Where is the best place to learn mountaineering?

Climbers on the pumice ridge of Mount Baker learning mountaineering skills
Climbers descending the Coleman Deming Route during a Mount Baker Mountaineering Skills Seminar. Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

So, you’re wondering... where is the best place to learn mountaineering?  We’ve got some great ideas on what makes a mountain a good place to learn mountain climbing, but before we get into that, let’s dive into the nitty gritty of what mountaineering is.

Mountaineering is a network of skills that allow climbers to understand and manage the inherent risks of the mountains as they try to achieve their objective.  The objective might be summiting a peak or ascending a specific route on a mountain.  Regardless of the objective, part of the goal is always to make it back home safely.  A famous Ed Viesturs quote, from the summit of one of the world's highest peaks (Manaslu, 8,163m), sums it up well:  "Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory." 

Climbers on the Disappointment Cleaver Route on Mount Rainier.  Rainier is an excellent place to climb, but for mountaineers breaking into the sport it offers a lot of challenges and subjects climbers to a lot of hazards that they might not be prepared for.
Climbers on the Disappointment Cleaver Route on Mount Rainier.  Rainier is an excellent place to climb, but for mountaineers breaking into the sport it offers a lot of challenges and subjects climbers to hazards that they might be ill prepared for.  

A huge part of being a mountaineer is not just achieving your objective, but getting it done in good style.  At first you might think, “who cares how someone got to the top?  If they made it up and back in one piece, they got it done!”  Style is what separates a mountaineer from someone who achieved their goal through luck.  With great weather and perfect climbing conditions, lots of people are able to summit mountains. 

Climbing in good style is recognizing hazards and choosing appropriate techniques to manage them.  Great mountaineers, through experience and mentorship, develop a keen sense for the hazards that are coming their way and manage them using a variety of skills and techniques.  Risk management might be rerouting the climb to avoid an overhanging serac, to bring extra gear for a crevasse fall or to simply turn the climb around when the risks have become too great to manage.

Mountaineering skills that experienced mountaineers have in their quiver include:

  • Movement skills on snow, rock and ice
  • The Rest Step
  • Ice axe self arrest
  • Anchor building 
  • Ropework
  • Glacier Travel
  • Crevasse Rescue
  • Belaying
  • Navigation
  • Route finding 
  • Camp craft
  • Gear management
  • Layering for mountain weather
  • Weather forecasting (interpreting the forecast and using the signs in the field)
  • Timing - when to climb, and when to turn around
 The serac on Colfax Peak is often one of the biggest objective hazards on Mount Baker's Coleman Deming route, pictured here.   If you look closely, you can see climbers at the toe of the debris in the bottom right of the picture.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blakcbird Mountain Guides
The serac on Colfax Peak is often one of the biggest objective hazards on Mount Baker's Coleman Deming route, pictured here.   If you look closely, you can see climbers at the toe of the debris in the bottom right of the picture. Yes, that's them: the barely distinguishable black dots just below the bottom of the debris.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blakcbird Mountain Guides

So, where is the best place to learn to climb mountains in good style and build skills like these?  The best venues are places that have realistic exposure to some of these hazards and allow us to practice skills without getting too far beyond our capabilities.  We want realistic terrain without an overwhelming amount of objective hazards.  One of the best places in the US to learn mountaineering is Mount Baker.  

Mount Baker is a perfect place to learn mountaineering skills with a guide or experienced mentor.  It offers glaciated terrain, steep slopes, huge seracs that can be managed effectively with appropriate route finding, and just enough altitude to feel the effects of thin air and offer a challenge.  With a guide, you’ll get all of the advantages of being in this terrain without having to manage advanced techniques like crevasse rescue or being exposed to life threatening hazards like the hanging serac on Colfax Peak. 

