The Beginners Guide to Climbing Mountains
Getting to the top of a mountain and capturing the surrounding views can be an incredibly rewarding experience! In fact, the physical challenges and feelings of accomplishment are so great that you may find yourself wanting to climb more peaks and bigger mountains. For some this can lead them on a journey that culminates on Mount Everest! But, nobody starts with climbing the highest mountain in the world. We start with a dream of a mountain. This blog post is full of mountain climbing basics to turn your dream of a mountain summit into actionable steps to get you up the mountain.
Decide what style or specific mountain(s) you want to climb:
It’s super important to begin to push your abstract dreams into concrete mountain goals. Pinning down the types of mountains and even geographic regions will help you fill in the answers to the rest of the steps below.
- Cascade Mountains
- Colorado range
- Sierra Nevada’s
- Adirondacks Mountains
- Presidential Range
- Alaska Range
Style of Mountain Climbing:
- Snow travel
- Glacier Travel
The best mountain and styles for beginners will be ones hiking on maintained trails and avoiding anything that needs more technical skills. Many of these regions will have mountains available to start climbing that meet these requirements. The following suggestions of skills will first focus on mountain climbing basics.
Mountain Climbing Basics: The Need to Know
When it comes to getting into the mountains it’s important to get physically in shape for the journey. Climbing mountains tends to be longer and steeper. I point out both things because people tend to intuit that longer hikes take better endurance. What people tend to overlook is that the steeper trails, heavier packs and uneven terrain going up mountains takes a lot of strength. Here are some quick references for mountain fitness.
Endurance = An output over longer periods of time.
Training activities: walking, running, cycling, swimming, hiking (sports specific). It’s best to figure out your baseline abilities using some of the heart rate zone structures. From there you can train aiming to keep your heart in a specific effort level.
Strength = increasing our force against a mass, aka being able to carry heavier packs and push up steeper steps.
Training activities: the best way to improve strength is to spend some time focused on quality strength training. This means you work to lift, squat, push heavier and heavier weights. I am a big fan of the barbell, free weights, and kettle-bells. Be weary of low weights and lots of reps as this may become more of an endurance training than strength.
Other important components of training to get aligned are pacing and recovery.
When it comes to mountain nutrition the goal is to figure out how to budget calories and keep energy consistent all day long. Some of the best ways to do this is to learn how to balance macros and energy daily and then transfer that to the backcountry. Once you move to working on nutrition while hiking you will want to find light weight options that still meet the above requirements. It will also be important to figure out how calories change for increased output.
Lastly, with all nutrition and training, hydration is super important. Many people do not adequately hydrate daily. This means we are already behind when we start exercising. So, increasing water intake and absorption of water will be super helpful. I am a huge fan of nutrient dense water. You can read more about hydration on my other blog post HERE.
When deciding on what gear to bring you need to figure out if it’s going to be a single day or multi-day trip. If you are climbing peaks in a single day, then some of the items listed below won’t be necessary.
- Clothes – Layers for the extremes in cold and heat/sun
- Bathroom supplies – Plan to take care of business in a sanitary way that is also LNT (Leave No Trace).
- Emergency supplies – Bring the basics to service overnight, even if it’s not in the plans
- First Aid Kits – Make sure you have a first aid kit for emergencies
- Food/kitchen set up – Bring enough food for your climb with a bit to spare
- Sleeping & shelter set up – If spending the night, figure out what is needed to sleep comfortably: tent, bivy sack, just sleeping pad and sleeping bag?
Managing the risk for your trip involves many different steps, starting with how you prepare before the trip. Making sure you have the skills and training for the terrain and demands of the trip (training in navigation, decision making, weather, altitude, and cold challenges). Watching weather and making sure to adjust trip objectives to match the weather. In addition, packing all the emergency supplies and first aid kit will help you if things go wrong.
Finally, communicate your plans and emergency response options to friends or family.
If you can hone your technique to be as efficient as possible it will infinitely increase the chance of reaching the summit. Surprisingly, some of the most basic efficiency techniques involve great footwork. Pay attention to where you put your feet and the pacing of your steps. Most of my clients have needed coaching on this. For example, steps need to be shorter the steeper it gets. Learning the “Rest Step” technique can be a game changer!
In addition, it is important to focus on breathing effectively and not panting. Lastly, learning to use trekking poles can be helpful. I also coach clients on this as most people don’t know how to use poles for going up and down steep terrain, and they don’t adjust the height of the poles as the terrain changes.
Mountain Climbing Basics: Mountaineering
Mountaineering infers that the mountain you are climbing requires more skills than regular hiking and backpacking. The expectation is that getting to the summit will require being off trail. You will need additional skills depending on the region to handle 3rd, 4th and 5th class terrain (don’t know what that means- HERE’S a quick video). It should be noted that there may be exposed rock climbing, requiring the use of a rope, or snow, requiring an ice axe. Depending on the region, there could be glacier travel or ice climbing.
This is where getting focused on which specific mountains or region you want to begin summiting makes a difference. Below are some specific mountaineering skills listed by region beyond the basics listed above:
- Cascade Mountains: Glacier travel, whiteout navigation, grizzly bear safety
- Colorado range: Basic rock climbing technique, snow travel
- Sierra Nevada’s: Basic/advanced rock technique, snow travel,
- Adirondacks Mountains: Navigation in forested areas
- Presidential Range: Navigation in forested areas, heavy emphasis on weather changes and cold
- Alaska Range: Glacier travel, whiteout navigation, grizzly bear safety
Now, using these mountain climbing basics, make a list of the skills that show up repeatedly for the types of mountains you want to climb – then look for mentorship. Mentorship can come from experienced friends, outing clubs, clinics and classes at local gear shops, outdoor clubs, guiding, and online classes. I highly encourage using a combination of a few of these resources to help support the journey.
A note from Natalie: I personally believe very strongly in mentorship and have used many of these resources in my own outdoor journey. Part of the Gut-Z Journey philosophy is to be a mentor to others and enhance skills and safety for mountain adventures. My “How to climb Mt Whitney” course goes into all the above topics in greater detail, including tutorial videos and downloadable worksheets. Additionally, I’m working on creating more online course materials to increase access to resources for people all over the country. I also teach in person wilderness medical courses – you can learn more about them HERE.