Mountain Climbing & Mountaineering Guide
Have you ever glanced up during one of your trips outdoors and saw a mountain ahead? Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to conquer the mountain and reach the summit? Have you ever wondered what it would take to achieve this? If all these have crossed your mind at one point or the other, then it's time you tried mountaineering.
I'm going to break it to you. Climbing a mountain isn't a walk in the park. It's a lot of hard work that involves carrying a lot of gear and making important and tough decisions. You have to decide about how much gear you carry. While climbing with extra weight is no fun, you also have to make sure you carry all essential gear.
The exhaustion, stress, anxiety, crappy meals, etc. associated with mountaineering aren't talked about enough. This isn't to discourage you from mountaineering but to prepare you for what to expect. Now, you are probably thinking why anyone would bother to climb a mountain with all the stress and hard work involved.
The reason is simple. It's about the sense of accomplishment you will feel after reaching the summit. Mountaineering is all about setting goals and accomplishing them, expanding your limits, and conquering your fears. And also because we mountaineering enthusiasts are a bunch of crazy people, haha. You didn't hear that from me.
In this article, you'll learn what mountaineering is all about, how to get into the sport, styles of mountaineering, essential gear, the best time to go mountaineering, and so on. This is your comprehensive introduction to mountaineering. Let's get started.
What Are Mountain Climbing and Mountaineering?
Mountaineering is simply the sport of climbing a mountain. Since mountains often provide mixed terrains, mountaineering requires climbers to navigate a wide variety of conditions. Sometimes, the climber has to use some technical equipment to aid his/her ascent up the mountain.
“Mountain climbing” is a more generic name for the activity, while “mountaineering” is usually reserved for the highest and toughest mountains, requiring more skills than simple hiking.
There is some similarity between mountaineering and backpacking as both require you to start out on an established trail with all essential gear and supplies tucked away in your backpack. The difference lies in the destination as whereas backpacking involves completing a hike out and back, the goal of mountaineering is to reach the peak of a mountain and maybe shout “I made it!!!”.
The true success of mountaineering isn’t just about the result (reaching the summit). It’s also about the process of reaching the summit as you have to safely overcome every hazard in your way.
How To Get Into Mountaineering?
You may wake up one morning and feel like climbing the mountain. It’s a good feeling to have but there is a process to mountaineering. To climb a mountain, you need to be experienced in outdoor activities like camping, hiking, climbing, and glacier travel. By mastering these basic outdoor activities, you are en route to having all you need to successfully reach the summit of a mountain. Below is the roadmap to getting into mountaineering:
Remember I said backpacking and mountaineering are similar to an extent? You need to have some experience backpacking before venturing into mountaineering. This is because most mountain routes are long, steep, and high-altitude versions of hiking trails. And when you are comfortable backpacking (or going on multi-day hiking trips), you’ll be able to take on mountain routes with confidence and grace.
There is one thing you can escape in mountaineering – the cold! Some mountain summits may be below freezing point, around -5C to -10C, even in summer. Since most of your backpacking and hiking trips will most likely take place in summer, you need to prepare for the subzero temperatures on mountains by going camping in winter.
Here, you’ll learn all essential skills about setting up a tent, cooking, and choosing appropriate clothing in the snow, ice, and cold.
Learn the fundamentals of climbing
While you don’t need to be an expert rock climber to ascend a mountain, some basic climbing skills are needed. Check out our comprehensive guide to rock climbing.
Taking the next step
You’ve gone on several backpacking and hiking trips. You’ve ventured into rock climbing to learn the fundamentals of climbing. You’ve been on several winter camping trips and have become one with the cold. Good job, champ. You are closer to become fully ready to climb a mountain but there are still a few more steps like:
- Try scrambling
Scrambles are difficult hiking trips on difficult terrains (usually third and fourth class terrains). You can see scrambles as somewhere between hiking and moderate hill climbing. Scrambles expose you to what to expect in mountaineering in regards to the very exposed terrains.
