For most climbers, months, even years, of training go into a climbing expedition.
The physical demands of navigating steep and treacherous terrain at high altitudes are extreme. The long days require a solid aerobic base and anaerobic capacity is needed to persevere in the thin air. Navigating the technical sections requires balance, along with strength and flexibility to react to the terrain, packs, and conditions. Nothing beats training for climbing like climbing or hiking. It can feel like a second full-time job to get ready for an expedition. I try to find the time to balance the aerobic training with other activities to address the needs for balance, strength, flexibility, and agility.
Even with all of that, physical strength alone is not enough. Mountaineering requires mental stamina to endure both the physical discomfort of cold and altitude, and the emotional yearnings of comfort and home. However, if done right, the process of the physical training also builds the mental strength: I try to test and push my limits and find how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The environment of the high mountains is remote and hostile. The mountains are wild, rugged, challenging, and beautiful, yet they can be scary and dangerous as well. The mountains can change in a split second. These dangers typically consist of slips on steep slopes, crevasse falls, falling ice or rock, altitude illnesses, and injuries from the cold. You plan for these moments, always hoping they never occur. If they do, no amount of foresight prepares you for the scream of adrenaline and the emptiness in your stomach as the landscape changes around you.
During one expedition a few years back, I was descending through Mt. Everest’s Khumbu Icefall and the glacier shifted beneath us. A loud “crack” erupted not a dozen yards away as a section of serrac peeled off and collapsed into the crevasse below. The ice block we stood on dropped several feet down into the abyss and an empty feeling of weightlessness filled my stomach for a brief second. Everything shook, a cloud of crushed ice and snow enveloped us… and then it was over as quickly as it came. My pounding heart was the only reminder of what just occurred.
Despite the challenges and the risks, mountaineering has a powerful allure.
The simplicity of mountaineering is what really pulls you in. A mountaineering expedition is an escape into the peaks, where focus falls on the basics: movement, nutrition, and shelter. While climbing, life melts away into the immediacy of NOW. Few distractions exist when you’re in the mountains. Any climb, be it a few hours or several months, dissolves into the immediate actions of the present — crossing a crevasse, navigating a wind-swept corniced ridge, or melting snow for drinking water. That’s where proper gear becomes essential.
How to Prepare for a Mountaineering Expedition
Climbers are notorious for being sticklers about the equipment they carry into the mountains. No piece of gear goes into the mountains un-scrutinized or un-tested, and sometimes even un-modified! Basic technical gear consists of an ice axe, crampons, a harness, a climbing helmet, a few carabineers, and a rope. Depending on the route, you may need much more than that, from ice tools to crevasse rescue gear, as well as tools to create snow and ice anchors.
But simply going through an equipment checklist isn’t all it takes. Mountaineering also requires gear that is durable, lightweight, functional, and insulating. When it comes to climbing gear, details matter.
Is the hood big enough to wear with a climbing helmet? Will the seams on a tent last through a howling windstorm? Does the hip belt on your backpack carry a heavy load comfortably while wearing a climbing harness? Can you clip in and out of carabineers with your gloves? When picking through your gear choices, make sure to take the small details into account. You don’t need lots of bells and whistles–just what works. Use your gear religiously in your training to know how to use it before you head into the mountains!
For clothing pieces, look for layering items. You have more versatility to accommodate the varying conditions with several different layers that can be worn together than just one big coat. I typically climb with five layers on my upper body: a wool baselayer, a light fleece, a soft shell jacket or puffy belay jacket, a Gore-Tex shell, and a warm down jacket. On my lower body, I bring three layers: long underwear, a soft shell climbing pant, and Gore-Tex shell pants with full side zips, so that they can be pulled on and off without taking my climbing boots or crampons off.
Five Trusted Mountaineering Brands
There are a few gear companies that really take the details to heart. Here are the top five whose gear I use religiously in the mountains.
Black Diamond: Black Diamond’s technical hardware is unmatched. From ice axes to crampons to carabineers and ski poles, I trust these Salt Lake City-based climbers and engineers (literally) with my life.
La Sportiva: I’ve found La Sportiva’s shoes filling my closet and I use their footwear for pretty much all of my mountain adventures–from trail running to rock climbing and to lightweight alpine adventures and long Himalayan expeditions.
POC: When the winds pick up or the snow is blowing, I’m sold on POCs eyewear and goggles. I’ve had little issue with fogging and great peripheral vision, whether it’s climbing at 26,000 feet in the Himalayas or skiing overhead powder in British Columbia.
MSR: A hot meal at the end of the day is always good for the soul. Despite the conditions (or perhaps my negligence), MSR’s stoves have proven to withstand. From burning questionable “kerosene” in howling winds in Russia’s Caucasus Mountains to ultra light stoves during multi day endurance adventures around home, MSR stoves haven’t failed me.
If you’re preparing for a mountaineering expedition, just remember: The lure of mountaineering exists not simply in reaching the summit, but in the experience of getting there.
Linden Mallory is a mountain guide for RMI Expeditions, one of America’s most reputable and long-standing guide services with over 45 years of mountain guiding experience.