Intro To Mountaineering (Part One Purchasing Gear)
This writing only covers how to choose and purchase your mountaineering/ice climbing/winter gear when you are starting out. There is so much gear to be acquired, and this post only aims to provide an intro and overview of what the main options are. This includes boots, crampons, ice axes and tools, and some general brand and purchasing recommendations. I have spent far too much time online shopping and trying to source the best gear and cheapest prices to not share what I have learned!
None of the links on this page are affiliate links, and I have not received compensation in any way, shape, or form from anyone linked or mentioned on this site.
General Purchasing Tips
This section provides some general purchasing tips on both new and used items. Tips specific to boots, crampons, and ice axes are below in separate sections. Keep in mind that some items are better purchased new, and some are not. This is all aimed at helping you save some money while you spend your hard earned paycheck on gear.
Yes, I know everyone wants to support your local shops. Sometimes you have to look out for your wallet though, and that can mean buying from the major outdoor retailers. I'd consider the major retailers to be REI, Moosejaw, and Backcountry. They often have seasonal sales with up to 35% off major brands, although typically sales are more in the 15-20% off range. Usually an entire brand will go on sale with a retailer for a few weeks.
Retailers will typically have favorites that they put on sale often. All three major retailers above have rewards programs as well where a percentage of a sale on a full price item is given to the purchaser in the form of store credit: REI provides 10% off returned to the purchaser yearly, Moosejaw provides 10% returned to the purchaser immediately, and Backcountry provides 10% returned to the purchaser quarterly but expiring on a rolling basis. Rewards or cash back can also be accumulated through affiliate link programs including credit card spending portals (such as Chase Ultimate Rewards) and companies like Active Junky and Rakuten. These affiliate links can sometimes provide an additional ~10% in cash back or credit card points, regardless of whether you are buying a sale item.
The discount racks at your local REI can sometimes hide amazing deals, I once helped someone find a $400 pair of pants for less than $75. Often Backcountry will list an item for 30% off on their site, but 60% off on their affiliate site, Steep & Cheap.
Sometimes the big boys are just the cheapest.
Other Online Retailers
Other online retailers that I have had good experiences with are Backcountry Gear, Camp Saver, Al's, Alpenglow Adventure Sports, Sierra, Liberty Mountain, Geartrade, Moontrail, and Telemark Pyrenees. Some of these are small shops with a strong online presence and others are pretty big in size. They all have sales and are worth keeping an eye on.
Brands That Sell Direct to Consumer
Several brands that sell direct to consumers via their website often offer past season models and colors at steep discounts. Discounts range from 25-50% or more. This typically occurs more often with clothing than any other gear item. Companies I have seen that offer this include:
- Outdoor Research
- Mountain Hardwear
- Black Diamond
Buying used items can be a great way to save money and recycle used gear. Beware the "overcharger", the person that thinks their gear is worth 90% of retail because they only used it once. My general rule is to try to keep as close to 50% of retail as possible when buying used. You can generally get at least 20% off an item somewhere, so I would never pay more than 70% of retail for a used item that you can't return and where you may have to pay for shipping. Consider the following:
Against my better judgement, I tried to save some poor soul who was going to buy these for the same price as they could get them from a reputable retailer. The retailer was charging $434.25, tax and shipping included. This person wanted $425 + $12 for shipping ($437!), and they didn't understand the retailer's price. The main downfalls here are warranties and returns. Tech bindings can break, and many companies will require a proof of purchase to honor a warranty. And of course, if these end up not working, the buyer will definitely not take them back.
Used items can be found:
- on REI's website under "used"
- on Arcteryx's website under "used"
- the "for sale" thread on Mountain Project
- your local rock climber's/ice climber's/skier's Facebook group
- your local gear shop with a consignment section
Types, Brands, and Fit
A good mountaineering boot will keep your feet warm and dry, critical components to success in the back country. If you are new to mountaineering boots, I'd get ones that fit your foot, then focus on the crampons. If you have lots of adventures planned, you may end up with a few different boots, so buy what you need for your immediate plans and objectives! Beware buying gear for a phantom future objective, this is how things gather dust in the garage.
Boots are typically discussed as being either three season/single layer/single boot, or insulated/double boot. Three season typically means they're appropriate for use on most objectives in the lower 48 in the late spring through summer and early fall. This may not always be the case, make sure to research your route. For example, Mt. Rainier may require a fully insulated boot even in the middle of the summer if weather is not good (but then why are you climbing!) It may be best to think of "three season" boots as summer boots unless you are experienced with your gear and your foot's needs.
Insulated boots will have an inner liner and an outer boot that are totally separate. On expeditions or overnight trips, being able to dry out the liner in your tent or sleeping bag can be a necessity.
Insulated boots are further broken down into how tall of a summit they may be appropriate for, and you may see references to a 4000m, 6000m, or 8000m boot. This can vary, for example someone with cold feet may choose a 6000m boot for a much smaller objective.
Some 4000m boots don't have a full inner liner that's removable, where as all 6000m and 8000m boots should.
The "lower" the boot's rating, the more nimble it will be and the better it will hike and climb.
An excellent article on mountaineering boots with more depth can be found here.
