Mountaineering 101: How to Safely Begin Exploring in the Mountains

Caitlin McKenzie
Caitlin Mount St  George Helmet Ice Axe

Getting into the high country can seem insurmountable at first. But with the right tools, education, gear, and partners, it’s entirely possible. Not too long ago, I just admired mountaineers from behind the screen of my social media feed. But then a chance hike completely altered my path.

I didn’t grow up hiking in the mountains, I grew up in Saskatchewan where the stereotypical joke is that you can “watch your dog run away for three days.” It wasn’t until the summer before my junior year of university that I stumbled across a love for them. Little did I know that a last-minute decision to go on a hike in Jasper National Park with a new friend would galvanize my obsession with “peak bagging” in the Canadian Rockies.Caitlin Mount Galwey Scrambling Helmet JPG

Caitlin McKenzie navigates the difficult scramble of Mount Galwey in Waterton National Park, AB. Photos courtesy Caitlin McKenzie

Without prior experience, it’s hard for anyone to be completely aware of the hazards you might encounter in the mountains, and I will admit that I didn’t always make the safest or best decisions. I’m here to teach you how you can learn from my unpreparedness and how to safely begin exploring in the alpine!

Disclaimer: I am not an expert, and this is not an exhaustive list but just some basic safety tips and tools for you to consider before you head into the mountains.Caitlin Roche Miette GulliesJPG

Microspikes were needed for this route up the rock and snow on the upper portion of Roche Miette in Jasper National Park, AB.

Research

General Information: First and foremost, you need to know what you’re getting yourself into. A quick Google search should provide you with lots of information from past trip reports of mountains in your area.

Guide Book: Grab a guide book. Guide books are EXTREMELY useful tools as they usually give a good description of directions and will typically rate the scramble from easy – difficult depending on exposure, route finding, distance, mountain conditions, etc.

Weather:  You don’t want to be standing on a mountain in a thunderstorm or navigating the slopes in a white-out.

Caitlin Grotto Moody RidgeJPG
I started out this hike wearing a tank-top but was glad I brought my waterproof jacket for the unexpected rain and wind on the ridge of Grotto Mountain outside Canmore, AB.

Communication

Let someone know where you will be hiking and when they should expect you to check-in by.

Bring an extra means to communicate in addition to your cell phone. There aren’t many mountains out there with cell reception and even if you do have service, you shouldn’t rely on a device that dies extremely fast in the cold. I recommend carrying a SPOT device (which will automatically call for help and send your location with the press of a button) or a satellite phone.

Protect your Head

If you plan on being anywhere in the alpine with gullies or loose rock, bring a climbing helmet. Admittedly, I should have started wearing a helmet A LOT sooner than I did.

Caitlin Roche Miette Microspikes HelmetJPG

For awhile, it almost became second nature for me to dodge rocks flying down the mountain at missile-like speed from my partner scrambling above me. Dodging rocks is neither easy nor advised. You want to protect your head so you can focus on your feet or your hands to find holds.

Traction

Venturing into the mountains is like venturing into the unknown. You never know, even if it’s mid-summer, when there will be snow or ice left on the mountain; therefore, traction aids always deserve a place in your pack especially during winter or shoulder-season.

Micro-spikes are like mini crampons that you stretch around the bottom of your boots, giving you extra traction on hard-packed snow and ice. I have had the unfortunate experience of hiking without microspikes and spent the whole descent sliding down the mountain. I ripped a massive hole through two pairs of pants. Thankfully, I was able to laugh about it afterwards but encountering ice or snow in an area of the mountain where falling would be detrimental is no laughing matter.

Self-arrest

ICE AXES! For your safety, an ice axe can be used for self-arrest if you slip down the mountain. Caitlin Tumbler Ridge Ice Axe JPG

Caitlin McKenzie makes her way up a peak outside Tumbler Ridge, BC using an ice axe as a safety precaution.

Gullies are often filled with hard, packed snow and become dangerous pathways that would send you sliding hundreds of feet if you were to slip while traversing across them. Watch YouTube videos on how to self-arrest and practice in a safe location first!

Emergency Supplies 

You should never be out in the mountains without these things in your backpack: a first-aid kit, bear spray, emergency blanket, waterproof jacket, extra synthetic/wool layers, a headlamp, extra batteries, matches and extra food and water.

Sturdy Boots

Last but DEFINITELY not least, you need a sturdy hiking boot with ankle support to prevent injuries.Caitlin Dalton NW7 BridgersJPG

Caitlin McKenzie wearing the Bridger Mid Waterproof and getting ready to scramble up the ridge to Dalton NW7 in Kluane National Park, YT.

This is a lot more important than people think because in the alpine you will encounter loose, sharp rocks, slippery rock slabs, expansive boulder fields and steep slopes. I recommend the Bridger Mid Waterproof as their rugged sole, protective toe box, and tough leather have carried me through the alpine and kept my feet comfortable for the last two seasons.Caitlin EEOR BridgersJPG

Most recently, I am also falling in love with the Phoenix Mid Waterproof for the same reasons! In winter, an insulated boot is a great choice.

Remember that conditions can change in an instant so it’s important to always be prepared. Have fun out there!

Caitlin McKenzie is an Environmental Manager and avid hiker located in northern BC who spends her weekends travelling to the Canadian Rockies to satisfy her mountain fix. Follow along with her adventures on Instagram @mountainbait. 

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