It's pretty simple to get started in mountaineering, but buyer beware; it requires a lot of time to obtain the knowledge to climb the peaks you see on TV or on your desktop background. For most people in the US, mountaineering can start with simple hiking trails and move up to hiking 14ers such as those located in Colorado (peaks above 14,000 feet of elevation).
Learning the class breakdown...
Non-glacier climbs are rated by difficulty of the route from class 1 - class 5.15d. The break down for each of these classes follows below.
Class 1 is hiking up a well maintained trail.
Class 2 is where hands may occasionally be used for balance.
Class 3 is rock scrambling with a lot of use of hands. Ropes may be used by some parties depending on the run-out (how severe a fall would be).
Class 4 is rock scrambling with vertical climbing. A rope should be used by most climbers. Additionally, falls in this class are likely fatal.
Class 5 is where a rope should be used. Because of it vast differences in difficulty for vertical rock climbing grades, this class moves into the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). The YDS starts at 5 then moves to 5.1, 5.2, etc. getting progressively more difficult. At 5.10, the grades start to be split into a,b,c, and d and goes up to 5.15d (cutting edge climbing grade, possibly 5.16a has been climbed but it is hard to confirm the grade). Climbing 5.12 or above takes an incredible amount of athleticism and dedication to the craft by weekend climbers. Professional climbers spend a lifetime to get to the 5.14 or 5.15 levels. Ice climbing and mixed climbing are other disciplines with their own grading system and risks, but most steep pitches require a rope.
It's best to start out with Class 1 or Class 2 hikes, but be aware of the following dangers...
On most days 14ers will develop thunderstorms by noon, so plan to leave early so you're descending from the summit by 11:00AM while keeping a watch for tall clouds forming. A day can go from sunny to thunderstorm in a matter of an hour, sometimes exposing beginners and making for a dangerous situation. If you are caught in a thunderstorm in the summit area, you need to get to lower ground where you have tree coverage. Climbers die every year in the mountains due to lightning strikes.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS) occurs as the body cannot adjust to lower levels of oxygen and decreased air pressure at high elevation. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches, rapid heartbeat, and shortness of breath. It's common that most climbers will experience a small headache when nearing their first summit if not acclimated. It's a good idea to spend a day above 10,000ft before attempting a 14er to acclimate to these low pressure conditions. The only real treatment for this situation is to descend the mountain. If you feel AMS kicking in, it's best to take a break and rest in order to prevent it from leading into more serious conditions such as cerebral edema or pulmonary edema. Nausea or stronger headache during climbing means that you and your group should descend immediately and attempt a summit a different day. Beginners usually don't take AMS very seriously and many climbers (even some experienced ones) have died at elevations as low as 8,000ft from AMS, and it happens every year.
Moving up in skill level...
After a volume of hikes on easier class 1 or 2 peaks it may be time to attempt a class 3 peak (generally look for one with non fatal run-out) where you need to focus on the rock climbing. Getting some experience at an indoor rock climbing gym can help your technique outdoors, although climbing outdoors is much more dangerous as rocks can easily peal off the wall at any time (look into judging rock conditions online).
Climbing peaks covered in snow and ice such as Mt. Shasta or Mt. Hood is the next level of climbing for those that have dreams of climbing peaks above 14,000 feet outside the US. Generally a class on mountaineering skills is recommended for learning how to safely navigate a glacier and rescue a team member out of a crevasse should they break through the snow.
Mountain conditions can be much more serious on these snowy peaks as you are more exposed to things like frostbite, winds surpassing 100mph, and avalanches. These objective dangers can be managed through experience and careful consideration.
Reaching the top...
After climbing peaks such as Mt. Hood, Shasta, Rainier, Baker and other glaciated peaks in the Cascades many climbers wish to attempt peaks of higher elevation that pose considerably more risk of acute mountain sickness and edema such as Mt. Kilimanjaro (19,340') (the 'easiest' of the 7 summits as crampons aren't even necessary and porters are required), Pico de Orizaba (18,491'), Aconcagua (22,841'), and other international peaks. These higher altitude experiences can help someone prepare for climbing in the Himalayas.
Shortcuts are often taken by climbers to achieve these high peaks before they are technically sound enough to attempt them. Many climbers will hire a guide to assist them in climbing the peak and give them a sense of safety whilst on these dangerous peaks, skipping the necessary experience ladder towards the top. This can often be a great option for those who don't want to spend the time to learn how to safely climb these mountains themselves.
Climbing mountains is a great pursuit for anyone who loves the outdoors but likes a bit of challenge as well. I would highly recommend an ascent of a 14,000 foot peak in Colorado to anyone who enjoy the outdoors to see if they would be interested in spending some time getting to know the mountains.
Written by Aaron Konichek
Brfur Brand Ambassador