- Local shops
- Buying on REI, Backcountry, or Moosejaw
Popular boot brands are La Sportiva and Scarpa, although many others exist. Lowa, Mammut, Salewa, and others all make mountaineering boots. The most important considerations are: whether the boot fits your objective, and whether the boot fits your foot.
Unfortunately, mountaineering boots can get expensive and hard to find. Try on as many as possible, keeping in mind that a tight performance fit like a ski boot may not be best. Ideally there is a small amount of room for foot swelling and to keep circulation from getting cut off. On the other hand, if you plan on front pointing or climbing vertical ice you'll want to be feel the heel locked into the boot and not lifting up too much. A good boot fitter and/or experienced mountaineer can help you decide if a boot is a good fit. You will want to find the boot that fits your foot the best without adjustments before considering tweaking the fit. Experience with fitting ski boots can be helpful.
You can find boots at your local gear shop and sometimes at your local REI. Otherwise, many parts of the country do not provide access to boots to try on. If this is your case, you may want to order several pairs from an online retailer and return the ones that do not fit. Most online retailers have generous return policies on footwear, provided you have not worn them outside. Make sure you try them on in a place with stairs, going up and down them for awhile to test the fit can be quite revealing!
One last thing to keep in mind, if you are only dipping your toes into waterfall ice, many people start off with their ski boots to see if they like it first! Most people find that they can comfortably climb a grade lower in ski boots than they can in mountaineering boots.
Crampons can be categorized typically by the way they attach, the material they are made of, and the style of the front points. There is much written on this and I don't intend to reproduce it all here, many articles out there such as this one.
It's my opinion that a quiver of three crampons can serve the purposes of all but the nerdiest gear nerds. If you disagree, tell me why! The three that serve me the best are:
- Steel, with dual vertical front points (or horizontal)
- Steel, with a monopoint (step-in style or automatic)
I typically use the aluminum ones for the following scenarios:
- Glacier travel that is not steep enough to front point
- I plan to kick steps in steep snow but it may or may not be soft enough
- Any other scenario where I can't tell if crampons will be needed
I typically use the steel dual point ones for the following:
- Any general mountaineering where I may encounter a mix of rock, snow, or ice
- I have chosen to wear a lighter boot that does not have a front welt (meaning I cannot take my monopoint crampons)
Finally, I use the monopoints for the following:
- Any technical rock or ice climbing
Generally speaking, I try not to climb on rock with the aluminum crampons, as they will wear very quickly.
My aluminum and dual steel points are both "strap on" style, so they can be strapped onto any shoe or boot that I need to strap them to. The monopoints are "step in" style, meaning they must be mounted on a boot with a front welt. Since they are more technical, I am likely to be wearing a full mountaineering boot or ski boot with a front welt.
There are many possible configurations, but I have found this to work for me. You can also find endless debates online about monopoints vs. dualpoints, but the consensus is typically that monopoints are preferred for more technical climbing. In general, none of this is set in stone and is all personal preference. Borrow, rent, or buy some and get out there and see what works for you!
Popular brands include Grivel, Black Diamond, Cassin, and Petzl. There are only minor differences between them in my opinion, but I am happy with my Grivel crampons.
Ice Axes and Tools
As with crampons, there are plenty of introductory articles out there for the basics of ice axes, and I won't cover it (see here). As far as I am concerned, there are three categories of ice axes and tools:
- General mountaineering ice axes (tall ones!)
- Short and light ice axes
- Ice tools
General mountaineering ice axes don't have much of a bend, and are used on more low angle routes. They are typically used in "cane position" for stability and for self arrest, although you can definitely use them to swing on steeper terrain.
Short and light axes are for booting up steep couloirs, and for when you may need an ice ax "just in case". They usually have a slight bend in the shaft to make them easier to swing.
Categories 1 and 2 both have aluminum picks, and are for less technical routes. If you are swinging your tool into hard waterfall ice, you need an ice tool with a steel pick. They come in different levels of agressiveness, depending on how vertical the ice is. Something like a Petzl Quark or Grivel North Machine will swing more comfortably for general mountaineering and low angle water and alpine ice (WI 2-3), while a more agressive tool like the Petzl Nomic, Cassin X-Dream, or Grivel Dark Machine will feel more comfortable on steeper ice.
Additionally, ice tools often have a hammer instead of an adze, and many people will carry one tool with an adze and one tool with a hammer. They are both super useful and I usually carry a tool with each on a long route.
Adzes can be used:
- to scrape crappy ice off to get to solid ice for better screw placements
- chopping steps if you hit a quick section of ice and don't want to put your crampons on
- clearing a platform to stand or sit for a belay
Hammers can be used:
- for pounding or cleaning pickets and pitons
- fixing your pick when you smash a rock
- various smashing tasks
Tools often allow picks and accessories (hammers/adzes) to be interchanged.
In general, Black Diamond, Petzl, Grivel, Cassin, and DMM are the standard go-to manufacturers in each category.
An entire book could be written about clothing systems for various environments. For now I am writing a separate post with my favorite clothing items.
The purchasing tips in the first part should help with acquiring gear for all types of activities. To get started on any serious winter endeavors, boots, crampons, and an ice ax should get you started. Don't forget to check for local rentals or borrow from a friend! Many people have extra axes and crampons laying around. Have fun out there.