March 11, 2022

What is Mountaineering and How to Get Started?

by Roger

Have you ever looked at a mountain peak, thought of ascending it, and wondered what it could cost you or whether you could make it to the top?

If you love nature, have done some related activities, and dream of taking it a notch higher by ascending some mountains, then mountaineering may be what you need.

What is Mountaineering?

Mountaineering is quite similar to backpacking, and if you’ve done the latter, you have an idea about the former. Often, backpacking is a complete loop where you hike out, enjoy the scenery, camp, and hike back. For mountaineers, the end goal is standing on a mountain peak. Often, the process is more treacherous than hiking, and climbers have to climb through snow, glaciers, or ice.


Table of Contents
What is Mountaineering
What is Mountaineering and How to Get Started?

Related Article: How Long Does It Take to Climb Mount Everest?

What Does Mountaineering Entail?

Often, mountaineering is mentally and physically demanding. Climbers spend long hours making their way up and down a mountain with heavy packs on their backs.

In addition, climbers must be aware of other crucial technical skills like performing rescues in varying scenarios, using an ice ax, etc.

While all this seems challenging, completing the journey is worthwhile and, at times, almost spiritual.

If you’ve ever thought about mountaineering and would like to try it out, then this is how to get started with mountaineering.

  • Take a class or hire a guide. There are two types of people: those who prefer taking classes and those who prefer tackling challenges head-on. If you are the former, the best thing to do is take mountaineering classes and learn all the basics before tackling an actual mountain. If you are extremely enthusiastic and willing to jump straight into the field, you are better off hiring a guide. However, you should still practice and ensure you know the basics.
  • Start training for mountaineering. As mentioned, mountaineering will demand physical and mental fortitude. Therefore, you’ll still need to train hard and mentally prepare to face long and challenging days. You could practice by doing hikes carrying weighted packs to physically prepare your body to face these challenges.
  • Get essential mountaineering gear. Crampons, an ice ax, and mountaineering boots are some of the few items you’ll need when preparing to ascend a mountain peak. You could rent some of the items needed if you don’t have enough funds or information on which items are good for you. You could also go with a guide service that’ll provide you with most o all items.

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  • Choose a mountaineering route. Choose the right route regardless of whether you plan to ascend a peak by yourself, plan to sign for a guided climb, or are with a climbing team. You should choose the route depending on your comfort levels and skill set.

Note that there is a difference between mountaineering and mountain climbing.

What are the Benefits of Mountaineering?

The benefits of mountaineering are listed below.

  • Mountaineering is more diverse and allows climbers to explore various activities and get varying experiences.
  • Mountaineering improves the climber’s cardiovascular fitness.
  • It improves the climber’s character, confidence, and teamwork skills.
  • It also boosts the climber’s morale and gives them a sense of achievement.

History of Mountaineering

Early mountaineering

Mountaineering has been a common occurrence practiced since the early days; however, it’s recently become more sophisticated and is mostly done for sport or fun.

Otzi’s (a person believed to have been alive in the 4th millennium) remains were found in the Otztal Alps indicating that mountaineering isn’t a recent activity.

However, it would be very likely to assume that climbing the highest peaks wasn’t as common. Mountains were probably seen as religious symbols, and climbing them was a spiritual act.

Regardless, several documented records indicate that mountaineering was relatively common before the 19th century.

However, researchers take these stories with a grain of salt, and most of them are considered legendary or fictional.

Some of these tales include famous poet Petrarch’s descriptions of his Epistolae familiares about his ascent of Mt. Ventoux (6273 ft.) on April 13th, 1336. He claimed he was inspired by Philip V of Macedon’s Mount Haemo ascension.

People in the past climbed mountains for various reasons, which were either religious, political, or economic.

For instance, the Incas ascended extremely high peaks in the late 1440s and early 1500s.

The highest ascents they were known to climb were conquering the Volcan Llullaillaco and reaching the summit at 6739m.

Mountaineering expansion around the world

In the 1800s, people interested in mountaineering began focusing on mountains further than the Alps, and in the early 1900s, mountaineering gained international attention.

Mount Saint Elias (found on the Yukon-Alaska border) was conquered by the Duke of Abruzzi and his team.

In 1879-1880Edward, Whymper (an English explorer) explored the highest Andes in South America.

Explorers managed to penetrate Africa and explore its mountains in the late 1800s. Austrian climber Ludwig Purtscheller and Hans Meyer (a German geologist) climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 1889, while Halford Mackinder climbed Mt. Kenya in 1899. The last frontier was the Himalayan mountains in south Asia.

