and the elements. You do not want to go cheap when selecting a tent or else it will bite you in the butt.
- Food, this was discussed before, but for a multi day trip you will need even more food. Aim for high calorie count foods with little weight. You can read more about packing food in this article.
- Stove, a camping stove will keep you warm, cook your meals, and boil water. It is a necessity for any multi day expedition. When you reach high altitudes, this will be your only option to heat yourself up.
- Trekking poles, these are essential for maintaining your balance on ice and snow. If you do not have a pair, then you risk sliding down the mountain side. With trekking poles in hand, you can be sure to have a good time making your way up.
- Proper clothing, if you are doing a multi day expedition, then it can get quite cold. You will need plenty of layers to keep warm. For these kinds of trips, aim to get one pair of high quality clothing for the whole trip to cut down on baggage weight.
When it comes to mountaineering, there are some necessary skills you need to succeed. It is important that you learn them so you are not caught off guard when scaling the mountain.
Using an Ice Axe
This is the first skill you learn when heading up the mountain. At the top of the axe, you will find the pick (1), which is used to get a grip on the mountain as you head up. The adze (2) is opposite to it, which can be used to create a foothold for your feet or be used as a shovel to make a hole for tent poles. For many climbs, you can use the spike (7) of the axe to balance yourself as you head up the mountain. It will help keep you steady.
With the ice axe, you also need it to prevent a slip from turning into a fall. Hold it with both hands like a three point seat belt with the pick pointing away from your body at your shoulder. As you slide down the mountain side, flip onto your belly and use all your strength to drive into the snow with the pick. This is called a self arrest.
If you learn how to use an ice axe properly, then you could save your own life and others.
Traveling on a Glacier
Hiking across a glacier can be quite the challenge. You are walking on ice, so the chance to slip is high. When doing so, you need to look out for your fellow mountaineers. If one slips, you need to self arrest immediately. Be aware of your surroundings. Know how much rope slack you need, how to belay other climbers, and when and how to rope up.
Whiteouts and Crevasses
In short, a whiteout is when it is a blizzard outside, making it difficult to navigate and see where you are going. You must know how to transverse in these conditions. Skill with an altimeter and compass will help you travel through these difficulties. A crevasse, though, is a crack in the ice you could fall through. On a glacier, you have to plan your route around these.
Rescue a Friend in a Crevasse
People, on occasion, do fall through the ice or a crevasse. It is not uncommon. You need to know how to orient yourself and how to use a pulley and rope to lift your friend out. Would you be able to save them? Knowing this means the difference between life and death.
When making your way up the mountain, you should consider these tips. It will ensure that you have a safe and memorable journey.
- Keep a plan B open. When making your way up a mountain, unexpected obstacles do come up. It is a fact of life. Your plans do not work out and you have to try something else. For this reason, you need to think of other routes in case your primary one fails.
- Plant your tent out of the wind. It can get quite cold at night and the wind can bring the temperature even lower. Wind has a way of traveling through even the thickest layers of clothing to get under your skin, so there is no reason why you should have to go through that while camping. A cove of boulders is a great option.
- Hydrate and eat a lot. You will burn a lot of calories when mountaineering, so your body needs a lot of fuel to keep its energy up. When you do this, you prevent altitude sickness and ensure that you have a good time mountaineering.
- Be aware of the altitude. At a high elevation, you can expect nausea, shortness of breath, weakness, fatigue, dehydration, dizziness, and headaches if you are not careful. If you feel those symptoms, then slow it down. Set aside your ego and take your time. There is no sense in driving yourself into the ground.
- Use pressure breathing. If you force air out of your lungs, it helps to regulate the oxygen in your lungs and blood. While it does slow you down, doing so gives your body a rhythm to follow, keeping you going at a steady pace. You will reach the summit with fewer problems.
- Stay warm and dry. When mountaineering, you are not only dealing with the altitude, but the cold. The wind hits you harder, so the temperature can drop like a rock. To stay dry, bring a stove and fuel. They will keep you warm at the high altitude. In addition, bring no more than two pairs of under garment clothes to keep warm in case your clothes get wet.
Mountaineering is not for the faint of heart. It requires careful planning and thoughtful consideration. You have to make arrangements from the first step to your final one. It is, though, one of the most rewarding experiences that you will ever do. You will be treated to stunning views and spectacular scenery. It is an adventure like no other.
Otherwise, if you have any thoughts, a question, or think I missed anything, please comment below and share this article. I hope you make it a great day!