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Introduction to Mountaineering

Taking Your First Steps Toward Stepping Up High
By Chris Chesak - July 18th, 2003


While we all love being outdoors, some of us have a little more hunger, a little more drive to seek more of a test, a deeper sense of accomplishment, and a little more of the edge. This primal call comes from the alpine, the land of wind and rock that shuns both trees and human alike.

But even for those of us with a confident mastery of backpacking skills, the jump to mountaineering can certainly be intimidating, if not outright daunting. The following suggested course of action takes you from looking up from the valley floor at distant peaks to standing atop those peaks, drinking in the view of that same valley and the horizon beyond.

You will need to expand your skills, knowledge, and gear but, like most alpine climbs, it is best taken one step at a time.

Step #1: Master Backpacking
Almost every good mountaineer began as a backpacker, which offers a good introduction to managing your food, fuel, and water and packing, hauling, and unpacking your shelter, sustenance, and survival. Be sure to first master your backpacking skills and develop your own 'systems' for cooking, sleeping, etc.

Step #2: Master Winter Camping
The next step is actually more a traverse into the backcountry's winter chill. Although you might have your backpacking skills nailed down, winter offers a whole new slate of challenges.

Do you have your tent's set-up dialed in? Now try it with a new, heavier tent in 15 degrees and fading light. Ever tried simply opening your pack, retrieving an item, and cinching it tight again with mittens on? It is a whole new world.

These once simple tasks, not to mention more complex ones like setting up a winter kitchen, are the most basic survival skill-set for your mountaineering adventures. Plus, you will get to know the winter world first hand; the hush of snow-covered landscapes, the solitude of areas oft-overrun in warmer months, the exquisite joys of warm, buttered cocoa and filling food on a chilly night.

Step #3: Take Avalanche Classes
Note the plural: classeS. While a single, Level I course will teach you basic avalanche physics and how to use a beacon and probe, taking that one class actually puts you into the largest risk group for being caught in a slide. It is the quintessential example of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" as more people caught in av's have taken a Level I course than have not.

So take two classes (or, better yet, three) as additional courses give you not only the confidence to go out in avalanche terrain but also the more advanced knowledge of how to really avoid them. Don't forget to purchase crucial avalanche gear (beacons, probes, and shovels) for each member of your expedition and make sure to practice what you learn in your classes before getting to the backcountry.

Remember, your best, most important 'gear' is knowledge and you can never carry too much of that.

Step #4: Rock Climbing (optional)
Rock climbing is not at all a requisite for alpinism, but it can provide some additional skills. Rope management, basic knots, some anchors, belaying, and general rope work are skills you will learn rock climbing that will also come into play during your forays above tree line.

Step #5: Take a Course
Many guide services offer basic alpine courses that will add a great deal to your expanding knowledge base. From weekend trips that culminate with a one-day push up a moderate alpine route to week-long trips on Rainier or other classic peaks, these courses will equip you with basic mountaineering skills such as self-arrest, glacier travel, snow anchors, working as a roped team, and perhaps (preferably) crevasse rescue.

Feel free to study up beforehand by reading classic mountaineering texts and come to the course with your brain like a sponge; ready to soak up every tidbit of knowledge.

A few additional points about guide services:

  • Make sure your guide is accredited by the American Mountain Guides Association to ensure that he or she truly knows their stuff.
  • Rather than renting your mountaineering gear, consider making the investment in buying it. And note that many guide services are sponsored by manufacturers so, rather than blindly going by their recommended gear list, be sure to talk to knowledgeable climbers, friends, and customer service people so that you can get what is truly best for you.
  • Finally, don't forget to tip your guides!
Step #6: Clubs
A lower cost alternative to taking a guided course is to join a regional club. If you are fortunate to live near groups like the Mazamas, Colorado Mountain Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, or a host of other regional groups, they often offer an array of instructional trips and classes.

However, these courses are usually taught by other club members, not professional, accredited guides. Thus, their instructors could potentially have dubious experience, teaching skills, and/or emergency training. The cost savings are significant, but so is the difference in quality.

Step #7: Venture Forth... Cautiously
Now that you have built a basic foundation of knowledge and skills, you must gauge your confidence and decide on your next move. If you feel ready for an unguided trip, consider a single-day, easy, and accessible alpine route, with more experienced partners. Do your homework first though by reading guide books, talking to local climbers, and consulting land managers.

If you are not yet that confident, then by all means take an advanced class, read more books, and continue to broaden your burgeoning list of skills, knowledge, and gear.

Step #8: Come Back
It just wouldn't be a climbing article if we failed to include a ubiquitous disclaimer about the dangers of climbing. But while such disclaimers might seem trite, they are also true: the summit is optional, the return is not.

Weather you are a professional climber-athlete or a total novice, the objectives will differ but the goals always remain the same: have fun, learn, experience, challenge yourself, do it all safely, and come back... so you can do it again.


Chris Chesak is the former Development Director of both The American Alpine Club and American Hiking Society. He is a nonprofit development consultant and writer who lives (and climbs when he can) in Idaho.

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