Mountaineering is an increasingly popular activity. But how to start mountaineering when you have zero climbing skills? The sense of fulfillment in reaching the summit is indescribable. Besides, it is one hell of a way to get and remain fit. On top of all, it is also a superb way to connect with nature. But at what cost?
Climbing a mountain requires a lot. It takes much more than mountaineering equipment. Therefore, it is wise to prepare yourself for the challenge. Experience climbers recommend the following steps:
- Build up your strength and endurance
- Enroll in a mountaineering course
- Master map and GPS navigation
- Pick a summit and plan accordingly
- Get your mountaineering gear
- Reach the summit
It looks fairly easy, right? On paper, it is. However, it takes a lot of time, patience, and trial and error. So, let’s take some time to explain everything you should know about how to start mountaineering.
What is Mountaineering?
Before talking about all the recommended steps, it pays to explain what mountaineering is. It is much like a backpacking trip. Everything starts with a loaded pack with mountaineering gear on an established trail to a summit.
The main difference between a backpacking trip and mountaineering is that the first starts and ends in the same place. In contrast, mountaineering is making your way from the base camp to the peak. The journey back is not as relevant.
What Does It Take to Climb a Mountain?
Any outdoor activity is physically and mentally demanding. Mountain climbing is no different.
You not only need mountaineering gear. You need to build your body, develop mental strength, and learn technical skills. It also pays to know how to rescue another climber from a crevasse.
So, as you can see, there are lots of milestones to accomplish before making your way through snow and ice to the top.
Build Up Yourself: Cardio, Weights, and Mind
Before enrolling in any mountaineering course, you need to build your strength. Cardio and weights are your best buds now. Walking, running, and cycling are all suitable to improve your cardiovascular system. It is crucial to find a pace that you are comfortable with. As part of your endurance training, try to increase the miles you walk or run in a single session. Changing the inclination is a good idea as well.
Remember that climbing a mountain is not a sprint. It is a marathon. Therefore, it doesn’t matter how fast you go. The goal is to reach the summit. Thus, focus on improving your aerobic fitness, as it is the first line of attack.
Interval training is a great approach to strengthen your aerobic capacity. Run at high speed for a couple of minutes, then suddenly change the pace and start jogging or walking. Repeat the process again for a 30 min session. Here you can adapt your breathing to sudden changes and use oxygen much more efficiently.
In other words, you will use less O2 to keep your muscle running. Keep in mind that oxygen concentration decreases with height. That’s why high-altitude climbs are so challenging.
Mix regular cardio with interval training as they are not the same. The first will help you with endurance, and the second with efficiency. Remember to increase both the time and intensity of your aerobic training from time to time.
Upper body training is key as well. Mountaineering gear is heavy. Thus, your back and legs must be strong enough to handle that extra weight. So, hit the local gym and start a weight training program.
Start easy if this is your first time. Hit the entire body by making muscle groups. Train a different group each day. Mountaineering training involves all your muscles, from the calves to shoulders. If possible try to couple each routine under 1 hour. High-intensity training is key for muscle growth.
Never train the same muscle two days in a row. Leave at least one day between sessions for muscle recovery. I know, you might be wondering. Which are the best exercises for mountain climbing? Let’s see.
In a nutshell, power training focuses on muscle power. There are intensive exercises that use the maximum force in the shortest time possible, like box jumping.
Box jumps are an ideal way to increase leg power. It uses your body weight and builds the quads, a crucial muscle to prevent knee-related injuries. Naturally, you won’t be jumping during your trip. But it is a great way to get in shape.
Powerlifting is another great example. You build your back and legs at the same time. Two core muscles are needed for walking many miles with a heavy pack.
Squats, military bench press, pull-ups, and deadlifts are a must on your program. But keep in mind one thing. Hire a personal trainer if this is your first time in a gym. This way, you are less likely to get injured and make the most out of your time. Besides, your trainer will develop a training plan that adjusts to your needs.
