This past year was my first full season in the Sierra Nevada. I learned wilderness first aid from NOLS, snow climbed by strapping metal knives to my boots, and fell on my face more times than I can count. The classes I took to progress frequently moved at too slow a pace, and outings with new friends were often a recipe for panic attacks as I struggled to learn while simultaneously discovering my hard limits in the outdoors. Along my journey, I found so many incredible books about training for huge alpine objectives and first-hand accounts of harrowing adventures up in the death zone, but not a lot of first hand content about how it really feels to dive into alpinism after a life of merely hiking. At the end of the day, I really wished there was a simple, cut and dry version of what I needed to know when I was just starting out so that I wouldn’t have had so many numb toes, nauseous stomachs, and exhausting approaches.
5 things every beginner mountaineer must have
I am absolutely not an expert mountaineer, but I am confident that these tidbits of good advice will help you get going on the right path.
I wish that someone had emphasized the importance of high-carb, easy to digest foods when hanging out above 12,000 feet for long periods of time. Maybe if I had a mountain Yoda to guide me on my path, I wouldn’t have retched near the top of Mt. Langley or bonked on the way down from Mt. Whitney. Energy gels, though pricey, are the best things I’ve found to shove down my throat so that I can keep ascending. They come in all flavors, and many have added salt or caffeine so you can optimize your dehydration or energy level on the mountain.
Pro tip: Buy them in bulk online to save a ton of money.
A good pair of mountaineering boots is going to help keep your feet dry, your toes warm, and your crampons properly affixed. If you know you live in an area with long approaches or you are going to be embarking on a multi-day climb, I’d highly recommend ordering a bunch of different pairs, trying them on, and comparing them to see which has the most comfortable fit. A more flexible sole is going to save your feet from a world of pain if you know you’ll be hiking under an expedition pack, and you really only need a full-shank boot if you’re going to be vertical ice climbing. I own an amazing pair by Salewa, and I’ve heard fantastic things about that brand’s men’s boots as well.
03Crampons + Ice Axe
When you first start joining in on snow climbs and winter objectives with your friends, everyone is going to ask you, “Do you have your own ice axe and crampons?” I can’t believe I wasted multiple hours driving back and forth to REI to rent them when I should have just sucked it up and bought the damn gear. They are the crucial starting place for anyone remotely curious about alpinism. The next step? Take a mountaineering class from your local outdoors shop or Sierra Club so you can learn how to use both safely. Many instructors will have you throw yourself down a snowy slope multiple times to practice self-arresting in different positions. It’s exhilarating and empowering to reinforce your reflexes for what to do in a crisis with a seasoned instructor present. What a great and safe foray into the sport!
Side note: Make sure to purchase a wrist leash for your ice axe so that it doesn’t spin out of your hands as you clamber down the mountainside…
It took me longer than it should have to get serious about my ropes and knots. I learned a figure 8 follow through for casual crag climbing and then promptly forgot that there was a world of other useful knots I would eventually need to master as a mountaineer. Though it would be so easy for me to make a list of ten knots you’ll want to know inside-out and blindfolded, I want to focus on three that I see used consistently: the Munter hitch, the clove hitch, and the Prusik. Learn them one-handed if possible – you never know when you’ll need to tie it while dangling off a chossy crimp! Rope knowledge is one of those abilities that definitely deteriorates if you don’t practice constantly, so do a few YouTube searches for how-to videos, keep a length of rope handy, and practice during 5 minute breaks at your desk or day job!
This is a skill that I, like many alpinists, will never truly master. The quirks that drive us to go hard in the mountains are often the very things that make it difficult to slow down, rest, or practice self-care. Mountaineers are often high-achieving masochists who set impossible goals and don’t take no for an answer. Unfortunately, mountains are also one of the most dangerous environments on the planet, causing a collision course for the ego that has made me and many of my toughest friends leave an unfinished summit or a hard day out frustrated and sobbing. Learning to step back from the ego-driven fire for accomplishment, take deep breaths, and view every experience (good or bad) as a learning opportunity are three of the most valuable tools I’ve implemented in the alpine. “The mountain will still be there tomorrow” is a quote I’ve heard more times than I can count. It pops up on the regular when turning back from a difficult peak, and it’s true. Mountains are not fragile, but your body sure as hell is, and you only get one.
There are many more tips and tricks that I wish I could share with you, as mountaineering truly is a lifelong sport that few ever master. If you’re itching for more knowledge and/or to dive deeper into any of these subjects, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Mountaineering: the Freedom of the Hills and also Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete. These books have been priceless resources for me along my journey.
Feeling inspiration to get out there and do more cool stuff? Head to www.brazenbackpacker.com where you’ll find more of Emily’s writing and photography.