So you think you want to climb Mt. Rainier?After all, the NFL commissioner did it- so it can’t be THAT difficult, right? Hmmm. Okay, well, you’ll get over that soon enough. Let me guess, you’ve been training hard for a year now, right? Climbing stairs (trails, step mills, stair masters) with a heavy pack… walking instead of driving… and you’ve dropped a deposit on the guided trip of your choice (mostly based on the days you were able to take off from work).
First of all, climbing up and down flights of stairs with a heavy pack on is just another way to destroy the remainder of the connective tissue in your knees, hips and ankles. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Here’s some food for thought: mountains aren’t climbed straight up and down like a staircase. If they were, anybody (including you) could put on a pack and just walk up and down. Think back to the 12 Day Mountaineering Course you participated in recently; roped glacier travel, walking/climbing in crampons, self-arrest, self-belay… what’s that? You didn’t take a mountaineering course? Huh?
Do not advance to “Go”, do not even think of peak bagging until you have some idea of what you are getting into. I know, the Muir route is billed as an “easy, walk-up route” and it’s only a three day climb… any ole person could do that, right? Hmmm.
Providing you did have the wisdom and foresight to prepare for climbing by taking a mountaineering course, you should have some basic tools in your toolbox. Dust them off, and follow me to the next topic: The Gear List. Of course you can rent most if not all of the required gear from the guiding outfit. But should you? Only if you want to take a chance on boots that may not fit properly and might even take chunks of your heels as a souvenir, a pack that mysteriously sways from side to side in spite of every effort to control it, and the chance that your trip may not have the outcome you desire (missing heel chunks can do that to an expedition). Consider this: you wouldn’t take off on a marathon in used running shoes that you have never tried before. Or maybe you would. In that case, you are NOT OKAY and should immediately seek professional help. I realize that plastic mountaineering boots don’t require a break-in period, blah, blah, blah… but the LINERS of these boots are in direct contact with your feet (and were in direct contact with the feet of the 18 climbers who preceded you) and it is possible that the liners are worn down just a bit, maybe even lost some of their cushioning, and they might even smell like someone else’s sweaty feet. Just saying. As for your backpack… in a world where companies like Osprey make custom heat moldable hip belts (male/female specific, too) and size them to fit your torso length perfectly… why on earth would you take a chance on loading a pack with 65 pounds of junk and finding out halfway through the first day of the climb that it is wearing a hole in your iliac crest? I promise you, it is not a super cool discovery. Climbing harness? That seems easy enough. You really only need it for this trip (or so you think) and the guiding outfit seems confident that their trusty Alpine Bod will serve you just fine. Ladies, ladies. Come on! When is the last time you put one of those one and wore it all day long for several days? Do yourself a favor and buy an Arcteryx A300. The gear loops are removable (hmmmm… novel concept, considering that you will be wearing the pack OVER the climbing harness and the gear loops would otherwise provide for a dynamic shift in where the pack rests).
By now, you’re wondering if you can afford to do this trip on the shoestring budget you had planned. Anything is possible, but a few good pieces of your own gear could make all the difference between summiting and tapping out halfway through the trip. There are a few items you can safely rent from your guiding outfit: sleeping bag, closed cell foam pad, ice axe, possibly crampons (depends on which boots you bought, but we’ll get to that in a minute), avalanche transceiver, over-mitts, climbing hardware (belay device, ascender, ice screw). Beyond that, you pretty much want to dial in your own clothing system well in advance. This goes back to the rant about renting boots… wouldn’t you want to make sure that the layers you have chosen to protect you at 14,000 ft. actually will work well together AND you can work around them to relieve yourself while roped up to a team and in a climbing harness? Not feeling confident? Better practice. A lot.
