As much as we’d like to climb the hardest mountains from the first moments we strap on our crampons, the novices of the sport must put in their time before they get good. Ars longa, vita brevis – life is short and the art is long, which is what Hippocrates said of the art of medicine, but it’s equally applicable to the art of mountaineering. Even Reinhold Messner had to cut his teeth on the easy peaks before tackling the Himalaya.
If you’re trying to get into mountaineering, put aside your dreams of Denali and Everest for now. Get some experience on some modest mountains first, like the three listed below. They’ll introduce you to the thin air of moderate altitude, and teach you the basics of glacier travel – skills you’ll need to master before you move on to more serious objectives.
While these mountains aren’t demanding on a technical level, mountaineering is always inherently dangerous, and each of these mountains have killed their share climbers. Know what you’re getting into – hire a guide, if you can afford it, or become friends with a skilled mountaineer, and always check the weather before you climb.
Mount Adams, Washington State
Height: 12,281 Feet
Route: South Spur
Gear: Crampons, Ice Ax
On the glacial slopes of Mount Adams, I lost my mountaineering cherry. The 10,000 feet plus peak was gentle, softly introducing me to the ecstasies of the hills. Standing on the summit of my first mountain, my mountaineering desires momentarily satisfied, I felt like a man.
Many of the glaciers in the Cascade range would be good first time mountains. For many of them – like Adams, Baker and Hood – there are easy routes that are basically strenuous hikes over glaciers. Carry an ice ax and know how to use it, as the glacier gets steep and one slip could send you careering over the edge. Crampons are necessary to keep your purchase on the ice.
You’ll probably want to do the South Spur of Adams in two days. Many do it in one, but a night spent sleeping at altitude is edifying for the beginning mountaineer. Just remember to pack enough warm clothes.
Mount Shasta, California
Height: 14,179 Feet
Route: Avalanche Gulch
In the Cascade Range, Shasta is the second tallest peak (232 feet below Rainier, which is a much more technically demanding mountain.) Like the other mountains on this list, it’s difficult because of the physical challenge of hiking thousands of feet of elevation, rather than because of any technical challenges.
And like Adams, you’ll probably want to do it in two days (unless you’re in good shape and are feeling ambitious.)
Longs Peak, Colorado
Height: 14,259 Feet
Gear: Crampons, Ice Ax
Colorado has many fine mountains that are suitable for beginners. They’ll give you a taste of elevation – there are 54 at 14,000 feet – and a healthy dose of exposure. You won’t need any ropes or technical skills if you climb them in the summer, but they will give you quite a workout.
Longs Peak is a popular mountain to climb due to the ease of climbing and spectacular views at the summit. Make sure you climb it during the summer (at other times of the year, snow makes the route much more difficult) and remember to get there early – the parking lot fills up fast.