15 Things I Learnt on an Introductory Mountaineering Course
It’s almost like a natural evolution; to go from hiking and backpacking to climbing and mountaineering.
For years, I have dreamt of bigger mountains but haven’t had the skills or confidence. They seemed unattainable.
Finally, I invested in an introductory mountaineering course with ASM, spending 5 days in the backcountry of Kosciuszko National Park, learning how to use crampons, snowshoes, self-arrest, ice climb, rope up for glacial travel, tie various knots, set up a snow camp and much more.
I cannot speak highly enough of this course.
This formal syllabus has given me a solid foundation to build upon.
But it wasn’t limited to just that; the guides were incredibly generous with their knowledge and passed on facts, skills, tricks and tips that you can only learn from being out in the field.
And the first-hand experience in the outdoors has given me the confidence and awareness to pursue future adventures. To be able to complete tasks given to you by seasoned mountaineers is empowering. And in regards to awareness, as one of my guides stated, you can have this idea that you will enjoy mountaineering but until you are actually out there doing it, you can't know for sure. This course exposed us to a broad variety of activities involved in mountaineering so that we can decide for ourselves which areas we like (by the way, I like ALL OF THEM).
Honestly, the course was life-changing for me. It was a total tease and I can’t wait to do more.
As I share with you 15 things I learnt on an introductory mountaineering course, I hope it pushes you over the line to book into your own course and kickstart your life in the mountains.
1. Mountaineering is long and gruelling
Instagram only shows the blazing sunrises and sunsets atop a summit. It doesn’t, or at least very rarely, shows the less glamorous sides of mountaineering that include peeing into a ziplock bag because it is too wild outside to exit the tent, pooping into a garbage bag, pulling sleds uphill, getting knocked sideways by gusts and living in the same clothes for days on end.
More than once, our guides said, “you need to love to suffer if you want to be a mountaineer”.
2. Take care with how you do things in the mountains
When you realise your life depends on a correctly tied and dressed figure 8 knot, you quickly learn this. Or so I thought. I still saw one person let ego get the better of him and whip through his knot-tying, only to end up with a pretzel…and then a twisted double figure 8. Slow down enough to get things right the first time, but obviously not too slow to waste time.
3. I can’t stress enough how important your health, strength and fitness are
Not only will it enable you to physically get through the days, but it will enhance your enjoyment and lend to your recovery so that you can spend more time out there. It also means you can contribute to your group which is important for everyone’s sake.
I didn’t specifically train for this course. The below is a typical week in training for me and I found that it served me really well in the mountains:
one running piece (I follow an endurance program by The Running Lab)
one AirBike piece (I follow an AirBike conditioning progression program by Starr Strength)
hit my back squats, front squats and deadlifts once a week (also Starr Strength)
lots of accessory work across lower body, upper body and core
aspects of Strongman training like working with sleds, prowlers and sandbags as well as unilateral work such as single-arm Farmers Carries; this type of training is practically directly linked to success in the outdoors!
I generally do a long hike with a heavy pack once a month
I generally climb indoors or boulder 3-4 times a month.
I understand this seems like a lot but it’s about 4 x 90 minute sessions. I don't want to go off on a tangent but without your health, you have nothing. You're unable to do what you love, be with whom you love - everything goes out the window. So really, it's the crux of your life that deserves at least 4 x 90 minute sessions per week.
4. Make sure your water bottles are Nalgene
Nalgene is actually a medical labware company so their plastic is designed to be extremely durable. Therefore, you can fill them up with boiling water and use them as hot water bottles in your sleeping bag. Game changer.
5. How do you dry out damp gear when you're in the snow?
To dry out damp gear such as gloves, socks and beanies overnight, throw them into your sleeping bag with you. It seriously works.
6. Considerations when choosing a technical backpack
When buying a pack, don’t buy one with a mesh pocket at the back as it will just fill up with snow!
7. It’s all in the layering.
You've heard it before and you'll hear it time and time again when it comes to staying comfortable in the outdoors.
When we were moving, I was in 2 pairs of thermals on top + bottom and my Gore-Tex layers. When we were stationary and outside, I threw on my lightweight fleece or down jacket.
When we were back at camp, I had on both my lightweight fleece and down jacket.
8. A balaclava or neck muff is CRUCIAL
Especially when the wind picks up! I personally prefer a balaclava as then it means I carry one item instead of two. I'd highly recommend a snug fit for your balaclava so it doesn't move around. For those with long hair like me, this snug fit will also help keep hair out of your face.
9. The perpetual struggle of taking your gloves on and off, on and off...
You will be taking your outer gloves on and off. The best way to not lose them, is to stuff them under your Gore-Tex layer or your pockets (that should have a zip). In terms of your liner gloves, make sure they are either polypro or Merino (which is the golden rule really with all gear) because they will get wet and these materials retain their thermal properties even when wet.
10. Get comfortable with your knots and rope skills
Fumbling on these will only cost time and energy (physical and emotional). Our guides‘ recommendation is to practice twice a month for however long it takes to become second-nature and then at least twice a year. This includes tying figure 8s, Prusiks, Clove and Munter hitches, coiling rope and roping up for glacial travel.
11. When self-arresting, KEEP THOSE FEET UP.
You’ll be wearing crampons and if your feet are down, they will hook into the snow, you will back flip and hit your head. We practised without crampons and on my first go, I had my feet down. My guide said, “I don’t want to alarm you but people have died doing that”. Noted.
(BTW your knees will get caned and bruised but I figure that in real life, I’m not going to give two f***ks about my knees if it means I don’t slide off into oblivion)
12. What should I do after this introductory course?
In terms of what comes next after an introductory course, our guides recommended a navigation course and Avalanche Skills Training. They also said that nothing beats experience in the outdoors so form a list of mountains that gradually build in steepness, skill and difficulty, equip yourself, find those who can come with you or share their knowledge and get after it!
13. The group dynamic is so important.
You are in each other’s personal space practically 24/7, you talk about toilet habits, you see each other struggle, you're stinking up the same tent together...
Remember that you are a team, treat each other with compassion and pull your weight.
14. It has deterred me from booking into guided group expeditions...
On a less positive tone, the realisation of how important the group dynamic is has significantly deterred me from booking into a guided group expedition - because I don’t want to be stuck with gumbies. I don’t want my life in the hands of someone who is selfish, rash or incapable.
15. The final point is this. And it is more a life lesson than specific to mountaineering.
Nothing will set your soul alight more than being surrounded by those who are passionate and attack life with enthusiasm. One guy in my group exclaimed, “that was the best”, after we dragged sleds uphill in a blizzard. And our guides had this childlike joy that in adulthood, only resurfaces when you are doing what you truly love. Throw yourself into what fulfils you and find people who are in love with their lives.
PS. here’s another random tip. If you have a long mane of hair like me, keep it out of the way with a braid. Otherwise, it will annoy the heck out of you by flying in your face and steadily becoming one big dreadlock.
Thuc is a lover of beautiful words, grand landscapes and meaningful relationships. In addition to manning the She Went Wild digital desk, she is a freelance content creator in the outdoors and fitness spaces. You’ll likely find her in the mountains with her camera and a notebook and pen!
Follow Thuc’s adventures on Instagram at @thuc.creative
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