Most people know that taking up some type of exercise benefits their health, but many struggle to find an activity they genuinely enjoy. After all, the gym isn’t for everyone.
For example, maybe you prefer to exercise outdoors—and maybe you’re looking for something more challenging and exhilarating than hiking. If so, consider alpine climbing.
Alpine climbing has a long history. While people have been climbing mountains out of necessity for ages, Italian poet Petrarch’s summit of Mount Ventoux in 1336 AD marked a new era. Petrarch climbed the Italian peak for pleasure, and out of a spirit of adventure. For these reasons, his achievement is sometimes seen as the birth of alpine climbing, even though Ventoux is not part of the Alps and it’s not a particularly difficult climb.
Modern alpine climbing looks much different now, of course. Here’s a basic introduction to get you started with this thrilling sport.
What is Alpine Climbing?
It’s important to understand that alpine climbing isn’t the same as hiking, mountain climbing, or even mountaineering, though people sometimes use these terms interchangeably.
Alpine climbing involves navigating the area of a mountain above the treeline. Some experts also specify that alpine climbing needs to involve some degree of “pitched” climbing. That means at some point, you should be ascending ice or rock walls (or both, depending on the environment), which may require special equipment like crampons, ice picks and axes, ropes, and harnesses. Alpine climbing also traditionally requires traveling a relatively long distance while carrying your equipment.
Benefits of Alpine Climbing
You can probably imagine that a form of exercise as vigorous as alpine climbing will offer a range of benefits to those who take it up. Naturally, the exertion alpine climbing requires will build muscle and improve cardiovascular health.
Alpine climbing also involves spending a significant amount of time outdoors. That alone is beneficial in several key ways. Research shows that spending more time outdoors helps to guard against stress, improves cognitive function and creativity, boosts energy levels, and may even reduce chronic pain, among other benefits.
Alpine climbing is also the kind of challenging pursuit that can test your perseverance, mental stamina, and fitness. It’s an all-encompassing pursuit that pits you against nature—when you’re strapped to a harness on a rock face or navigating a glacier, you aren’t thinking of anything else except how to go forward. Many climbers love this feeling of pushing themselves to their absolute physical and mental limits; some even describe it as addicting! Climbers also enjoy the intense feeling of accomplishment when they ascend a rock wall or summit a peak. In addition, they’re treated to amazing views they few people ever get to see.
In sum, alpine climbing can come with big risks, but it offers big rewards.
Alpine climbing can be dangerous, and for that reason, it requires training and practice. Even experienced climbers often hire guides on climbing trips. A reputable guide will not take you on a climb if he or she feels you’re not ready.
So what should you do if you want to get started? If you’re an absolute beginner, you’ll want to start spending more time outside on long hikes and then backpacking trips in the mountains. Always go with someone more experienced than you—never go alone. Groups are best. Get used to navigating obstacles like boulders, streams, surfaces covered by rocks, and patches of ice.
When you feel confident in your fitness and endurance levels, you might try summiting an “easy” mountain with the help of a guide. Mount Rainier in Washington State is often used by beginners trying to get experience navigating ice and glaciers with ropes and other climbing equipment. At 14,411, the mountain will also help you get acquainted with the challenges of high elevation climbing. Mount Hood in Oregon also offers good practice for beginning alpine climbers.
Resources for Beginners
Many organizations offer essential mountaineering courses you can take to get started with alpine climbing. Check with the American Mountain Guides Association, the American Alpine Institute, and The Mountaineers. For example, the American Alpine Institute offers classes such as Introduction to Mountaineering, Glacier Skills and Crevasse Rescue, Introduction to Alpine Ice Climbing, and several others. Some of the classes include a climbing trip.
In the meantime, it’s also a good idea to build up your strength through the kinds of exercises that are ideal for anyone interested in alpine climbing. Many climbers also spend a lot of time at their local rock-climbing gym. You should do the same. Along with helping you build muscle and learn to navigate vertical rock walls, working out at a rock climbing gym can help you meet other climbers, both beginners and experienced guides. Alpine climbing demands a lot of inner focus and individual strength, but it’s also a sport with a real community surrounding it. Joining this community can be one of the most fulfilling aspects of becoming a climber.