If you dream of glittering glaciers and the intoxicating scent of alpine air, the Cascade Volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest are a dream come true.
Standing atop a snow-capped peak like Mount St. Helens or Mt. Adams can be pure magic. But, because mountain sports can be so inaccessible to the general population, many people never even imagine that they could someday reach the summit themselves.
Luckily, the Cascades are an adventurer’s playground, with a handful of basic mountaineering routes for brand-new beginners. Even if you’ve never held an ice axe or put on crampons before, you’re never too old to learn!
Late spring and early summer are typically great months to get on the ice in the Cascades. Whether you join a guided climb, find a mentor or snag another opportunity to attempt a volcano summit, bookmark these tips to ensure you stay comfortable on your volcanic debut!
1. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.
It’s easy to feel the need to push yourself, especially if there are faster climbers passing you. But if you start off moving too quickly for your body, you’ll tire out sooner, and being tired increases your likelihood of injury (and grumpiness!).
Mountaineering isn’t the same as hiking. Traveling over snow slows you down. Higher elevations make efforts feel harder. And some snowfields can be unbelievably steep! All of this adds up to slower paces, and that’s just part of the sport.
“All of this adds up to slower paces, and that’s just part of the sport.”
So, find your happy pace. Many endurance training plans call for 80% of training time to be at easy intensity, with only 20% of time spent in moderate or hard zones. Apply that mindset to your climbs, too: 80% of the time, move at a pace where it’s easy to carry out a conversation with your climbing buddies. Embrace the slowness and take in the views!
Your climb will feel better and go more smoothly if you choose a happy pace for you and take occasional breaks, instead of huffing and puffing between constant breaks. Seek efficiency.
2. Study the route
When you’re above treeline, surrounded by stunning views, it’s easy to forget to pay attention to where you’re placing every step. You can get caught up in the beauty, the conversation, the snacks… then, all of a sudden, you look up and are totally disoriented. Oops.
There have been countless accidents and near-misses due to climbers not familiarizing themselves with the route. Take Mount St. Helens: coming down from the summit, it’s easy to accidentally follow the wrong ridgeline and end up very far from where you intended to go, with no safe way to get back. On Mt. Hood, unaware climbers who follow the “fall line” (the most direct way downhill, where a snowball would roll if dropped) on their descent end up in a dangerous place.
Every mountain has different routes, hazards and terrain, and it’s easy to end up somewhere unplanned if you don’t research and prepare before climbing. So, what can you do?
- Learn to read topographic maps and study your objective peak
- Attend a webinar about climbing the mountain
- Ask staff at your local mountain sports shop about climbing
- Read “The Freedom of the Hills” by The Mountaineers
- Scour recent trip reports online
- Find resources through whoever manages the land (e.g. the US Forest Service)
And while you’re out there, take a moment every so often to stand still and analyze the landmarks around you. Find notable formations and terrain so you have points to navigate by on your way back down.
3. Sunblock. Everywhere.
Alpine sunburns are not something to mess with. Even if you wear a hat, snow and ice reflect sunlight, sending that burn up from the ground and onto sensitive spots like under your nose and chin. Many a beginner mountaineer has suffered the dreaded nostril sunburn, which can make for an extremely painful week post-climb!
The mix of reflected sun, higher elevation and less available shade make sunlight a significant hazard in climbing. Plus, UV radiation still hits you when it’s cloudy. So, be as diligent as possible about applying and reapplying sunblock, even if it’s not a bluebird day. Think about any body part that’s exposed (remember those nostrils). Hands, calves, ears– protect that skin!
Zinc-based sunblocks are natural and effective, even if they give you the retro, goop-slathered look. This is one case to choose function over fashion. While you’re at it, keep those sunglasses on the whole time, too. Sun glaring off the snow can hurt your eyes, even if it doesn’t hurt in the moment.
4. Glissade safely.
It’s hard to match the glee of glissading down a peak after a summit! Glissading is a way of sliding down the slope on your bottom (sort of like sledding without a sled), and it’s an awesome way to give your legs a bit of a break while getting a fast, slippery thrill. If conditions are right, it’s a blast to glissade parts of a descent. But of course, there are plenty of injury risks due to not glissading appropriately.
One mistake? Keeping your crampons on. Do not– I repeat, do not– wear crampons or spikes while glissading. Crampon spikes can catch on surfaces on or in the snow, either sending you hurtling down the mountain or catching your boot in a way that could lead to a bad knee or foot injury. Keep them accessible inside your pack in case you need to put them on later, but glissade in your boots without traction.
You should keep out your ice axe, though– you need a way to self-arrest! Glissading requires a way to control your speed and to stop yourself, and an ice axe works perfectly for this. Make sure you’ve practiced self-arresting in a course or with a mentor before glissading, and use it as a chance to practice stopping yourself in different positions and directions in case you ever find yourself in an accidental fall.
Finally, don’t be like me and… accidentally scrape off several skin layers across your butt cheeks. One time while glissading down Mt. Adams, I wore very thin leggings, which felt great at the time. Turns out, the ice had numbed my skin enough that I couldn’t tell I was essentially getting road rash from sliding down the ice. I could hardly sit down for weeks!
Ensure you have bum protection. This could be thick pants, rain pants, a garbage bag, a small situpon (I now use a piece of foam pad), or some other smooth object that will cover your bottom as you slide. Really. You don’t want to see my photos.
5. Bring more than you think you need.
Just like when hiking, you need to carry the Ten Essentials when mountaineering. Even if your plan is to be out for just the day, the Ten Essentials can help you survive the night in an emergency– and simply stay more comfortable when everything’s going well.
Weather can get wild in the alpine, and no forecast is certain. Even if 90% of your climb is pleasant and calm, the summit could throw you intense winds that chill you immediately. Bring those extra layers, plus extra snacks and water (or water purification) in case conditions are different than planned or you end up out there longer than expected. Being hangry makes everything worse!
It’s not just the Ten Essentials, though– you also need to bring the appropriate mountaineering gear based on current and potentially changing conditions. Check recent trip reports, but don’t rely solely on them. Sometimes, you might need snowshoes and crampons, even if climbers didn’t the day before. Avoid becoming complacent just because you reached the top. Remember, the summit is only halfway. You want to stay happy and healthy on the way down, too.
“When in doubt, an extra few ounces of weight won’t make or break your first climb.”
Bonus Rapid-Fire Round!: 5 Small Pieces of Gear to Pack for Maximum Comfort
- Down skirt (keeps the booty warm without overheating legs, and makes peeing easier)
- Body lube (helps you take home stunning memories, not painful chafing)
- Buff/balaclava (protects your neck or face from wind and sun)
- Situpon (makes breaks more comfortable and doubles as a glissading tool)
- One hiking pole (increases stability and balance while holding ice axe in the other hand)
Ready to go?
Mountaineering can look intimidating and inaccessible, especially since it’s a sport typically marketed and offered to select demographics. No matter what the media shows, if you itch to stand among glaciers and take in the world from above, you can. Start small with non-technical objectives, and save these tips to stay physically comfortable as you explore your first Cascade Volcano.
See you out there!