Introduction to Mountaineering

Following a recent interview gave to Redbull France about How to start Mountaineering, I thought it would be good to give some more details about it.
(The published article being dedicated to new-comers, it is justifiably simple and brief)

Mountaineering, what is it ?

Mountaineering is an activity that combines rock climbing, ice climbing and glacier walking, most of the time in a high-altitude environment.

A little Encyclopedia knowledge: The word Mountaineering and Alpinism are usually intertwined. Alpinism has its roots in the word « Alpes », the European mountain range whose summits are rather high. With the democratisation of ascents made in the Andes and in the Himalayas, the word Mountaineering (with obvious roots in the word Mountain) seemed to make more sense. In French, the word Alpinism stuck and is used to describe ascents made in any region of the world. 


Mountaineering is a dangerous activity.
Doing it with a group of experienced people with lower the amount of risks, but will never eliminate all of it.

Train to Get ready

Before anything else, it is important to realize that mountaineering requires 2 things: a good pair of legs and good lungs.
There is indeed a lot of hiking involved and a lot of elevation gain. One must therefore train to hike while gaining altitude.

For those that would like to start, I recommend these 3 steps :

  1. Field hiking (hiking done on flat grounds)
  2. Mountain hiking (involving some limited elevation gain)
  3. High-altitude hiking (involving some massive elevation gain)

What we are looking for here is not explosive muscle. What we want is endurance.
Give yourself the following objective: hike in just one day 20km (12.5miles) with more than 1500m (5000ft) of D+ (cumulative elevation gain).

Bonus step: get used to crampons and snowshoes

Walking on snow or ice is very different than a traditional hike. In winter, force yourself to go for small hikes on non-exposed terrain with your crampons or snowshoes.

Train to climb

Mountaineering is not just hiking.
The harder the route, the more you’ll need to use your hands.
No need to become a machine, but being able to climb 5b (5.7) is a minimum. The idea is to get your body used to specific movement linked to stabilization, tractions, and pushes.

Get your lungs ready

High-altitude = drop of oxygen. This will not just make your pace slower, it can have important health consequences.
Before climbing anything above 3500m (11,500ft), take time to acclimatize to the altitude. The goal is to give time to your body to generate some much needed red blood cells.
Do so by spending a few days above 3000m (9,900ft) and then slowly work your way up (never more than a 700m (2100ft) differential)

Understand the difficulty of routes

The size of a summit has nothing to do with its difficulty.

The normal route for the Mont Blanc (grade PD-) is much more simple than the normal route for the Dufourspizte (grade AD+), despite it being 200m (650ft) less than the Mont Blanc.
As always, every country has its own rules when it comes to grading. But for High-altitude routes, a universal system is generally used (not always):

  • F /grade 1 -for Easy
  • PD /grade 2 – for Not Hard
  • AD /grade 3 – for Slightly Hard
  • D /grade 4 – for Hard
  • ED /grade 5 – for Extremely Hard
  • ABO /grade 6 – for Absolutely Hard

Each grade can have a + or – sign added on its side to better pinpoint the difficulty.
Each grade can have a roman numeral added to its side when pure rock climbing is involved.

Each summit can have multiple routes. And it is the route that defines the difficulty of an ascent, and not the size of the summit.


High altitude = cold. The high altitude cumulated with the presence of snow can quickly make temperatures drop.
If it’s 30°C (86F) down in the valley, it wont be more than 0°C (32F) on a summit.
Don’t forget that weather can easily change. On mountains, weather can quickly go from sunny to blizzard.
Grab warm clothes and be ready for the worst.

Invest in good shoes and good socks!

Your feet are the most important organs when you walk. Take care of them! Buy shoes that fit.


Never buy shoes the day before an ascent!

So take time to really break your shoes!
Give your feet time to get use to them. Wear them at home for a few hours. Then do a small hike with them. Then a longer one. Then even longer.
If you don’t follow these steps, besides getting blisters, your feet will suffer and your ascent will become a nightmare.

Learn to read

Being able to read lines to find the right route is important.
Look at pictures, train your eyes, find seracs, look for cwbs, spot the avalanche prone slopes, …

Understanding how the weather works in high altitude mountains is equally critical. Your life is at stake.
Weather can change drastically in just a few minutes.

Finally, don’t hesitate to read books from mountaineers that might inspire you:

Walter Bonatti, Lionel Terray, Joe Simpson, Stéphanie Bodet, …

The first time

For your first mountaineering project, I highly recommend that you go with a professional, a guide.

Their skills and knowledge will be highly useful, and you might learn a lot about mountains very quickly.

The 3 golden rules of mountaineering

  • Never hesitate to turn around: even if the summit is within reach, if you don’t feel like it, turn around. You’ll come back another day.
  • Stay humble: one does not conquer a mountain. The only thing you conquer, is yourself.
  • Do not litter: littering a summit cancels its ascent. If you’re incapable of climbing without littering, turn around.

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