The mountain ranges were extremely treacherous, and it was during this period (the 1900s) that better climbing tools were invented, enabling people to climb higher.

Mountaineering Today

Mountaineering was considered an activity for the wealthy; however, the emergence of the middle class in the 1800s and 1900s resulted in more people becoming interested in the activity.

It became a hobby and popular pass-time activity for most people, leading some to criticize the sport, saying that it’s become a “tourist activity.”

Activities Associated with Mountaineering

Various activities are associated with mountaineering, and they are listed below.

  • Traditional mountaineering: It involves finding a mountain and climbing a route. Next, you should execute the plan as desired using all appropriate means. Reaching the summit is often the primary objective. Climbers can use varying climbing techniques, including free and aid climbing and various tools, i.e., crampons and an Ice ax.
  • Ski mountaineering: Climbers who practice ski mountaineering often ski on mountainous terrain that’s usually more rugged than regular cross-country skiing. Often, summiting isn’t the primary objective, and the routes are well-defined.
  • Peak bagging: This activity involves climbing peaks of notable mountains, i.e., 4000m Alp peaks.
  • Enchainment: This activity involves climbing two or more significant summits in one outing and (usually) on the same day.
  • Climbing via Ferrata: It involves ascending ladder-like paths found on highly exposed terrain.
  • Rappelling also has a relationship with mountaineering in many ways.

Winter Mountaineering

Winter mountaineering is often riskier, more difficult, and more rewarding activity.

Most climbers choose to do so in the summer because it’s easier, and thus, the routes are less crowded in the winter, which is more desirable in popular summits.

Often, their difficult nature makes the climb more rewarding when climbers reach the summit, and (for other climbers) the climb could also double as a ski vacation once you reach the top giving you a satisfying winter holiday.

Mountaineering Rules and Governance

Mountaineering lacks formal rules synonymous with other sports. For instance, individuals could climb a mountain and award themselves the title mountaineer.

The sport’s major definition is the safety and necessary technical knowledge and skills when traversing mountainous terrain, i.e., snow travel and roped climbing abilities.

However, mountaineering is considered a sport and is recognized by the International Olympic Committee and the UIAA (a prominent sports federation) with several Alpine clubs as members (other clubs aren’t associated with the UIAA like The Mountaineers).

The premier award in the sport is the Piolet d’Or. It doesn’t have word championships or any similar competitions.

Mountaineering Terrain and Techniques

Often, the technique used varies depending on the season, location, and route that a mountaineer decides to use.

While mountaineers train to climb any terrain in any weather, each terrain has its hazards.

Thus, mountaineers should have enough information, water, food, stamina, and equipment to complete their climb.

Walk-up terrain

Trek or walk-up terrain defines terrain that doesn’t require any technical equipment to traverse. Often, climbers hike long distances to reach the beginning of rough terrain or base camp.

They do this by following trails or navigating cross country. It is a strenuous activity that requires climbers to be physically fit and familiar with the wilderness. Often, it is a prerequisite for success when mountaineering.

Rock

Alpine rock climbing requires some technical skills, including effectively placing anchors on rocks when ascending mountains.

In some instances, climbers do have to climb several pitches before reaching the top. Typically, pitches have a stationery belayer who creates enough tension to catch climbers if they fall.

When the first climber ‘leader’ reaches a high-enough altitude, they set up an anchor that secures subsequent climbers.

Anchors can be created using protection (passive) devices like nuts and cams or slings around tree rappels or boulders.

The leader then belays his follower and transfers all protection devices to them once they reach him.

The follower becomes the next leader. They repeat this process until they reach a different terrain or finish the climb.

Climbers use aid climbing, a more technical approach when climbing extremely vertical rocks. Such equipment includes fixed lines, ladders, and ascenders to push their weight up the rock.

It’s common for climbers to encounter routes with mixed terrain, and climbers need to be efficient when traversing various routes that vary between rock, glacier, and ice.

Snow and ice

Compacted snow allows mountaineers to traverse smoothly; however, crampons are frequently required for safety and efficiency, especially on hard ice or snow.

Crampons are attached to the bottom of the climber’s boots and provide additional traction for easier movement. They are less suitable for loose snow and should be exchanged for skis or snowshoes.

Ascending and descending steep snow slopes requires climbers to use an ice ax together with foot techniques that have been developed over the 20th century.

They include the German technique and the French technique. Team members can choose to attach themselves together and form a rope team.

They’ll then anchor themselves to the ground, snow, rocks, or buried equipment for protection in case one of them falls. Or, they could choose to use their pickaxes to self-arrest if such an incident occurs.

