What Is Mountaineering? And How To Get Started

mountaineer on mountain top

Just like the word “mountaineering” is centered around a “mountain,” the sport itself revolves around majestic mountains. 

Mountaineering is the sport of mountain climbing, but the term can also be applied to walking and climbing up lower mountains and ones with moderate to low levels of difficulty.  

Just because novices can enjoy mountaineering, that doesn’t mean it is easy to dive into. Even at a novice level, mountaineering requires physical fitness and the proper gear to be safe and enjoyable. 

It would be best if you also did plenty of research and planning to locate the best mountains for your first – or fifth! – excursion.

With the following information and tips, you can enjoy the beautiful art of mountaineering safely.

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Why Go Mountaineering? 

The simple answer to this question is a love of the outdoors and breathtaking scenery. Nevertheless, the sport has multiple benefits other than taking in your surroundings.

Mountaineering is an excellent form of cardiovascular exercise since it combines walking, hiking, and climbing. A snow mountaineer can burn an impressive 900 to 1,200 calories per hour. 

Plus, mountaineering has mental benefits. It requires focus and concentration, and enthusiasts say the mental exercise of avoiding hazards on the climb brings personal and professional perks. 

Others love the sport for the discovery and adventure that are at its core. Mountaineering is no monotonous treadmill workout. As you hike through nature, you’ll discover plants, animals, and rock formations while getting exercise in the fresh air. 

Mountaineering isn’t for everyone, though. It can be a dangerous sport, and you need excellent cardiovascular fitness and muscular strength for even the easiest climbs. 

Climbs require thought, planning, and the right gear, so it’s not a spontaneous sport for athletes who love impromptu outings.

Still, avid mountaineers say a day of climbing is worth the physical conditioning and planning, so you might want to give mountaineering a try.

Pros: 

  • An excellent form of cardiovascular exercise 
  • Breathtaking scenery and beautiful wildlife 
  • Brings adventure to exercise 

Cons: 

  • Top-notch physical fitness and strength needed 
  • Can be dangerous 
  • Travel and equipment may be expensive

man mountaineering

Types of Mountaineering 

Just as terrain and climate differ, so do the different types of mountaineering. As you decide whether to give mountaineering a try, think about where you want to have your adventure.

Do you want to be climbing in a winter snowscape, or would you rather be a mountaineer in a warmer climate or time of year? 

Mountaineering can be done in various ranges. You can find some stellar locations in the snow-covered ranges of Alaska, Colorado, the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, or in Arizona’s red rocks.

You’ll also need to consider the heights, speed, and length of your climbs as a mountaineer.  

  • Alpine mountaineers pack light and climb quickly to the top of medium-sized mountains.
  • Expedition mountaineers travel more slowly, with more equipment, spending weeks or even months scaling taller mountains. 

As a beginning mountaineer, alpine mountaineering on smaller mountains is a wise choice.

As you progress in the sport of mountaineering, you can go from afternoon climbs to expeditions lasting days or even weeks. 

What Do You Need for Mountaineering? 

Having the proper gear is vital for successful mountaineering and safety. Don’t scrimp on quality since your life could potentially depend on the adequate gear.

As a novice mountaineer, you will need your equipment to perform well on climbs as you won’t have the skills yet to respond to equipment failures. 

There are necessities for mountaineering, and then there are accessories. The must-haves include these items: 

If you plan to take on more advanced climbs, such as on glaciers, you will also need rope, a harness, and crevasse rescue equipment. 

Accessories can include things like an altimeter watch, which can make the climb more manageable and fun. 

What to Wear When Mountaineering? 

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert mountaineer, dressing for the weather is important. Here are some tips: 

  • Remember sunscreen: Sunburns can happen in the snow as easily as on the beach.   
  • Dress in layers: The temperature where you are going may warm later in the day, and as you climb, your body will warm up with activity. For those reasons, wearing layers that you can take off or put back on will keep you comfortable. 

Start with a base layer of long underwear, a middle layer that includes soft-shell climbing pants, a fleece jacket, liner gloves, and a sun hat, and an outer layer of an insulated jacket and pants and heavier gloves. 

For best visibility, add a pair of glacier glasses. Don’t forget a rain jacket and thick pants to keep you dry in snowy or wet conditions. Gaiters will keep the inside of your boots dry and will keep your pant cuffs from getting snagged. 

  • Consider your fabrics: Choose fabrics such as wool or synthetics like polyester or nylon that will keep you warm on wintry climbs and that will dry quickly. 
  • Range of motion: Make sure that the clothing you wear while climbing fits well, is comfortable, and provides you a full range of motion. 
  • Weight: Generally, it’s best to climb with as little weight as possible, but you also want protection from the elements for comfort and safety. 

The Best Boots for Mountaineering 

Mountaineering boots can be divided into three varieties – insulated, three-season, and plastic. Each has its benefits and drawbacks. 

  • Insulated: With multi-layer construction and waterproofing, these boots are the most expensive option, with some over $450 in price. They are often made with a leather outer layer and are lighter than plastic mountaineering boots. 
  • Three-season: These boots don’t have an insulating layer, making them the lightest option and one that could do double-duty as a hiking boot. Made with leather or synthetic uppers, these boots are rugged but won’t overheat your feet on climbs in warmer weather. They’re usually priced at a couple of hundred dollars. 
  • Plastic: These have a hard plastic outer shell and a soft inner boot. They’re moderately priced and frequently are rental boots. Plastic boots are heavy and not suitable for activities such as backpacking. 

No matter what kind of boot you choose, getting a good fit is essential. Climbing in boots that are uncomfortable or rub blisters on your feet is no fun at all.

La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX Mountaineering Boots
Best mountaineering boots for the money – La Sportiva Nepal EVO GTX Mountaineering Boots

To get the best fit, shop for boots later in the day after walking for a while to account for foot swelling. Be sure to try mountaineering boots on while wearing the socks you’ll climb in. 

If you already have crampons, make sure they will work with the boots you choose. Otherwise, buy boots that fit your feet, and then select crampons to match the boots. 

Should I Bring Water and Food Along? 

Whether you’re hiking for a few hours or a couple of days, you must stay hydrated and full of energy with plenty of food and water. 

Since mountaineering can burn calories rapidly, bringing along energy gels, bites, or chews should keep you going for several hours. They are lightweight and small, but they pack an energy punch.

Make sure you wash these down with water since it will help you digest these carbohydrates.  

While water is essential, it also adds weight. Think carefully about how much water you’ll need for your hike. 

First, make sure you drink enough water before beginning a climb. Consuming about 20 ounces of water before leaving should ensure you start your trip hydrated.

The amount of water you need to bring depends on the climate and your perspiration rate, but a general guide is about a half-liter per hour per person.

At higher altitudes, you will need to drink more since the increased elevation can lead to dehydration.   

If you are mountaineering in cold temperatures, remember to sip water frequently. You may not feel thirsty in the cold, but you can quickly become dehydrated. 

How to Start Mountaineering 

You must walk before you run. The best way to start mountaineering is to hike lower hills and trails.

To build the physical fitness that mountaineering requires, begin by walking and running to build cardiovascular endurance.

Hiking and backpacking will give you the fitness level and experience needed for mountaineering. 

Once you have the stamina and strength to try mountaineering, hire a guide. Having an experienced guide to show you the ropes will make that first climb safer. 

As you start mountaineering, you will likely be the least knowledgeable of your group, but that will change as you learn mountaineering skills and gain experience.  

There’s safety in numbers, so consider mountaineering a group activity. Joining a mountaineering group is a great way to make friends while learning more about mountaineering. 

Consider taking a class in mountaineering. Learning how to use the equipment involved, make rescues, and travel on snow, ice, and other terrains are essential to your safety and enjoyment of mountaineering. 

woman mountaineering

Mountaineering Terms to Know 

Mountaineers have their own vocabulary, so if you plan to try mountaineering, learn the terms of the sport.  

  • Anchor: What mountaineers use to secure rope against rock, snow, or ice 
  • Carabiner: A tool used to fasten ropes 
  • Crampon: A spiked metal place that attaches to a boot for walking or climbing on ice or snow 
  • Cairn: A pile of wood or rocks used to mark a trail 
  • Headwall: The upper section of a mountain where the climb is steeper
  • Mountaineering knots: These are important in securing climbing ropes, so learn to make several kinds of knots. Popular ones include the Alpine Butterfly, the Zeppelin Bend, the Bowline, and the Figure Eight.  

Becoming a Mountaineer 

Becoming a mountaineer is exhilarating, but it is a huge decision that you shouldn’t make on a whim.  

Mountaineering at its heights is an extreme sport, but to start, climb smaller mountains for shorter amounts of time.

Prepare by purchasing the proper equipment and training to develop the endurance needed to climb mountains safely.

Getting the necessary training and guidance to be a mountaineer will help you avoid injuries on expeditions. Before you know it, the sport could grow from your first-time climb to a passion for mountaineering. 

images: Deposit Photos, REI

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