Beginning Climbing FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions about AAI's Beginning Climbing Programs

While American Alpine Institute is best known internationally for its technically advanced climbing and mountaineering courses, we also offer many courses for folks who are just trying climbing for the first time.  Here are answers to a few questions that beginners often ask.

What if I'm afraid of heights?

Most people are – and most climbers are, too. It's very unusual to be completely unaffected by height. The main thing that differentiates climbers from non-climbers is the conscious, deliberate effort climbers make to accustom themselves to heights and to learn to trust the safety systems – ropes, protection, ice-axes, anchors, and the accompanying skills. Almost everyone can develop a tolerance for heights through experience and skill development.

Some measure of fear adds to the excitement of climbing and to the sense of mastery climbers have at gaining their objectives. At the same time, fear is something we must always stay attuned to, since it's often telling us something about our environment.

A small number of people suffer from a genuine phobia about heights.  This kind of fear, which might affect a person strongly even when he is not exposed to any risk, may be harder to master. Most of our programs aren't appropriate for people with a phobia.


What if I fall?


A beginning rock climber scaling a cliff at Mt. Erie, WA. A rope anchored at the top protects her in case she slips.  AAI Collection

In our beginner rock climbing courses, we use ropes anchored at the top of the cliff to keep you from falling.  If you lose your grip while on a climb, your weight comes onto the rope and you hang in your harness in a comfortable semi-seated position. You can then try again or be lowered to the ground for a rest.

On beginning glacier climbs, you learn to perform a maneuver called "self-arrest" that allows you to stop a slide on snow by using your ice-axe as a brake.  We'll also use ropes to stop a fall if you accidentally fall in a crevasse (or crack) in the glacier.  

Dangers do always exist, of course, and all mountain climbing entails a conscious decision to accept some risk.  There is no way to make climbing completely safe, but we take state-of-the-art precautions.


How strong do I need to be?

You do not have to be particularly strong or fit to begin climbing.  Most people who enjoy regular, active outdoor recreation – hiking, camping, biking, running, canoing or kayaking, etc. – will be more than able to participate. Having some kind of fitness routine certainly doesn't hurt; a program that includes both endurance training and resitance work, such as weight training or yoga, is ideal for rapid progress, but certainly not required.

Contrary to popular belief, rock climbing does not require bulging arm muscles and a grip of steel.  Beginner level climbers are taught to balance their weight over their feet, making hanging on their arms unnecessary.

Beginning mountaineering is much like any mountain hiking in its fitness requirements.  Climbers should train by going for day-long hikes in the mountains, weekend backpacking trips, and running or stair-master training.

Ice climbing is a little more strength intensive, because the climber must swing ice tools over her head. But modern ice tools, constructed of alloy or carbon fiber and with big improvements in ergonomics, take most of the sting out of the learning process.

If you're not sure you're fit enough, give us a call.  We can provide you with detailed guidance and recommend a training program tailored to your goals.  And you can always arrange a private guide to help get you to the next level.


Do I need to buy special equipment?

All the technical equipment used on our beginner courses is either included or is available for rent. For courses in the Cascades, we meet to discuss gear and arrange rentals at our shop in Bellingham, WA on the first day of the program.  For courses in other locations, we provide rental packages and equipment consultations over the phone or via our shop website.

Clothing is the one category of gear in which you may need to make purchases before your trip.  With the exception of mountaineering boots and gaiters, our shop does not rent any clothing.  Most of our beginner courses require a few specialized outdoor garments such as warm, waterproof gloves, comfortable climbing pants, shell clothing for wind and rain, and an insulating layer in case of cold weather.  These are the only major gear items that you may need to buy.

A full, detailed equipment list is provided for each course. And our equipment shop is staffed by experts and guides who can give you advice tailored to your exact course, location, and conditions. 


What if I join a course and then find out that it's too hard for me or I'm not having fun?

One of the reasons American Alpine Institute is so well known in the field of mountain education is the local knowledge and resourcefulness of our instructors and guides.  We are very good at finding training locations that offer a range of challenges.  In this way, we can almost always accommodate the needs of all our climbers.

If you're deeply uncertain about whether you'll enjoy climbing, the best course of action is to choose a short program or one with built-in flexibility, such as a privately guided climb. All our instructional programs can be run as private trips, by special arrangement.

Occasionally, one of our program participants decides to end their trip early. While this is not always an easy decision to accommodate, we recognize that learning to climb is, in part, a process of self-discovery.  If you find yourself in this position, we will work with our main office and  guide staff, as necessary, to meet your needs and get you back to "terra firma".


What if the course is too easy?

It's not uncommon to get some very fit, strong climbers on our courses along with folks of more average abilities. Our guides always work hard to find a range of challenges for their groups.  If time and circumstances allow, they can also enrich their teaching with advanced skills for those who may feel underchallenged.

More often, experienced climbers who sign up for our more intensive introductory courses find that they are learning more up-to-date systems and practices and filling in gaps in their earlier training.

If you're unsure about the level of difficulty of a course, be sure to call us.  Our office is staffed by guides and experienced climbers who can talk to you in depth about your skills and match you to a course that meets your strength and ability level. And as always, private instruction is tailored to the skills and fitness of the client, so if you're ambitious and fit, the sky's the limit.


I've never backpacked or camped before. Can I still participate?

The short answer is "yes". Depending on the program you're interested in, you may not need much outdoor experience at all.  Our introductory rock climbing trips are normally organized so that climbers can have a choice between camping and staying in traditional lodging. 

Our core alpine mountaineering courses assume some familiarity with backpacking and camping skills.  But if you don't have them, don't despair.  It's relatively easy to learn these skills, and we can work with you to make sure you're ready for your climbing trip.

Click the link to view our beginner climbing courses in alpine mountaineering, rock, ice, and high-altitude expeditions.

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