Speak with your personal trainer about your goals. This way, you will have a training plan focused on core strength. After all, mountaineering is all about legs, back, and abs. Naturally, you use your upper body as well. But not as much as your core.
But cardio and strength training only help as much. So, it pays to go to a local hill with a heavy pack as part of your aerobic training. This way, you will feel more comfortable walking with a heavy pack strapped at your back. Again, start easy. Walk at a steady pace for a couple of miles.
Start adding mountaineering gear to the mixture to increase weight. Grab a helmet, set of ropes, crampons, sleeping bags, and ice axes. Wear your mountaineering boots too. This way, you can break them, preventing blisters.
Like we said before, oxygen concentration decreases with elevation gain. Getting used to it is crucial for a successful climb. So, in combination with interval training, you should consider adding a high-altitude training routine to the mix.
Yes, it might be impossible to find a hill high enough to do this. However, you can use a high-altitude mask. These devices help simulate, to a lesser degree, the environmental conditions found at specific heights.
High-altitude training might not look like a big deal. But keep in mind that before reaching the top of high mountains, seasoned mountaineers do acclimatization routines. They camp somewhat near the top and then walk up for a couple of miles, so their bodies adjust to the lack of O2.
Know Your Limits
Even the fittest climber will feel the strain of high altitude. How to start mountaineering beings with knowing your limits. The lack of oxygen takes its toll. Sleeping gets harder. Headaches, nausea, fatigue, weakness, and dizziness are common side effects as well.
Therefore, it is crucial to know how much punishment you can take. It is better to return to base camp if you don’t feel up to the task. There is no shame in backing away. You can always try again later. But you won’t if you don’t listen to your body.
Yes, you read that right! Mental training is as important as physical fitness to learn how to start mountaineering. After all, your mind can elevate or bring you down.
Anyone who’s been outdoors knows this. That’s why it is crucial to create a mental training program.
But, how can you train your own mind? Spoiler alert, it is not an easy task. Patience is the name of the game.
Set small, achievable milestones on your training schedule. This way, you can build confidence. For example, I try to increase weight and run farther and longer every month. I also try to complete my hiking routes quicker. It is the best way to push myself and see my progress.
It also pays to enjoy the view from the base camp. I’ve found that staring at the night’s sky or appreciating the sunset is quite fulfilling. It lifts my spirits and gives me a reason to push forward.
Other fellow mountaineers say that meditation is the best way to build a strong mind. As you can see, there are no right or wrong answers. So remember, patience and discipline.
Enroll in a Mountaineering Course
Although it is not extremely necessary, you should consider enrolling in a mountaineering course. There you can get some valuable insights on how to beat the mountain. Find your lessons for women and men.
True, you can ask a friend to do it. But it is better to have a tailor-made program. Besides, your friend might not muster the time to help you as promptly as you might need. It is a quick way to learn, much-needed technical skills that might save your time, energy, and even life.
Acquiring such a skill set must be one of your mountaineering training goals. Here you have some of the basic skills you must have before you learn how to start mountaineering attempting to reach mountain peaks.
As you might imagine, walking on snow is more challenging than walking on hard, stable ground. That’s why it is crucial to learn a snow travel technique. This way, you can use energy much more efficiently when going up and down on a hill.
For example, step-kicking is arguably one of the best ways for ascending moderate hills. It all lies on the footing. Strike the snow with your toes repeatedly as you make your way up. In contrast, plunge stepping is the fastest way to walk down from a low-angle hill.
How to start mountaineering involves learning step-kicking, which is arguably one of the best ways for ascending moderate hills. It all lies on the footing. Strike the snow with your toes repeatedly as you make your way up.
When the slope increases, mountain climbers switch techniques and use the Duck Foot approach. In a nutshell, it consists of making a V with your feet and kicking them into the ground.
But the Duck Foot technique only helps as much. When the hill gets steeper, it is time for the Crossover Step. On this approach, you climb at an angle. This way, you can reduce the inclination, thus, increasing the contact between the boot and the snow.