Forming a rope team is riskier since one falling member could place the entire team in danger; however, the fear of falling without any chance of immediate help convinces more people to form a rope team.

Climbers use advanced techniques when climbing steep, slippery snow or ice (or ice and rock) terrain, i.e., mixed climbing or ice climbing.

The technique involves specialized tools like ice picks and ice screws that allow them to build anchors to secure them while moving up the ice and traditional rock climbing tools used in mixed terrain. Read more about the difference between mountaineering vs rock climbing.

Mountaineers climbing mixed rocky-snowy terrain or steep snow don’t use a fixed belay. The team members climb in twos while attached to anchors allowing the group to ascend at greater speeds than traditional techniques.

The technique is known as a running belay or simul-climbing. Sometimes the move is used on ice; however, the risk of dropping ice on other team members is limiting. In such instances, climbers can use traditional belays.

Shelter for Mountaineering

Camping

Shelters used for camping include bivouac sacks and tents. Individuals that plan on camping in less-forgiving environments should carry more heavy-duty shelters compared to those in environments with good weather.

Often, mountaineers set base camps (areas that climbers use to rest and strategize before attempting a climb) in areas that have relatively safe weather.

Hut

Huts are built in areas where camping isn’t suitable because of the weather or wild animals. Some regions prohibit camping due to crowding, mountaineers choosing to live in the huts, or concern for the environment.

Depending on the region, you can find areas with several huts, with some that span to the summit’s top or other regions with few to no huts.

Snow cave

Snow caves are often preferred whenever the conditions permit. They are much warmer than tents, with temperatures that hover around the freezing point.

They can be created anywhere with at least four feet of snow and can form a good place to sleep, especially with a good cell-foam sleeping mat and bivouac bag.

You could also use a quinzee that’s made from excavated snow that’s been sintered or hardened (usually by stomping).

You could also build an igloo; however, they are notoriously difficult to build and require exact snow conditions.

Hazards

Mountaineers face several hazards when climbing; however, you can group them into objective and subjective hazards.

Objective hazards are external and relate to the environment, i.e., weather, falling rocks or ice, etc. Subjective hazards relate to a climber’s problems with planning, judgment, mental conditioning, and skills.

Altitude

Making rapid ascents causes altitude sickness, and the best solution is to make an immediate descent. Climbers often climb higher and acclimatize before descending to sleep.

Climbers in the Andes use coca leaves to alleviate altitude sickness. The symptoms include sleep problems, headache, nausea, lethargy, lack of appetite, and body aches.

If left unchecked, the condition could proceed to High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE), High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), or both.

The conditions can be fatal if they are untreated within 24 hours. High altitudes have a smaller oxygen concentration making it difficult to breathe, leading to altitude sickness.

You can make the climb with a bottle of oxygen or have a good acclimatization program.

What are the Types of Mountaineering?

There two types of mountaineering are Alpine style and Expedition.

Expedition style

This type of mountaineering involves carrying huge amounts of equipment up and down a mountain while making a slow ascent.

It is common for mountains with a high summit and involves a huge team with porters, guides, and climbers.

Climbers often set up more than one camp and haul up their gear multiple times. This style was popular in the past; however, it isn’t as popular currently. 

Alpine style

Alpine style represents a single push to the summit where climbers don’t backtrack or make camps. It is best for medium mountains that are close to civilization.

They are best suited for mounts that fall between a 2000m and 5000m elevation. The climbs are meant to be light and fast plus, climbers get to carry less weight.

What is the Best Time for Mountaineering?

The best time for mountaineering usually depends on the mountain, selected route, and weather. However, early autumn, summer, and spring are always great times for mountaineering. Remember that you’ll be planning days in advance, and your route’s conditions could change before you arrive.

What’s the Difference Between Hiking and Mountaineering?

The main difference between hiking and mountaineering is that often, mountaineering requires tools while hiking doesn’t. In addition, mountaineering is more demanding than hiking; it requires a lot of training and dedication before getting enough experience to try it out.

What is the Salary of Mountaineering?

Top mountaineers earn about a $100000-dollar annual salary. Those in the 75th percentile earn $60000, those on average earn $50000, while those in the 25th percentile earn $30000.

Often, professionals earn by teaching or guiding others about safe and fun ways to mountaineer and get the proper skills. It’s a good job with great pay and probably the best job you could ever have if you are a climbing enthusiast.

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About the author 

Roger

Roger was born into a family of climbers. As the youngest of his siblings, he was also the most ardent climber of them. Small and agile, he practiced climbing all day. Today, Roger teaches children how to climb the large rock walls safely.

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