Beginner’s guide to mountaineering
So, you’ve been out tramping, looking up at the snowy peaks, wondering what it’s like to experience them. Maybe you’ve been most of the way up a peak, only to be turned around because you didn’t quite know how to deal with snowy and icy conditions. Maybe you’ve seen pictures of friends with axes in hand, weird spiky things on their feet, having the time of their life on bluebird days up in the Cragieburns or at Arthur’s Pass or further afield. And all you’re thinking is “Could I do that?”. The answer is a loud YES, and this blog post is all about how you can get there!
Your first step is to find a beginner’s snow craft course- something like the OENZ introductory alpine courses or through your local Alpine Club. These courses will give you the skills you need to have some epic adventures…
Next you need some mates to go on these adventures with! Again, the clubs are a great way to start, and also meeting people on the courses is another great way to meet like-minded people.
After that you need to practice! Learn about snow conditions, and above all else, learn when the bravest choice is to say no, and abandon your mountaineering plans. Mother Nature is a fickle and wild woman, and when she turns the weather on, and avalanche conditions are high, it is time to stay home. The Mountain Safety Council should be your best friend...
But those gear lists eh!? They can be quite intimidating! No worries though- we’re here to help you through that. And remember, you can rent gear from Further Faster while you are getting started!
Boots are a really important piece of equipment to consider. Super flexible tramping boots won’t cut the mustard for mountaineering- you run the risk of losing your crampons if you wear them! In my opinion mountaineering boots are your best first investment- they are hard to hire, and even if you find a pair in your size they can lead to some gnarly blisters if you’re not used to them (believe me, I know!). Something like the Salewa Rapace are a great beginner boot as they aren’t insanely rigid and are primarily a winter tramping boot, but you can definitely put a semi-automatic crampon on them! Check out our womens and mens boots.
We have another blog here all about Boots and Crampons which may answer some more of your questions about that.
A walking axe is also essential for alpine safety... You’ll be learning what on earth to do with one during a snow craft course!.You don’t really need anything super curved and aggressive yet, your axe is primarily used as a balance assist and as a self-arrest tool in case of a slip. A bit of a curve in the shaft is nice if you’re front pointing up some steeper snow, but it’s not essential at this stage. Something like the Grivel G-Zero, the Black Diamond Raven or the Petzl Glacier are good options for a simple, straight shafted axe. We also have some lighter weight, slightly more curved options if you are interested- come have a chat to us in store if you need a hand choosing!
P.S: A good tip for figuring out ice axe length is to hold your ice axe at your side while standing up straight. If the spike at the bottom is below your ankle the axe is too long, and if it’s higher than mid-calf it’s too short.
P.P.S. Further Faster hire axes if you want to try one out first!
Crampons are another tool you’ll learn to use during these courses. You can find a great guide about how to choose the right pair here: https://www.furtherfaster.co.nz/pages/a-guide-to-crampons-nz. Something like the Salewa Walk or Grivel G10 will be more than sufficient for your courses, but if you want something that will help you out with steeper front pointing the Grivel G12 or Salewa Combi crampons would be my pick! Just make sure you get the right crampon for your boots- a boot with a heel weld can fit something semi-automatic and give a snugger fit, but for boots without, a strap-on crampon works just as well. Adjust your crampon length by lifting the pin in the bar until they fit your boot (I like to put my crampon on the boot with no straps done up to see if it stays on when I lift it… if it stays on, it’s the right length.) For you shorter-footed people out there, the crampon bar can flip around as well to get a shorter fit- just make sure you use opposite bars on each crampon to get the left and right crampons properly configured. We can absolutely help you with selecting and fitting crampons if you need! We also hire crampons here at Further Faster if you want to give them a go first.
A helmet is essential for protecting your noggin, especially around sharp things, tools, rocks, and pretty much anything you can think of. Make sure it’s snug but not tight, and that you can fit a beanie under it. We have a huge range of helmets in different styles and sizes, so come on in and try them on! PS. It is really handy to have a jacket that can fit a helmet underneath the hood!
An avalanche kit (transceiver, probe and shovel) may be a requirement for your course as well. These come in all different forms, but in short, any transceiver as long as it has three antennae will do the job at the moment! Shovels and probes can be differing weights and sizes, but they all do the same job… getting someone out of a pickle. You’ll possibly learn how to use this equipment on a course. We hire out full avalanche kits, so don’t stress if you don’t quite want to invest in a full kit yet.. but if you do, we can help you out!
Clothing: You’ve also got to consider it your best protection against the elements. You’ll be spending a lot of time sitting still (in cold places) on these courses, sliding around as you practice self-arresting, moving in steep terrain and the weather is always changing- you have to gear up for lots of conditions! Layering is the best way to manage this- it means you can manage your temperature well, even when you’re moving from higher intensity activity from sitting still.
It’s essential to have a fully waterproof jacket (something like the Montane Alpine Pro or Ajax) and softshell or waterproof pants (see range here, there’s a lot!) to keep the water out. A warm down or synthetic jacket will keep you toasty while you’re absorbing new information or enjoying lunch, and midlayers such as the the Protium Hoody will provide some extra insulation.
Base layers that keep you warm and wick sweat away will keep you comfortable- our Primino range can sort you out. Bring a couple of pairs of gloves- one waterproof and warm set (for snow times) and one warm set- there’s a good chance you’ll get snow in your gloves as you slip and slide around self-arresting and a warm spare pair is nice! A good beanie that fits under your helmet and keeps the wind out is essential, as is a toasty pair of socks.
Getting your layering right will make your first mountaineering experiences much more enjoyable, and we’re happy to help you get it right!
Just a final couple of things - polarized sunglasses will keep you from becoming snow blind, and anti-fog ones simply make your life much more pleasant- a Julbo category 2-4 type will keep those nasty rays out. Bringing a flask of tea or soup (or I love hot raro..) is incredibly comforting on a chilly day, and will keep you hydrated! Bring more food than you think you’ll need- when it’s cold, eating is one way you’ll stay warm. A comfy 30-45L pack with the appropriate attachments for ice-axes on the outside will be ideal to pack everything in to, and will give you heaps of opportunity to grow as a mountaineer!
And last of all… bring an amazing attitude! You’re about to embark on one of the most epic journeys out there… becoming a mountaineer! Ask lots of questions, practice those skills, stay safe, and have fun! I can’t wait to see all of you out there!
Written by Bridget White, Further Faster Crew and all round mountain bad ass.