I remember when I started preparing for my first mountain climbing expedition. I was literally and figuratively going into a foreign land, and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. Thankfully back then, the expedition was planned by some teachers in school, and we had the luxury of just following along.
Getting started is easier than people might think and I would like to share with you 10 simple steps you can take to begin your very first mountaineering adventure.
- Decide On The Big Items
- Decide When To Go
- Decide Which Mountain To Climb
- Decide Who To Climb With
- Decide Which Route To Take
- Start Training
- Learn Basic Survival Skills
- Learn Technical Skills
- Shop For Attire, Gear And Equipment
- Pack Your Bags
|New to mountain climbing? Check out these helpful guides:
– When Do You Need To Take Mountain Climbing Courses?
– What Are The Dangers Of Mountain Climbing: 15 Potential Hazards
– Why Go Mountain Climbing: 25 Things To Do At The Summit
– What Is The Difference Between Mountaineering And Alpine Climbing?
1. Decide On The Big Items
A mountaineering trip can be as costly or cheap as you make it. But it is virtually impossible to not spend a single cent when you start mountaineering.
Knowing the budget you are willing to set aside for it can help to guide many of your decisions along the way. At the same time, do not let money be the only decision criteria especially if it compromises your health and safety.
Things you can be expected to pay for:
- Transport: this includes flight, train, bus tickets, car rental or even just fuel to get to the mountains.
- Accommodation: if you are doing multi-day climbs, you will either end up sleeping in tents (bought or rented) or huts in the mountains.
- Gear and attire: other than some basic workout clothes that you already have, other climbing attire and equipment will have to be bought or rented.
- Guide or porters: you might not be able to climb some mountains without a certified guide. In any case, having a guide for your first few climbs is always a good thing. Some climbers also find it easier to hire porters to carry bulky items such as tents and food and water supplies.
- Courses or books: climbing courses are usually quite costly. Alternatively, you can probably find lots of free videos online and borrow books from people.
Duration of your climb
For a beginner, it is probably better to go for climbs that last about 2 to 3 days.
Climbs that can be done within a day might be too short for you to truly experience the climbing experience (carrying a backpack of clothes and food or spending a night outdoors etc).
Climbing longer than 3 days might cause cumulative fatigue to set in. It’s no fun reaching the peak or summit only to be in agony when descending back to the bottom.
Desired level of comfort
Some climbers live for the challenge — they want nothing more than to be pushed to their limit and come out victorious on the other side.
Others (like me) enjoy the social aspect of climbing — spending time with family and friends and achieving a common goal together.
When you start mountaineering, you might want to look for “ more developed” mountains. These might be mountains with huts and shelters for climbers to spend the night instead of sleeping in tents and sleeping bags. Or mountains with proper built-up toilets along the routes instead of having to dig holes in the ground.
And if these creature comforts make you feel like a cheater, you can do without them on your subsequent climbs. But if you feel that even having these facilities do not live up to your expectations, at least you now know mountaineering is not for you!
2. Decide When to Go
Plan for your mountaineering trip to be at least 2 to 3 months away. This will give you sufficient time to train and pick up basic survival skills or even technical climbing expertise.
As a beginner, plan for your mountaineering trip to be in the warmer months (late spring, summer, early autumn). This not only minimizes the amount of clothing and equipment you will need for your climb, you will also avoid having to deal with the more challenging snowy and icy conditions.
It is also not a good idea to go climbing in areas with harsh summers since it increases the risks of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. You might also need to carry more water to properly hydrate yourself. This in turns adds weight to your backpack which then makes you sweat more and this turns into a vicious cycle
Some mountains may also be closed for climbing during certain seasons (such as periods with heavy snow or typhoons), so do check ahead of time on a suitable time for climbing.
3. Decide Which Mountain to Climb
If you already have your eyes set on a particular mountain, awesome!
If you have absolutely no clue where to begin, here are some guidelines:
- Find a mountain near you.
- This is going to be less costly and you are less likely to procrastinate on it.
- Find a mountain with an elevation lower than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).
- This will take you about 2 to 3 days to climb.
- You are less likely to get altitude sickness at this elevation.
- Find a mountain that’s non-technical.
- This means that the climb can be done without any specialized tools.
- The terrains are not very steep.
- The route also doesn’t have any ice or snow.
- This allows you to climb the mountain without taking any courses or requiring any climbing tools.
Some mountains also require a permit before you can start climbing. Make sure to make the required application before making a wasted trip.
4. Decide Who to Climb With
As mentioned above, some mountains require climbs to be led by a certified guide. There are many mountains where guides are optional but it is always useful to have someone experienced by your side when you are starting out.
Most of my climbs have been with guides. They taught me how to conserve energy during my climbs by taking tiny steps instead of large strides, helped my friend sewed her boot together after the sole split open, and practically dragged me up a section of a volcanic mountain where every step I look just made me sink deeper into the sand.
These guides have often been up and down the same mountain hundreds of times and have a vast pool of knowledge and experience you can draw from.
They will also plan your routes and so all you really have to do is just follow along.