- Challenge yourself by trekking abroad
Trekking abroad, if you can, is a wonderful way to prepare for mountaineering. A lot of preparation in regards to visas, permits, logistics, and so on is needed but there is no better way to prepare for your eventual ascent up a mountain by trekking in trails around mountains where the line separating hiking and mountaineering is very thin.
Take a class or hire a guide
A guide will teach you all you need to know about climbing a mountain. Your guide will travel with you and show you the ropes. However, if you intend to travel without a guide, you need to sign up for a mountaineering class where you’ll learn essential climbing skills.
Get the right gear
Packing the right gear is crucial to a successful mountaineering expedition. Expect more information about essential mountaineering gear later in this article.
The 2 Styles Of Mountain Climbing
The styles of mountaineering have evolved over the years due to advancements in climbing equipment. Routes that took days using old equipment and climbing techniques can now be accomplished in a matter of hours.
Currently, there are two styles of mountaineering which are alpine and expedition mountaineering.
Alpine climbing, which is done on medium-sized mountains (summits of 3000 – 5000m), requires minimum gear which allows mountaineers to move quickly and make a swift push to the summit. Mountaineers friend on deep skill base, adaptability, and good decision making. Usually, alpine climbing is done in a day except unless the route is extremely difficult.
On the other hand, expedition mountaineering is done on larger mountains which takes weeks or months to climb. As a result, mountaineers here need to carry heavier loads and their pace is slower. Here, mountaineers have to make camps as they ascend the mountain.
As a beginner, you start with alpine climbing and can then switch to expedition climbing as you gain more experience.
The best time to go mountaineering is during Spring, early-Autumn, and summer. Mountaineering can also be done in winter but that’s for the most experienced climbers.
Spring, early-Autumn, and summer offer pleasant and stable weather conditions. There is no strong wind, heavy snowfall, and extremely cold temperatures. Even the subzero temperatures on mountain summits can feel pleasant in these seasons and you can take a short break to enjoy the beautiful scenery around you…and maybe a sandwich.
To go mountaineering in winter, you need to have extensive experience mountaineering in summer, spring, or autumn. Also, you’ll have to learn technical training due to the extra technical difficulty of climbing mountains in winter.
It’s common to see mountains having ‘peak season’ when services like gondolas, mountain huts, guides, and so on are fully operational. All these services come to an end during the off-season. Some mountains also have an official climbing season. Note that mountains will most likely be crowded during the peak or official climbing season but all services will be fully operational.
Physical And Mental Preparation For Mountaineering
Mountaineering is a physically and mentally demanding sport. And to be ready for the challenges that will come your day, you have to be prepared physically and mentally.
For the physical aspect, you need a certain level of fitness to climb a mountain. Start by assessing your current level of fitness by getting a report from a doctor or a certified trainer. Then you consider the physical requirements of mountaineering (or a particular mountain, if you already have one in mind) and decide how you’ll approach your training.
Most training regime for mountaineering includes cardio workouts (running, swimming, cycling, and so on), interval sessions, strength and endurance exercises, balance and flexibility, and hiking/backpacking.
All your training comes down to hiking and backpacking as you have to extend your exercise into real-world situations. Pack some gear and take several hikes, preferably where you can gain elevation. Going up and back kn a long set of stairs is also a good exercise as you’ll be able to build up your stamina.
Note that you can’t be completely prepared for the effects of high altitude as you ascend a mountain. It’s common knowledge that there’s decreases oxygen as you go up a mountain and this can take a toll on the most physically fit climbers. Your guide or mountaineering class will educate you on what to expect as you gain altitude including signs of moderate altitude illness like nausea, fatigue, dizziness, and so on.
There’s also a mental aspect to mountain climbing as I previously mentioned. Climbing a mountain is completely different from sport climbing close to civilization or even backpacking on already established trails. You are in the wilderness and must have the mental fortitude to keep going despite potential hardships, discomfort, and possible dangers. There is the exhaustion, crappy meals, poor rest, anxiety, and sometimes fear. It requires a great deal of mental strength to keep going in these situations.
Have I talked about possible hazards on the route like falling ice, falling rock, avalanches, and falls into crevasses? The weather can also be miserable. Yes, you may have prayed and begged the gods for sun. But you may get rain instead. If you are unlucky, you may be forced back to turn back before reaching the summit if there is a dangerous storm.
