I want to climb mountains ...
July 20, 2012 2:41 AM   Subscribe

How do I start ... mountain climbing?

Hi everyone,
in my daydreams I imagine it must be interesting to climb mountains. (Dangerous too but more on that...)

If I'm serious about getting into this sport, how do I do so? where do I go, what do I do, who do I talk to? I have no equipment or clue how to start.

Physically what exercises ought I to do, to be in the best physical shape to engage in this sport?

Finally, how dangerous is it? Stories such as 'Into Thin Air' or similar books stick in my mind. IMHO & w/ due respect it seems that most calamaties are due to human error. In other words bad things happen when stupid decisions are made. That doesn`t make me immune (perhaps it makes it more likely for an amateur novice) but I wonder how intrinsically dangerous this sport is...

Maybe the answer is `stick to hiking, bud`...

Any comments are welcome, thank you.
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (5 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Where are you? If you're on the East Coast, there's the Appalachian Mountain Club. If you happen to be in Colorado, there's the Colorado Mountain Club, and in Washington State there are the Mountaineers. If you're somewhere else, I'm sure there are equivalent groups all over the place.

Joining a group like one of the above would be the first step, I think, because mountaineering isn't something that I would advise trying to learn all by yourself. The groups above don't just give you opportunities to meet like-minded people, they also offer classes, so you can work your way up to the skills you're going to need. The two main skills that differentiate mountaineering from regular hiking are rock climbing and snow travel. You can find an indoor climbing gym and start learning there. Neither the Colorado Mountain Club nor the Mountaineers will let you get anywhere near a strict mountaineering class though until you've proved to them that you can carry a normal-size pack, navigate your way out of a paper bag, and can take of yourself in normal unpleasant-weather backcountry situations, etc. So if you're already pretty good at those things, you'll have to be patient for a while as you go through a couple of lower-level classes to check off the boxes and prove your basic competancy in the wilderness. This is a good thing though, because it means those groups take safety very seriously, and it's also good practice being patient, which is something you're going to need if you want to become a mountaineer.

I wouldn't buy any equipment right away. Rent what you need for a while or borrow from other people until you get a sense of what you're actually looking for. Mountaineering gear can also get really expensive, so if you buy stuff really quickly, you may be shelling out a lot of cash for something you don't stay interested in. However, do you know about the book, Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills? It's pretty much the bible reference book for mountaineering types, and it's been around for so long it shouldn't be that hard to find a cheap copy.

Finally: yes, mountaineering is dangerous. Driving is also dangerous. The margin for error in mountaineering is a lot smaller than it is on an easy day hike. I am more of a river person myself, but I worked for a while in outdoor education and so I've had a lot of friends over the years who are pretty serious mountain climbers. These people are uniformly pretty steady, humble people whose goals do not include proving how bad-ass they are. They do not talk about trying to conquer mountains, because the common consensus seems to be that whenever you try to "conquer" a mountain, the mountain always wins. The motto I hear thrown around a lot is: "Getting to the top is desirable, but getting down in mandatory." What I'm really trying to say is: yes, there are occasionally freak accidents. But any time you're in serious wilderness, your pride is just as dangerous as bad storms or avalanches. Strive to be a humble climber, and you've got a very good chance of boring your grandchildren with the stories about the mountains you used to climb.
posted by colfax at 3:50 AM on July 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

A good way to start is with indoor climbing, by taking a beginners course at a climbing gym. Depending on where you live, this can be a lot more accessible, you don't have to buy anything or plan anything, and you can start as small as you like. You will learn lots of useful skills (especially rope handling) and inevitably meet people that are interested in mountains as well.

Good general outdoor skills are extremely important, as colfax points out. Freedom of the hills is the bible and it's a wonderful read even if you end up not getting into the sport, incredibly useful even just for hiking and camping.
posted by Pre-Taped Call In Show at 6:57 AM on July 20, 2012

Backpacker Magazine did a story a few years back about getting started in mountain climbing. It won't get you ready to climb a mountain by yourself, but it's got a pretty hardcore fitness routine to get you into shape for the things mountain climbers need to do with their bodies.

Read Freedom of the Hills, as pointed out by previous answers. It really is the book on mountain climbing.

Once you've got the fitness and the book-learnin' accomplished, take some classes and/or go on some guided trips. There are guide groups that will take you up mountains all over the U.S., teaching you safety and skills along the way. You're expected to be fit and have some knowledge, but not all the practical skills. RMI Guides is one really well respected example of a group like this.

w/ due respect it seems that most calamaties are due to human error. In other words bad things happen when stupid decisions are made.