In emergency situations, I’ve even seen guides carrying climbers down the mountains.
And of course, they always know the best spots for setting up camp and catching the best sunrise views.
In short, I strongly recommend hiring a guide for your first few climbs.
Porters are there to help with the transporting of equipment such as tents, cooking supplies, food, water etc.
In some cases, you can also hire a porter to carry your backpack if you like.
If you decide to climb without any guide or porter, it is still advisable to climb with someone. If you’ve watched the movie 127 Hours, you know why.
No matter how prepared you might be, sometimes, stuff just happens. You might lose your bearings, twist an ankle or just need some motivation to keep going.
If your family and friends are not interested in mountaineering, look for any climbing clubs or community groups near you. Online groups or forums can be another way to reach out to fellow climbers.
Climbing with other climbers is a good opportunity to connect with more people and a wallet-friendly way to pick up climbing skills and techniques.
5. Decide Which Route to Take
There are typically several routes to get up and down a mountain. A few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you want to take the same route up and down the mountain?
- It might be easier to go up one way and down the other (personally, I find it easier to go up steep terrains than down).
- The view might be better on some routes.
- Do you want to take a longer, less taxing route or a faster, tougher one?
- A slower ascent also means you have more time to adjust to the altitude, and less prone to getting altitude sickness.
- Where do you want to start?
- Many mountains have their starting points in the middle (e.g. Mount Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan at 12,388 feet (3,776 meters) and most people start climbing from 7,874 feet (2,400 meters)).
- These starting points can usually be reached by cars, buses or cable cars.
- Starting at these midpoints will reduce your climbing time significantly.
- Do you want a quieter route or don’t mind a popular, busier route?
- I find climbing to be a good detox for me — to be away from technology, away from (many) people. This might not be possible if you are planning to climb a popular mountain and taking the popular route.
- A popular route is usually the easiest route so it’s a trade off you will have to make.
6. Start Training
You don’t have to be super fit or athletic to get into mountaineering. Slow and steady is a decent philosophy to get you up your first few mountains.
But of course, the fitter you are, the more you will enjoy the climbing process, and you won’t need to worry about holding up the rest of the climbing group.
Try to start training 3 months before your actual climb.
Don’t overthink it. Just work on these few basic areas:
Stamina and endurance
We are not talking about running a marathon here. But you have to be prepared to be hiking for about 8 hours every day. With a heavy backpack on your shoulders.
Train your stamina and endurance in whatever way that’s fun for you. Running, swimming, biking, yoga or playing some sports.
The key is to get in 3 hours of cardio workout a week. That’s just 30 minutes every day, or 1 hour every other day.
Try to spread out your exercises instead of squeezing in 3 hours on the weekends.
My least favorite part of training, but it’s unavoidable (unless you have the luxury of hiring a porter).
At least 2 months before your actual climb, you need to start training with your backpack.
A full 55-litre backpack will usually weight around 30 pounds (14 kilograms).
- Load your backpack to 20 pounds (10kg), go for a minimum 2 hour walk.
- Load your backpack to 20 pounds (10kg), go for a minimum 2 hour walk. Look for inclined terrains or use stairs.
- Load your backpack to 25 pounds (12kg), go for a minimum 2 hour walk. Look for inclined terrains or use stairs.
- Load your backpack to 30 pounds (14kg), go for a minimum 2 hour walk. Look for inclined terrains or use stairs.
You can probably only afford to do these over the weekends. If you have easy access to parks or nature reserves, these would be the ideal places for training. Otherwise, just walk around in your neighborhood and look for stairs or steep slopes to climb.
This can replace part of your stamina and endurance training.
Specific muscle groups
Mountaineering is a full body workout. Usually, I’ll end up aching in places I didn’t even know could ache.
These are some key muscles to train:
- Gluts (your butt)
- Thigh and hamstring
- Lower back
- Upper back
Even if your climb is non-technical, you will still need a strong core and back to lug your backpack around all day.
At least 1 month before your climb, try to visit an area with an elevation of at least 8,000 feet (2,500 meters). The more often you do this, the more it will help your body to acclimatize to the higher elevation with lower oxygen levels. You should do this at least once to see if you are prone to altitude sickness.
If you find yourself suffering from mild altitude sickness, repeated visits might help your body acclimatize and the symptoms should reduce.
Alternatively, there are some medications such as acetazolamide (diamox) and dexamethasone that can prevent the onset of altitude sickness. It is crucial to seek the advice of your doctor before taking any medications or drugs at high altitudes.
7. Learn Basic Survival Skills
Even if you’re surrounded by a guide, porters and fellow climbers, it is still handy to pick up these basic survival skills:
- How to read a compass
- How to read a map
- How to use a compass and map to navigate
- First aid
- How to treat cuts and bruises
- How to treat sprains, strains, twisted ankles or wrists
- How to watch out for and treat heat exhaustion and heat stroke
- How to watch out for and treat altitude sickness
- How to collect and purify drinking water
- How to start a fire and cook
- How to pitch a tent
- How to tie a knot
- How to identify poisonous plants
- How to look out for and keep away from wildlife
8. Learn Technical Climbing Skills
This is typically not required for non-technical climbing.
|Read: When Do You Need To Take Mountain Climbing Courses?
