Mountaineer Your Way to the Top
So you’re thinking of mountaineering. Now what?
Okay, first, let’s talk about what mountaineering entails. Traditionally, mountaineering is the sport of reaching the highest point of the mountain. This means anything from a basic hiking trail to Stony Man Mountain in Shenandoah Valley National Park, to a class 3 scramble up the Keyhole Route to the top of Longs Peak at Rocky Mountain National Park, to a technical rock and ice climb up the challenging Liberty Ridge on Mount Rainier National Park.
For the purposes of this discussion, let’s talk about the subsection of mountaineering that requires multiple days, some technical snow and ice skills, and where the weather and altitude may become significant obstacles to completing your objective.
Mountaineering is a dangerous sport that requires extensive knowledge about the environment, survival skills, and technical climbing skills. In short: it requires a lot of learning and training. But whether you’re going with a certified guide service or as part of an experienced group of mountaineers, here are some key things to keep in mind as you prepare for your trip.
The first thing to get under your belt is a backpacking trip. Backpacking will give you an understanding of what your body can do and what it needs in terms of warmth, food, water, and fuel. It will also help you practice figuring out your packing needs and what you may or may not need for a multi-day trip.
Backpacking in the Tuolumne Meadows at Yosemite National Park in the summer is going to provide a very different environment than routes up Mount Denali in the summer. Summits that include weather hazards, snow, and ice mean more clothes and more gear, which means heavier packs up steep, snow-covered slopes. So make sure you pack and go on training hikes as much as possible before your trip to ensure your leg strength isn’t the limiting factor for your success.
Beyond basic hiking abilities, mountaineering often calls for advanced technical skills. If you’re taking a class or going with a guided group, knowledge and practice of hiking on snow, walking with crampons, self-arrest with your ice axe, and crevasse rescue is only the tip of the glacier, so to speak. Even if you’re going with a guided group, it’s helpful to read up on the new skills and tools you may need to make the most of your experience.
Mountaineering is about understanding yourself and your systems. Systems for navigation. Systems for nutrition and hydration. Systems for sleeping. Systems for insulation. There is no “best system,” other than the one that works for you. Here are some basics to test out during your training.
Layers, layers, layers. Layering is key to surviving in the mountains. Exactly how many layers varies from person to person. If your fingers get cold easily, you might have to bring heavy mittens. If you overheat easily, you might want to consider several very light layers. Take the time to figure out what works for you and what you need to avoid sweating and to stay warm. Just remember: cotton kills.
Hopefully during your training backpacking trips, you’ve learned if you sleep hot or if you sleep cold. If your sleeping bag rated for 30F was barely warm enough camping in Catoctin Mountain Park in June, it may be time to consider a warmer sleeping bag (or layering two sleeping bags) for your trip up Mount Rainier. If you’ll be sleeping on the snow, consider using a system that involves two sleeping pads to make sure you keep off the snow.
Pro-tip: Bring a small screw-top plastic water bottle, fill it with boiling water right before bed, and tuck it into your sleeping bag with you to quickly get warm at night.
Nutrition and Hydration Systems
Keep track of how much food and roughly how many calories you need for an active day during your training hikes and backpacking trips. With that estimate, add another 1/4 to 1/2 calories per day for the mountaineering excursion. Bring plenty of snacks for the day, and pack a spare freeze-dried meal in case you’ve underestimated your caloric needs or in case of emergency.
When you’re cold and tired, appetites and thirst decrease. Combat it by planning for hot breakfasts and hot dinners. Packing tea, coffee, or hot cocoa are also great ways to get more water in. Just make sure to consider how much fuel you may need to melt snow and look into water purification tablets.
In the end, these are just guidelines — only you know your body’s needs after you’ve practiced enough trial runs. So learn which systems are tried-and-true and plan accordingly.
Where Do I Go Now?
There are many spectacular national parks to consider for mountaineering in all seasons. Here are just a few that provide opportunities to whet your appetite for this mentally and physically challenging (and extremely rewarding) sport:
- Wrangell – St Elias National Park & Preserve: These mountains in Alaska are some of the least visited mountains of their elevation on the continent.
- Denali National Park & Preserve: Known for being the highest mountain on North America and notorious for its weather, Mt. Denali offers world-class mountaineering challenges, testing personal strength, team work, and decision-making.
- Kenai Fjords National Park: The Harding Icefield at Kenai Fjords provides opportunities for mountaineering and exploration.
- Rocky Mountain National Park: Full of big rock walls, snow, and ice, these peaks in Colorado provide ample opportunity to use your mountaineering skills.
- Mount Rainier National Park: As the most heavily-glaciated peak in the contiguous United States, Mount Rainier provides challenges to its 14,410 foot summit for new and experienced mountaineers alike.
- North Cascades National Park: With summits like Mount Shukshan and Mount Challenger, this Washington park offers a mountaineer’s playground with numerous peaks and over 300 glaciers.
- Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve: The Fairweather range at this Alaskan national park gives experienced mountaineers the challenge of extreme remoteness and unpredictable stormy weather.
- Olympic National Park: At this Washington park, Mt. Olympus provides a technical challenge for experienced mountaineers who have experience in glacier travel and crevasse rescue.
Now it's time to train your body, streamline your systems, strap on your crampons, and bag some peaks at your national parks.