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Mountaineering 101 | What the Books Didn't Tell You

Karn posted on 14th November

When LBBD asked me to write this piece, my first thought was, “What the bleep. Why would anybody want to become a mountaineer?”

Actually, let me clarify that. I’m a mountaineer myself. Not only am I a mountaineer, but last year, I also started a trekking and mountaineering company, and thereby, made myself reliant on amateur mountaineers and trekkers for a living. So when I say, “why would anybody want to become a mountaineer?” what I really mean is, “Why would anybody choose a sport which a) has almost no financial rewards, b) no recognition, c) a high accident {and thus, death} rate, d) Consumes all of your time e) Keeps you away from friends and family for long stretches of time, f) has you spending inordinately long periods of time in the coldest, most inhospitable places in the world g) is misunderstood by the general population.”

If you’re still reading, then, like me, you probably feel the pull of the mountains. Then you’ve looked at a mountain, and known that you want to climb to the top. There is only one reason you want to be a mountaineer – you want to climb mountains!

If you know that feeling, then this guide {to becoming a mountaineer} is for you. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll keep the specifics of how exactly to become a mountaineer to a minimum, and instead, focus on what you need to be prepared for. Here goes.

Decide what kind of mountaineer you want to be

A couple of months ago, I was on an alpine climbing expedition Lahaul, and was climbing with a Mountain Guide who is president of the Romanian Alpine Club. {European mountain guides are considered the best in the world, and spend between 5 and 8 years training before they can call themselves mountain guides.}

Talking about mountaineering, Cosmin said, “You know, I go to a party, and whenever I say I’m a mountaineer, people are automatically interested in my life, and begin to ask me questions. One of the first is ‘Have you climbed Mt. Everest?’ When I say I haven’t, they’re immediately bored and stop talking to me!” Welcome to the world of Alpine Climbers.

So, before you do anything, decide what kind of mountaineer you want to be.

  • The Expeditionist | Expedition style climbing is very popular in the Himalayas. This style of climbing involves large teams, accompanied by guides, porters and high altitude porters. Ropes are often ‘fixed’, meaning climbers need to just attach themselves to these ropes and pull upwards. It isn’t as easy as it seems, though. Mt. Everest is climbed most often in this style, as are the other 8000 mt peaks.
  • The Alpinist | Alpine Climbing is a style of mountaineering that evolved in the Alps {hence the no-brainer name}. This style focuses on ‘Purity’, meaning that climbers are not accompanied by Sherpas or porters. Alpinists carry all of their own gear, and their mantra is “Go Fast, Go Light.” Internationally speaking, this is where all the action in the mountaineering world is. All the big mountains have been climbed, and nobody climbs for national glory or exploration any more. So, Alpinists aim to affect fragile mountain environments as little as possible, and spend as little time on the mountain as possible. Alpinism is a lifestyle choice, and it’s common for alpinists to break their toothbrushes in half to save weight!
  • The Rock Climber | Rock climbing evolved as a part of mountaineering, but has now developed into its own sport, with its own sub-sports {sport climbing, big wall, bouldering etc). Rock climbers almost never need to step into the high mountains, and instead concentrate on ‘sending’ {climberism for “ascending”} the hardest routes they can.

Decide how much you want to invest

And I DONT mean money. When it comes to money, it’s simple… get ready to spend ALL of it, however much you have!

What I really mean, though, is TIME.

How much time do you want to put in to climbing? Do you want to become a weekend climber of rocks? Do you want to do one or two expeditions a year, or do you want to spend all of your time climbing mountains.

If you decide you want to become an amateur climber, take heart in the fact that some of the world’s most accomplished climbers are part-timers. Unfortunately, climbing mountains is expensive, and if you have a day job, it helps pay for gear and trips. Most professionals get at least a month off work each year, and, with some planning, you can squeeze weekend trips in every month, and even an expedition or two every year. Many part-timers make changes in their lives to accommodate climbing, like living close to a climbing gym or living in a city with easy access to the mountains.

