6 Things to Know When Heading Out On Your First Mountaineering Expedition
(Words and Photos: Jamie Wise)
I’ve officially fallen in love with mountaineering. Feeling on top of the world when reaching the summit, watching the sunrise and being surrounded by alpenglow-kissed mountains, panoramic views that one could only dream of, and a new adventure each time. But it’s the entire journey, which begins long before even stepping foot on a trail, that has got me hooked. As you can imagine, alpine climbing is very challenging, and scaling a peak thousands of feet above sea level demands a lot, but with enough preparation and ibuprofen, anyone can do it. Each mountain is unique, as are the skills required to climb it, and this gives a variety of options for those of all ability levels. Of course, there are some essential skills and knowledge to acquire before ascending an alpine summit. I'm no pro by any means, but I hope by sharing some of the things I've learned in my PNW mountaineering adventures, it might help someone else get a little closer to standing on their first alpine summit.
This is where it starts and actually never stops. I've put almost every free minute I have into research and educating myself. I believe this has been the key to my success. Become a student and use all resources available; whether it is online, through a guide service, classes, or a fellow mountaineer. The more you can learn before you are actually face-to-face with the mountain, the better off you will be. I’ve personally found videos and online resources extremely valuable. Watching everything from how to use gear, climbing techniques, and being able to visualize what it would look like on the mountain have been essential in my preparation for all of my PNW mountaineering adventures.
Choose Your Climbing Partners Wisely
I’ve heard from many fellow mountaineers that this is one of the most challenging aspects of mountaineering. Some people are lucky enough to have friends they’ve grown up climbing with, but my mountaineering journey began later in life, so I’ve networked through social media, mountaineering groups, and actually meeting people while on the trail. Doing smaller practice climbs to find out how you perform as a team is key. Do you have similar paces? What is everyone’s skillset? Who will lead? Should the team hire a guide? What is everyone’s objective? Which route will we take? At what point do we turn around? Who snores the loudest? When undertaking a big climb, being roped up to each other, and spending long, grueling days together, it is so important to have a team you trust. Unexpected events are bound to happen on the mountain, and teamwork and communication are crucial. I always remind myself that our lives are in each other's hands.
Sitting on an icy slope with a 35 lb pack is not the place to strap on those crampons for the first time. Don’t think you’ll just figure out how to ascend a rope after falling into a crevasse and that your team will just pull you out if you haven’t practiced it beforehand. Load up your pack, put on those crampons, and walk around in your backyard. Get together with your team at a park or climbing wall and practice rope skills. Get to know your gear, your team, and yourself. The time to practice is not when you are putting your skills to the test. Practice what you will be doing ahead of time.
Training, Nutrition, and Hydration
We all know these are essential in any sport, and there is no exception for mountaineering. Your performance on the big day depends on it. Each body is unique and will have different requirements. Getting in those training hikes, dialing in your nutrition, and making sure you know how to fuel yourself properly before, during, and after your climb will determine your success. I’ve learned this from trial and error. Some days, I feel like the same hike is 100 times harder, and almost every time, I can attribute it to lack of training, nutrition, or hydration. Mountaineering demands a lot from your body, especially at higher altitudes, and it requires you to consume and carry more fuel than you might expect, so make sure you have at least 10 double cheeseburger meals in your pack at all time. Just kidding.
Weeks or months before a climb, I visualize myself standing on the summit. I picture myself taking each step, focusing on my breath, digging deep within myself, and pushing my mind and body to do what I know it’s capable of. I see myself succeeding and working through the challenges I know I will face. I feel how rewarding it will be to take my heavy boots and socks off after 15 hours of climbing. Without mental grit and determination, chances of reaching the summit are probably zero. Training your mind is just as important as training your body. I've learned how to talk myself through fear. I've learned to push through discomfort. I've also learned to listen to my gut. These categories always overlap, so get ready for a mental challenge.
And Lastly... Enjoy the Ride
I love rides, and mountaineering is truly a roller coaster. I've had the highest highs and lowest lows, and everything in between. I've laughed and cried just as hard within 15 minutes. I've doubted myself and believed in myself more than I ever have. I've felt scared and courageous at the same time. I’ve pushed my limits and given myself breaks. I've felt like a zombie and more alive than ever. I’ve peed in front of more people than I ever thought I would. I've lost and found myself in the mountains. I remind myself even when it's hard, to look up and take it all in. I've seen amazingly beautiful places that I never imagined I would. I've made lifelong memories with some of the coolest and weirdest people I've ever met, and we've accomplished lifelong dreams together. Although mountaineering can be a journey of extremes, I’m holding on for the ride and loving every second.