Oh, the joys… that is a topic that seldom gets full coverage (no pun totally intended). However, it is a critical issue- especially for female climbers. There are no statistics readily available as to how many women lose out on a summit bid because they are dehydrated as a result of decreasing their fluid intake on the approach. Yes, it is awkward to deal with Nature’s call under these circumstances. But making a choice to NOT DRINK fluids in order to avoid having to pee is a recipe for failure. Guaranteed. And that doesn’t just apply to female climbers…
Now that this article has turned into a list of “Do’s and Don’ts” let’s hit the basics, starting with a good training program. If you are a well-conditioned athlete who regularly cross trains between 15-25 hours a week, add in some multi-day hikes over rough terrain, with significant elevation gain, that are more than 30 miles in total length. Put on a 65 pound pack and hike up and down hills, ravines, gulches, river crossings, ridgelines, cliff faces and marsh bogs for 8-10 hours at time. Set up your tent. Sleep with your tent on an incline with no less than three hummocks, rocks and holes under your sleeping pad. If there is no wind blowing, have your tent partner slap you with a dirty sock, randomly, as soon as you doze off. Then wake up and do it all over again, increasing your mileage and hiking hours by half. Still feel like a well-conditioned athlete? Congratulations. You’ll survive the latter half of the trip just fine.
Starting to wonder if I’m exaggerating? Try it. Or not. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. If the above training hike completely decimates you for a week, or you are unable to plan/complete a wilderness hike, stop and consider whether or not you are going to enjoy winter camping at altitude after aggressively climbing for 8-10 hours a day (or more). The wind blows, it often rains even on the glacier, and sleep can be elusive- especially if the guides snore. (They have learned to sleep under these conditions, which means that you are likely to be wide awake, with your tent lashed to theirs, on a ledge of snow chipped out of the side of the glacier, with the wind howling and the sound of their peaceful sleep resonating in your ears). Be sure to include ear plugs in your personal gear.
This is by no means a comprehensive gear checklist, overview of climbing conditions or even sound advice. It is simply a collection of random thoughts on preparing to climb. If I were to pinpoint the crux of any trip, it would be the living room floor. The most important stage of your trip is your personal gear check. If you haven’t comprehensively constructed a gear pile that it nearly equal to your climbing objective, well… there’s going to be plenty of time to wish you had. Try out each piece of gear. Test it. Wear it. Climb in the sleeping bag (preferably while in a tent, on a multi-day hike).
Knees giving you trouble? It’s unconventional, but I recommend training for your climb by cycling. A lot. Long distance grinders with loads of hills will build the same quad, hamstring and calf muscles that you will come to rely on when climbing. Cycle for hours at a stretch, learning to hydrate, refuel, pace yourself, breathe, and eventually do it all with minimal effort. Then fill your panniers with heavy, bulky items and ride for hours with greater wind resistance and more weight to push uphill. Believe me, you will thank yourself later for this bit of ingenious torture. Right about the time that you summit with a big smile on your face, instead of crying like the NFL commissioner did. Contrary to the bit of folk wisdom I hear bantered about from time to time, you don’t have to be a marathon runner to climb big mountains. Having the strength and endurance comparable to a marathon runner is enviable, but there are no absolutes. I had a guy tell me once that if I couldn’t sustain an 8 minute mile pace for 26 miles that I couldn’t climb a mountain. Huh. That’s one person’s theory… and I still don’t run unless a bear is chasing me.
When it’s all said and done, be honest with yourself about where you stand. What is your conditioning level? If you honestly don’t know how to gauge it, find a qualified, certified personal trainer and ask them to help you figure it out. We have our ways....
Rule of thumb, if you are a guy- you probably have overestimated your fitness level and capability by at least 1/3. If you are a woman, you have most likely underestimated by ½. If you don’t know who you are, I can’t help you. It’s all good. That’s why starting your planning process, training program and gear accumulation well in advance of any given trip is highly advisable. When in doubt, do your own research. There is an enormous amount of information available about every piece of gear, incredible beta on every imaginable climbing route, and reviews of every major guide service. Don’t be shy.
Want more information on gear or particulars on training for a climb? Leave a comment or go to my profile and click on the email link.