How to Plan (and Execute) an International Climbing Adventure

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Summit success is worth all the effort.
Summit success is worth all the effort. Josh Vertucci
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Ever scroll absentmindedly through your Instagram feed, feeling like everyone else is off having adventures in far-flung corners of the world? It happens to the best of us. You’ve bagged some peaks close to home, maybe even summited a few Fourteeners. Once the climbing bug has bitten, you spend your days at work daydreaming of your next epic trip. At some point, it’s time to take the leap from armchair mountaineer to adventurer-at-large.

With some planning, diligent research, and a flexible attitude, you can make it happen. It’s also possible to make your climb meaningful for others with tools like Big City Mountaineers’ Summit for Someone program, which puts climber-raised funds toward backpacking trips for under-resourced teens (more on that later).

When you’re ready to stop scrolling and start scouting, follow these tips and tricks to make the summit of your dreams a reality.

Set Your Sights

Narrow down your options by considering your motives. What kinds of photos get your heart pumping—snowy, glaciated peaks? Rocky scrambles with far-off views? Technical, multi-pitch climbs? Do a little digging to find some beta on the peaks that inspire you.

If you’re determined to stand atop a summit, pick something well within your range of abilities. If it’s a cultural experience you’re after, figure out which climbs might have a longer or more convoluted approach, requiring you to interact with the local scene. Consider how comfortable you are with experiencing a language barrier. If you’re a first-time international traveler, think about climbs in an area that sees plenty of tourism, where many locals will likely speak English. If you’re a seasoned jetsetter, it might be time to go a little farther off the beaten path.

Then it’s time to settle the age-old question: Do I need a guide? The answer, of course, depends. Think of everything you’ll need to have a successful climb: climbing or mountaineering skills, navigating both the area you’ll climb in and the peak itself, help with logistics. If summiting is key, hiring a guide certainly improves your odds, even if you’ve got some or most of the know-how. If you’re more concerned with self-sufficiency and have all the technical skills, you’ve probably already answered this question.

The American Mountain Guides Association is a great place to start when you’re looking for a good fit for your objective.

Do Your Homework

Before your trip, lay out all your gear and use a checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you’ll need.
Before your trip, lay out all your gear and use a checklist to make sure you’ve got everything you’ll need. Emma Walker

Traveling internationally adds some additional components into the planning process, so start early. Here’s where you’ll have to start being flexible. Read any good adventure book: plans are constantly evolving and changing.

Google Flights searches for flights between your home and destination with a bunch of airlines. It also lets you know about cheaper fares on nearby dates. If you’ve got time, set an alert to keep you apprised of price changes on your desired flights. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll likely have a lot of gear with you, and some of it may be big or unwieldy. The guide by AirfareWatchdog keeps track of most major airlines’ baggage policies. You’ll save money by paying for checked bags up front.

Do some research as to whether you’ll need a special visa to enter your destination country. Either way, you’ll need an up-to-date passport. Most countries mandate that a foreign passport needs to be valid for six-plus months beyond the date of your visit. Be wary of non-government sites that advertise expedited passport services. Renewing by mail is the safest way to get your little blue book back on time. This may take up to six weeks, depending on backlog; you can expedite your passport for an additional fee.

When it comes to accommodations and logistics at your destination, don’t underestimate the power of the good old-fashioned guidebook. Many local guidebooks include information on the best lodging, food, shopping, and transportation to get you to the base of the mountain. The American Alpine Club Library will ship books from its vast, climbing-specific collection to members for free. (Another great reason to join the club if you’re not already a member: the AAC also offers international rescue insurance with membership.)

Get Fit

Hiking or skiing with an increasingly heavy pack is guaranteed to get you in tip-top shape.

    Bix Firer
Hiking or skiing with an increasingly heavy pack is guaranteed to get you in tip-top shape. Bix Firer

There’s an old joke among climbers that mountaineering is, at its core, “moving slowly uphill while not feeling very well.” Of course, the more training you do, the better you’ll likely feel. When in doubt, load up a backpack with water, weights, or a climbing rack and walk uphill—stairs, if you need to. Pick up Steve House’s Training for the New Alpinism, an excellent resource for mountaineering fitness, to start putting together a training plan.

Looking for training hikes in your area? Join the Gaia GPS community (it’s free) to see GPS tracks of what others in your area are up to. You can also download the Gaia app to your phone ($20, available for iOS or Android), effectively turning your device into a GPS unit. Once you’ve downloaded maps, the app works in airplane mode, so it’s still usable on international soil, regardless of your wireless plan.

Climb for a Cause

If you’re feeling inspired by your next big adventure, consider some ways to make it meaningful for others in your community, too. National organization Big City Mountaineers takes under-resourced teens from urban areas on weeklong backpacking and canoe trips, giving kids the chance to learn critical life skills and experience the transformational power of time spent outside. Their Summit for Someone program gives climbers like you the resources to pick a climb (one of their guided climbs or your own custom climb) and raise money for BCM programming. A Summit for Someone climb can mean reaching the summit you’ve been dreaming of and, with just a little extra effort, making the same thing possible for the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts.

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