Mount Baker from the Coleman Glacier.  The North Ridge is the left hand skyline and the Coleman Deming Route ascends the col on the right. Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides
Mount Baker from the Coleman Glacier.  The North Ridge is the left hand skyline and the Coleman Deming Route ascends the col on the right. Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

Mt Baker is the second most glaciated peak in the lower 48 after Mt Rainier, and boasts 7,000’ of relief (elevation gain from the trailhead to the summit)!  There are no easy ways up the mountain without traveling on a glacier, which makes it mandatory to have basic glacier travel skills.  The easiest routes on the mountain are moderate glacier climbs and at 10,781’, the summit is high enough to be challenging, but not as excruciating as some of its Cascade neighbors, like 14,411’ Mount Rainier or 14,179’ Mount Shasta

Baker is also a great place to train for difficult weather.  While the summer months are usually characterized by high pressure and excellent weather, the winters are long and often boast intense snowfall well into spring.  Baker currently holds the world record for snowfall in a single season, at 1140” (95 feet), which explains the large glaciers blanketing all aspects of the mountain.

Baker's two most popular routes, the Coleman-Deming and the Easton Glacier, are excellent places to learn mountaineering skills.  These routes have plenty of inherent hazards to manage such as icefall, rockfall, crevasses, steep slopes and the potential for inclement mountain weather and whiteouts, but the climbing is moderate in the grand scheme of mountaineering.  The hazards are generally managed with planning, route finding and movement skills rather than technical rope systems.  In other words, you don’t need to climb 5th class rock or water ice to reach the summit on the normal routes on Mt Baker. 

Climbers ascending the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides.
Climbers ascending the Easton Glacier on Mount Baker.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides.

The Easton Glacier, on the south side of Mount Baker, offers less exposure to seracs and is often a more straightforward climb.  This route still covers complex glaciated terrain, but avoids the massive Colfax serac and an often full width crevasse that can form around 8,000’ on the Coleman-Deming route.  

The Easton route also offers crevasses close to camp that are often ideal for practicing crevasse rescue.  Practicing crevasse rescue in a real crevasse requires careful site selection to make sure the area is safe from other crevasses and offers an appropriate working area that isn’t too steep. You don’t want to have your crevasse rescue practice become an actual crevasse rescue!  Often it’s better to practice on a steep, snowy slope, rather than an actual crevasse, to practice the snow anchors and systems.  Once you have these down, practicing in a real crevasse (or at least completely vertical drop off with a snow covered lip) offers a lot of key learning outcomes.  In a real crevasse, where you build the anchor, how you prep the lip, and what type of mechanical system you use will have a huge impact on how well the rescue goes!

The Easton Glacier on Mount Baker is the best place to learn mountaineering and ski mountaineering.
The Easton Glacier on Mount Baker is the best place to learn mountaineering and ski mountaineering.

Beyond Mount Baker, there are other peaks that offer great venues to practice mountaineering skills.  If you're looking to learn mountaineering skills try to find peaks that offer a few challenges and expand your skills set, without getting in over your head.  

 Avalanche Gulch on Mount Shasta is one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America and offers a perfect place to learn mountaineering skills as well

Mount Shasta not only boasts one of the 50 Classic Ski Descents of North America, but also offers a nearly perfect place to learn mountaineering skills. The West Face is pictured upper left, the rocky ridge in the center is Casaval Ridge and the large gully on the right is Avalanche Gulch.  Photo: Zeb Blais / Blackbird Mountain Guides

Mount Shasta is another great place to learn mountaineering skills.  Like Baker, it offers over 7,000’ of relief or more from the trailheads to the summit, and, at 14,179’, also adds the significant challenge of high altitude. Unlike Baker, there are routes to the summit of Mount Shasta that are not glaciated, which keeps things simple if you don't want to worry about glacier travel. If you are looking for a glacier challenge, there are significant glaciers on north side of the mountain as well, Shasta offers a wide range of options for those looking to step up their climbing skills.

If you’re going without a guide or mentor, try to find peaks that don’t have huge exposure to objective hazards, but allow you to practice the skills you want to build.  Local peaks with short, steep slopes are great for learning crampons, ice axe and rope skills.  Practicing winter and snow camping in the mountains close to home is a great way to dial in those skills without being left high and dry if you have problems with stoves, tents or sleeping pads.

Manage the hazards with caution and don’t add too many too quickly!  Make sure that you stack the deck in your favor.  If you have a more experienced team, you can handle more challenges. With a less experienced team, you’ll want to minimize the hazards. 

Join us on a Mount Baker Mountaineering Skills Seminar this spring or summer!  These programs are the perfect way to summit peaks and build a ton of useful mountaineering skills!  

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