Venturing into unknown territory is always a scary prospect. Whether it’s starting a new job, moving to a new city, or learning a technical outdoor pursuit, the new and unknown is intimidating. The new can challenge us both physically and emotionally . Some activities, like alpine climbing for the first time and in a different country, do both really well. Contributor Courtney Blake shares lessons from preparing for her first foray into alpine climbing. 

gearing up while alpine climbing

“Flights are super cheap right now!” “Let’s just do it!” “I’m in!” “George and Thomas have already gotten their flights, it will be a whole crew, and it will be a blast!” “It’s the chance of a lifetime!” “Just look at the pictures of this place!”

I was overwhelmed with excitement and anticipation as I became swept up in the the idea of an alpine adventure in Canada. I sat at a bar (because that’s where all “brilliant” ideas happen), listening to my friends gush about the possibilities. I watched as the guys talked, excitedly thrusting their phones into each other’s faces, marveling at pictures of “The Bugs”. The images made my eyes wide and my palms sweat.

If you search “Bugaboos, British Columbia” your screen will instantly be filled with images of alpine wildflower meadows and climbers framed by backdrops of clear blue skies, and sharp granite spires that shoot up from broken glaciers.

How could I pass up on this opportunity?

picturesque photo of mountain

For starters, I had never held an ice axe or even seen real amounts of snow, much less traversed across it. The fear I felt for this trip very nearly had me backing out. I didn’t think I was up for the challenge at all. There were so many elements to think of and prepare for that I didn’t even know where to start.

Days later, I booked my flight and sealed my fate. In the weeks to come, I quickly started to doubt my seemingly rash decision. I had fallen victim to the hype!

In hindsight, I’m so glad I took a chance and stepped out.

A few months after I booked my ticket, I was standing atop the world-renowned Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos, overlooking  snow capped mountains that stretched far into the distance. I still remember peering down the colorful valley while listening to my friends talk about glaciers and rock formations, jumping into a pool of water with ice still floating on top, and pulling myself up and up, and up some more, on those rock formations, discovering that I had what it takes. These are the memories I won’t soon forget.

Normally, experiencing new things and pushing myself to explore my abilities comes easily. However, before this particular adventure, I was crippled with fear. After considering backing out for quite some time, I realized that I shouldn’t let my inexperience hold me back. Instead, I focused on the things I would need to accomplish the task ahead.

There were five key things I needed to conquer my doubt,  prepare to confidently venture into unknown territory, and step into something new.

5 Tips for Getting Started Alpine Climbing

climbing mountain

1. The Skills

The  final decision to go through with my wild notions and go on this adventure was my love of climbing. I loved the feeling of pushing myself to new heights (literally), and challenging myself both mentally and physically. I had started casually climbing five years ago and developed my skills as years passed, forging amazing friendships along the way and having amazing experiences traveling and climbing across America. My casual climbing slowly grew into a passion.

It’s important to start out with the fundamental basics and essentially start out as a beginner. Before I was even ready for week long trips I had been going out on weekends and day trips, learning the do’s and don’ts, watching others, and getting used to the movements. I had to learn to tie a proper knot and clip gear before I could build an anchor system or safely place trad gear. I had been pushing myself to learn new skills and develop and grow. The bottom line was that I had gradually developed a foundational skillset that was necessary for me to be able to tackle this new challenge.

alpine climbing in snow

Start simple and learn from experience. If you are looking to amp up your camping game or maybe even to trying out backpacking for example, start out by going on small trips as much as you can. More time spent doing short camping trips will help you discern a routine, get in the groove, and get a better idea of what needs to be done while understanding your specific needs. They say it a lot because it’s true: practice makes perfect. Putting in the time and having a basic foundation on knowledge is key to psyching yourself up for new and more complex challenges.

alpine climbing in group

2. The Training

Having the know-how isn’t exactly enough. I had to make sure that, physically, I was in tip top shape. The hardest part of long climbing trips and going for bigger and badder routes for me was always the hike in. I tended to be on the slower side, and not wanting to hold the group back. I feared the long hike we would be doing right from the start.

In order to ease my mind and feel more confident, I began to run, months before the trip, to improve my cardio. I started to do leg workouts. I did squats. I did laps on the auto belay. I focused on my finger strength. I set goals. I trained and then I trained some more.