Do you see? Walking on snow takes more than just placing your foot in front of the other time and time again.
Plunge stepping is the fastest way to walk down from a low-angle hill. The technique relies on burying the heel on the snow so you can anchor yourself before taking the next step.
Sliding down a hill is a quick and fun approach. However, there are some ground rules:
- Never do it if you are roped with another climber.
- Don’t wear crampons
- Only use the technique on a moderately steep hill
Using an Ice Axe
Learning how to use an ice pick is crucial, especially if you plan on engaging in high-altitude ice climbing. You can bury the shaft in the ground if you happen to trip. Alternatively, you can strike the pick into the ice and self-arrest if you are sliding down a hill.
These two techniques are crucial to prevent an accident in the wild. Thus, you should practice and master them before the beginning of your trip. We can help you choose the best mountaineering ice axe if you don’t already own one.
Learning How to Walk With Crampons
Once you’ve mastered the art of walking on snow with your mountaineering boots alone, it is time to learn how to do it with crampons. These traction devices will increase your grip on icy grounds, making it safer to travel. However, you must know how to use them.
As you learn how to start mountaineering, practice and practice. They will do more harm than good otherwise.
The French, German, and American are the three techniques that you should learn when using crampons. Each one is suitable for a different purpose. Let’s see.
The French Technique: For Low Angle Slopes
The French technique is quite straightforward. You simply need to bury your feet flat on the snow. The goal here is to increase the anchoring points. That’s why you place your feet flat on the ground.
The German Technique: 45 Degrees Plus
When challenging terrain comes, it is time to switch to the German technique. It consists of burying your toes, and your toes alone, in the ice. The key is to make sure that you can support yourself with a single foot. This is the safest way to climb a high-angle hill.
The American Technique
Also known as the hybrid technique, it is a mixture of the previous two. Here, one foot goes German-style, and the other uses the French approach, hence the name.
If you have a pair of crampons at home, you can practice putting them on and off using gloves. It might look like a joke. But let me tell you, things get tricky when your fingers are cold and numb.
Although crampons are useful, you don’t have to wear them the entire time. Walking with them slows you down. Thus, it pays to identify when you must use them:
- The slope of the hill increases
- The snow gets harder
- You are walking on a glacier
We don’t recommend using crampons outside these scenarios as they can become a problem instead of a solution.
Learning Roped Mountaineering
Tie yourself with other mountain climbers becomes a necessity in low visibility situations or when the terrain is treacherous. When climbers are roped together, they can act as human anchors if someone happens to fall. It also allows a quicker rescue. In short, it is a life-saving skill.
Sadly, rope traveling is an art. It is much more than simply tying yourself to the closest climber. There is a lot to pay attention to. Party size, weight, height, and experience influence the decision.
For example, the most experienced mountaineer should always be at the front. That’s because the most experienced person must lead the team, keeping them away from dangers.
On the other hand, the heaviest person must travel at the front when going up. Then switch to the rear for going down.
The least experienced climber should be in the middle. This way, we will make things easier for him to keep up with the route.
How Many People Can Go in a Single Rope?
It all depends on the party size. Three is always a good number. This way, two climbers can anchor if one falls. Besides, it also speeds up the time and lowers the effort of rescue operations.
Two people will travel faster. However, you are working on the limit here. If one falls and the other doesn’t anchor in time, then both are doomed. Plus, rescuing someone out of a crevasse gets more complicated.
Too many people tied in the same rope increases the chances of someone falling. Besides, remember that you should always leave some spacing between one climber and the other.
Deciding how much space between climbers is an art in its own right. Like we said before, too little space, and you risk two climbers falling into the same crevasse. Too much slack, and it will be impossible to stop someone that’s sliding down a hill.
Experienced climbers suggest leaving five arms worth of separation between climbers.
Setting the right pace is crucial as learning how to walk on snow. That’s the main reason why the most experienced climber goes first. This way, he or she can set a pace that everyone can follow.
