It’s one week into the new year, and I’m already feeling completely overwhelmed by all my summer climbing plans. Which means it’s nigh time to woman up and get my shit organized. While summer seems a world away, this is the time of year when invitations pour in, permit lotteries open, and endurance training begins for real. So it’s crucial to do some planning as early in the year as possible. Here’s the process I go through every January to keep the rest of the year on track.
1. Set goals
I used to make the mistake of planning just one mountain ahead, which made the last few trips of the year insane gong shows (if they happened at all). A better approach is to plan the next 12 months in detail — and also to make a rough sketch of the year after. Do this even if you’re new to the sport or only take one big mountaineering trip a year. An example of how this helps: I might give Pico de Orizaba another try in fall 2019. So I’ll actually have to start training for it and work out all the logistics by summer.
2. Map out your year
When it comes to long-term planning, I’ve found my phone calendar is worthless. I’m a super busy, visual person, and I want to see everything all in one place. So I put a calendar of the entire year on the wall and start writing things in. I start with this year’s big confirmed trips:
- Ptarmigan Traverse (July)
And then I keep a parking lot of tentative trips I’m still confirming:
I also tentatively fill in the local trips I’m most excited about. For this part, it helps to think in seasons. In Colorado, it usually looks like:
- Dec.–Feb.: snowshoeing, XC skiing, ridge hikes.
- March–June: couloir season, snow climbing
- July–Sept.: best conditions for scrambling, backpacking, alpine climbing
- Oct.–Nov.: off season, mellow hikes
And finally, I try to leave a few weekends open. Because let’s face it, life and the weather have a way of screwing with our best laid outdoors plans. Also, it’s nice to have some down time, or some room to be spontaneous and just do something that sounds fun.
3. Check the permit situation
This can make or break your trip if you’re climbing a popular mountain or backpacking a busy loop during peak season. While management agencies sometimes offer a limited number of walk-up permits, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead when you can. In the United States, permit lotteries and reservation open early in the year, so mark your calendars! A few important ones for mountaineers:
- Mount Rainier – Reservations open March 15, 2019. The park strongly recommends reservations for the peak climbing season.
- Mount Whitney – Permit lottery for Mount Whitney Trail approach opens Feb. 1, 2019, and closes March 15.
- Denali – Registration opens Oct. 1, 2019, with a cap of 1,500 climbers per season. First-time climbers must register at least 60 days before climbing.
4. Time your climb
The character of your trail or mountain will change through the season — and even through the peak climbing period. To pinpoint your ideal dates, consider:
Which months have the most favorable weather ? Are you willing to risk worse weather in order to beat the peak season crowds?
Crevasses (glaciated peaks only)
Like the idea of crossing bottomless chasms on rickety ladders? (Hey, maybe you do.) Either way, keep in mind that crevasses tend to open and widen during the warmer months. This can make them easier to spot but harder to cross or navigate around.
If you’re new to alpine climbing, time your attempt when the snow is softer and less consolidated. But if technical ice is your thing, the icier months are your friend. (Here’s a look at how Pico de Orizaba snow conditions change through the season.)
5. Set your dates
If you book a guide service or win a permit, your dates may be decided for you. (Phew.) But in other cases, you’ll just need to weigh your options, make a decision, and commit. (Balls.) Here’s the thing, though. One day, you’re going to die. And even if you live a long life, climbing gets harder every year you wait. (Ask my left Achilles heel right this minute.) Another tip: you have nothing to lose by picking a date and putting it on the calendar. You can still move it for awhile if to accommodate friends or life events. But picking a date creates intention, which has a magical way of making shit happen. Need a kick in the butt to get you going? Here’s a post about pulling the travel trigger.
6. Inform your boss
My philosophy has always been to do this as early as humanly possible. Getting time off is way easier when it’s in the distant, hazy future. The longer you wait too long, some “emergency” will no doubt come up that suddenly makes you indispensable at work.
7. Book campsites
In National Parks and even some busy wilderness areas, a campsite is priceless. But to snag one on a walk-up basis in the middle of the climbing season, you have to be lucky AF. (Like farting-unicorn-dust kind of lucky.) So whenever possible, get online and book your site the second reservations open.
**Giant flashing urgent pro-tip sign**
If you’re climbing the Maroon Bells or Pyramid Peak or hiking the Four Pass Loop in Colorado, campground reservations near the trailhead open January 10, 2018. Book Silver Bell, Silver Bar, or Silver Queen at Recreation.gov. (**Note: Reservations are currently on hold. I’ll try to update with 2019 dates once the government shutdown ends.**)
8. Apply for visas
Leaving the country? Check that you’ll have at least 6 months of validity on your passport during your stay abroad. Then see if people from your country need a visa to enter your destination. Some sweetheart countries will issue tourists a visa on arrival. Other meanies will want you to present your visa at the airport. If you’ll be getting your visa in your home country, don’t apply too soon. Some visas actually expire if you don’t use them within a few months. But don’t apply too late, either. Unless you live by a consulate, you’ll probably need to mail your passport off, which means it will be out of your hands for several weeks. Leave plenty of time for this step. Don’t count on speedy service or pleading your case by phone. (Especially if you’re going to Uzbekistan. That one seriously had me pooping my pants.)
9. Book transport
Will you need to take flights, buses, or trains to reach your mountain or trailhead? If so, don’t wait too long to book them. It’s also a good idea to check the policies for cancelation and rescheduling. For example, the train to Chicago Basin is pretty good at working with climbers who have to move a trip due to weather. Just make sure you book a train that actually stops at the trailhead! (A lot of them don’t.)
10. Plan your training
Like marathon running, hiking and mountaineering are endurance sports. The best fitness approach is to build up a strong aerobic base. This means months of long training sessions at low intensities. As you build your aerobic base, you’ll add in occasional high-intensity workouts and eventually sport specific workouts (like a big climb with a heavy backpack). And before the main event, you’ll need a week or two of lighter workouts to heal and strengthen (called tapering). We’ll discuss training tips in future posts. But for now, just understand that training properly takes a lot of time, especially if you’re coming off a break or an off-season (which you should absolutely take every year, by the way). So don’t wait too long to get started!
There you have it. My bombproof planning routine.
Well, not exactly. Because no plan is foolproof. And mountaineering trips have a special way of going spectacularly balls up. So my last tip is to plan and plan well. But go at it with a sense of openness and humor. Accept that you can’t control everything. When crappy stuff inevitably comes up, just take it in stride, roll with the punches, and find the most creative solution you can. That’s good advice for mountaineering, and good advice for life, too.
Got tips for mountaineers on developing a life plan? Comment below to share.
Originally published Jan. 8, 2017. Updated Jan. 1, 2019.