Don’t shy away from your weaknesses. Identify them and set goals to strengthen them. Really think about the ways you can improve and set yourself up for success. By doing so you can stack skills and continue to develop. Before a casual runner is ready to take on a marathon, or a marathoner to conquer an ultra, they need to train and prepare themselves physically. Carefully setting goals and taking steps to improve their stamina and strength. Consciously focusing on your physical abilities will instill confidence that you are capable of handling that next adventure that’s a level up from what you are used to.

steep snowy mountain climb

3. The Crew

I called my buddy a couple months before the trip was scheduled to go down. A casual call: I wanted to know what was up and how he was doing, but this was just a routine call I had made before. I was uneasy and needed encouragement. Again. “Why am I doing this?…I can’t possibly handle this!…This is going to be a disaster!…The Bugs are the real deal…” I griped as I picked at my fingers nervously, imagining getting chewed up and spit out by this trip. These were all things he’d heard before and had talked me through already. I constantly whiplashed myself through feeling excited and nervous, dreading the trip and being stoked for the trip.  It was exhausting. “Courtney, you are a strong and determined climber! You’ve got this, quit your worrying,” he told me. I would receive this, or a variation of this, reply every time, easing my mind until the next nervous phone call.

No matter how nervous I got, I knew I could rely on some encouragement from the very people who got me into this “mess”. They would be my support system. I wasn’t the only one who had never stepped into this new hemisphere of climbing either. Four out of five of us were new to the experience. It was important for me to be helpful to them just as they had been helping me. I came to realize that everyone has to start somewhere, and this was a group who was pumped to learn and willing to explore. We would help each other through this. We fed off of each other’s confidence and mutual anticipation for a truly remarkable experience.

Picking your crew or having a support system is essential. The people you choose to share your journey with are the ones who will be there for you when you need them. Having a support system you can rely on can be incredibly beneficial. Not only that, but overall group interaction can make or break a trip. Be sure to give as much as you get. A group that can interact comfortably through new experiences is crucial.

taking picture while climbing

4. The Mentor

Every great crew needs an awesome leader. In our case, it was the same mentor who had taught us all essential skills in the past. He has more certifications than I can count and has dedicated his career to mountaineering. He knew his stuff. On the wall, we would all trust him completely with our lives. It was so important for me to have someone I wasn’t afraid to absolutely spray down with questions and could rely on.

After we conquered the approach, we dedicated a day to learning and going over all of the crucial movements and skills that we would need on route. I felt so relieved to be able to have a teacher that would let me make mistakes, be corrected, and discuss what needed to be done in detail, all within a safe environment.

high five on climbing wall

No matter the activity you are diving into, a person with a brain you can pick and learn from is the bomb. Having an experienced mentor you can rely on and learn from is key to taking your hobby to the next level. As someone with less experience (a.k.a. “the newbie”), you’ll be able to comfortably develop skills in an environment where questions and ideas are welcomed. It’s  important to be able to function as a group without the leader as well. An important part of preparation is to make sure you can handle difficult situations without relying on your mentor as a crutch. A mentor’s guidance is key but it should not be their responsibility to make sure you succeed.

alpine climbing with line

5. The Gear

Although I wasn’t the only one who had never experienced alpinism, I was probably the most out of my element. The others had experienced ice climbing or even moving across some technical snow. I myself was raised in Texas by a family that enjoyed beach vacations, not forays into the alpine. I had never really experienced more than a couple mushy inches of snow that disappeared into a slushy mess the next day.

Since the concept of snow was so foreign to me, I made sure to familiarize myself with the new gear, find out just what I would need, and how everything worked. Ice axes, crampons, gloves, and snow boots–all things my mother wouldn’t even dream of trifling with–I was now researching and learning how to use. With more knowledge, I became less and less overwhelmed.

Researching and familiarizing yourself with the use of the gear that will be necessary for your next adventure is crucial to becoming confident enough to go for it.

having fun at camp

This climbing trip was nothing like I had ever experienced and I cannot be grateful enough that I actually went for it despite my doubts. I learned, gained confidence, welcomed the nervousness and relished the feeling of pushing past my self-doubt.  I was able to try something more challenging than what I was used to simply through training and practice. I encourage you to use these tips to test the waters and challenge your comfort zones. Whether it be from going from car camping to backpacking, day rides to bikepacking, or even from sport climbing in Texas, to climbing classic alpine routes in the Canadian Rockies.

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Updated. Originally published October 10, 2017.