But you must follow the pace. That’s why physical conditioning is key. You must start training as soon as you come up with the idea of going on a mountaineering trip.
But, how do you know if you are walking at the right pace? Well, it all depends on the rope slack. The unspoken rule is to keep the rope at a 45-degree angle with your hip.
Learning How to Navigate Challenging Terrain
Educating yourself on how to start mountaineering, part of your mountaineering-specific training is to learn to navigate through snow and ice. Needless to say, it is better if you train these skills in a safe environment. This way, you can tell where it is safe to walk and where it is not.
As you can see, there is much to learn before hitting the wild. Understanding the terrain is critical as you learn how to start mountaineering. Programs such as Yosemite Mountaineering School, the only authorize climbing guide for Yosemite, offer lessons to get you proper training. That’s why it is so important to enroll in a mountaineering course.
Alternatively, you can hire someone who can teach these technical skills, as well as help with your training sessions. But either way, someone has to teach you by example. It is the only way to be sure that you’ll be able to do what needs to be done to reach the summit and keep you from any harm.
Map and GPS Navigation
Everyone should know how to read a map. It might seem a little obvious. But knowing how to spot your current position and destination on a map is quite challenging. However, it is a valuable skill that will help you to plan your trip. How so?
Well, mountaineering often involves walking on different routes or climbing mountains for the first time. So, as part of the preparation, you should get acquainted with the ground. Are there any cliffs? Does the elevation change abruptly? Are there many rocks, or is it a clear path?
You can learn all of these things on a map. Plus, it will be helpful for location purposes once you arrive at the scene.
Using a GPS device is more intuitive than reading a map. But keep in mind that these devices are nothing like Google Maps. They often only show the trail alone, nothing more. Still, they are valuable electronics as they can display your exact location on the grip. If things go south, you can communicate your position to any nearby rescue team.
Although seasoned climbers often hire a local guide to show them the layout and plan the route for them, it pays to know how to navigate using a map and GPS, especially for emergencies.
Pick Your Challenge
Choosing a summit and trail is a critical point in planning. It will determine the difficulty; thereby, influencing your training sessions. Although the actual routine might not change in terms of exercises, it will change the duration of the program.
After all, not all summits are equal. Thus, each climb requires a different training time and program.
Choosing a mountaineering route defines which gear you should bring. Are you crossing glaciers? Then it is wise to bring a crevasse rescue kit and an extra set of ropes. Is it snowy? Then, bring a pair of crampons with you.
It also pays to browse the web thoroughly so you can acquire as much information as possible. Knowing the elevation gain, trail features, water sources, and off-limits areas is key. Download or purchase a local map and identify the routes.
If possible, try to gain insights from people that have already done the climb. Ask them about their training timeline, routines, the path that they follow, pace, gear, and weather.
Be realistic about your challenge. Don’t go for the highest peak if this is your first time. Start slowly and gradually increase the difficulty of the trails. But how do I know how difficult a climb is? Well, there are different grading systems, which we will talk about in the following lines.
A Look At Mountaineering Grades
Like any climbing discipline, mountaineering has several grading systems. All of them show how difficult a route is. In a nutshell, it depends on some factors. Let’s break them down on how to start mountaineering with learning about the grading system.
- Danger: Loose rocks, avalanches, and weather changes can potentially make your trip much more dangerous. Therefore, the more likely these events are to occur, the more difficult the route gets.
- Length: Naturally, not all trails are of the same lengths. Difficulty increases with the distance between the base camp and the end of the route.
- Exposure: As you might know by now, high altitude poses a new challenge: Breathing air with less oxygen. So, it becomes obvious; the higher the peak is, the harder the route is.
- Technical level: Difficulty increases according to the moves you need to get from A to B. Do you need to sort out narrow passages? Or Do you need to climb a frozen wall? Are there any technical moves involved?
- Sustained Difficulty: It refers to how long the technical section lasts.
