Mountain Matriculation


Improve Your Climbing Grades

I need to climb the Grand Teton. I just do. Problem one: I’m an
inconsistent climber. I live in a place with a non-exhaustive list of
outdoorsy pursuits so I divide my time with other activities, like swinging
from trees, swimming, and biking. This behavior has pigeonholed me into a
route niche of only what I can accomplish off the couch. Can you

The Grand does not happen to fit into that category since it’s more of
what you might call an alpinistic engagement. Problem two: I’m not a
mountaineering expert. I know it’s difficult to contain your shock, but
try. Problem three: The Earth’s orbit is already beckoning winter and the
window to see what the top of Teewinot looks like in the summer closed
around Labor Day. My push will have to wait until next year. I console
myself by remembering that soon my feet will be jetting down the slopes
attached to a pair of sticks with wax on them.

So how do casual climbers acquire the skills necessary to reach their
next level climbing goals? The answer is simple: go back to school. Your
climbing cohorts may be able to teach you the basics, but if you’re
interested in a custom learning experience that will prime you for
something more—say expedition worthy—you’ll be better prepared for your
endeavor if you take a few outdoor education courses or hire a commercial
guiding service to, ahem, show you the ropes.

The University of Utah ( offers several experiential education
courses, both credit and non-credit, that cover everything from vertical
self-rescue tactics to proper glissading technique. The U works with
Mountain Education and Development LLC (MED,, which provides
education in wilderness medicine, technical climbing, rescue fundamentals,
and outdoor living; as well as partnering organizations like National
Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS,, which takes students of all ages on remote
wilderness expeditions to teach them technical outdoor skills, leadership,
and environmental ethics.

If you prefer not to matriculate in a university program, you can hire a
commercial guiding service to Miyagi you. Utah Mountain Adventures (UMA,
provides a full range of guiding instruction year-round. Private guiding
services can be more expensive, but are also more articulated and
customizable to each client’s needs. “The benefits of enrolling in a
climbing clinic are two-fold,” according to Tyson Bradley, director of Utah
Mountain Adventures, “First, students increase their learning curve
dramatically. Being taught by a pro is more efficient because it
streamlines the entire process. Second, going through a professional
guiding service is safer. Going out on your own and trying to wing it can
be dangerous, and possibly even deadly, for you and others in your

Oh heyyy, UMA even has a course designed specifically to prepare
neophytes for climbing The Grand! Training via the Mount Olympus West
Slabs, Lone Peak, Superior, and Sundial Peak seems to be the consensus
among mountaineering-types as the best way to get comfortable with levels
of exposure, technical ability, elevation gain, and endurance. Though, any
reasonably fit person with solid technical abilities and climbing
experience should be able to bag The Grand or other summit of similarity
without hitting these peaks first.

Mountain Education Development LLC is the brainchild of director, Nate
Smith, who founded the organization with the intention of promoting the
symbiotic relationship between outdoor recreation and a healthy-living
lifestyle. In addition to being a great resource for all levels of rock
instruction, they also offer Wilderness First Responder (WFR) and American
Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Single-Pitch Instructor Courses.

Smith recommends doing some sleuthing before signing up with any service
to make sure they’re credible. “All adventures, especially technical, may
yield more positive results if you work with someone who can show you how
to manage the risks associated. This may be accomplished through proper
training. Have fun, but take it seriously.” Smith also advises participants
to have a clear conversation with their instructors/guides about
expectations to mitigate any outcome upsets.

If it’s Eiger dreams you have and you need someone with the capabilities
to Sherpa you up more colossal acmes, like that of Denail, Ama Dablam,
Aconcagua, or perhaps Antarctica’s Vinson Massif, aim your sights at In The
Company of Guides ( This
Utah-based cooperative of AMGA and/or International Federation of Mountain
Guides Association certified guides offers tours to worldwide

Mountain education courses don’t necessarily require a huge time or
financial commitment. Some courses are just one full day and most are
reasonably priced. For example, if you want to learn how to short-rope,
tandem rappel, etc., you could go halvsies or thirdsies on private
instruction with a couple of pals and save money by increasing your client
to guide ratio.

I mean, how are you ever going to master The Nose on El Cap if you don’t
start learning how to big wall climb? Expect to pay $100 to $200 for a full
day of instruction for a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio, and don’t forget to tip your
guides. According to In The Company of Guide’s Todd Passey, “Tips should be
based on the professionalism, expertise, and effort—not on getting to the
summit or weather conditions. 15 to 20 percent is a great average for day
guiding. For expeditions, it should be based more on the guide’s daily wage
instead of total expedition cost. Most US guides earn $150 to $300 per day,
so tipping $30 to $60 per day is a good baseline.”

When you’re ready to test your new skills, whether it’s a jaunt up The
Grand or a pass at Cerro Torre, be prepared to suffer. Be ready for the
2:00 a.m. departure time. Bring your game face. Remember that you are doing
something spectacular and that very few of the seven billion people on this
planet will get the same chance. Be the go-getter who brings a capable,
willing, and positive energy to the team with snacks to share. Accept that
it’s your guide’s job to call the shots, even if it means not summiting.
It’s your job to enjoy every step of the journey and to smile pretty for
the camera.


About Author

Melissa McGibbon is the Senior Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide Magazine. She is an award-winning journalist and is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. Her work also appears in Outside Magazine, Lonely Planet, SKI Magazine, Backpacker Magazine, Elevation Outdoors, Scuba Diving Magazine, and Matador Network. She is usually in pursuit of adventure, travel, or some daring combination of the two. IG @missmliss //

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