It's true that human error plays a big role, but mountain climbing is also inherently dangerous. That's what makes it kinda awesome. There is a lot less room for error on a mountain climb compared to almost any other activity. A half-hour delay might mean you're still above treeline when a lightning storm hits, or a sprained ankle might mean you literally can't get yourself home. Rapidly changing circumstances (sudden storm, avalanche, etc.) mean that people are forced to make split-second decisions in life-or-death situations, which makes those "stupid decisions" a lot harder to avoid. Throw in cold and decreased oxygen, both of which make your brain foggy, and you almost have to count on human error occurring. And then on top of it all, you have to realize that mountain climbing is typically a TEAM sport -- you're roped in with other people, counting on them as they count on you -- which means more chance for someone to notice an error before it's too late, but also a lot more people to make stupid mistakes that jeopardize your life.

Reading Into Thin Air recently, I was really struck by how many poor decisions were made, but at the same time it was really obvious how such experienced climbers could make those mistakes. Summit fever, especially for a life-list mountain like Everest, makes people do dumb things in hopes of getting to the top, but the entire environment is also basically designed to cause bad decisions that will get you killed.

Anyway, I'm assuming you wouldn't want to start with Everest or even Rainier. Start with some less-technical summits (some of the Colorado 14'ers come to mind), where you don't need ice-crossing or climbing skills, but you do need fitness and a willingness to start at 4am to avoid the afternoon thunderstorms, and see how you like it.
posted by vytae at 7:47 AM on July 20, 2012

Scattered comment... lots of stuff on this topic comes to mind.

Mountaineering is different than Climbing. I am going to assume you mean mountaineering for the purpose of this since Climbing is more readily accessible to people locally (unless you live in a very flat place - and then go to a Gym).

I started to make the plunge in 2000, and a buddy and I looked into climbing a 10K footer. What we found out in the process of looking at US sites was the cost was prohibitive and the time to do it was short. In essence the value of a US guided tour was low.

We settled on the Intro to Mountaineering course through Yamnuska in Canmore, Alberta. Since then I've flown out there on three other instances to do programs with them - well worth every dime. (Also don't go 'holy sh**' looking at the shot of St. Nicks on the intro page - it is a very quick and very easy peak to get up.

A lot of mountaineering is walking smartly. Want some base skills? Be able to carry a 50lb pack for 6 miles, then a 15lb pack for an 8 hour day of strenous activity. Be a pro at the stair master. Learn how to walk slowly and mimic the footprints of the people in front of you: Mountaineering is about everyone having the same stride. If you're short walk a little longer, if your tall, walk smaller.

For gear - Yamnuska (if you go with them) rents out most of what you would need so you don't need to make the huge investment right away. What you might want to get is listed on their site should you take the class. I'd add, you want to do things smartly, get an alpine (or ski) frame pack - something with few external ribbons and no mesh on the side - that's the stuff that gets cought on things and either rips or potentially injures you. Lightweight and waterproof is the best - so a big thick winter coat is great for skiing, but for mountaineering, a waterproof windbreaker and rainpants is sometimes better. Eye protection is a must, but investing in a $250 pair of sunglasses is foolish if you drop them down a crevasse on the first day. That really goes for all equipment: be willing to part with it in order to save your life. Duct tape is a quick fix for crampon-ripped gators. Camera batteries don't do so well at sunrise when the temperature is -10C. You'll want to be in shorts when it hits 30C. Getting up at 2:00AM is worth it for solid ice - that way you aren't slogging it home through slush at noon.

In all, I spent probably $1000 on gear for my first trip, and about $200 of that gear was left locked in a locker in Canmore so I didn't haul it up a mountain needlessly. (As I said - pack light)

Freedom of the Hills is a great resource, I'll third or fourth it - it is a great read.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:00 AM on July 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Get outside hiking, and then start hiking easy summits. At the same time, start climbing. A gym is a good place to start, but get outside and learn to lead. You'll quickly find out if this is something you want to pursue further. Like anything else, it is simply a progression of skills from that point. As you develop more skills, more opportunities become open to you. You might find that you are happy simply hiking in the mountains. Or you can continue to develop more skills and take on greater challenges. It can be whatever you want it to be.

As to the danger, it all comes down to how much risk you take. Alpinism can be very dangerous, but that is not to say that there are not safe mountains to climb. Ultimately almost every problem can be boiled down to some sort of human error, but in the difficult conditions that an alpine environment often throws at people, even small errors can be disastrous. Lots of very experienced climbers have died in the mountains, there is no reason to believe that you would be any different. Eventually it boils down to a risk that you have to weigh against the potential reward. You can try to mitigate it with lots of preparation and lots of experience, but you can't escape it.
posted by jamincan at 9:01 AM on July 20, 2012

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