In general, mountain climbing can be divided into two categories: non-technical and technical. As the name implies, non-technical mountain climbing involves hiking up a designated mountain trail in mild conditions without the use of advanced gear like ropes, harnesses and crampons. Non-technical climbs can usually be performed in regular clothing and hiking boots. These climbs are typically rated class 2 or lower on the Yosemite Decimal System. (We’ll discuss climbing grades in the next section).
Technical mountain climbing, also called mountaineering or alpinism, involves ascending challenging alpine terrain that is typically rated class 3 or higher. Mountaineering requires warm, protective outerwear, sturdy mountaineering boots and a helmet. Depending on the difficulty of the terrain and time of year, mountaineering may also require ropes, harnesses, crampons, ice axes and other advanced equipment. Because the terrain is more hazardous, this kind of climbing involves a higher degree of technical skill, safety knowledge and careful planning.
Most climbers attempt to summit peaks in the summer, when conditions are mildest and terrain is the most accessible. Even though it may be 85 degrees and sunny at the foot of a peak, conditions at higher elevations can be drastically different. Above 13,000 feet in the Colorado Rockies, for example, alpine snowfields can remain intact year-round. High winds and summer storms can unexpectedly change conditions from mild to hazardous within a short period of time. Always thoroughly research the peak you will be climbing, have a plan of attack, and pack enough gear and clothing so that you’re prepared for any weather eventuality. Be prepared with survival gear if you are forced to overnight on the mountain. If you’re new to mountain climbing, it’s highly recommended that you climb with an experienced alpinist or guide for your first few ascents. The golden rule: Never climb alone.
Ascending taller peaks in winter and during the off-season (which includes spring and autumn for some peaks) is a totally different ball game, and something only experienced alpinists should attempt. The difficulty and danger of attempting a summit during the off-season can be significantly higher, depending on the elevation. Climbers must not only be in top physical condition and well trained, they must also be able to contend with a variety of hazards, including sudden storms, sub-zero temperatures, high winds, falling rocks, crevasses and avalanche dangers.
The sport of ski mountaineering combines skiing and traditional mountaineering. Alpine touring skis or telemark skis are typically used to traverse snowy terrain. Ski skins are used to ascend snowfields and removed to descend. Depending on the route, a ski mountaineer may also switch from skis to crampons (carrying skis on the back) when ascending or descending on steep, craggy and icy sections.
If you’re interested in climbing mountains, it’s usually best to start with an easier route on a mountain with well-maintained, clearly-marked trails (e.g. class 1). Thoroughly research the route you’ll be climbing in advance and be prepared with the appropriate clothing, footwear and gear. Check out our Hiking Guide for more information. Always climb with at least one other person and be sure to check on weather conditions beforehand. Once you’ve summited several easy routes and are eager for more challenge, step things up by attempting a more difficult route (e.g. class 2).
The Next Level
If you’re interested in climbing alpine routes that are rated class 3 and above, you’re now entering mountaineering territory. Before attempting anything above class 2, it’s a very good idea to either join a mountaineering club, hire an experienced alpine guide or team up with another experienced mountaineer. This will allow you to learn how to summit challenging terrain safely. If you plan to climb a route that requires advanced equipment, such as ropes, harnesses and crampons, it’s highly recommended that you learn proper climbing techniques from an experienced climber or instructor.
Yosemite Decimal System
Used primarily in the US and Canada, the Yosemite Decimal System is an ascent difficulty grading system. YDS is used to determine the level of skill and equipment needed to safely summit an alpine route or other geological feature. According to Climber.org, there are five classes:
Class 1: Hiking and ascending along designated trails and easy terrain. No navigation or technical equipment needed.
Class 2: Hiking and ascending with the occasional use of the hands. Easy to moderate terrain. No technical equipment needed. Trails may or may not be clearly designated. Some navigation may be required.
Class 3: More frequent scrambling on steeper, rugged terrain. A rope and harness may be carried, but are not necessarily required. Some potential for dangerous falls, but no vertical faces and limited exposure.
Class 4: Areas of exposed climbing and scrambling. Ropes are often used for safety when traversing these sections. No extended vertical faces, but still a high potential for dangerous falls in some areas. May require crampons and winter climbing equipment.
Class 5: Technical rock and ice climbing is required to navigate vertical rock faces, ice, snow and/or challenging alpine terrain. Frequent exposure with a high potential for dangerous falls. Harnesses, rope, belaying and other protection hardware are required for safety. The fifth class of the Yosemite Decimal System is further divided into sub-classes ranging from 5.0 to 5.14. These are used to determine the difficulty of a route or rock face that requires free climbing (usually sport climbing or traditional climbing).