But human beings are inherently adaptive creatures and mountaineering brings out that innate quality in you. There is light at the end of the tunnel in the end and the sense of accomplishment you feel after reaching the summit is out of this world. You may also be rewarded with a star-filled sky or beautiful scenery at the summit.
Essential Gear For Mountaineering
You need to have the right gear before climbing a mountain. While some of these gear may be provided to you by a guide, you will need to buy or rent them. The exact gear you need depends on the route you intend to climb but below are essential items you will always need.
Mountaineering boots: Navigating your way up a mountain requires a comfortable and sturdy pair of crampon-compatible mountaineering boots. Note that mountaineering boots aren’t the same as backpacking boots since boots for mountain climbing must provide more support and are thus stiffer.
Climbing harness: It’s the same as any harness you’d use for rock climbing. However, there are mountain climbing-specific harnesses on the market that are more comfortable and lighter than those used for rock climbing.
Ice axe: An important mountain climbing gear that you’ll need to go up steep slopes. Ice axes will also stop your fall if you sleep. Depending on how technical the route you are planning to climb is, you may need two ice axes.
Crampons: Important traction devices that improve mobility when traveling on snow and ice-smeared surfaces. Crampons are attached to footwear and could be made of either steel or aluminum.
Aluminum crampons, while being light, are not as durable as steel and are suitable for navigating on moderate snowfields without any sections of rock.
Climbing helmet: For the protection of your head, you can use any standard rock-climbing helmet. However, check that your helmet has a mount for a headlamp.
How To Stay Safe Mountain Climbing?
To enjoy a successful mountaineering trip, it’s important to observe certain precautions. Below are steps you can take to stay safe.
Plan your route
The first step is to plan for your route and this involves knowing how to get to the trailhead. You’ll also want to learn how to identify paths you want to follow on a topographical map since phones may not work in the backcountry. It’s important you take your level of physical fitness into consideration when planning your route. Having a backup route will also come in handy in case of the event of unexpected weather changes.
If you are planning on an overnight trip, have plans for where you intend to camp. If the mountain has a hut, be sure to make a reservation ahead especially during the peak season. And finally, let your friends, family members, and local officers like park rangers know when you are climbing and what your plans are. This may come in handy in case of an emergency.
Pack the right gear
If you are climbing with a guide (which you should as a beginner), your guide will inform you on what to bring along. The exact gear you need will depend on the route you are climbing. You may need walking poles when navigating on an uneven terrain.
Pack all the gear you’ll need and double-check it. You don’t want to get to the mountain and find out you forget the ice axe.
Pick the right challenge
Dreaming of conquering mount Everest when you are new to mountaineering doesn’t make sense, right? Don’t overestimate your ability. Work with your guide or tutor to choose the right challenge for your level of fitness, skill, and experience.
A smart mountaineer checks local weather forecasts before embarking on a trip and plans accordingly. If forecasts say the weather is unfavorable, you may consider postponing your trip to another time.
But even when the weather is clear and forecasts are favorable, the weather up a mountain can change rapidly and dramatically. This necessitates the need to prepare for all weather conditions. As such, you must have appropriate clothing for hot, cold, wet, and windy weather conditions. In the event of a storm, the best thing to do is to stop moving and wait the storm out.
Hire a guide
The purpose of a guide is to keep you safe while providing an enjoyable experience. Since guides are usually local to the area, they are highly knowledgeable about the mountains and will show you the best routes and beautiful sceneries that may not be in your guide books.
Guides also make fine company and will try to motivate you when the trip isn’t going as expected. Your guide may try to cheer you up by telling interesting stories.
Take a mountaineering course
Before you attempt to climb a mountain, you need to master technical skills, fundamental climbing skills, and know how to travel in the mountains. And the best way to do this is to sign up for classes taught by professional mountaineers. Mountaineering classes may be provided by schools, clubs, or organizations.
You can expect to learn stuff like meal preparation, map, compass navigation, and packing a backpack when you sign up for a beginner mountaineering class.