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Want More Fest—Less Suffer—In Your First Mountaineering Trip?

Author: Martin Volken

June 02, 2016

Talking or thinking about standing on top of a mountain is always easier than the process of actually getting to the top. Just like anything else in life. But mountain climbing is a strange activity, really, since half the time we experience mental and or physical discomfort to a substantial degree. We get scared, are sweaty, cold and dehydrated (often at the same time) and then, in the end, we're fully convinced that we just had the time of our lives. Some nebulous reward seems to make it all worth it. Mountain climbing doesn't have to be all suffering though, and with a bit of solid planning you can avoid a lot of pain. 

Here are some basic tips that ought to point you in the right direction.

1. Don't wait till the last minute to get your mountaineering boots. If you decide that you want to climb a mountain, get them as soon as you can. Don't buy them online, if you can avoid it. You need to try them on, and you can get good advice about them in a specialty retail store. 

2. Now actually use your boots. I know that it seems hard to make good use of a mountaineering boot if you live far away from the mountains. You can just wear them around your house, in your office, mow the lawn, go for walks etc. Just get your feet used to them slowly. You do not want your first mountaineering trip to be your feet's first encounter with a stiff-soled boot. 

3. Choose your mountaineering backpack carefully and, just like with the boots, make sure to try the pack on in a good store. Put some weight in it and make sure it fits your body well and fits the need of your trip. Mountaineering packs fit closer to the body than a hiking pack. They are more streamlined and there is a reason for that—they need to be agile for climbing.

4. If you are in the process of buying gear for your new sport, buy the good stuff—especially when it comes to your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad and stove system. It can be pricy, but with proper care, these things last a long time and if you chose good, modern equipment, you will save a lot of weight and volume in your backpack. 

5. Train for your mountaineering trip. Make sure your workouts are lower intensity, but longer duration. This could be a long hike. Try to carry some weight in your pack. You need to get your back and shoulders in shape as well. Plastic water jugs work great for uphill hikes. You can get rid of the water on top (make sure to drink some of it first.). This is easier on your knees.

6. Don't bring every gadget known to man to the mountains. Yes, there are a lot of cool things we can buy for mountaineering and backpacking, but try to pare things down to what you really need, and then maybe add one or two "nice to have" things like a Kindle reader and a cotton T-shirt etc. If you go with a guide service, try to stick pretty closely to their suggested packing list. Don't overpack; you will most likely regret it. 

7. Once out in mountains, walk slowly. You will get plenty of exercise. The goal (unlike in the gym) is to expend as little energy as possible while making it to the top. Efficiency is everything in the mountains.

8. Consider signing up for a mountaineering course from a reputable guide service or mountaineering club first, especially if your objective is technical in nature and you want to climb your objective without a guide. Glacier travel in crevassed, high alpine terrain is best learned from a professional. The same goes for movement in exposed alpine rock terrain. The ramifications of poorly learned techniques can be really serious. 

9. If you decide not to go with a guide, choose your partners carefully. You will tie into a rope with people who will be responsible for your safety. 

10. In his book "The Challenge of the North Cascades" the famous mountaineer Fred Beckey said: "In the mountains, you are sometimes invited, sometimes tolerated and sometimes told to go home." I do better in the mountains when I remember this.

Photo by Martin Volken / Pro Guiding Service.

Martin Volken

Martin Volken is the founder and owner of Pro Guiding Service ( and Pro Ski and Mountain Service in North Bend, WA. He is a certified IFMGA Swiss Mountain Guide and guides over 120 days per year in North America and Europe as a ski, rock and alpine guide. He has pioneered several steep ski descents, ski traverses, alpine and rock routes in the Washington Cascades. He has been a member of the AMGA examiner team since 2000 and has authored and co-authored 3 books on ski touring and ski mountaineering. Martin lives with his wife Gina and his two daughters in North Bend, Wash.