We are not parents, we’re mountain guides. Well, some of us are parents, but that’s not the point. Point is, we’re not your parents. Because we’re not parents, we can choose favorites. It’s true; we have our favorite guests. Our favorite guests don’t have any certain level of skill. Nor do they have any particular personality attribute. Nor do they come out with us any certain amount of time. The thing that unites our list of favorite guests is the interest in, and willingness for, trying and improving at new things in the mountains. We like those people first of all because we are those people. Every SMG staff member takes a multi-sport approach to their mountain time. Next, we like those interested in multi-sport pursuits because it gives us more options. The ice climbing in the Eastern Sierra isn’t perfect year round. The skiing gods don’t always bless us. We get thunderstorms in the summer. We’d say that the rock climbing isn’t always perfect around here, but, well, that’d basically be a lie. Anyway, if for some reason we get skunked on your chosen objective, everyone does well to adapt and tackle something else. Finally, and most importantly, we like those of you that go out and pick up new skills because it makes you better at your primary passion. Time spent in every mountain endeavor improves your safety, efficiency, and comfort in every other pursuit. How does that work? Well, it depends on where you’re starting out.
Mountaineers, you know who you are. Whether you identify as an alpine climber, peak bagger, or old-fashioned mountaineer, getting to the top is job number one. Here in the high and rugged Sierra, however, getting to the top often requires at least a little technical climbing. The big Palisade peaks are the classic example of truly technical summits. Regardless of how you construct your list, you have a bunch of peaks you want to get to. You’ll deal with backcountry logistics, at-times-heinous weather, rough ground, and high exposure. While there is nothing like getting to a new summit every weekend, that track is bound to result in a “plateau” of sorts. Eventually, every mellow summit will look like a plateau. You’ll yearn for the pointier peaks. And you’ll yearn for greater comfort and efficiency on all trips. It is no stretch to propose that some front-country rock climbing will increase your balance, strength, and comfort in scrambling alpine terrain. Ice climbing isn’t the first thing most California peakbaggers consider, but it is perhaps the best way to prepare oneself for messed up weather. If you can be comfortable on a shady, frozen waterfall in January, that hail squall in August will be no problem at all. Finally, heading out periodically on a low-altitude, trail-bound, ultra-ultralight fastpacking trip will truly streamline your packing systems for eventual bigger athletic peak climbs.
Perhaps you’ve come to the mountains as the logical progression of your indoor gym climbing introduction. More and more of you will take this track. Sport and boulder climbing is the logical extension of the indoor experience, and each of these athletic mountain pursuits is a worthy end of its own. That being said, even if your ultimate goals are limited to the short, steep, and convenient, getting some experience in other settings can help with endurance, strength to weight ratio, and the ability to suffer. Some sport climbs and boulders require more of these latter traits than others. Some sport and boulder climbs are in remote, even alpine, areas. Expanding your horizons into traditional and alpine climbing and the mountain endurance sports like fast-packing will help your gymnastic climbing in a variety of ways. There’s no better training for the mental game of hard rock climbing than traditionally protected rock routes. When you have to place your own gear and find your own way you learn about movement and motivation and stress management in a way you may never otherwise. Busting out multi-day trips, whether on foot and trails or to high and wild technical routes, will only increase your cardio fitness, overall endurance, and strength-to-weight ratio. Never mind those rumors about legs getting too big to climb with. Strong legs are a good problem to have for any dedicated rock climber. You seen Peter Croft‘s legs? ‘Nuff said.
It goes the other way too. If you’re an old school, cam-jamming multi-pitch trad rat, or a salty backcountry climber, you already know the benefits of taking a weekend off periodically to pull hard, short routes. I know, I know, the backcountry stuff is prettier and quieter and arguably radder. But, really? Are you really ready to hamstring yourself that way? All you gotta do is muster the discipline to stay low and steep every once in a while. Do it. I mean, what’s more “trad” and rad than discipline?
All outdoor climbers of any stripe should climb in the gym because it makes you strong, keeps the movements sharp, and keeps you in touch with the climbing community in a real, tangible, first-person sort of way. Facebook discussion groups don’t cut it. See real climbers. Heck, see real people. A climbing gym is a great place to interact with real people. The internet is full of articles enumerating why you should interact with real people outside of work more often. Stop reading those articles and stop reading this article and go to the climbing gym. Climbers are better than most people. And any people are better than no people.
What about skiing? Where does skiing fit? In one direction it is obvious. Skiers, especially those with steeper, higher, and more glaciated aspirations will do very well to “learn the ropes“. Getting to some steep terrain, getting between snow patches on otherwise rocky mountainsides, and getting across glaciers all require that skiers have a fair amount of comfort and skill with technical mountain travel. Whether it is rock climbing or ice climbing, along the road or in the backcountry, a skier will improve his or her comfort in steep terrain and pick up skills to effectively and efficiently manage exposure and fall hazard. That skier will improve balance, fitness, and that alpine “je ne sais quoi” known as “mountain sense”.
Now, my favorite one. And the hardest leap to make. But it’s also where people have the most to gain. Alpine climbers who do not ski are like bowlers who don’t drink. Sure, it can be done, but why? In most mountain environments, in most average conditions, for the majority of the year, skis are the best way to get around. Fact. Indeed, skiing is hard. But once you give it a season or so, not skiing is harder. Trust us. Being able to ski re-opens the mountains for business well beyond what limited one previously. Sure, you can snowshoe. And sometimes snowshoes are the best tool, even for skiers. However, snowshoes are merely the tool to get through the terrain between you and the summit or route. Skis (or a snowboard… we speak one-plank too) turn that journey into its own experience. Skiers regularly tromp around without ever going to a summit. No joke! Sounds crazy, I know. But it’s not crazy. Skiing is so fun that one doesn’t even need a summit! (Don’t get me wrong, summits are sweet. I think you get my point)
Even if skiing doesn’t latch onto your soul like it has to many of ours, the practical implications for a mountaineer are infinite. Some routes, to summits even, that were formerly just snowy walks, are now smooth and fast ski runs. Some conditions, notably those during and after major winter storms and during the spring melt, are perfect for skiing while they truly suck for alpine climbing. One can get to the mountains for training, acclimation, scouting, and socializing, all on skis and in areas and seasons that one would never go to just for climbing.
So, get out and diversify. The mountains are amazing, regardless of how you participate.