A lot of people have asked me about mountaineering recently if the question was a general question “How do I get into mountaineering?” or an “I want to get into the glaciers, but how dangerous are they?” With the abundance of social media posts that advertise people’s passions, more and more people are keen to push their adventure beyond the beaten track. So what’s the best approach to improving your mountain game?
1: Take a course
While there are hundreds of YouTube videos out there and Freedom of the Hills is awesome, they cannot provide on-site commentary or critical personal experience to help you learn in context.
A weeklong mountaineering course is the best way to quickly learn new skills. Certified guides know how to explain exactly what you need to know and correct the inevitable mistakes everyone makes. You might be tempted to load up all the cool gear first, but remember that knowledge is almost always a better investment than gear (more info below).
So what skills should you be looking for?
- Safe movement and protection techniques for snowy and icy terrain
- Ice ax technique, crampon technique, self-arrest technique, snow and ice anchors, glacier travel skills, reading crevasses and glacier morphology, identifying hazards in glacial terrain, route plans for glacial terrain, rope for glacier travel, crevasse rescue, alpine ice climbing techniques
- Navigation, designing effective route plans, introduction to navigation tools including GPS units, compass, altimeter, topographic maps, Google Earth, resections (triangulation), map bearings, bearings in the field, following a roped bearing for the glacier trip, white navigation plans
- Introduction to accident and emergency response
- Evacuation techniques and rescue resources
- Safe movement and protection techniques for rocky alpine terrain
- Short rope principles, traditional rock protection strategies, construction of rock anchors and natural features, abseiling
- Systems, safeguards and other descent techniques
2: Find partners
This is often the trickiest part. Having a course under your belt makes things a lot easier, as it demonstrates a certain level of competence. There are many clubs like the Alpine Club of Canada, the American Alpine Club, and the Sierra Club. A quick Google search in your area should yield results. Having a course under your belt demonstrates a commitment to training yourself and that you have received the required skills, which makes it much easier to participate in a trip.
Taking a class with friends is another great way to make sure you have adventure friends. But remember, classes just give you the skills to react. They don’t give you the experience to know how to act. If possible, try to find more experienced people to go to the mountains with. You will have a rich mine of stories and experiences to learn from.
So how do you get mentors and partners?
Join a club: lots of people, lots of knowledge, lots of perspectives.
Be enthusiastic: watch Alex Honnold in Line Across The Sky. He perpetually brings good vibrations to the team. Always bring the boost, especially when it slips. Many beginners are slow and it can be a bit of a hassle to eliminate them. But if you’re fun to be around and keep your spirits up when it gets you down … you’ll find people will invite you over a lot more.
Be responsible: do your research, know the route, don’t rely on others to do your camp tasks, or plan the route.
Contact Us: Don’t hesitate to ask people to do things. You will often hear a no but ask anyway.
3: Get the gear
Many people rush this step first. This step is intentionally the fourth step.
There are very few pieces of sophisticated mountaineering gear that you need. My first trip wore clothes that cost a total of $ 100 and an assortment of borrowed gear. Ignore blog posts telling you the 10 things you NEED. Bad equipment is normally partially influenced by bad attitudes. Remember that the first attempts at Everest were made with eight silk shirts, tweed jackets, and ties.
So it’s likely that at this point you already have pretty much everything you need. Not borrowing gear and buying some cheap crappy stuff is a great way to find out what you really need.
There are only two things you need to invest your money in knowledge and shoes.
Knowledge will be what will allow you to access new places and new wonderful experiences. Gore-tex jackets, while great, only last three to eight years, and they increase your comfort slightly. You can adjust your attitude to comfort for free. Knowledge in the mountains is more difficult. And knowledge, properly practiced, will last you a lifetime.
I can promise you, this is a lesson I learned from personal experience. Spending money on equipment rather than knowledge just slows down the process, and that’s a bad decision in the long run.
Most of the equipment you can rent, borrow or do without. If you’ve found more experienced partners, chances are they have some common material like ropes, traditional support, etc. Ice axes are the easiest item to borrow. They’re rarely used, sizing doesn’t really matter, and they all work basically the same with a few very minimal differences.
Start buying personal items that have the greatest impact on your comfort because you cannot acquire them easily. Mountaineering boots, harnesses, and a full layering system are the most difficult items to borrow. Boots and clothing can often be purchased second-hand. If you can’t afford new gear, the MEC Gearswap is great for a reliable used kit, and there’s always Craigslist.
- Non-Cotton layering system (try the sports sections at thrift stores sports section if you’re low on dough)
- Hiking boots
- Merino wool socks
- Climbing Harness
- More merino socks
- Mountaineering boots
- Course tuition
- Fancy insulation/waterproofs
- Ice ax
4: Getting into the outdoors
Chances are, you’re on your way to becoming a competent outdoor person. You’ve stood on top of a few peaks. You carefully check your routes before you leave. You know how to make an emergency plan, can read a topographic map, and you are good enough to take most of the ten essentials with you. So congratulations, you have almost completed the first step.
Mountaineering is all about hiking in more difficult places, with more stuff and more danger. So the first place to start if you want to get into mountaineering is hiking and backpacking. Nothing will introduce you to mountaineering like walking for hours with a heavy backpack. It strengthens your tolerance for discomfort and strengthens the feeling of suffering for a greater purpose. Camping and hiking skills are also beneficial in mountaineering and getting used to the pace of tent life and away from any kind of convenience really helps. Cooking, cleaning, sleeping, and other mundane chores can be hard to get used to if you’re not used to it, and trying to learn these chores and mountaineering skills at the same time is very overwhelming. Start with the basics.
Scrambling, a common extension of hiking, is a good last stop before mountaineering. Hiking steep routes to the peaks make it easier to read maps, plan routes, cross steep ledges, and hike longer days. Most importantly, you will start to learn the route finding. It’s the bread and butter of mountaineering, and the more difficult routes you choose in comfortable gray rock seas, the easier it will be to locate routes through mounds of ice.
Here is a good list of experiences you should have under your belt.
- walked with a big package for over eight hours.
- had a day where everything seemed to be going wrong.
- got lost.
- be soaked.
- got cold.
- experienced rapidly changing alpine weather conditions above the treeline.
- scrambled several peaks where you had to use your hands and walked through sections where a fall would have been catastrophic.
- made at least two backpacking trips over a weekend.
- learned to belay, outdoors, or in a climbing gym, and learned how to tie all the basic knots.
5: Get out there and practice your skills
You took a course! You’ve climbed a mountain! You can go do anything now !!!!
Well, not exactly. Mountains are changing all the time, and the art of mountaineering interprets these changes. For the first time, you will face many new and potentially dangerous terrain. Mountaineering is all about the conditions, and it takes a lot of traveling with experienced people to get a good idea of how to plan for them. Now is the time to get out there, have some fun, and create your own experiences. Spend time following other more experienced people. Build your experience. Hire a guide to further broaden your skills or pursue goals that may be beyond your skillset.
It is also important to practice your skills. Install rescue transport systems in crevices in your basement. Find a snowy hill and refine your ice ax arrests. These skills are easy to forget because most people will (hopefully) never need to use rescue skills. But it’s important to keep practicing to make sure that if you ever need to use them, you can take action without hesitation.
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