A mountaineering glow up: How I went from a novice day hiker to mountaineer
My story really starts with America’s best idea: the National Parks. I took a road trip after college from my home state of Delaware to Seattle, WA where one of my college best friends had just moved. Every dreamer on the east coast has thoughts of heading west - I wanted to camp and hike through America's National Parks, and this trip ultimately sparked my love for the outdoors. I remember hiking through Arches National Park to Delicate Arch and standing there awe struck. I remember hiking up to Angels Landing in Zion, sweating my butt off in a J Crew flannel, denim shorts and hiking boots I ordered off amazon. My discomfort all but disappeared once I reached angels landing and looked out at the best view I’ve ever seen. I went to seven national parks on that trip, and left knowing I still had a list of things to do in each. When I look back on those experiences, there were so many things I didn’t know any better on. I simply brought a backpack with a hydration bladder, one or two snack bars, and my camera - and that's it. I wore uncomfortable, random clothes and didn’t pack extra layers.
Fast forward 2 years later: I moved to Corvallis, OR for a PT school internship. By the time I moved here I was obsessed with hiking and secretly had pipe dreams of hiking the PCT after PT school. Yes.... it was after watching Wild. I started to curate my collection of gear via the google search, “gear for the PCT.” I had a child’s size 35 L pack that I bought on sale, a Jetboil, a Big Agnes single person tent, and a brand new Feathered Friends down sleeping bag. I used this set up for years even once I moved to Seattle. My first backpacking trip was solo in Bend, OR in Deschutes National Forest. I packed my bag with the hope of backpacking to Green Lakes and then hiking over toward South Sister via the Moraine Lake Trail, camping there, and climbing South Sister the next day. I realized once I got to the trailhead that the earlier season fires were no longer an issue...because it had snowed over a foot in Bend. I shrugged at my very thin trail runners, and trudged on, determined to make this work. There was already a boot path leading up to Green Lakes, but after that, I relied on Google Maps to break trail in the snow. After about 45 mins of post-holing thigh deep I turned around and decided to camp at Green Lakes where I saw some campsites earlier. I remember people along the snowy trail mocking my shoes, and while my response was lighthearted, inside I felt pretty stupid. My first backpacking experience was a solo snow camp. I didn’t dig anything out; I just plopped my tent down and sat in it. My shoes were completely soaked through and my feet cold and wet, but I was pleased. I thawed out through the night, and luckily I’m a warm sleeper and was refreshed by morning and ready to head out. I learned a lot on this trip, namely, check the damn weather report.
Time passed and I learnt. By 2018, I had snow camped, backpacked rim to rim across the Grand Canyon, climbed South Sister solo, and backpacked to Havasupai Falls. The first summer I spent in WA I continued backpacking and I wanted the next step. After seeing Mt. Rainier everyday, I knew I wanted to climb it unguided. I started looking into classes to learn mountaineering and found it was nearly impossible to do unless you wanted to apply a year in advance or spend 1000+ dollars. I applied to programs and was denied. The only option I could find was a scrambling course offered through The Mountaineers for about $600. This was a turning point for me. I realized in this class that I was more accomplished than I thought, my skills and comfort level were stronger than I thought, and I gained a lot of confidence in myself as a climber. I was excited and started to buy all the gear and researched everything heavily. I had the boots, the axe, the helmet and I felt like a rockstar. Within the year I finished the class and started scrambles with my partner and finally felt I was becoming a part of the mountaineering world of Seattle and one step closer to climbing Mt.Rainier.
Here’s my advice
Make friends and put yourself out there to find climbing partners. I have made friends in classes and through scrambling trips with The Mountaineers. I took two classes in addition to my scrambling course through REI for glacier travel and crevasse rescue. I met some awesome people in this class, and we ended up climbing Mt. Hood together, and staying climbing buddies. Taking classes, while expensive, is the best way that I have found to meet like minded people and make friends in the outdoors community.
Full transparency here, I put all my gear purchases on a credit card, and was fortunate that I could. This is not the case for everyone. I researched what I could get used and on sale. I bought stuff that was “good enough” at the time but now I want to upgrade many of my items. The more time I spend in this industry I realize that there are always upgrades, things that are better or lighter. I highly recommend borrowing what you can (post in buy nothing and sports specific Facebook groups like PNW Outdoor Women, as well as on Instagram - you'd be surprised), buying used gear (in Seattle, try Wonderland and Isella Outdoor), asking questions about gear when you’re out with other people or simply see others outdoors (or to an REI employee!) so you can decide what works for you and then later invest in gear you feel will meet your needs. Don’t wait to have the perfect gear to get out there - perfect constantly evolves - use what you can, and get started. Experience is a great teacher and the best way to figure out what systems and gear work best for you. Some great option
Ask for help
Ask for beta and check trip reports. Even this year with my climbing resume I still find that I go out and end up turning around because the peak is much harder than I thought or we got on the wrong trail. I’ve turned around from four peaks this year at least 2 could have been avoided with better preparation. Ask people what time of year is better to climb and with what route. I’ve gone up peaks in the summer following a winter route that added on HOURS of time. This too is something you can and should post in groups. Sometimes people will be a little aggressive in response, and it's usually out of good intention, to urge you to be safe. Don't sweat it. Again, local stores with knowledgeable employees, Facebook activity/womens outdoor groups, and commenting on Instagram/DMing is always a good starting place.
It's been a three year process here in Seattle, I have yet to climb Rainier but I feel more and more confident with each season that passes. I have come a long way from my denim short days. To this day I have climbed Mt. Adams, Glacier peak, Mt. St Helens, 8 other bulgers, hiked the wonderland trail, the enchantments and so much more. I wanted to become a mountaineer because I want to stand on top of Mt. Rainier to prove that I can do hard things, that I am strong, and to prove to myself that tiny asian women are just as capable as everyone else.