For many would-be adventurers, the ultimate dream is to climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on the planet at 8848 meters (29,029 feet). But before anyone can follow in the footsteps of George Mallory, Sir Edmund Hillary, or Tenzing Norgay, they must first gain valuable experience and crucial mountaineering skills on lesser peaks or run the very real risk of injury or even death. But where exactly should they begin that process? Where should they go if they want to dip their toe in the water before moving on to more difficult peaks? Here are eight such places for beginning mountaineers to learn the craft.
Pick a '14er' in Colorado (Colorado, USA)
When it comes to having plenty of mountains to climb, Colorado has a blessing of riches. With 53 peaks rising above 14,000 feet (4267 meters) in height, there are plenty of challenges to be found. Whether you want a simple hike-up or need something a bit more technical, there is definitely a "14er" (as they're known locally) that can meet your needs. Most climbs take just a day to complete, although the longer trails may require camping overnight depending on your route, speed, conditioning, the weather, and so on.
Who to Climb With: Friends and family mostly. There isn't a need for a guide on most of the Colorado 14ers, so you'll be learning to navigate the trail on your own. These peaks are great for finding your stride, learning to carry a pack, testing gear, or simply just gaining basic trekking and mountaineering experience. There are even plenty of websites to provide basic intel on the best routes, times to go, and what to expect along the way.
Mt. Baker (Washington State, USA)
At 3286 meters (10,781 ft) in height, Mt. Baker in Washington state is a great place for beginners to begin to cut their teeth in the mountains. Its altitude is not incredibly intimidating, and yet it is still high enough for newcomers to the sport to get a sense of how they'll do as the air becomes thinner. The approach to the summit isn't especially technical, but it is heavily glaciated, which gives climbers a chance to gain valuable experience using crampons to help keep their footing on slick surfaces. The full climb only takes one very long day, but that too is good experience for potential future ascents where summit days start early and often end late.
Mt. Rainier (Washington State, USA)
Also located in the state of Washington, Mt. Rainier is considered to be one of the premier climbing destinations for those looking to learn the basic skills of mountaineering or hone the ones they already have. At 4392 meters (14,411 ft) in height, it is substantially taller than Mt. Baker and requires some technical skills to reach the top. On a training expedition to this mountain, you'll learn more about clipping into ropes, uses the lines for stability, and gain more experience traveling across snow and ice. This is the mountain where many climbers received their first true taste of alpinism, and it remains one of the most iconic climbs in the world, often serving as a launching pad to the Himalaya. A hike to the summit and back takes about three days.
Who to Climb With: Rainier Mountain Guides have been leading expeditions to the summit of the mountain for more than 50 years, and continue to be one of the best guide services on Rainier today. The company has some of the best guides and instructors in the business and will ensure that clients get up and down the peak safely.
When you're ready to get a true taste of higher altitudes, Cotopaxi is a good choice to test your lungs. At 5897 meters (19,347 ft) in height, this Ecuadorian volcano is a great spot to learn how your body reacts to the increasingly thinning air. And since the approach to the summit is covered in snow and ice, making it semi-technical, crampons are once again part of the experience. Most Cotopaxi climbs only last about 3-4 days in total, in part because climbers start at a relatively high altitude. But, there is valuable experience to be gained there nonetheless as beginning mountaineers learn about expedition life, alpine style ascents, and dealing with higher altitudes.
Who to Climb With: Alpine Ascents offers Cotopaxi expeditions, along with other volcanoes in Ecuador as well. The company is one of the most respected mountaineering operators in the world, leading expeditions to every continent on Earth, making them a good choice for those pondering an attempt on the Seven Summits or other major mountains.
Mt. Kilimanjaro (Tanzania)
Another non-technical climb that takes you up to higher altitudes is Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. This is a climb that is on many adventure traveler's bucket list, even if they aren't interested in tackling other peaks. At 5895 meters (19,341 ft) in height, Kili is the tallest mountain in Africa and the highest free-standing peak in the world. It is once again a good place to test your lungs in thin air, but since it takes a minimum of 5-7 days to reach the summit, it is also a great mountain to get a taste of expedition life. You'll learn what it is like to stay in tents for a week at a time, how to pace yourself throughout the day, and what it takes to finally reach the top after a considerable amount of time on the trail. On a Kili climb, you can learn a lot about yourself and your own mountaineering ambitions as you travel through five climate zones and gain a considerable amount of altitude on the way to the summit.
Who to Climb With: Tusker Trail is the leading guide service on Kilimanjaro, and their service is second to none. Comfortable camps, friendly and knowledgeable guides, and some of the best amenities in the business. Although there are less expensive operators on the mountain, I wouldn't go with anyone else.
Island Peak (Nepal)
When you've attained all of the skills you need to climb in the Himalaya – the ultimate playground for mountaineers – head to Nepal to have a go at Island Peak. At 6188 meters (20,305 ft) in height, it will once again push your physical limits to learn if you're ready to move up to the really big mountains found across Nepal and Tibet. While this climb only requires about 2-3 days to complete (acclimatization takes longer!) you'll still gain experience with wearing crampons and using an ice axe as you make the final push to the summit. Once you've knocked off this mountain, you'll be ready to move on to others in the Himalaya and beyond.
Who to Climb With: The Adventure Consultants offer a 24-day expedition to Island Peak that not only serves as a good introduction to alpine climbing in the Himalaya but also life on a longer expedition. Everest requires about two months to complete, so if you can't do three weeks, the "Big Hill" is probably out of the question.
Mt. Fuji (Japan)
Japan's most sacred of mountains, Mt. Fuji makes for a good training ground for would-be climbers. The 12,388-foot peak is typically climbed in a single day, requiring about 8 hours roundtrip. While not especially technical, the hike is a challenging one and is a great way to test your fitness and discover the demands of hiking for extended periods of time over the course of a single day. Crowds can be quite heavy at times, and the official climbing season is generally limited to July and August each year, but this is still a good walk for those considering higher peaks.
Who to Climb With: Once again, this is a climb that doesn't necessarily require a guide, but if you're looking for someone to take you to the top, Fuji Mountain Guides is a good choice. The company offers two-day tours for those who want to take their time and has a great record of success on the mountain.
Pico de Orizaba (Mexico)
Mexico's highest peak is Pico de Orizaba, a volcano that rises 18,490 feet into the air. This is a mountain that offers a good mix of snow, ice, rock, and trail, providing good technical experience on a relatively short, but challenging route. Most expeditions to the top of Orizaba require just two or three days to complete, although climbers will often spend a few days acclimatizing on lower peaks before starting up. This is another outstanding option for those looking to sharpen their skills before moving to bigger, more technical mountains.
Who to Climb With: International Mountain Guides offers an excellent option for climbers to take on Orizaba, along with two other Mexican volcanos. The nine-day trip features plenty of opportunities to gain experience and skills while bagging all three peaks. For those who would prefer to focus just on the main event itself, there is also an "Orizaba Express" option that is just seven days in length and mainly focuses on the main peak itself.