Finding Beta for Mountaineering Objectives; resources & tips for mountaineering in the PNW
*Beta - climbing jargon that provides information about a climb, route, or general objective*
Many mountaineering objectives will take you off-trail, often into the backcountry, where routes are not well-defined and the “way up” is not straightforward. So aside from having the technical skills necessary for a mountaineering objective, it’s important to also have as much knowledge of the route and conditions before setting out. I often find that the more information I have, the more comfortable and safe I feel, and the more likely I’ll be able to summit. So I wanted to share some of the resources I use to find beta and some other related helpful tips.
Where to find beta
There are so many sources on the internet, but here are some of the sources I like to use. I usually read more than one source before every trip so I am prepared to route-find.
Peakbagger: Peakbagger is both a website and a free app. You can think of it as a digital summit register; many users use the platform to log their ascents, while some users will also write up a trip report to share beta. Users will often also share GPS tracks (see Topo/GPS section below).
NW Hikers: this site is like a forum used by many mountaineers in WA to post trip reports, which are full of descriptive route information, conditions reports, photos, and sometimes GPS tracks. I like to use NWhikers for beta on the route - for example, which gully should I take, what elevation will I traverse over to X point, etc. Users of NWhikers also tend to add a lot of photos, which is helpful to understand the terrain and visualize the route.
Cascade Climbers: Another forum similar to NW Hikers, and encompasses more areas than just the PNW. There is a ‘Route Reports’ section in the Forum page, where reports are grouped by area.
Summit Post: This is a great site to find information about any peak. A peak’s page will detail specific beta, best season to climb, red tape (i.e. permits), and include photos. Sometimes peaks will also have GPS tracks attached, but I typically rely on Peakbagger for GPS tracks. As mentioned above, you can view summit post information offline in the Peakbagger app when you download a peak.
Mountaineers: The Mountaineers publishes route information for various peaks. I typically do a Google search of “Mountaineers [peak name]” to find the peak-specific page. I find that their route info is not usually as detailed as you might find from other sources but can still be helpful. Sometimes you can also find recent trip reports.
Blogs: You can also search for blogs that share beta, or simply for ideas of things to climb. I usually search “[peak name] blog” to see what sites the Google algorithm will suggest. Below are some of the blogs that I’ve visited on multiple occasions and have found to be particularly useful:
Facebook groups: PNW Peakbaggers - As the name suggests, most members are peakbaggers and enjoy sharing their trips and will also typically share beta. There are many other Facebook groups out there you could join to find helpful information or even partners, such as Women Who Hike Washington, PNW Outdoor Women Group, Pacific Northwest Mountaineers, to name a few.
Instagram locations tags: On a couple occasions I’ve actually found beta by searching for a peak or area name and looking at recent photos, and have even reached out to the posters to ask about conditions. Some people have also reached out to me after seeing my photos.
Weather and snow depth
Weather is finicky up in the mountains at elevation, so as part of your prep, make sure to check the forecast for the specific peak you’re climbing. If you can’t find the exact peak, try to find one nearby and at similar elevation. Because the forecast can easily change, I personally don’t rely on any forecasts over three days out and continue to check it each day before heading out. Here are some of my favorite sites to find the forecast for specific peaks (some also show multiple weather stations which helps you make more educated decisions):
Mountain Forecast - particularly to view the forecast for specific elevations and freezing level
Of course, if you’re venturing out in the late fall, winter, or early spring when there’s avalanche danger, be sure to check NWAC regularly. And not just for the avalanche forecast, but to also understand how the snowpack is changing throughout the season so you can somewhat predict how conditions will be for your trip. It’s also a good idea to check the forecast throughout the week prior to your trip to track how much fresh snow the peak will be getting and how conditions are changing before you set out. Disclaimer: if you intend to mountaineer or hike in the winter, it is a good idea to take an AIARE 1 course.
For checking snow coverage on both peaks and roads checkout NOAA snow depth map and SentinelHub satellite imagery.
SentinelHub Notes: viewing satellite imagery is free but only certain days are available - you’ll have to click on the calendar icon to change the date and select ones that are grayed out. You’ll also have to toggle the cloud cover using the cloud icon, as some imagery with minimal cloud cover is only viewable on certain days (i.e. in the screenshot below, if I toggled cloud cover to 0% I would’ve only been able to see imagery taken on 3/11; by toggling cloud cover to 30% I was able to view imagery from 3/16). Lastly, make sure to select ‘show acquisition dates’ so you know when images were taken.
Other helpful tips:
Topo maps/GPS Tracks
The Peakbagger app mentioned above also has a topo map feature (similar to that of Gaia or CalTopo), where you can download and view tracks directly from a trip report in Peakbagger or import GPX files from other sources, record your track, view recent satellite imagery, switch between different topo maps, view slope angle shading, just to name a few functions. My favorite feature is its offline capabilities - you can not only download GPS tracks offline, but also peak information, which allows you to view Summit Post and trip reports. When downloading tracks, make sure to pick one for the appropriate season you’re climbing as some peaks have different routes in the summer and winter. (The whole platform is made free and run by Greg, out of their love for peakbagging and as a hobby, and relies on donations to stay running.)
Other popular GPS and topo map apps many people like to use are Strava, Gaia, and Caltopo. I personally prefer Peakbagger since it’s a more seamless experience for downloading offline GPS tracks within the app, but these other apps are just as great for GPS tracking.
A really useful feature of Caltopo is the ability to map out a route (helpful tutorial here). It’s particularly helpful in the winter when you’re trying to assess avalanche danger using the slope angle feature, as you can map out potentially avalanche-safe routes in preparation for your trip. To make maps available on your phone, you can export routes as a GPX file and upload them into a topo map app.
Saving beta to your phone
If you’re like me and can hardly remember what you read during your research, you’ll probably benefit from saving beta to your phone. One option is to save screenshots, but this can become a hassle if you’re trying to save multiple pages of a blog post. Instead, you can either utilize the Chrome or Safari reading lists, which allow you to save sites and read them offline, or the Pocket app. I I have found Pocket a bit more reliable for saving photos. Make sure to double check all the information and photos are saved properly before leaving home; quit the app you’re using, toggle your phone to airplane mode, open the app, and see if you can view all the content.
With the endless amounts of information out there, it can oftentimes feel overwhelming. Finding beta can be a long process but when it comes to mountaineering, it’s been helpful to be prepared for everything!
I had my first taste of mountaineering when I went on my first scramble up to Del Campo in 2017. I was instantly hooked on the idea of peakbagging but I didn’t know how to find similar mountaineering objectives or how to find beta. In 2018 I started learning how to find beta and how to route find in the backcountry from a friend. Over the last few years I’ve spent each summer finding new peaks to climb around Washington. My favorite climbs involve scrambling (non-technical ‘climbing’ which involves using hands but no rope or other gear other than a helmet) or alpine rock climbing (technical climbing which involves use of traditional rock climbing gear and rope).