Climbers make their way to the summit of Island Peak | Bir Singh Gurung
If you love trekking and are thinking about taking that next step into the world of mountaineering, there are plenty of expeditions for beginners to consider which are safe and achievable for anyone who has a passion for alpine activities. Our Himalaya Operations Manager, Gavin Turner, takes us through his first taste of mountaineering and how to prepare to transition from high alpine trekking into reaching the summit on your first expedition.
Stok Kangri & Island Peak
It was August 1999 and I had just reached the summit of Stok Kangri, my first 6000m Himalayan mountain. Located in Ladakh, just south of the Indus River valley and the local capital Leh, Stok Kangri is certainly not the most technical mountain in the Himalaya, nor the highest, but it was an ideal introduction into the compelling world of high altitude mountaineering. Standing on the summit literally above the clouds (which I do remember were looming rather ominously), I was in awe of the views which stretched out over the Himalaya, hundreds of kilometres in every direction. I felt as though I had the entire world at my feet. There was something deeply inspirational about this climb, and yet unexpectedly humbling at the same time.
I was a tiny dot up there amongst the clouds and vast mountains, insignificant compared to the awesome environment that surrounded me. And yet there I was, on the summit of this mountain, having achieved it as a result of my own hard work and determination. It was an incredibly rewarding experience and I knew immediately this would be just the beginning.
A few weeks later, after trudging through the relentlessly steep Arun Valley in eastern Nepal, which was still very much in the soggy embrace of the monsoon, I stood atop the summit of my second 6000m mountain in as many months, Island Peak. It was these two climbs that kick started my mountaineering career and looking back now I can see that it was my preparation prior to these climbs that was in large part responsible for the success I enjoyed.
There are many ways to get started in mountaineering. Ed Viesturs, North America’s most accomplished high altitude mountaineer, is speaking from experience when he says “there are no shortcuts to the top”. I can’t agree more with this approach. Build up your experience gradually and be ready for the next challenge you are taking on. After all, you need to finish high school before going to university and my recommendation is to approach mountaineering the same way.
This doesn’t mean everyone must follow the same approach, but generally speaking, I recommend developing experience on a high altitude trek, where you will gain exposure to the high mountains and learn to take care of yourself and stay positive in this challenging environment, prior to embarking upon your first mountaineering expedition. Of course, if you are fortunate enough to live amongst mountains, then you can develop your experience right out your backdoor prior to taking on greater challenges. In fact, this is exactly what Sir Edmund Hillary did in New Zealand prior to climbing Everest. But for most of us mere mortals, completing a couple of high altitude treks is a great launching pad for mountaineering.
High on Lobuche East. Image: Gavin Turner
In the few years before I climbed Stok Kangri, I hiked the Annapurna Circuit and completed a challenging four week circuit of the Everest region in Nepal. I successfully crossed a few 5000m passes, managed some variable weather conditions, observed how my body responded to the high altitude and learned how to pace myself, physically and mentally, on long days on the trail. All of this set me up for success when it came to Stok Kangri and Island Peak. And this is the essential point I say to everyone who wants to step into the world of high altitude mountaineering. Learn how to stay healthy and happy lower down, and you should then be able to do the same thing higher up!
After developing experience on an extended trek similar to that which I have mentioned, it’s now time to choose your first mountaineering expedition! World Expeditions offers an extensive range of mountaineering expeditions across the globe, led by our highly qualified team of both local and western guides. Aside from the climbing and camaraderie, experiencing the local culture is always another highlight. For this reason, whether you choose to start your mountaineering career in Ecuador, Nepal or Ladakh, you can’t go wrong!
Twilight on Mera Peak. Image: Warren Townsden
Developing the skills - technical mountaineering courses
Developing skills on the 10 day Alpine Training Course in the Southern Alps of New Zealand
After your first expedition, and if you decide to go further, I highly recommend undertaking some technical mountaineering instruction. I did a 10-day course in New Zealand a few years after my climb on Stok and it gave me the confidence to climb independently anywhere in the world. If you realise mountaineering is your thing, then one of these courses is a great investment.
The most important thing, like any great adventure in life, is that you take the first step. Be prepared to step out of your comfort zone and put in a lot of hard work. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. Remember, there are no shortcuts to the top. All the experiences you have early on in your trekking and mountaineering career will set you up for success down the road. Enjoy every moment, have fun, and soak up the freedom of the hills!
Feeling inspired to give it a go?
Take a look at our Entry Level (Grade 8) Mountaineering Courses and Expeditions and contact one of our mountaineering consultants to learn how to reach your first summit!