On the other hand, if you decide you want to make climbing a full time occupation, get ready to be disappointed. Most professional mountaineers are forced to do other, related things to make money. For instance, I run expeditions, treks and bicycling trips, while my young friend Arjun Vajpai {who, for a short time, was the youngest person to climb Everest} is a motivational speaker to fund his high altitude climbs. Sponsorships are rare, except for some exceptional mountaineers.

Adjust your life's aspirations according to your climbing aspirations

Look, I’m 31. My friends from college are married, some with kids, own nice cars, are buying houses, getting divorced, remarrying, moving up the corporate ladder and generally getting on with life. I, on the other hand, worry about how I’m going to pay for a first date, especially if it’s at a fancy restaurant. I live in a two room house stuffed with climbing gear and empty beer bottles. I’ve reconciled myself to the fact that I will probably never own a Porsche. Mountaineering will not make you rich – financially at least.

What it will give you, as it gave me, is freedom. In exchange for the Porsche, I get to spend time in the most beautiful vistas, I get to be fit and healthy and I wake up every morning with a view of the mountains. I’m free from the corporate rat-race, and my choices are not governed by how much leave my boss will grant me. Everything that happens to me is of my own choosing.

Bad things will happen, be prepared

In her book, Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow, Maria Coffey says that mountain climbing comes “perilously close” to Russian Roulette. If you put a bullet into a revolver, spin the barrel and shoot yourself in the head, the odds of dying are a little over 16%. For K2, the world’s second highest mountain, it’s 12%. Everest is about 10% and Annapurna is above 50%.

But these are the highest mountains in the world. Those of us who work in the outdoors know that accidents can, and will, happen anywhere. We all know of people who’ve died while climbing, or had serious accidents. There are any number of things that can kill you or your partner – falling snow, illness or a simple slip on a wet stone. Yet we still do it. If you choose to become a climber, it’s important that you recognise this risk, because only then can you beat the odds.

Be prepared to have to convince family and friends

At a drunken party at my sister’s house recently, her friend, who was quite drunk by then, said something he wouldn’t have said sober. “Come home,” he said. “Your friends, your sister, your family, they worry about you. You’ve been at this for years, you need to come home now.” I did the best I could – I nodded, said, “Yes, you’re right,” and got him another drink. But it won’t happen. Climbing mountains is what I do!

Your well wishers will consider this “a passing obsession” or a “mid/early/late life crisis”. Many will indulge you thinking that this will all be over soon. It won’t. You will always, always feel the pull of the mountains, and you will always, always want to go back. Many of my mountaineer friends change their climbing aspirations after they have kids, but many don’t. This is a choice you have to make.

Finally, if you're still reading, I'll get to the crux {another climbing term for the hardest part of any climb} | How do you become a mountaineer

  • Get some courses under your belt. The government runs courses at 4 places – Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, DMAS in Manali and Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam. They run a 28 Basic course from March to November. Securing an A grade makes you eligible for the advance course, which makes you eligible for Search & Rescue, Alpine and Instructor courses. Be prepared for army-style ‘Ragda’ – jogging in plastic boots, carrying 30 kilo loads for days, waking up at 4am… that kind of stuff.
  • Get a first aid certification from NOLS {the National Outdoor Leadership School, an American organisation with a campus in Ranikhet, Uttaranchal}.
  • Apply for Government sponsored expeditions with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation at
  • Climb. A lot. Nothing else teaches you how to climb. Start with easy 5000 and 6000 mt peaks, and progress to bigger, more technical peaks. Join commercial expeditions {Like the ones I organise at} or plan your own, but get out into the mountains and climb.
  • Work on your fitness. As a mountaineer, you are reliant on your body. You become what we call an “Industrial athlete”. Work out, run, lift weights, climb every hill and mountain in your neighbourhood. Learn everything you can about your body.

Reading what I’ve written above, it might almost seem like I’m trying to discourage you from being a mountaineer. So, I decided to end with a word of advice from Arjun. At 16, he became the youngest to climb Mt. Everest, and after that, he’s climbed 2 other 8000 meter peaks, and is attempting 2 more in the coming season.

His advice to you is, “Just dream big and dare to chase it.”

About the Author | Karn Kowshik is one of the 3 members behind Geck & Co. Adventurers, a trekking and climbing company dedicated to taking people to the outdoors through the various expeditions they organize. You can get in touch with him at

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