Introduction to Mountaineering

While we all love being outdoors, some of us have a little more hunger, a little more drive to seek more of a test, a deeper sense of accomplishment, and a little more of the edge. This primal call comes from the alpine, the land of wind and rock that shuns both trees and humans alike.

Even for those of us with a confident mastery of backpacking skills, the jump to mountaineering can be intimidating, if not outright daunting. The following suggested course of action takes you from looking up from the valley floor at distant peaks to standing atop those peaks, drinking in the view of that same valley and the horizon beyond.

You will need to expand your skills, knowledge, and gear but, like most alpine climbs, it is best taken one step at a time.

Step #1: Master Backpacking

Almost every good mountaineer began as a backpacker, which offers a good introduction to managing your food, fuel, and water, and packing, hauling, and unpacking your shelter, sustenance, and survival. Be sure to first master your backpacking skills and develop your own systems for cooking and sleeping.

Step #2: Master Winter Camping

The next step is actually more a traverse into the backcountry's winter chill. Although you might have your backpacking skills nailed down, winter offers a whole new slate of challenges.

Do you have your tent's set-up dialed in? Now try it with a new, heavier tent in 15 degrees and fading light. Ever tried simply opening your pack, retrieving an item, and cinching it tight again with mittens on? It's a whole new world.

These once simple tasks are the most basic survival skill-set for your mountaineering adventures. Then you will get to know the winter world first hand; the hush of snow-covered landscapes, the solitude of areas oft-overrun in warmer months, the exquisite joys of warm, buttered cocoa and filling food on a chilly night.

Step #3: Take Avalanche Classes

Note the plural: classeS. While a single, Level I course will teach you basic avalanche physics and how to use a beacon and probe, taking that one class actually puts you into the largest risk group for being caught in a slide. It is the quintessential example of "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" as more people caught in avalanches have taken a Level I course than have not.

So take two classes--or, better yet, three--as additional courses give you not only the confidence to go out in avalanche terrain but also the more advanced knowledge of how to really avoid them.

Don't forget to purchase crucial avalanche gear--beacons, probes, and shovels--for each member of your expedition and make sure to practice what you learn in your classes before getting to the backcountry. Remember your most important piece of gear is knowledge and you can never carry too much of that.

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