The Fat Girl's Guide to Beginning Mountain Climbing
Posted by Tee in Sports + Recreation
On the approach to Reno's 8,300-foot Peavine Peak

If were talking semantics, Ive always been more of a trekker than a hiker. I love a long, flat or gently-rolling surface, and even at a size 24 I could walk and walk all day until the shoes disintegrated off my feet. Ive planned whole trips around the proximity of long, lonely walking paths. For me, distance walking in the wild is a sacred, special thing.

But add any substantial elevation to that, and funny things would start happening. My monkey mind kicked in, throwing out a hundred reasons why I shouldn't/couldn't do it: I'm not strong enough. I'll overheat. I'll get out of breath too fast. I'll be stuck up there and nobody will know where I am and the rescue crews won't find my body until it's been picked over by ravens and coyotes!

And so it was that in my 39 years I had never climbed a mountain. Then I met my husband. My husband the mountain climber. He was fit, he was adventurous, and he loved the idea of us exploring every canyon and scaling every mountain together. Which meant the whole time we were dating all I could think was, "Crap, crap, crap.

Deep down, though, I really wanted to do those things together too, so I spent several years discouraged that climbing mountains would have to wait (at least that's what I assumed back then) until I had shed about 100 pounds.

But a life-changing year last year gave me the guts and strength and attitude shift I needed to tackle it now, no matter how slow Id go or how many modifications I had to make to get to the top. And I had the perfect beginner mountain in mind: Peavine Peak, an 8,300-foot mountain that towers over the Reno skyline. A simple, non-technical day climb, and while it was small conquest by mountain-climber standards, it was a symbolic achievement by mine.

Making it to the top of that mountain was difficult, challenging in ways I didnt expect, and there were several moments that I had to wave away what the hell am I doing up here? thoughts. But I did it, and it felt so incredible that I regretted waiting all those years under false assumptions to do it. A few weeks later I took a group of friends ranging from 130 to 280 pounds out there with me to do it again.

Now I want to challenge each of you to give it a try yourself. Even if you never set foot on a mountain slope again, the sense of achievement in knowing you have climbed one from bottom to top and back again is something every woman should experience at least once in their lives.

Today's guide will focus on a beginner mountain climb, which is to say an easily walked-up mountain by way of an established trail or service road that requires no technical gear or expertise (i.e., an intense hike that leads to a peak), then down the road we'll add intermediate and advanced guides for the daring among you. If you've been hiking in challenging conditions before, you can skip right to today's guide. If not, we recommend reviewing that post, as well as our other posts on hiking (hot-weather hiking part 1 and part 2, and cold-weather hiking) for a good primer, or a refresher if it's been awhile.

Preparing for your first climb: training body and mind

Let's be realistic: being overweight doesn't mean we have to miss out on all the things that fit men and women can do, but for most of us it does mean we have to understand our bodies and be smart about its limitations, make some modifications where necessary, and go at our own pace. Most of us aren't going to be able to hop up from a sedentary lifestyle and climb straight up even a walk-up mountain, so it's important to gauge what shape you're in and what you'll need to work on to get primed for a beginner climb.

Remember: true physical fitness has less to do with the numbers on your scale and much more to do with your underlying muscle tone, flexibility, and cardiopulmonary health. We've all met the 250-pound powerhouse that never slows down, and the 150-pound couch potato that circles the parking lot for 30 minutes just to get the closest spot. So let your doc know what you're thinking of doing and if he/she has any concerns they'll say so, but otherwise forget about those nagging numbers on the scale and focus more on how you feel when you're being active. If you're easily winded while walking more than short distances, or the thought of climbing stairs sends you packing in the other direction, start by working on your endurance with those things first. So what if it takes six months to prepare to climb that mountain? It'll be there when you're ready.

Once you feel like you're ready to step it up, here are some things you can do to prepare for the specific challenges of getting to the top of your mountain.

1. Take a short hike every weekend for a month or two, and go a little farther each time. Pick hikes that have varying terrain, and choose progressively harder hikes that keep you going uphill longer once you've mastered the easier trails.

2. Kick up the incline on your treadmill. Climbing isn't about speed, so notch your speed down to 2.5, or lower if you need to, and kick your incline up to at least 4 or 5 percent if you're not used to having one. Each time, increase your incline by 2 percent over the last time. Stay at your max incline for 10-15 minutes, then take it down about 2 percent every minute until you're at zero again. Try to work up to being comfortable at a 10-15 percent incline before you go tackle your mountain.

3. Climb stairs every opportunity you get, even if you have to take it slow. If you've got stairs in your home or at school or work, every time you climb up, go down and climb up one more time before moving on. You'll be surprised how fast you'll start to feel changes after doing this for a week or two.

