I have recently developed an interest in mountaineering. There seems to be so many skills to learn (and master) for mountaineering. Although I know it will take a few years to learn (although I'd probably never stop learning) I'm wondering from people who enjoy the sport - what are some skills that a hopeful mountaineer should learn first?

I do have quite a bit of backpacking experience (although, I need to delve more into winter camping), and I am training to be in better physical and mental shape. But what about skills such as rock climbing, ice axe usage, and other technical skills?

For instance, as a beginner - is learning to be a strong rock climber a good skill to master to eventually learn ice climbing. Or as a beginner is it better to take glacier routes (and learn glacier travel/crevasse rescue) and over time learn to master more technical climbing.

Note: I have read through Mountaineering, The Freedom of the Hills. This book is very in-depth and I can see why people highly recommend it. They go over many skills though, which is why I come here seeking advice.

  • I was in the same spot like you and asked similarly: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/5189/…
    – Wills
    Nov 4, 2016 at 20:11
  • I know that in India and Nepal, there are "basic mountaineering courses" and "advanced mountaineering courses" which last about 4 weeks each and train you pretty much in everything you need to know. An "A grade" in the former course is a prerequisite for entry in the latter. These courses are tough and run by army types but they will train you well.
    – ahron
    Oct 24, 2019 at 4:40

8 Answers 8


I would put avalanche safety and a wilderness first responder course as my top priorities. They teach you how to not get into trouble and how to help others if you do. Just being able to spot an avalanche field is critical, and knowing the signs of a traumatic brain injury (just as an example) can easily be the difference between life and death.

Beyond those I think you'll want to hang out with folks who are better and more experienced than you because you'll see places you need to improve. I'm on a search and rescue team which is great because you get a lot of different disciplines and you're sent into environments that aren't really your cup of tea.

Some folks are naturally strong navigators, some are born climbers, and others can look at the clouds and very accurately pick between a gnarly storm and general afternoon squalls.

But with a WFR certification and an avalanche class I'd feel a lot more comfortable with you on nearly any trip I'd do.

  • Since you're putting safety first, shouldn't you add this to the first paragraph: safe snow/ice traversal and crevasse rescue?
    – Martin F
    Nov 15, 2016 at 1:36
  • I think crevasse rescue is particular to certain environments but I did mention avslanche safety.
    – Eric
    Nov 15, 2016 at 1:41

I've taught some classes for a mountaineering club, and the following sequence is based loosely on what we do.

(1) Learn traditional map-reading and navigational skills. Move beyond attempting to navigate the way most people do these days, by peering at the screen of a cell phone. Get in the habit of printing out a paper topo map for any new route you're doing, and build competence at relating the topo map to the landscape you see around you, without depending on GPS (which is limiting and unreliable). Build experience with cross-country travel, so that you're not freaked out by going off trail or losing a trail.

(2) Learn very basic skills at avalanche avoidance. The most basic skill is extremely simple and does not require taking an avalanche course or buying gear. a) Has there been 15 cm (6") of snow in the last 48 hours? b) Is the slope 30-35 degrees or more (or is the area bare of old-growth trees)? If both of these factors exist, don't go.

(3) Build experience with the ice ax, and also with crampons, microspikes, and snowshoes. The ice ax is a fundamental tool of the mountaineer. Practice self-arrest. Get comfortable with snow travel techniques like the plunge step. Learn to move confidently on steep snow, using the appropriate techniques. While you're gaining this experience, you'll gain skills in keeping yourself comfortable and happy in a cold environment.

(4) Learn basic roped climbing techniques. You should know how to put on your harness, half a dozen of the most important knots and their uses, how to flake the rope, and how to provide a hip belay or a belay using a belay device. This could be in the context of rock climbing or snow climbing.

(5) Learn to lead climb (on rock, snow, or ice), and to build anchors.

For instance, as a beginner - is learning to be a strong rock climber a good skill to master to eventually learn ice climbing. Or as a beginner is it better to take glacier routes (and learn glacier travel/crevasse rescue) and over time learn to master more technical climbing.

You can do rock, ice, and glacier travel in any order, or learn any subset of these skills that you wish. They overlap a lot, because they all involve a lot of the same roped climbing skills and anchor building skills.

First aid training is great, but this is really more of a general life skill. Even if you take a wilderness first aid course, you're more likely to use the skills when you're in your home or at work.


