When I signed up for a charity climb to summit Washington’s Mount Rainier, the lower 48’s most glaciated peak, I had never been mountaineering before. I had barely been hiking. I grew up with a mom who considered a pitched tent in the backyard to be the height of adventure, so sojourns in the wilderness were so far off the radar they were more like tall tales from picture books with giant peaches and fire-breathing dragons. I’d taken a few leisurely strolls in the woods, but a 14,411-foot mountain was an entirely different story.
I didn’t have an ice axe or crampons (the spikes you attach to your boots for better traction), but I did have the determination—which I’d later learn was a key ingredient to my success. There was blood, sweat, and tears along the way (plus blisters, numb toes, and long training sessions), but I ultimately stood above the clouds—and with the right plan, you can, too.
If I could do it again, I'd do more strength training while prepping for my trip. I spent a lot of time walking up hills, stairs, and trails with my pack, which was all really helpful, but I could've done more relevant strength exercises (more on those below). I have a good strength-training foundation now and know I'd have a lot more power if I were to tackle a 14er today.
Here’s what mountaineering experts recommend to sufficiently prep for an epic hike without any relevant experience.
Depending on your fitness level, you may need to start prepping anywhere from a year to three months in advance.
Before I signed up for the climb, I’d been taking aerobics classes and jogging. It was a decent start, but I only had three and a half months to prepare—looking back, more would have been better. “If you [haven’t] worked out for years, start a year in advance,” says Ambrose Bittner, a mountaineer who organized the charity climb I participated in. “If you work out sporadically but are generally fit, perhaps six months is enough. If you work out regularly, like doing intense fitness and strength classes, biking, or running three times a week and other activities on the weekend, then three or four months of specific training mixed in should do it.”
Whatever your starting point, you want to make sure to develop your general fitness base, including both strength and aerobic capacity. “You’re going to be out and going for several hours or several days in a row, so you want to focus your training on endurance,” says Angela Bargen, a certified personal trainer with Mountain Fitness Training, which offers customized training plans for mountaineering adventures.
Just be careful that you don’t make the mistake of ramping up too quickly and risking injury. Start slowly, and gradually work your way up to longer sweat sessions and heavier weights. For example, if you don’t already exercise regularly already, try starting with just three days of 30-minute cardio sessions and a day or two of strength training. As you develop cardiovascularly, you can make your sessions longer and add more days; as your muscles get stronger, you can start to slowly increase the weight you’re lifting. If you’re ever unsure of how often to work out or what a safe progression is for you, consult a personal trainer or other fitness professional for personalized advice.
As you’re building, focus on climbing-specific exercises that target the lower body and core.
There’s no substitute for getting out on a long hike with significant elevation gain—I made sure to do that every weekend, even when I was traveling—but unless you live at the base of a mountain, that’s probably not realistic every day. Fortunately there are some exercises you can do in the gym and around town to help prepare. Bargen recommends incorporating these moves into your workout routine:
- Curtsy lunges
- Side planks
- Leg raises
These exercises will help strengthen your lower body and core. Don’t overlook the latter—your core will play a major role keeping you stable as you traverse uneven terrain with a weighted pack. (Looking for workouts to get started? Try this 5-Minute Plank Workout, this Lower-Body and Core Strength Workout, and this 20-Minute No-Equipment Total-Body Workout that incorporate some of these moves and more.)
Speaking of that weighted pack, you’ll want to wear it whenever you can. Put it on, then find an outdoor staircase or a big hill to climb. If that doesn’t exist near you, use the stairs of an apartment or office building. Inside the gym, you can get on a stair stepper or set the treadmill to its steepest incline. You may even want to trade in barbells or dumbbells for your backpack when doing exercises like squats and lunges to make your training even more specific. Just make sure you've nailed proper form first—doing exercises with a weight on your back will feel a bit different than doing the same moves with weights in your hands, so being comfortable with them is important before switching it up.
Once you’ve got the above exercises down, consider throwing in some balance or one-legged moves to increase stability. “Hiking on a dirt path, a rocky trail, or snow will challenge your stability muscles,” Bargen points out. That can be hard to fully replicate in a gym, which is another reason why hiking outside is important to incorporate as much as possible.
And don’t forget that what goes up must come down. The descent is rarely the fun part, as all the anticipating of summiting is gone and you’re left with fatigued limbs you still have to propel forward. “More injuries will happen on the descent because people are really tired,” Bargen says. “They give it their all to get to the top, but you still need energy to get down the mountain.” This is where your training comes in—if you’ve spent the time doing those lunges and step-downs, you’ll build the strength needed in your hamstrings and knees to safely descend.
No matter how physically prepared you are, there’s another element that can’t be ignored: mental strength.
Being fit will make the trek much more enjoyable, but you’ll also need the right mindset for what can be trying conditions. “Mountaineers develop the ability to endure suffering—sore feet; tired, aching, and cramping muscles; clogged sinuses; intense heat and cold—all for hours on end in sometimes miserable weather conditions,” Bittner says.
Personally, the lack of sleep got to me—it’s almost impossible to catch zzz’s when you’re sandwiched in a tiny tent with two strangers atop a malfunctioning sleeping pad that’s providing the thinnest layer between you and the hard, snow-covered ground. The fatigue combined with dehydration and exhaustion from sheer effort led my mind to play tricks on me. (When I actually started to think that someone had sculpted animal figures and smiling faces in the snow, I knew I was losing it.)
The best way to prep for this is by challenging yourself in your workouts so you can experience navigating that uncomfortable place. Make sure you incorporate long endurance sessions so that you know what it feels like both physically and mentally to just keep going. Find ways to keep your brain engaged—there are mental games you can play, like counting your steps. Bargen likes to set mini-goals. “If I’m looking up to the top, I might take 100 steps and then stop for three breaths,” she says. “When you break it up into smaller goals, you feel a little victorious already.” That feeling of accomplishment can make a huge difference in motivating you to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
After your first trip, I promise, all the hard work will be totally worth it.
You might need all the small wins you can get on summit day, which can come with its fair share of challenges. Fortunately, the reminders that it’s worth it are all around you: the sunrise cresting on the horizon, a tricky section successfully navigated, a gummy bear that hits the spot, the fast friendships you make when you’re entrusting your life to your rope team.
Of all the goals I’ve set, summiting Mount Rainier, surrounded by the profound beauty and power of Mother Nature, is an accomplishment that feels different than the others.
“Mountaineering for me is a way to test myself both physically and mentally,” Bittner says. “It gives me an understanding of what my body and mind are capable of when focusing on an objective in a way that can be much more intense than the everyday struggles of life. It helps put those struggles in perspective.”
On a clear day, I can see Mount Rainier from outside my back door. I look at it, still, in awe. There’s a sense I get when gazing at its snow-capped peak that if I can make it there, I can make it anywhere—no prior experience required.