Five Key Traits Every Mountain Climber Must Possess


, by Charlie Boscoe

Mountaineers making their way along the summit ridge of Lyskamm, Switzerland. Photo: Dominik Michalek, Shutterstock

We've published articles on Strava Stories recently with advice on how to get into mountain climbing and suggesting some peaks on which to get started. In this article, I will focus on the personal qualities required to enjoy a successful career in the mountains. I'll discuss advantageous psychological traits, recommended mindsets to adopt, and philosophical approaches that will serve you well. As you climb increasingly high and challenging mountains, you'll need to develop all of those things, but before any of that, let's get the elephant in the room out of the way

1. Fitness

Your mind is a potent tool crucial to mountaineering success, but there's no escaping the need for solid physical fitness. You might have a strong mindset, but if you don't have a solid foundation of mountain fitness, you're going nowhere! 

On the way to the summit of Mont Blanc, France. Photo: Soloviova Liudmyla, Shutterstock

There are countless ways of training for mountain climbing, but nothing beats getting out into the hills and logging some miles. If weather/geography means that you can't train in the mountains, cardiovascular activities like running and cycling are excellent substitutes, and weight training is an often-overlooked element of preparation. 

The relationship between physical and mental fitness is also more symbiotic than it might initially appear. Training hard toughens your mind as much as your body, and being further into your physical comfort zone means you can use more of your brainpower to figure out the complexities of moving through the mountains. 

2. Mental toughness

Regardless of your physical fitness, if you challenge yourself in the mountains, there will - sooner or later - be a point at which your mental toughness is just as critical as your physicality. As Chamonix mountain guide and FATMAP ambassador Tom Grant puts it, "Every good mountaineer needs what I call a '6th gear' they can tap into, both physically and mentally when the going gets tough." 

Climbers on Lobuche East’s exposed summit ridge, Nepal. Photo: Jan Zahula, Shutterstock

Mental strain is an inevitable part of mountain climbing, and - once you get used to it - overcoming it can be one of the most satisfying elements of the sport. To get past mental struggles, it's necessary to have a tough mindset, and you can create one by pushing yourself when training and by living through and learning from your mountain adventures!

Expect it to be hard, embrace it, and remind yourself that you're doing it for the challenge. Be smart, but be hard.

3. (Well-founded) Quiet Confidence

As the great Heinrich Harrer said in his famous book The White Spider (which told the story of the Eiger north face's first ascent by Harrer and three compatriots), "True confidence is the greatest gift one can possess, but it's not a gift that's freely granted - the blindly arrogant possess it least of all. To know this true confidence, it is necessary to have first known oneself at the very edge of things."

Confidence in the mountains is key, but overconfidence is a killer. Having a quiet belief that you can overcome challenges but not a reckless disregard for fear is the ideal mindset for mountain climbing. Confidence comes from experience, so start slowly, succeed where you can, back off when you must, and feel your confidence soar. 

Descending the famous snow arete from the Aiguille du Midi, France. Photo: Svetlana Lokian, Shutterstock

Once armed with the belief that you can overcome obstacles (and your mind), you'll be amazed by its power - living through scary experiences reassures you that you can live through the next one! If you've been scared a few times before, you'll know, recognize, and be able to deal with the feeling much better than when it was new to you.

4. Humility

Part of true confidence is being humble enough to know when you're beaten. Walking away to lick your wounds and return stronger is often the best option in the mountains, so have the humility to accept that you can't win every time. Using your "failure" (if surviving can ever be referred to that way) as motivation for the future is vital, as is learning the lessons from it. Analyze what happened, ponder what you could have done differently in the preparation and execution of your climb, and then go back and get it done the next time.

Descending the Bifertenstock, Switzerland. Photo: Ganz Twins, Shutterstock

The beer you sip after deciding to bail often tastes as good as, if not better, than the one after you succeed, because being comfortable enough with yourself to be willing to turn back is a great feeling. It's important to have nothing to prove to anyone and to be as accepting of failure as you are of success.

5. Motivation

And speaking of impressing others, it's essential to understand your motivation for taking on a challenge in the mountains. When you're halfway up a huge mountain—scared, cold, and hungry—you'll know whether you REALLY want to be there! Doing things to impress others is a fool's errand at any time, but never more so than in the mountains.

As Tom Grant says, "A mountaineer needs a strong 'why' to understand why they are willing to voluntarily subject themselves to danger, cold, hunger and general discomfort." Your motivation could be a desire to challenge yourself, a wish to climb a summit that has personal meaning to you, or simply an interest in seeing a certain view - the key is that it's your motivation, not someone else's.

Find your "why" and follow it where it leads.

Climbing mountains comes with inescapable risks, but if your mind, body, and motivation are right - you can enjoy a long and happy career in high places.