Beginner’s guide to mountaineering: 8 practical steps

Reaching a mountain peak is a mind-blowing experience, but what does it take to reach the top? Mountaineering covers everything from extreme hiking on long, but non-technical trails, and climbing peaks and hiking ridges, to climbing multiple lengths on impossibly icy rock faces.

Trips can last several months or be as short as a day, but regardless of your distance, you need good physical shape, some technical know-how, and, perhaps more importantly, good physical ability. ‘a good mentality to meet the challenge. If you’ve got that, read these tips and get started.

Developing upper body strength is important for mountaineering

© Marcelo Maragni / Red Bull Content Pool

First of all, get in shape. Include walking and climbing stairs in your daily routine, regularly add running and cycling to improve your basic fitness, and do weights to strengthen your upper body. Plus, head to a climbing gym to familiarize yourself with the basics, like being able to use a harness, belaying, and tying a rope.

There is no escape from winter conditions

© Christian Gamsjäger / Red Bull Content Pool

Then put on a heavy backpack and go up a hill. Take multi-day hikes, practice scrambling, and build confidence on big cliffs and ridges, both solo and roped with a partner. Finally, make yourself comfortable doing all of this in winter conditions, as mountaineering can be very cold.

Target the terrain and exact difficulty of the climb you want

© Philipp Reiter / Red Bull Content Pool

Think about the terrain you want to tackle: technical routes, granite faces, glacial mountains, ice or mixed climbing or simply on foot. Then plan long-term goals and make your plans to start.

The climbs are classified by height – in 1000m increments from 4Kers to 8Kers – and a class system based on slope and exposure, with 1 flat and without risk, 2 and 3 increasing the slope and obstacles, 4 involving a scramble on all fours and 5 being very technical with climbing skills. Alpine grades are similar, from F (Easy) to PD, AD, D, TD to ED (Extremely Difficult).

Also, don’t be overly ambitious. It’s better to be happy with your accomplishments than to be disappointed with not meeting your goals.

A guide can teach you best practices and give you crucial mountain knowledge

© Christian Gamsjäger / Red Bull Content Pool

The Freedom of the Hills ‘mountain bible’ is a good place to start and if you have some mountaineer friends they can teach you the basics, but nothing beats a lesson. Going out with a guide puts you in the mountains and gives you feedback and that crucial personal experience.

Classes typically last six days on Class 2-3 routes and cover route planning, navigation, safe travel, rock climbing, and logistics like weather analysis and mountain rescue. Some also cover snow and ice, including self-stop and glacier hiking techniques. Having all of this in your locker helps you become more independent in your mountain decisions.

4. Become a master of the cards

Knowing how to read a map is crucial for high mountain survival

© Philipp Reiter / Red Bull Content Pool

The more navigation experience you have, the better. Practice at home by plotting a course between two points on any map. Plan real routes that you can walk and find POIs you can navigate to. Use all the tools – GPS, compass, altimeter, map outlines, triangulation, bearings and observations. And once you’re confident, lose yourself and try to go back.

Predicting your pace is crucial for planning as it helps prevent overdoing and burnout. Make sure you estimate well. Measure a distance on a path near your house and walk it, but also walk the mountain steps to see how it changes as the slope gets steeper, higher, and you tire more.

The equipment must be adapted to the type of mountaineering you practice

© Greg Mionske / Red Bull Content Pool

Layer your clothes, use merino wool socks and boots with a hard exterior and removable soft interior to help keep you dry. Use a lightweight backpack just big enough to hold the basics. For climbing, bring a harness, helmet, the right length of rope, and decent equipment. And if you are going on the ice, use semi-rigid 12 point crampons and a slightly curved ice ax of 60 to 90 cm.

Take a headlamp because mountaineering starts early and if you end up getting lost you don’t want to get lost in the dark. Don’t skimp on a cheap tent or you’ll be sorry if you get hit by 120 km / h winds, snow and ice. Prepare for an emergency with bivouac gear and a small first aid kit.

Find out how a crippled former rugby player climbed the equivalent height of Mount Everest:

Prepare your lungs for altitude

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Any 3Ker or higher and you are likely to be affected by altitude. Don’t take it lightly. At its milder, it can cause sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and nausea, destroying your motivation and your fitness. At worst, it can lead to pulmonary edema, which floods your lungs and can be fatal.

Acclimatization is vital. Go up slowly, go up high and camp low and the body can often work things out. Rehydrate and eat, even if you don’t feel like it. And on the track, use pressurized breathing to regulate oxygen in the blood, slow your pace, and take measured, rhythmic steps. If you are disoriented or have a cough, get off as quickly as possible.

Leaving nothing to chance, be prepared for all eventualities

© Christian Gamsjäger / Red Bull Content Pool

Start locally or in a high-traffic area with easy access to information and well-defined routes. Plan your days with the pace in mind and don’t be overly ambitious – a steep incline or climb that looks easy on paper is more difficult at the end of a tiring day with a big pack, especially at altitude. Allow weather contingencies and always have Plan B in your pocket – literally.

Permits and logistics (and visas if you’re going abroad) all require careful planning, and language barriers can make things much more difficult.

Michal Sabovčík climbing at sunrise

© Jakob Schweighofer / 2014 adidas AG

When taking the trail, start before sunrise and descend in the early afternoon, especially in icy areas where melting sun increases the chance of rockfall during the day. Be flexible and adapt. If you end up having to make an unforeseen bivouac at the top of the mountain, you’ve done too much.

8. Slowly develop your skills

It’s hard work, but you will enjoy the ride when you complete a major climb

© Philipp Reiter / Red Bull Content Pool

Build gradually and learn as you go. Never try something for the first time on a big trip. Practice your skills in a safe environment and gain confidence in them before you need them. You don’t have to be in the mountains, you can organize a home crevasse rescue or an ice ax stop on a muddy bank.

It takes many trips to get a feel for the reading conditions and it also takes time to learn how to work with your partner and move together smoothly and efficiently but safely, knowing when to switch between hill climbing and the short rope hike.

Finally, if you feel like you are running into a tampon, don’t be too proud to hire a guide to help you take it to the next level. It is safer to expand your skills with an expert than to play alone.