Mountaineering can be an intimidating sport to get into: all that gear, the dizzying heights and tales of frostbite-blackened digits aren’t necessarily warm and fuzzy things. But if you have the urge to sample the rarified air up high, there are still some peaks that are accessible to the novice alpinist right here in the U.S.
Before you go, be sure you do your homework. Some peaks are best climbed at certain times of the year and require climbing permits; some routes are more suited to the beginner while others are technical. And finally, get in shape. Your three-times-a-week jog isn’t going to cut it. Once you’re actually ready, check (at least) one of these beauties off your list.
Editor’s Note: We’d be remiss if we didn’t also recommend Mount Rainier, the site of our own Jason Heaton’s recent climb.
GET ABOVE THE TREELINE: Kit: Climbing Ancient Art Tower in Moab, UT | Summiting Mt. Rainier | RocTrip China 2011
Mount Washington, New Hampshire (6,288’)
While it is only 6,288 feet high, Mount Washington boasts some of the worst weather in the country. Climbable as a long day hike, Washington can also be a stopover on a hut-to-hut traverse of the White Mountains Presidential Range. You’ll get a smug sense of satisfaction as you wave to the tourists taking the easy way up by car or cog railway.
Longs Peak, Colorado (14,259’)
Longs has something for everyone. Rock climbers love to tackle the sheer east-facing Diamond route, and experienced alpinists attempt the more technical Kieners Route. But most people summit via the nontechnical but dizzying Keyhole. After a long march up through alpine meadows and across a rocky moonscape, pick your way through the Boulderfield campground at 12,000 feet before passing through this notch called (hence, “Keyhole”) where the wind whips and the dropoffs are vertiginous. The final Homestretch crawl brings the glory of summiting the highest peak in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Mount Shasta, California (14,179’)
Shasta has long been considered a sacred peak, and no wonder: it rises to its full height in the absence of any surrounding mountains, making it an auspicious and ominous landmark. Shasta is an active volcano, though the last eruption was 200 years ago, so you should be safe on your climb. Though some consider it a “walk-up” mountain, Shasta can be a suitable introduction to technical climbing due to its glaciers and year-round snow-covered flanks. Find a local guide service who will outfit you, train you and take you to the top.
Grand Teton, Wyoming (13,775’)
There may be no more beautiful mountain range in the U.S. than the Tetons. Their jagged spine defines the image many of us have of the American West; their steep peaks have challenged mountaineers for over a century. The jewel of the Tetons is the Grand Teton itself. With its mix of altitude, fickle weather and smattering of technical rock climbing, the Grand is definitely a step into big boy’s mountaineering — so if you’re not experienced, you’re going to want to hire a guide service. Typically done over two days, the climb starts out as a long hike up to a high camp, followed by an alpine start and increasingly steep climb, replete with sphincter-puckering exposure and a narrow summit ridge, from which you’re rewarded with spectacular views.
Mount McKinley, Alaska (20,320’)
As the highest peak in North America, McKinley (or Denali as most call it now) commands respect. Though not Himalayan in altitude, it is considered one of the most difficult mountains in the world to climb. To do so typically takes a month’s commitment due to its remote location, shifting weather windows and acclimatization requirements. Denali climbs are usually done expedition style; i.e., succeeding higher camps are established in an up-and-back climbing routine until a final summit push is made when the time is right.
The combination of high winds, high latitude and high danger make a Denali climb one you’ll need experience to tackle. Log some time on high mountains, take an expedition training seminar and hire a reputable guide service. And make sure your will is up to date.