Climbing can mean many things: practicing athletic moves in a gym, top-roping at a roadside rock or leading on bolted routes at a favorite climbing destination. It can also mean mountaineering, or using a variety of rock, snow and off-trail travel skills to reach a summit.

Summit climbs can be as short as a day or as long as a several-month expedition. They frequently involve bushwhacking, river crossings or unroped scrambling as well as technical climbing. Typical alpine climbs in the lower 48 states are only 1 to a few days in length, but they still require physical preparation and technical know-how. Rope handling, knots, navigation, belaying, rappelling, and crevasse and rock rescue skills are necessary for safe, successful mountaineering.

Getting Ready

Physical Preparation

Mountaineering can involve a lot of gear, and unless you plan to hire porters or pack animals, you'll probably be carrying it yourself. In order for your adventure to be enjoyable, your body needs to be in good working order. Running, cycling and swimming are good ways to prepare your cardiovascular system. Indoor stair climbers can help to build leg muscles used for climbing. Weight lifting can strengthen the upper body for carrying a pack and for rock climbing.

The best training for climbing with a pack, though, is to climb with a pack. Put some weight on your back and head uphill. Try nearby hikes where you can gain elevation. Or find a long set of stairs and do some repetitions. This type of training will improve your stamina on a long approach more so than running or cycling.

Mental Preparation

Mountaineering requires more than athleticism and technical climbing skill. It takes a different mindset from sport climbing close to civilization. You must commit more time and energy to complete an alpine climb, and you must be prepared for some hardships, discomfort and risk along the way. For these reasons, mountaineering is not for everyone!

The rewards of going into the mountain environment can be tremendous, though. Picture a star-filled sky, crampons crunching underfoot and the sound of your steady breathing. Headlamps dotting the route upward, then going out one by one as the first fingers of light paint the glacier pink. Or figuring out a route with smooth granite under your hands and a view that many people only see from an airplane. These are the moments that draw people away from the comfort of a rock gym or the certainty of a short climb close to the road.

Going With a Guide

If you're new to mountaineering, one way to jump right into the sport is to hire a guide service. If you are reasonably fit, there are countless mountain guides worldwide who will take you up just about any mountain you wish. In fact, you can sign up to climb Mt. Everest if your checkbook is big enough and you've had some previous mountaineering experience. Most novices opt for something a little less ambitious and use a guided climb to learn basic mountaineering skills along the way.

Going on Your Own

Mountaineering on your own can give you not only the thrill of the alpine experience, but a deep sense of accomplishment as well. Before you take a private party on an alpine climb you first need to learn and practice a variety of skills. There are many organizations, schools and clubs that provide this training.

Here are a few of the skills you need to have before you go:

  • Using an Ice Axe

    Ice axe use is one of the fundamentals you need to learn for mountaineering. Self-belay involves planting the shaft of the axe into the snow to guard against falling in the first place. If you should slip and fall, the self-arrest is used to stop you before you slide too far. Proper instruction and practice are necessary to become proficient at both of these ice axe techniques.

  • Roped Glacier Travel

    Using an axe becomes even more important when you are roped to 1 or more people while crossing a glacier. Not only do you need the skills to stop your own fall, but you need to be alert to the others on your rope team and be ready to self-arrest should one of them slip and start heading for a crevasse or a drop-off. Rope management is equally important. Knowing when and how to rope up, how much slack to leave and how to belay other climbers is a set of skills best taught by experienced mountaineering schools or clubs.

  • Crevasses and Whiteouts

    For much of the spring and summer, basic snow routes on mountains in the United States are straightforward roped ascents. In late summer or fall, though, crevasses begin to open up as the year's snowfall melts away. Previously smooth, packed glaciers can become a puzzle of jumbled ice and a maze of cracks. Route finding can be much more challenging in these conditions. Whiteouts, too, offer their own special "charm." Needless to say, skill with an altimeter and a compass is imperative for mountaineering.

