5 Strategies to Start Climbing

I love climbing and being in the fresh, alpine environment.  Though my curiosity for climbing started early in college – I had the ridiculous thought that is was too late for me to learn.  Several years later when I had the fortunate opportunity to do a charity climb up Mount Rainier with a friend, I realized two things: climbing mountains is awesome, and it’s certainly not too late to learn more about this. Since then I’ve climbed each of the Washington volcanoes and other peaks of varying difficulty.

Whether you’re looking into the ever-thrilling rock and ice climbing, sport climbing, or long glacier climbs, here are 5 pieces of advice to get started.

1. Just like rule #1 of the zombie apocalypse, the same holds true for climbing (especially alpine climbing and mountaineering): CARDIO CARDIO CARDIO!

Having solid cardiovascular conditioning is critical for your success in the mountains.  Being able to keep a steady yet efficient pace on approaches will help you get the most joy out of the experience.  Having solid cardiovascular fitness also helps keep you safe by being able to move faster through areas on mountains with more objective risks (rock falls, for example) and also maximizes your chances of hitting summits.  If you’re moving too slow you’re more likely to have to turn back early from the summit you’re trying to attain.

2. Invest in quality gear and figure out what works best for you both in gear and food on your training hikes.

As a general rule, if your life will depend on the piece of equipment it’s “ok” to spend extra money on it. Figuring out body temperature regulation with adding and removing layers is important so you can make quick adjustments and not eat into your time as you ascend the mountain. Start hike approaches feeling cold, If you leave the parking lot/trail-head warm and comfortable you’ll likely be blisteringly hot in 5-10 minutes of hiking. Fine tuning nutrition on training hikes is also a key thing to practice.

3. Try it before you buy it.

It’s a big starting point but it can also determine if you really like to do this or just like the idea of doing this. Going on a guided climb of Mount Rainier changed my life. It’s a great (and bold) starting point to “try it before you buy it.”  You can rent technical gear like ice axes and crampons (really everything but socks and underwear). Additionally, when you climb with certified expert guides you get to bypass time in technical education.  Guide services teach you enough to climb safely but not enough to have robust self-reliance in the mountains. Climbing with expert guidance to mitigate risk is a good test drive on what might just be a bucket list life experience or might be the catalyst to a wonderful hobby.

4. Get educated!

There’s many avenues for this.  For self-study, start with reading the book: Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills. This is how many great climbers got started. Reading Accidents in North American Mountaineering, which is published annually by the American Alpine Club, gives accounts and analysis of accidents which is intended to help climbers avoid repeating similar mistakes. Climbing Anchors by John Long and Bob Gaines is another outstanding technical book to read.  Self-study is a solid foundation, but practical instruction is the next tier in climbing education. To extend your education, check for beginner lessons in your local area.

5. Getting comfortable with discomfort is something a new climber needs to wrap their head around.

From dealing with long and/or strenuous approaches (Glacier climbs in particular are often described as long periods of boredom with brief moments of sheer terror), to poor weather conditions, to cuts and bruises on your hands and squished toes, you need to have or build up a tolerance to discomfort. Climber and photographer Cory Richards at a National Geographic talk noted there are essentially two emotions: Joy and Pre-Joy.  Dealing with long periods of Pre-Joy is something to be aware of.

There’s a few things to remember on when you climbing. One, you can’t eliminate all risk – freak accidents happen. Mitigating risk is the best you can do and starting with a solid base of knowledge is key. Also it’s about the journey, if you don’t find joy in anything but achieving the summit, you’re missing out. And lastly, remember the best climber is the one having the most fun.

Written by Carl Swedberg, Fitness Services Director at PRO Club and intermediate climbing graduate of the Seattle Mountaineers.

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