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There are challenges that tell us how much heart we have, and for centuries, mankind has sought to reach the top of the world and plant his flag at the pinnacle. Today that urge is no less strong, and every day ordinary people attempt mountain ascents, whether it's at Longs Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, or Mt. Hood, Denali, or even Mt. Katahdin in Maine. We praise these climbers, but advise that before you begin your vertical ascent, you not only gear up, but brush up. Here are a few tips for preparing to undertake your own mountain climbing adventure this spring.
Before equipment comes training; nothing will get you in trouble on a mountain quicker than ignorance, no matter how fancy your gear. There are many places that offer mountaineering lessons, and a full-fledged course like the 4-day Introduction to Mountaineering with Mountain Madness can run you about $795 and cover: snow climbing skills; using your ice axe properly; moving while roped up as a group; self-arrest strategy if you find yourself sliding on the snow; crampon use; crevasse rescue ... you get the idea. There's a lot of knowledge that will keep you safe in ways that no equipment can.
What does it take, in terms of equipment, to climb a mountain? Not including those mountains that require technical climbing — the kind with pitons, cams, and belaying ropes — there is some basic gear that you'll need, especially for crossing snow fields or glaciers, and on multi-day ascents.
For a multi-day climb in cold weather, you'll need to carry quite a bit of kit. This endeavor will require a hefty backpack in the 75- to 90-liter range. Modern mountain climbing backpacks have internal frames, keeping the outside smooth and less likely to snag on branches. You'll want a pack that has multiple adjustments to customize its fit and keep most of the weight of your load on your hips. A few external pockets are handy for things like binoculars, sunglasses, and trail mix for use along the way, too. The Alps Mountaineering Denali 5500 ($99.54 via coupon code "SPR2012" with $19.75 s&h, a low by $1) is a great budget mountaineering backpack. It offers internal suspension, a 5,500 cubic-inch capacity, and weighs only 5.25 lbs. with the included rain cover.
You can rent or borrow most mountaineering equipment, but you'll definitely want your own pair of boots, as they are the foundation of your trek. A true mountaineering boot is different from the common hiking boot in one key respect: flex. Mountaineering boots are built on a rigid platform so that crampons can attach securely, while hiking boots flex to accommodate the action of the foot. If you plan to ascend mountains with trails free of snow, your hiking boot will suffice. But if you need to traverse snow fields or glaciers and will be wearing crampons, you should consider a mountaineering boot. A pair like the Lowa Mountain Women's Expert GTX Mountaineering Boots ($359.99 with free shipping, a low by $15; search for "223739" to find them) offer a removable Gore-Tex liner (allowing them to dry out overnight), Vibram outsoles, split leather uppers, and a nylon shank. Plus they weigh less than 4 lbs.
An essential piece of specialized gear for use on snow pack and glaciers is the ice axe. It functions as a cane to help steady yourself along the walk, and can help you pull yourself along on steeper slopes, and also works as an anchor for rope.
Ice axes come in different sizes that range from 50 cm to 75 cm, and a proper one should barely touch the ground when you stand at attention with the axe dangling from your hand. An ice ax has several ends: the pick, adze, and spike, each useful in different situations. On a good axe, the spike (which wears when the axe is used as a cane) is often made of carbon steel and can easily be replaced.
Weight is, of course, a factor in all your mountaineering gear. A standard axe has an aluminum shaft, while more expensive models are built from carbon fiber. It's advisable to favor models with a leash as it can be the difference between having and losing your axe when dropped along a steep slope. The Grivel G1 Ice Axe ($74.90 with free shipping, a low by $1) has a forged carbon steel head, a carbon steel spike, and an aluminum shaft, yet weighs only 468 grams.
Crampons are covers for your boots that contain many hard steel spikes that can dig into compact snow and ice to give you firmer footing. When conditions warrant it, there is no good substitute. In shopping for crampons, note the difference in the ways they attach to the boot; there are three different attachment systems: fixed horizontal, semi-rigid, and strap-on. The most universal style is is the strap-on, which will fit most any shoe or boot and allows for a certain degree of flex.
Most crampons are designed with 10 to 12 steel points spaced around the periphery of the shoe. On more expensive models the front points can be replaced or reconfigured to match different conditions. A solid pair of crampons are the C.A.M.P. USA Stalker Universal Crampons ($99.95 with free shipping, a low by $3), which fit most mountaineering and hiking boots, have tooless adjustments, weigh only 960 grams, and come with a carrying case.
Anyone who has hiked with a walking stick knows how handy it is as a metronome that helps you to pace yourself, keep your balance, and brush away limbs and weeds impeding your progress. It can relieve some of the pressure on your legs on a descent, too. They're so good that many mountaineers double this pleasure by using a pair of trekking poles!
Any good pair of poles are telescopic, allowing you to shorten them on ascent, lengthen them for descent — and make them very short when you need to pack them up. Even better models come with anatomical grips. The tip, which does get a great deal of wear, is usually replaceable. Like ski-poles, some come with baskets, or small collars that fit around the bottom of the poles to keep them from sinking too quickly in mud or snow, but every good pair should also boast a set of straps.
What's more, pricey models even come with shock absorbers. But, as fancy as they can be, poles cannot replace the ice axe as a support on glaciers. But, as long as you're not on solid ice, this Pair of Black Diamond Trail Ergo Cork Poles ($56.95 with free shipping, a low by $13) are great. They're functional, 3-section aluminum poles with an easy-locking mechanism that expands them from 25 to 55 inches. They boast cork handles, long, flex tips, and trekking baskets.
Equipment is an important part of mountaineering, as is education on how to climb the big peaks. What you cannot buy, however, is the adventuring spirit. If yours is high, let it fly and get out on the trail.
Front page photo credit: Photo Dictionary