It’s important to note that some alpine routes may include a range of terrain and difficulty between the base and the summit. Routes may be graded according to the most challenging section of the climb (i.e. the crux) or given a mixed grade. Different routes on a mountain often have different grades. For example, Denali in Alaska has several routes. The most popular West Buttress route is rated class 3-4. The much more challenging West Rib, on the other hand, includes sustained climbing, giving it a rating of 4-5.
Base layers are ideal for layering underneath outerwear. Base layers should be made of lightweight, breathable, quick-drying materials, such as nylon, polyester or merino wool. Avoid cotton garments, which absorb sweat and dry very slowly.
Waterproof breathable jackets and pants are necessary for bagging peaks in colder conditions and being prepared for potential inclement weather. Most waterproof shells can be folded up a stored inside a backpack. Remember: If it’s 80 degrees and sunny at the base of a mountain, it could be cold, windy, raining or even snowing by the time you get to the summit, even in the middle of the summer, depending on the elevation and region.
Gloves, Hats and Socks
Gloves are essential for alpine climbing in colder conditions and at very high altitudes. In snowy conditions, insulated waterproof mittens are ideal. Winter hats, beanies and balaclavas are also crucial items when the temp drops. Of course, choosing the right pair of socks is extremely important for your comfort level on the mountain. For milder conditions and lower elevations, go with lightweight or midweight hiking socks with moderate cushioning. For winter and higher elevations, heavyweight hiking socks are a must to provide adequate insulation. Leave the cotton socks at home and go with wool, synthetic or a blend. Always bring at least one pair of extra socks, just in case your feet get wet.
Mountaineering boots are similar to hiking boots, with a stiff, all-terrain outsole and additional support features for rugged alpine terrain. Many mountaineering boots are waterproof and compatible with crampons, allowing them to be used for mountaineering or ice climbing.
Designed to protect the lower legs, gaters help prevent snow from getting inside the cuffs of boots, especially when trekking in deeper snow. Gaters are typically made of durable, waterproof or water-repellent fabric, such as nylon. A good pair of gaters is an essential piece of gear for winter mountaineering.
Mountaineering axes (sometimes called “piolets” in Europe) are climbing axes designed specifically for alpinism. The head of a typical climbing axe has a pick-shaped point on one end, which can be plunged into snow or ice. The other end may have a hammer for placing pitons or an adze for chopping footholds into ice. Most have a long, straight handle crafted of hollow aluminum. This design allows an axe to be used like a short walking stick or for self-arrest during a sliding fall.
Trekking poles are adjustable walking poles that help provide stability when hiking on rugged terrain. Many mountaineers use trekking poles for additional balance and support, especially when traversing craggy, snowy and/or icy areas. Check out our Trekking Pole Guide for more information.
Crampons are spiked metal cleats that attach to the bottom of mountaineering boots to provide better traction on snowy and icy surfaces. Crampons are divided into two primary styles: mountaineering crampons and ice climbing crampons.
Avalanche transceiver is a device used to transmit or receive a digital signal, often called an avalanche beacon. When a group ventures into a potential avalanche area, all members of a climbing party should set their transceivers to transmit mode. In the event that a climber becomes buried in a slide, the other climbers will then set their transceivers to receive mode (also called search mode), allowing them to pinpoint the victim. Understanding how to properly use an avalanche beacon and properly execute a search is crucial for avalanche rescue. Avalanche training is an important part of winter climbing preparedness.
Avalanche probe is a rescue device used to probe the snow. Avalanche probes are designed to help pinpoint a buried avalanche victim after narrowing the search area with a transceiver.
Rescue shovel is a compact shovel carried for avalanche rescue purposes. Most avalanche shovels allow the handle to be detached from the shovel head for easy storage inside a pack.
Other Climbing Gear
Depending on the mountain and terrain, ropes, harnesses and other specialized climbing gear may also be used to provide additional safety during more challenging routes. For information on climbing gear, including ropes and protection, check out our Rock Climbing Guide.
This guide is intended to provide an introduction to basic climbing information and gear. This is not a substitute for a climbing course or program. Climbing, mountaineering and other related activities are inherently dangerous. Anyone purchasing or using equipment for this purpose is personally responsible for getting proper instruction on its correct and safe use. Please seek out a professional climbing guide or certified climbing instructor to address any questions you may have about climbing gear or gear usage.