If you decide to climb a mountain with a technical component, the best way to learn is to take a course at a climbing school.
Most schools will have an introductory course for Mountaineering and/or Alpine Climbing.
What a typical course would cover:
- Basics tools and their usage, e.g. knots, ropes and hardware
- How to protect yourself
- How to protect others
- Usually includes a hands-on climbing practice
The costs of such courses are:
- 1 to 3 day courses: USD 500 — USD 800
- 4 to 6 day courses: USD 1,000 — USD 1,400
- 10 to 12 day courses: USD 2,200 — 2,800
As you can see, the investment is quite high for such courses, and it’s a good idea to start climbing a non-technical mountain before deciding if it’s something you would like to invest more time and money into.
There are also a couple of cheaper options:
- Join a nearby rock climbing gym where you can pick up belaying, ropeway, knot tying tec
- Watch online videos
- Read books — a classic text is Mountaineering: The Freedom Of The Hills. It is written by over 40 experts and is considered the standard textbook for mountaineering and climbing.
9. Shop For Attire, Gear And Equipment
If you are climbing during the warm summer months, you probably already have more stuff than you realize.
These are the bare minimum that you can get by with:
- Cap or hat
- Even if it’s hot out, gloves are sometimes handy when you need to protect your hands when you grab rocks or stones to climb
- A couple of breathable shirts
- Long sleeved ones are better for sun protection
- A rain jacket or poncho for wet weather
- A couple of pants that you can stretch/ squat/ jump in
- A couple of pairs of socks
- Hiking boots or even just trainers
- For trainers, just make sure the grip is good enough even on sandy or wet terrains
- Undergarments and sleeping attire
But do make sure to check the night temperatures in the mountains. Temperatures can drop drastically after sunset and when you ascend higher up the mountains. Depending on the region and elevations, you might experience temperature drops of 50 to 70 F (10 to 20 degrees) during your ascend.
Here are some cold wear that you might need:
- Instead of packing 1 thick jacket, it’s better to have 2 thinner layers. This allows you to put on or take off layers to deal with the varying temperatures.
- An inner fleece or down jacket and an outer windbreaker is the best combination. Your rain jacket can double up as your windbreaker layer.
- Windproof pants
- Thicker socks such as wool
|Read: Ultimate List: What To Wear When You Go Mountain Climbing.
- If there’s something you should splurge on, it’s your backpack. Your backpack is going to be on you for the most parts of the climb and having a good one will help minimize aching shoulders and back.
- You will need a proper mountaineering backpack and not just any old backpack that you bring to work or school.
- A proper mountaineering backpack should have a waist strap to help offload some weight from your shoulders.
- You will need a 40 to 50 liters backpack for a 2 to 3 night climb.
- If you do not want to buy a new backpack, consider renting or borrowing from someone.
When climbing non-technical mountains, a pair of hiking sticks is good to have, but not necessary. A sturdy long branch you can find in the woods will work just as well.
But if you are doing technical climbing, here are some additional equipment you may need:
- Belay device
A guide might have some of these tools and some can be shared with other climbers. If you need any of these equipment, try renting or borrowing from others to save some money.
|Read: What Equipment Do You Need To Climb A Mountain? (Pictures Included).
10. Pack Your Bags
You’ve probably realized by now that your backpack seems to be turning out to be your biggest enemy.
So keep your enemy small.
Though it might be tempting to pack a lot of “just in case” stuff, you will be regretting them an hour into your climb.
|Don’t forget anything important again with this Ultimate Checklist of What To Bring For Mountain Climbing.
Other than the clothes, gear, and equipment mentioned above, some other items to bring include:
- Personal belongings (wallets, medical or insurance information, watches etc)
- Light source (headlamps, torches, batteries etc)
- Electronics (camera, cell phones, etc)
- Toiletries (towels, toilet paper, wet wipes, hand sanitizer, toothbrush, toothpaste etc)
- First aid supplies
- Navigation items (maps, compasses etc)*
- Shelter (tents, sleeping bags etc)*
- Cooking supplies*
If you are hiring porters, they will typically carry those items marked with an * above.
When packing your stuff, it helps to use small bags or ziplocks to compartmentalize them. This helps when you’re looking for things and repacking them.
Do also make sure you place your heavier items lower down in the backpack and as close as possible to your back. This helps to maintain a lower center of gravity and keep your balance when you’re climbing.
Am I too old to start mountaineering? The oldest person to summit Mount Everest is a 73-year-old Japanese Tamae Watanabe. Your age is not going to matter as much as your attitude and physical fitness. Most of us are not going to be conquering the 7 summits but mountaineering is a sport for everyone and you are never too old to get started.
Am I (or my kids) too young to start mountaineering? The youngest person to summit Mount Everest is 13-year-old American Jordan Romero. There are tonnes of mountains out there that children even as young as 7 years old can start climbing. What’s important is ensuring that you or your kids have the mental resilience, and are aware of the hazards and dangers of mountaineering.