With this new knowledge, it will be easier to understand why some climbs require more training than others. Now it is time to take a look at some of the most common grading systems.
One of the first mountaineering gradings systems, the French grading still stands today. It is widely used today. It once had six levels. Nowadays it has over ten.
The French mountaineering grading system comprises a combination of letters and the optional addition of a – or + sign at the end. The grades range from F to ABO. Let’s check the meaning of each one.
- F (Easy): On these mountaineering routes, you won’t need technical equipment. You might not even use your hands on the whole trip.
- PD (A bit difficult): On these routes, you will encounter technical sections. Nevertheless, they won’t last long and are easily identifiable. Slopes might get as steep as 45 degrees.
- AD (Fairly difficult): Slope’s angle increases up to 65 degrees. The technical sections are longer, and the path is not that clear. You shouldn’t try such routes if you don’t have any previous experience.
- D (Difficult): Expect long technical sections and outside hazards such as falling rocks and avalanches. The ice and snow slopes get steeper.
- TD (Very difficult): Only suitable for seasoned mountaineers, the TD grade involves slopes up to 80 degrees. Sustained technical sections and ice climbing. Thus, you need to master all the technical skills. First aid and rescue knowledge is advisable.
- ED 1/2/3/4 (Extremely Difficult): Prolonged technical section and vertical ice climbing. Superior rope-management skills and top-notch gear are a must for those willing to encounter the challenge. You will face falling rocks and knife-edge cliffs.
- ABO: Almost the entire route is technical.
Yosemite Decimal System
Shortly known as YDS, it is another widely used mountaineering grading system. Sadly, unlike the French approach, it doesn’t take ice nor snow into consideration. The main advantage is that it is easier to understand. The grades range from 1 to 5, with 5 being the most difficult of all.
- Class 1: These are regular hiking routes without any technical section involved.
- Class 2: A little harder than Class 1, but still no technical sections involved. Fit people should not face any major trouble sorting these routes.
- Class 3: Things start to get serious from this point onward. You will encounter some technical sections but not sustained. Beginners should not attempt such routes without some Class 2 climbs under the belt.
- Class 4: Loose rocks, narrow passages, and technical sections are at the order of the day.
- Class 5: These are the highest difficulty level of de YDS. Some people add a X extension to the 5 to differentiate them.
A Word of Cautions About Grades
Although there are several other grading systems, all of them only serve as a reference. For example, an F route could be significantly harder for some people, while it could be a walk in the park for others.
You might be wondering why? Well, it all depends on fitness level. Fitter climbers usually face fewer problems while climbing. Thus, don’t take a low grade lightly. Always have respect for the mountain and know when to back up.
Get The Gear
Start getting your gear ready as soon as you’ve chosen the summit. Mountaineering gear is expensive. Thus it will take you some time to acquire all the necessary goods.
Sometimes, mountaineering guides cover part of the gear. But you need to get the rest. So, make sure to ask if you are planning on hiring guides. This way, you can make better use of your money.
Crampons, mountaineering boots, ice axe, ropes, climbing harness, winter clothes, men’s mountaineering boots or women’s mountaineering boots, GPS, personal locator beacon, climbing helmet, and mountaineering backpack are among the pieces of gear that you might need when the time comes to make the summit.
Mountaineering: A Test of Body and Mind
Mountaineering takes much more than having the right gear. It takes a physical and mental toll. Thus, you need to get ready for the challenge.
Building your body and boosting your cardiovascular system is the very first thing that you must do. Metal preparation is another crucial step. No one can defeat a mountain with a weak mind.
Planning and learning how to start mountaineering most important step is to add mountaineering-specific drills. Learn how to walk with crampons, use an ice ax, rope travel, and how to read a map. These are all crucial skills for safely making our way to the summit and back.
Make sure to have everything you need for the trip. This includes mountaineering gear, first aid kit, licenses, and permits if required.
As you can see, there is a lot of preparation involved. So, better start as soon as possible.
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Last update on 2022-02-27 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API