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How to Start Mountaineering: The Essential Guide

One of the most common questions I get on this site is, “How can I get into mountaineering?” Mountaineering can be an incredibly rewarding sport, but it can also be daunting to break into. 

You may be able to hike for miles, backpack for days, or take on the occasional off-trail scramble. But even with this outdoor experience, it’s still a big jump to build the skills and get the gear you need to summit a high-elevation peak.

The good news is that getting started with mountaineering isn’t as hard as it looks. Sure, it takes some effort—but if you’re thinking about climbing mountains, you’re probably a pretty motivated person to begin with. It’s also worth keeping in mind that every mountaineer, myself included, started off where you are now.

In this guide, I’ll walk you through the initial steps you need to take to start mountaineering. I’ll highlight some key resources you can take advantage of, like mountaineering courses and books. I’ll also explain what gear you need, how you can find partners, and how to set your first big mountaineering objective.

Step 1: Get Outside

The first step—which you’ve probably already taken—is to spend time outside. Go hiking or backpacking as often as you can, and gradually increase the length and ambitiousness of your trips. If you live in an area with mountains, use steep terrain and hikes with a lot of elevation gain to build your physical fitness for mountaineering.

Even if you’re already in great shape, spending more time outside can help you hone some basic mountaineering skills. For example, you can practice route finding with a map and compass as well as with GPS apps like Caltopo and Gaia.

You can also get comfortable with bad weather. For better or worse, wind, rain, and snow are all a part of mountaineering, and the best way to get accustomed to alpine weather is to spend time in it. It’s better to get soaked and cold now, when you’re only a few miles from the trailhead on a maintained trail. That way, you’ll have experience to help you manage when things inevitably don’t go according to plan in the alpine later.

Step 2: Educate Yourself

Once you’ve got the basic skills you need for safe travel in mountainous terrain, you could jump right into an easy mountaineering trip to learn by doing. However, I’ve found that it’s incredibly helpful to take a mountaineering course with a certified guide before you go it alone.

There are several advantages to this. First, you’ll learn a ton. Adventure guides have decades of experience with mountaineering, and the insight they can offer will save you years of frustrating trial and error. Most mountaineering courses also let you request tutorials for specific skills, so if there’s something you’re not comfortable with, you can practice safely with a guide.

Second, mountaineering courses often include gear rental. That’s important because you’ll get to try out some gear before you have to buy your own. You’ll get a better idea of what pieces of gear you need, what you can do without for now, and what styles of equipment you like.

Finally, taking a course is a great way to meet other novices in climbing and mountaineering. Several friends I made in courses I’ve taken ended up becoming longtime partners. We learned from each other and got deeper into mountaineering together.

Beyond taking a course, I highly recommend learning all you can about mountaineering from books and online forums. Several excellent books on mountaineering to start with are:

  • Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills by The Mountaineers
  • Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue by Andy Tyson and Mike Clelland
  • Rock Climbing for the Absolute Beginner by K.J. Moore
  • Backcountry Skiing: Skills for Ski Touring and Ski Mountaineering by Martin Volken, Scott Schell, and Margaret Wheeler

I’d also recommend an online course from Mark Smiley, a renowned mountaineer and guide, called Crevasse Rescue for the Modern Climber. His videos are so well-done that I typically go back and re-watch them at the start of each spring to refresh my glacier travel skills.

Step 3: Build Your Gear Closet

Now that you’ve got some experience under your belt, it’s time to start building your collection of mountaineering gear.

It’s extremely easy to go overboard with gear, especially when you’re building your kit from scratch. Unless you have tons of money to spend, though, resist the urge to buy everything you think you might need or to buy the “best,” most expensive piece of gear available. As you start getting on more mountaineering trips, you’ll quickly learn what types of equipment you really want. It won’t be long before you’re switching out all of the gear you’re buying now for gear that better suits your needs.

With that in mind, there’s still a long list of equipment you’ll need to invest in. At the very least, you’ll need everything on my 10 essentials list, including a down jacket and a lightweight rain jacket. You’ll also want a dedicated mountaineering backpack. For overnight trips, you’ll also need a full complement of backpacking gear, including a tent, sleeping bag, and stove. If you only have a lightweight 3-season tent, it’s worth it to invest in a dedicated mountaineering tent.

You’ll also need an ice axe, crampons, mountaineering boots, and climbing helmet. Hiking boots might be okay if you’re not walking on snow, but mountaineering boots and automatic crampons are a must if you plan to be on icy terrain. I carry an ice axe on virtually every trip unless I know for sure there won’t snow, and a helmet is mandatory for scrambling.

If you’re not planning on navigating technical routes—and, at least at first, you shouldn’t be—you can hold off on buying a harness, belay device, and rope for now.

Step 4: Find Partners and Mentors

Finding partners to climb with and mentors to help you build your skills can be one of the trickiest parts of breaking into mountaineering. But if you’ve taken a course and have the gear you need, you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding others who are willing to adventure with you.

Hopefully, you already have partners you can hit the ground running with from your mountaineering course. If not, or if you’re looking for additional partners, most areas have online forums or Facebook groups where mountaineers gather. Cascade Climbers is a terrific resource in the Pacific Northwest, and Mountain Project is frequently used by climbers in the Rockies. On Facebook, just enter the name of your local mountain range and “mountaineering” and it’s more likely than not there’s a group you can join.

Whenever you’re connecting with new partners, be upfront about where you are in your mountaineering journey. If you specifically ask for mentoring, someone from the community will typically raise their hand. If it doesn’t happen right away, be patient. I know that, for me, there are some days when the trip I have planned calls for an experienced partner, and other days when I’m open to exploring with beginners. You’re more likely to connect with a mentor if you’re persistent.

Step 5: Set an Achievable Goal

The last step on your mountaineering journey is to set a goal for yourself. Ideally, your initial goal should be something you can achieve within 1-2 years. At the same time, it should challenge you to refine the skills you’ve developed up to this point and to build new skills, such as moving through glaciated terrain, rope climbing, or avalanche safety.

Some mountaineering objectives that are perfect for advanced beginners include Mount Baker and Mount Rainier in Washington, both of which require glacier travel. You can also try Mount Whitney or Mount Shasta in California, which involve scrambling but no technical terrain. Colorado’s 14ers also offer plenty of opportunities for mountaineering.

Whatever your goal, remember that it’s ultimately a stepping stone. Once you achieve it, you can set another, higher goal, and push yourself to learn even more skills along the way.

Summary

Mountaineering isn’t as easy to get into as hiking or backpacking, but you might be surprised to find just how accessible it is once you set your mind to climbing mountains.

Getting into mountaineering starts with building your outdoor skills, taking a course, and learning all you can from the many excellent resources available to new mountaineers. From there, you can get the gear you need, find partners, and start working towards your first big goal. Before you know it, you’ll be standing on top of your first major peak and gazing out at the mountains around you, already planning your next trip.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.