4. Get on a bicycle and practice on some low hills, progressing to steeper hills as your endurance improves. Biking might not seem like a natural prep activity for climbing, but it works both the quads and the heart: the two things you'll rely on most during your climb.

5. Join a gym and make use of equipment like Jacob's Ladder, stair climbers and striders. These machines all emulate "vertical feet," and are great training for any activity with a sustained incline. A trainer can show you the what, where, how and for how long of a good pre-climbing training program.

6. Get your ankles in good, sturdy shape. Serial ankle twisters/sprainers will definitely want to work on gaining strength and stability before tackling a mountain ascent and descent. If you've had surgery or other medical treatment for your ankles or feet, check with your doc for recommendations. If your ankles feel weak and prone to rolling but have no other medical issues, you can do a few simple exercises to help strengthen them (including those that improve the neural connections between your brain and your ankle tissue, which has been shown to be a significant factor in some cases). Check out our guide to stronger ankles for more.

7. Choose your mountain wisely. For your first time out, keep the elevation gain to less than 3,000 feet spread out over no less than 5-6 miles each way. Less than that and the climb quickly becomes steep and laborious, and even slippery depending on the quality of the trail. You want challenging, you don't want demoralizing! Search for other hiker's/climber's notes about the mountain before you go on sites like Summit Post or GORP. Make sure it's a climb that someone going slowly can do (and get back) in about 6-8 hours, and start early. Descending a mountain is tough enough without doing it in the dark.

8. Mind the altitude. If you'll be climbing a mountain on which the trailhead starts at an elevation more than 2,000 feet higher than you normally spend time at, do some shorter pre-climb hikes at that altitude before taking on the full monty. Get plenty of sleep in the days leading up to your climb, drink lots of water, and avoid alcohol and caffeine for at least 24 hours before starting out. Know the signs of altitude sickness, and if you think you or anyone in your party may be experiencing it, stop immediately and head back down.

9. Tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back. If possible, let them know the route you plan to take or at the very least where you plan to start out. The service may be spotty, but bring a cell phone if you can. If there are multiple people in your party at different fitness levels (and therefore likely to be going at different speeds), bring basic walkie-talkies with freshly-charged batteries.

Also be sure to keep a close eye on what the weather will be like on the day you've chosen. Too hot and you'll slog along feeling oppressed and possibly dehydrated. Too cold (and not dressed for it) and you'll waste all your energy shivering and be tempted to turn back, especially as you get closer to the top, where wind can pick up significantly and temperatures can drop as much as 20 degrees even on smaller peaks. DO NOT attempt a climb if there's a chance of thunderstorms at any time that you plan to be on the mountain.

On the mountain: what to bring

Once you've picked and researched your mountain, whipped your ankles into shape and done some training for incline walking, you're ready to pack for your trip! For a day trip on a walk-up mountain you'll only need a few things, but each are critical.

1. Plenty of water. I can't stress this enough. Running short of water will not only make your trip miserable in warmer weather, it can be life threatening if you push too long and hard without it. In average summer temperatures (between 75-85), bring a liter of water for each person for every 2-3 hours you plan to be out. More if it's hotter and more dry, a little bit less is OK if it's cool and moist. If you run out of water on your way up the mountain, turn back. It's not worth the potential risk.

2. Solid hiking boots with good traction. You don't want tennis shoes, sandals, or even trail runners here. Your boots should fit well and have good ankle support, sturdy construction and lots of knobby ("lug") tread on the soles. Without good traction you risk slipping, and you'll almost certainly find that in some places, every step forward is followed by a short slide back. That's a waste of energy and time, and will wear you out long before you get to the top. Related: microfiber sport socks make a big difference in how your feet feel post-hike.

3. Snacks or a lunch. For most of us, snacks aren't an absolutely necessity as long as you have enough water, but they sure can make the difference in how you feel and whether or not you have the energy to keep going (though if you're diabetic, they're a must). Trail mix, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, fruit...all great choices. Avoid extra sugary foods that bring a crash later on. A light, gourmet picnic lunch at the top will not only make you feel pretty good going down, it's also fun to do... and a nice reward for your hard work.

4. Sunscreen. Like water, don't go without enough of it. In most cases you'll be exposed for a good part of the climb, and you'll be at altitude, a sizzling combination. As is the case with most burns, you won't likely notice you're getting crispy until it's too late. Avoid several painful days following the climb, bad memories, and, of course, a risk of skin cancer, by loading yourself up with sweat-proof sunscreen before you start out, and carrying it with you for re-application as necessary.

5. A camera and/or journal. Self-explanatory! Your journey will be impressive both visually and psychologically. Document both while they're fresh. This is something you'll remember forever, and will probably want to show everyone you know.