Mountains 101

The first thing you need to learn about Mountaineering is what mountains are, how they got there, and how they behave. You need to understand the terrain, so that you can better assess your risk of exposure, plan routes, and avoid hazards, especially in glacier travel. In most high altitude environments, the landscape has been shaped by glaciers, many of those glaciers are still there, and annually claim lives.

After that, the next most important thing to learn is mountain safety.


The second most important thing to learn is how to use a first aid kit and how to rescue somebody and/or yourself from various emergency situations.

The first most important thing is to understand that it's wrong to think you'd never need those skills or it's more important to learn how to avoid situations that cause them.


One of the most important skills is to make friends with skilled mountaineers and have the social skills to make them want to take you along on their next expedition. While this may sound flippant what it really means is find a club with people you get on with and integrate yourself into it.

Obviously getting some basic competency with sport and outdoor rock climbing is a good first step as this tends to be more accessible and will teach you some of the fundamental safety skills in terms of using ropes an other gear and there will clearly be a lot of social and technical overlap with winter climbing and mountaineering.


The very first skill I would learn is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Most of the turn arounds I have seen while mountaineering have been from people not willing to do so. It amazing what can be accomplished simply by keeping on keeping on.

Beyond that it never hurts to be in better physical shape and when starting out as a rock climber the biggest improvements come from getting over the mental hurdles.

Finally, just get out there and do it.

  • 3
    Knowing when to stop putting one foot in front of the other is also critical. The number-one cause of mountaineering deaths is failing to turn around when you should.
    – Mark
    Nov 4, 2016 at 20:46
  • @Mark True, but I would submit that the number of people who never start, and those who start but don't finish are an overwhelming majority compared to those who go to far. Nov 4, 2016 at 23:33
  • It doesn't sound like the kind of arena where an on-off-switch approach to decision-making fits with the "safety first" rule.
    – jaxter
    Nov 5, 2016 at 7:00
  • So the majority don't go to far. They live to climb another day. Tell some to just start climbing without safety and rescue training is not good.
    – paparazzo
    Nov 6, 2016 at 14:49

First learn safety. Knots, harness, belay, and rescue are common.

For snow travel learn self arrest with an ice ax. As far as avalanche safety only climb on glaciers / big snow fields with someone trained and experienced.

Take a class or get hooked up with some experienced climbers.

Then learn the skills for the route. Plan the route according to your skills. To the top snow is typically best route. If you like rock then climb rock.

You can typically avoid rock climbing. Do it because you want to.

If your objective is to climb ice then start with rock and snow. Ice climbing is high risk.

  • Why would one want to delete this? This addresses the question posed. It could definitely benefit from some more structure and you may not agree with the recommendations, but that is no reason to delete an answer. I feel like Paparazzi is measured with somewhat harsher standards than others in this community.
    – imsodin
    Nov 6, 2016 at 12:15
  • @imsodin Not worth going there. I am not popular with the mods here.
    – paparazzo
    Nov 6, 2016 at 12:39
  • 1
    @Paparazzi I think you have some good answers and comments some times ( I might not agree in part or fully with some but that doesn't make it you a bastard. :) ) so please stick around. :)
    – Desorder
    Nov 6, 2016 at 21:04
  • 1
    @Desorder I not going anywhere and the points don't really bother me. Discussing will just piss off mods.
    – paparazzo
    Nov 6, 2016 at 21:42

First and foremost is Wilderness First Aid. There are official courses taught by the American Red Cross, and the Boy Scouts. The scouts offer the courses to non-scouters, all are welcome.

Next on the list of skills to have, in no particular order:

  • orienteering and map reading
  • plant identification
  • water treatment
  • hygiene (waste handling, cleanliness, disinfecting eating utensils)
  • weathering the weather
  • food prep (cooking, storage, finding)
  • hunting, fishing, and trapping
  • shelter building for all seasons and climates
  • hiking (footwear, techniques, exercises)
  • fire building
  • managing pests (bears, snakes, skunks, insects, etc)
  • emergency prep (first aid, getting lost, self-administered first aid)
  • Why plant ID? Just curious.
    – Danib90
    Dec 5, 2016 at 15:14
  • If you get lost or otherwise are in need of food, having skills in plant identification can help determine what is edible.
    – user11609
    Dec 16, 2016 at 16:51

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