  • Crevasse Rescue

    And 1 last thing to ponder before striking out on your own: Would you be able to rescue a companion from a crevasse if he or she were to fall in? Proper use of snow anchors, and a system known as the Z-pulley is an essential set of skills for safe glacier travel. Even experienced mountaineers practice these and other rescue techniques each season to prepare for the unexpected.

Ready to learn more about mountaineering?

Other Considerations

Mountaineering can bring with it a whole set of conditions and circumstances not typically encountered in sport climbing. Your party needs to be prepared to deal with the physical strains of high-altitude climbing. In many cases you need to plan your climb around permit systems, group size limits and minimum-impact camping requirements.

Altitude

At altitudes above 8,000 feet (and occasionally as low as 5,000 feet), the body starts to feel the effects of decreased oxygen in the atmosphere. Acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) result from decreased blood oxygen levels. Altitude illness can strike anyone at altitude at any time. Those who are extremely fit and who have spent time acclimatizing are as much at risk as unfit or nonacclimatized people. Previous good luck at altitude is also not an indicator of how well you'll fare on future trips. It's these things that make altitude sickness so frustrating.

Signs of moderate altitude illness are difficulty sleeping, irregular breathing during sleep, headache, weakness, fatigue, nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath. The more severe condition of HAPE involves fluid filling up the lungs and includes coughing and rattling sounds in the chest in addition to the above symptoms. In rarer instances, HACE, or swelling of the brain, shows up as disorientation and loss of coordination in addition to the milder symptoms. The treatment for all of these symptoms is to descend to a lower altitude.

How to minimize the effects of altitude:

  • If you are climbing several peaks or are moving camps on one peak, the mountaineer's adage is to go to a lower altitude to sleep or "climb high, sleep low."
  • Be sure to drink sufficiently. You need to stay adequately hydrated to stave off altitude sickness. Carrying a water bag with a drinking tube can be helpful while climbing, as you can drink frequently without stopping.
  • Eating properly is equally important when mountaineering. Altitude can have the effect of suppressing your appetite or even making you nauseous, but eating can actually reverse those symptoms. Be sure to eat carbohydrates to maintain your energy levels.
  • "Pressure breathing" or the forceful exhalation of air, seems to regulate the amount of oxygen in the lungs and blood. It can also slow down your pace, which can help to decrease the symptoms of altitude. Taking measured steps and pressure breathing in rhythm often helps climbers reach summits with fewer problems.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can dehydrate the body.
  • If you experience a headache that doesn't go away with aspirin or ibuprofen, or if you become nauseous, dizzy, disoriented, or develop a persistent cough, descend to a lower altitude.

This information is not comprehensive and should not take the place of medical advice from your physician or qualified wilderness medical professionals.

Climbing Permits

Mountaineering is an increasingly popular sport, and as the mountains become more crowded more areas are requiring user permits to limit traffic and resulting human impact. Many of the more frequently-climbed mountains require some advance planning to allow for permits and registration. Be sure to contact the appropriate agency or land manager before climbing.

Party Size

Most climbing parties have 2 or more people. Few climbers go solo, for safety reasons. Rope teams on rock are typically 2 people, while glacier teams can be anywhere from 2 to 4 with 3 being the typical number.

In wilderness areas and national parks, group size must be 12 or less. Party sizes are further limited in sensitive subalpine areas to reduce impact on campsites. On snow, group sizes are not as crucial, since the sensitive terrain is protected. The main concern here is the quality of the other climbers' experience and the management of waste.

Minimum Impact

Sanitation and waste removal are becoming issues on popular mountaineering routes as numbers of climbers increase. In the cold environment waste does not break down and simply stays where it's left. On Mt. Rainier and Mt. McKinley, among others, the National Park Service has implemented a bag system to insure that human waste is not left scattered over the mountain. Climbers receive so-called blue bags from the ranger station before the climb and are expected to clean up after themselves. Certain climbing routes on Mt. Rainier have barrels for depositing these bags. The barrels are then carried off the mountain by helicopter. Obviously, not all climbs reside inside national parks, which have the funding and resources to manage waste. In other areas, it is up to climbers to leave the route as they found it.