6. Layers of clothing. Even if your mountain is fairly small, you may experience temperature variations that make layers a good idea. In warm weather, a light, short-sleeved t-shirt and shorts is great to start in, but bring a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of light pants for the cooler (and sometimes downright cold) weather you can expect closer to the top.

7. A GPS, map or compass. Unless the trail is well-marked and easy to follow, bring a GPS, map or compass and know how to use it. Most smaller mountains will have fairly visible trails or even service roads, but if there's more than one, or things get confusing, you'll want to be able to find your way back on track easily.

8. A comfortable day pack. A small hiker's backpack that fits your water, snacks, sunscreen, phone, GPS, layers, and camera/journal, but isn't so big that it's floppy with empty space beyond those things, is ideal. The better it sits on your hips the more weightless it will feel, and it's worth springing for a pack that fastens around your waist and across your chest for extra support and stability. Don't try to carry your stuff up by hand.

On the mountain: what to expect

Most mountains have an approach, a section or sections of flanks/ridges, and a peak. What to expect will depend to a large degree on the terrain of your particular mountain you might have a sprawling mountain with a long, arduous approach and a short-and-sweet peak section, or you might have a conical mountain that throws you into the incline almost immediately and gets you up there fast but some things will be true across the board.

1. It's going to be hard. That's OK, it's supposed to be hard. There's a myth out there that we're not supposed to be sweaty and breathing heavy and feeling tired and sore, that we should avoid those things, that they're not good for us. And so we panic or give up and turn back at the first inkling of any of them thinking we've saved ourselves, thinking we need to be in better shape to try something like this.

Not so.

Our bodies are meant to work hard for us. Breathing heavy, as long as we're not out of breath entirely, is good for us. It increases our lung and heart capacity over time, and in the moment it supplies oxygen for our bloodstream and muscles to use to power us up farther. Sweating, as long as we're not overheating or dehydrating, is good for us. It rids the bodies of impurities, acts as a cooling fan, and, for those counting, it means you're burning some serious calories. And being tired and sore, as long as we don't feel faint or weak or in pain, just means we're working hard and building up our strength and stamina. So don't be discouraged or afraid when you're feeling like you're working awfully hard. That's the idea, and that's what makes standing on that peak looking down at how far you've come so sweet.

2. At some point you're probably going to feel like giving up. I did, many times, and so did many of the new climbers I was with. It's a natural reaction to anything new and difficult, but you can minimize it by reminding yourself that it's normal, taking frequent breaks (but not long enough for your heart to return to its resting rate), slowing your pace down just a little bit, finding shade if you're feeling hot, and keeping your eye on the prize (the peak), and thinking of the trip in small sections vs. an entire mountain. As I neared the top, I was so exhausted I had to promise myself I'd just make it to that flower or rock or patch of grass I could see just a few steps ahead. And then I did that again, and again. And I got up that mountain literally one step at a time. That might sound tedious, but it kept me going and got me to that peak.

3. You may come across sections that require the use of your hands. While your beginner mountain should never require the use of climbing ropes or crampons or other gear, you may have rocky or steep sections to traverse that slow you down, make you stop and think about every step, and, in some cases, require you to use your hands to get around obstacles. If there's an established trail these shouldn't be too numerous or too difficult. Take it slow, watch your step, find solid places to grip, and remember that the more challenging it is, the more rewarding it is.

4. At the top, you may experience intense levels of euphoria. Not only have you done something incredible with your body, achieved something you may have never thought you could do, been somewhere most people will never go and been rewarded with a fantastic view OMG, you're done climbing. The moment you realize that, as in child birth, most of the holy crap what the hell was I thinking? memories fade immediately, to be replaced by feelings of pride and accomplishment and even, dare I say, an irrational but nonetheless deserved well that wasn't so bad or two. Savor this moment. Capture it in a way that facilitates bragging to friends, family and strangers.

5. Getting down is not necessarily the easy part. Descending is a different kind of difficult. Your heart rate is back to normal, your quads are no longer on fire, you won't be sweating as much, you won't need as much water, and chances are the trip down will be a whole lot faster than the trip up. But your feet, and for some, your they will suffer enough to make up for it.

Good boots and socks can mitigate foot soreness to a large degree, but even with the best of those, unless it was a short, easy hike to the top, you're likely to feel some foot discomfort one the way down. Rocks and loose gravel can make us unconsciously stiffen our feet up to keep ourselves steady on steep declines, and just the act of all that walking alone will wear them out. If you've got cranky joints, you're likely to feel the impact on your knees for a few days. Both of these are temporary and can be proudly considered battle wounds for a job well done!

In our next mountain climbing guide, we'll tackle intermediate climbs that require very little technical gear or expertise, but often require an overnight camp and/or sections of "scrambling."

Readers, have you ever climbed a mountain? Share your tips and experience with us here! If this guide has inspired you to give it a shot, come on back and tell us all about it!