Getting into hiking is pretty simple: put your shoes on, pick a trail, and get moving! From there, the progression is straightforward: hike further, longer, and higher, and grow your fitness as you go. On the other hand, mountain climbing is much trickier to break into because, at some point, you need skills beyond simply putting one foot in front of the other.
To be a competent mountaineer, you'll need (at a minimum) to match the current conditions with a suitable objective, pack the right gear and then move confidently and at an appropriate pace over varied—and often exposed—terrain. Each of those three elements is complex and requires education and experience, all of which begs the question: how do you get started? In this article, I'll suggest five actionable steps to take you from hiker to mountaineer whilst staying as safe as possible.
1. Start Easy
One of the best and worst things about mountain climbing is that anyone can attempt any route; there is no entry barrier, and your judgment is the only thing separating you from being somewhere crazy. Most people would love to experience playing professional sports, but only some of us will have the opportunity to sample it. Mountain climbing is entirely different—you might never have climbed a mountain in your life, but you can walk up to the most challenging route in the world and try it. It probably won't go well, but nothing is stopping you from trying!
As a result, it's vital to limit your ambition and choose sensible routes for your experience and skill level. Getting mileage under your belt is critical to progress, so choose routes you think will challenge you in some way but aren't at the limit of your ability. If you're transitioning from hiking to easy scrambling, choose the most straightforward scramble you can find. Once you've done it, choose another easy route and only slowly crank up the difficulty level—mountain mileage is worth more than any other attribute! Now and then, it's worth pushing yourself a little, but logging day after day in the mountains will serve you better than being overly ambitious and running into problems. An easy success beats a glorious failure!
2. Get Fit
Being fit in the mountains improves just about everything—you'll be able to do better routes, enjoy them more, and be safer! Not being able to attempt the peaks you want to because of fitness is hugely frustrating, so use Strava to log some miles, throw in some weight training and feel your horizons broaden!
Even if you're already fit enough to do the routes you want to, completing them with ease is so much more enjoyable. Fitness doesn't just allow you to choose from more routes—it also means that you'll get back to the car smiling and ready for more the next day!
The final, and perhaps most important, reason to get fit is that it increases your safety margin. Even with the best preparation, you might end up in a situation you weren't expecting, be it running away from an unforecast thunderstorm or helping to evacuate an injured climber. Having some extra juice in the tank means that if things don't go according to plan, you'll still be able to return to safety. Having no fitness to spare is like being in your car, looking at how many miles you have until the next gas station, and realising that you just have enough gas to get there—it's stressful, and it will only work out if everything goes to plan!
3. Focus on Gear
Deciding what gear to take up a mountain is both a science and an art. The science is knowing what to take, and the art is knowing what to leave behind! At the start of your mountaineering career, it's well advised to carry a bit more emergency gear (simply because your judgment won't be honed enough to pick appropriate routes consistently, so you're more likely to run into problems....), but as you progress, you can begin to slash the amount of weight you carry.
Having an emergency shelter is a good idea regardless of how light you're going, even if it's just a foil blanket (I shared one with my climbing partner once during an unplanned mountain bivouac, and it made a BIG difference!), but tailoring what you take according to the conditions is a skill worth developing. If you're doing a day route and there is no chance of rain forecast, leave the Gore-Tex gear at home, and regardless of where you're going—only take enough stuff to survive the night in discomfort rather than carrying enough to be warm. The adage goes, "If you take bivouac gear, you'll need it," and it's true—take enough to avoid disaster, but not so much that the weight of it slows you down.
The other key with gear is to think about the weight of every item you carry—you could easily shave 10 lbs from the weight of your mountaineering pack by buying the lightest version of everything in there. Buying lightweight camping gear and climbing hardware can transform your ability to move quickly, but it's expensive, so it might take a while!
4. Create a Gear List
Having forgotten my ski boots on a ski tour and my stove on a camping trip, I have firsthand experience of how badly a trip can be screwed by leaving something at home! Creating gear lists is vital, as is updating them regularly.
I have gear lists on my garage door for climbing, skiing, hiking, and biking, plus an online one for overnight trips. Having a list to check gear off against is the best way to ensure that nothing stays at home when it needs to be in your pack!
5. Get Some Expert Help
It's been said that "You become who you spend time with," and that's never more true than in the mountains. If your peers are inexperienced, it's hard to kick on and develop your skills—this is where some tuition comes in. Hiring a mountain guide for a few days to focus on learning new skills and steepening your learning curve is a highly recommended way of progressing. It's an investment, of course, but cheaper in the long run than doing twice as many trips to learn the same skills!
Developing a relationship with a guide and spending a day or two per year with them as your mountaineering career progresses is one of the best ways to stay on track and constantly refine your skills.
So there you have it—start gaining experience, get fit, focus on gear, and recruit some expert help. And check this out for a little inspiration along the way: