Step 1: Getting into the outdoors
Chances are you’re probably well on your way to being a competent outdoors person. You’ve stood on top of a couple of peaks. You check your routes carefully before going. You know how to develop an emergency plan, can read a topo map, and you’re pretty good about bringing most of the Ten Essentials with you. So congrats, you’re basically finished the first step.
Mountaineering is basically hiking in more awkward 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 trudging for hours on end with a heavy pack. It builds your tolerance for discomfort and reinforces the sense of suffering for a greater end. Camping and backpacking skills are equally beneficial in mountaineering, and being habituated to the cadence of tent life and away from any kind of convenience is really useful. Cooking, cleaning, sleeping, and other mundane tasks can be tough to acclimatize to if you aren’t used to them, and trying to learn these tasks and mountaineering skills at the same time is very overwhelming. Start with the basics first.
Scrambling, a common extension of hiking, is a good final step before mountaineering. Hiking steep routes to summits builds comfort reading maps, planning routes, working your way across steep ledges, and hiking longer days. But most importantly, you’ll start to learn route finding. This is the bread and butter of mountaineering, and the more comfortable you are picking out tricky routes in seas of gray rock, the easier it will be to locate routes through rolling mounds of ice.
How will you know when you are ready for the next step? Here is a good list of experiences you should have under your belt. You’ll know you are ready to move on when you’ve…
- walked with a big pack for more than eight hours.
- had a day where everything seemed to go wrong.
- gotten lost.
- gotten soaked.
- gotten cold.
- experienced rapidly changing alpine weather above treeline.
- scrambled several peaks where you had to use your hands and crossed sections where a fall would have been catastrophic.
- done at least two backpacking trips longer than a weekend.
- learned how to belay, either outside or in a climbing gym, and learned how to tie all the basic knots.
Step 2: Take a course
While there are hundreds of YouTube videos out there, and Freedom of the Hills is great, they can’t provide on-the-spot feedback or critical personal experience to help you learn in context.
A week-long mountaineering course is the best way to gain new skills quickly. Certified guides are very adapt at effectively explaining exactly what you need to know and correcting the inevitable mistakes that everyone makes. You might be tempted to load up on all the cool gear first, but remember, knowledge is almost always a better investment than gear (more on this bellow).
So what skills should you be looking for? Here is a good list from Cloud Nine Guides:
- Safe travel and protection techniques for snow and ice terrain
- Ice ax technique, crampon technique, self-arrest technique, snow and ice anchors, skills for glacier travel, reading crevasses and glacier morphology, hazard identification in glaciated terrain, route plans for glaciated terrain, roping up for glacier travel, crevasse rescue, alpine ice climbing techniques
- Navigation, designing effective route plans, introduction to navigational tools including: GPS units, compass, altimeter, topographical maps, Google Earth, resections (Triangulation), bearings from the map, sighting bearings in the field, following a bearing while roped up for glacier travel, whiteout navigation plans
- Introduction to accident and emergency response
- Evacuation techniques and resources for rescue
- Safe travel and protection techniques for alpine rock terrain
- Short-roping principles, traditional rock protection strategies, rock and natural feature anchor construction, rappelling
- Systems, backups and other descent techniques