Mountaineering is a sport like no other, it’s as difficult a journey as they come. So why do people fall in love with climbing mountains? Well, you get to experience places only a handful get to see for one, but part of it is inexplicable. On a tour of the United States, British mountaineer George Mallory once famously responded to the question of why he would want to climb Mount Everest with the answer ‘Because it’s there’.
Do you think you want to start your mountaineering journey? Let us talk you through the meaning of the term, the different activities and disciplines in mountain climbing, and a step-by-step guide for getting into mountaineering to get you started.
The Meaning of Mountaineering
Mountaineering is officially defined as ‘the sport or activity of climbing mountains’, but this definition can be a bit confusing and vague. Climbing a mountain could also entail hiking a well-defined trail to a mountain summit, but many outdoor enthusiasts would argue that walking to the top of a mountain does not make a mountaineer.
In the outdoor community, mountaineering refers to climbing on snow and ice, and possibly glaciers, to reach the mountain summit. The length of the trip can vary from a few hours to a multi-day expedition, and it requires using various climbing skills and technical equipment to overcome hazards and a wide variety of conditions and terrain. In Europe, mountaineering is also referred to as alpinism.
Mountaineering vs. Mountain Climbing
Mountaineering is a subset of mountain climbing, which can also include highly-accessible and non-technical activities. The aim with mountain climbing is to simply reach a mountain summit, and that can be done by this multitude of niche activities:
1. Hiking / Trekking
Hiking is the most common and accessible form of mountain climbing as it doesn’t require any specialized gear or techniques, and can range from an easy day-hike to very challenging multi-day trek through the Himalayas.
Scrambling means that you are using your hands to climb a steep walking terrain. It is more technical than hill walking or hiking, and less technical than rock climbing.
3. Rock climbing
Outdoor rock climbing is a more technical discipline that requires ropes, helmets and harnesses to climb onto rock cliffs.
4. Ice climbing
Ice climbing is similar to rock climbing, but on ice. Instead of climbing up a rocky cliff, ice climbers climb on ice using crampons, picks, ropes and other technical equipment.
Mountaineering is a combination of all of the above! It’s using advanced techniques and special equipment to get to the hardest-to-reach-summits via technically difficult routes, and usually involves years of practice and experience.
How to Get Into Mountaineering?
Getting started with mountaineering is a slow process. You don’t just wake up a mountaineer - it requires a lot of training, learning, and experience before you’re ready to climb the bigger, steeper, more difficult terrains and call yourself a mountaineer. There’s no one way to get there, but this step-by-step guide into mountaineering gives you a better idea of the road ahead of you.
Step 1. Get outdoors
Since you’re reading this article, chances are you are already an outdoor person that did some hiking or maybe even rock climbing before. To start your mountaineering journey, you begin with perfecting those existing mountain climbing skills.
First climb a smaller mountain, and go for bigger mountains once you feel like leveling up. Once you’ve mastered this, you can start trying longer summer days out on the mountains where you need to camp and survive overnight, and maybe even try your hand at scrambling while you’re at it.
While doing all of this, you will grow comfortable walking with a heavy backpack, experience rapidly changing weather situations, improve your route finding skills, and learn what to do when you get cold or soaked. While most of your time will be spent outdoors, you should also introduce yourself in the indoor climbing gym and learn about belaying, and tying all the basic knots.
Does all of this sound a bit intimidating to you, and would you prefer to get those fundamental skills with the help of a professional? Pure Exploration’s Adventure Guide Programs might be just what you need. On these programs you will gain hiking and rock climbing skills and even certifications, making you ready to take on any challenge.
Step 2. Learn mountaineering techniques on a course
Knowledge is power, and that’s especially true in the mountaineering world. The best way to learn new skills is by attending a course led by a qualified professional. Your trainer will introduce you to safe travel and protection techniques for alpine rock terrain and snowy/icy terrain, as well as teach you essential ice ax, short roping, rappelling and crampon techniques.
All the while, you will also find your bearings with regard to navigation tools and plans, accident and emergency response, evacuation techniques and crevasse rescue just to name a few.
Step 3. Get the gear
We know that buying some cool, new gear is probably the first thing you want to do, but don’t rush this step. If you buy all your mountaineering gear from the get go, chances are you might buy equipment that you don’t actually need or use in the end. You’ll also find out that a lot of gear can be hired on location, meaning you can save yourself the hassle of carrying loads of equipment with you wherever you go.
Knowledge is the first thing you need to invest in, and next comes mountaineering boots as they will impact your comfort the most. In the long run, you might also want to consider investing in merino wool socks, a backpack, gaiters, crampons, a harness, helmet, and ice ax.
Step 4. Join a mountaineering club
Find some partners in crime for your future expeditions! You might have already met some like minded people on one of the courses or programs you joined, but if not, you can always join the local mountaineering club.
A quick Google Search should pop up the nearest club for you to join, and find some adventure buddies. Many clubs also get discounts on mountaineering courses, which you could take advantage of.
Step 5. Plan and practice
You’ve learned the skills, got the gear and even climbed some mountains, but that doesn’t mean you can take on anything you’d like. It’s time to get out there, and plan some experiences and expeditions of your own with like minded people. Practice the skills you’ve learned on the course, and find yourself some easy snowy hills before moving to more complex mountains to conquer. And don’t forget to have fun while you’re at it!
Do’s and Don’ts in Mountaineering
1. Start training well in advance
Most mountaineers start frequent and consistent training several months prior to an expedition. Mountaineering requires more than just technical skills, it is also a physically and mentally demanding sport. We recommend that you start doing hikes with a weighted backpack, go indoor or outdoor climbing to help build leg and arm muscles, and go weight lifting to strengthen your upper body for carrying a backpack. Having as much body strength as possible will help you complete your goal successfully.
2. Learn from qualified guides and trained professionals
If you’re new to mountaineering, you should not skip out on a class or course to learn how to travel on snow and glaciers, using an ice axe, and how to rescue a fallen climber from a crevasse. We also recommend doing your first big mountaineering expedition with a qualified guide, although not everyone chooses to do so. A local mountain guide would be more aware of the possible hazards in the region and can demonstrate techniques that are tailored to your needs along the way.
3. Get the right gear
Either buy yourself some quality equipment before starting your mountaineering expedition, or rent your gear from a reputable provider on the destination. Either way, make sure you have all these essentials ready to go:
Sturdy, crampon-compatible mountaineering boots
Light climbing harness
Steel or aluminum crampons
1. Don’t underestimate the dangers
Mountaineering includes some hardships and possible dangers along the way, like falling rocks or ice, avalanches and crevasses. Make sure you educate yourself in advance about the hazards of your destinations, and make sure you have trained for the conditions, and brought appropriate safety gear. Unexpected weather changes can also be far more serious in winter than in summer, so make sure you research the weather conditions and change your plans accordingly when weather conditions alter.
2. Don’t go at it alone
Mountaineering is a group activity for a reason. In case the worst happens, you don’t want to be stuck on that mountain by yourself. And aside from the safety aspect, a partner can also be your support system on your way to the mountain summit. If you don’t have a mountaineering club nearby and can’t find any other mountaineering enthusiasts, we recommend hiring a qualified guide to climb that mountain together with you.