HOW TO LEARN ALPINE CLIMBING
The mountains are impressive, imposing and beautiful places with their steep faces, jagged pinnacles, crevassed glaciers and long alpine ridges. Alpine climbing means mountain climbing in high, often glaciated areas that can include scrambling and technical climbing in snow, rock or mixed terrain. In the tradition of Preuss, Buhl, Cassin, Bonatti and Messner, alpine climbing means moving fast and light, carrying only what you need with you. It’s effectively mountain climbing reduced to its purest essence – where self-sufficiency is key. Alpine climbing started in the French Alps, which is where the term comes from. The Dolomites have also been home to many major developments.
But how do you learn the knowledge and skills to operate in such a daunting and complex environment? While most valuable knowledge comes from experience, there’s plenty of advice to learn beforehand.
Mountain areas are dynamic environments. This means a high margin of error is required when climbing in them. Certain hazards cannot be eliminated, but can be reduced to a reasonable level with the right tactics and good planning, preparation and awareness.
Learn the basic nuts and bolts of moving in the mountains and mountaineering skills first. The scale of alpine routes as well as the added complications of glacial travel and technical terrain require a balance between surefootedness and speed. This efficiency of movement needs to be managed across a wide variety of terrains using well practised route finding skills.
Is alpine climbing dangerous? What are the associated hazards?
It’s important to be aware of the objective hazards:
The weather is perhaps the biggest threat on any alpine tour. In the mountains, storms can be so violent that alpinists can easily get trapped, unable to move either up or down. The weather forecast is a key factor when planning your route, and for what to pack and where to sleep.
Thunder and lightning are common in the afternoons, even in good weather conditions. The hot sun and the potential of afternoon storms generally mean that an early “alpine start” start is best – often setting off before sunrise.
Alpine days can be very hot, even at altitude. With careful route planning it’s possible to avoid the sun up to a point. Keep hydrated. Sunny days can mean sun burn and when combined with severe dehydration even sun stroke.
Wearing the right alpine apparel for men and women. What do we mean by “right apparel”? Lightweight, abrasion-resistant, durable clothing that will protect you from the sun is always a good idea.
Altitude & acclimatization
You’ll need to give your body time to adjust to attitude and acclimatize. The higher you go above sea level the less atmospheric pressure there is. This means that the air is thinner so there is less oxygen to breathe.
Most people feel the effects from about 2,000m. The majority of altitude problems in the Alps occur at 3,000 - 4,000m, when people are not properly acclimatised.
The importance of acclimatisation should not be under-estimated as altitude sickness can be very serious.
It’s a good idea to take your time to acclimatize and ‘climb high and sleep low’ at first, say by climbing a route and then spending a night lower down in the valley at a hut or in a tent to let your body recover before climbing higher. You’ll enjoy the experience much more as a result. Think of altitude, route length and technical difficulty as points on a triangle. Increase only one for each new route.
Falling rocks and ice
The Alps are affected by constant freeze/ thaw cycles, so icefall collapse or falling rocks are a likely hazard, especially late in the afternoon, after the sun has had time to warm the rockfaces.
- Falling ice is generally caused by direct sunlight or by other climbers.
- Falling rocks are often caused by melted snow and wind, but can also be triggered by animals or climbers moving above you.
- Be aware and considerate of other climbers. When more than one team is on the same route, it’s good practice to allow faster parties to pass, where reasonable. And obviously, make sure that your actions do not endanger others.
- Important: wear your helmet at all times and where possible, set up belays in a protected, sheltered location. If you do get stuck in the line of fire, holding your pack over your head can provide extra protection.
Seracs are unstable pinnacles or ridges of ice that form on the surface of a glacier and grind their way downhill. They can fall at any time of day, although heat or recent snowfall can increase the risk. Plan to avoid crossing underneath seracs, but if unavoidable try to reduce the amount of time you are exposed, by moving out of the danger zone as quickly as possible.
Glaciers are slowly-moving masses of ice formed by the accumulation and compaction of snow on mountains. The ability to travel safely over them is an essential skill.
Crevasses (deep fissures) occur in glaciers and pose a serious threat with all glacier travel. In winter, snow covers them and makes for efficient travel early in the season.
However, in spring and summer the snow melts, leaving a maze of crevasses and snow bridges.
On alpine peaks, whatever the grade, when crossing a glacier, you need to know the skills and also be able to guard against the possibility of a crevasse fall.
Always travel roped up with knots between you when moving in a smaller group up to 3 persons. Be familiar with the correct distance between rope team members. The more of you there are, the lower the risk.
Learn how to perform a crevasse rescue, hauling out a partner (or yourself), should they fall.
A variety of belays are used on glaciers, ranging from ice screws to a buried axe or backpack. Recommended kit includes:
- An ice screw
- Three screw-gate and two HMS carabiners
- A 120cm-sling
- Two prusik cords
- A belay plate and your ice axe
- Many climbers also carry a lightweight mechanical locking pulley
As many alpine glaciers are receding, check that your guidebook is up to date by talking to the locals, the Guides’ Office or a hut guardian.
Avalanches are not only an issue for skiers. Avalanches are most common in winter, but climbers also have to look out for avalanches, especially in spring. They can be caused by instabilities in the snow pack, recent snowfall, high temperature gradients or wind loaded snow.
Avalanches can occur naturally or can be triggered by stress on the slope, such as a person walking across it or a falling serac. Slopes of > 30° angle are most liable to avalanches. There are daily avalanche bulletins available in most alpine areas, from November through to the end of April. They provide information about slope aspect, altitude, snowpack, weather influence and give an overall hazard level based on a scale from 1 (low) to 5 (very high).
However, the main cause of accidents on mountains is human error – the subjective hazards caused by people themselves. It is often the result of alpinists being overconfident, ignorant or just pushing it too far.
Experienced, self-aware alpinists will always try to be mindful of their own limitations and to match their mountaineering goals to their abilities. Incorrect self-assessment and a lack of knowledge about a route are the most frequent causes of accidents.
Long days in continuously technical alpine terrain, placing protection, dealing with exposure and route-finding can push climbers to their limits both physically and psychologically. It is safer, and will probably be more enjoyable, to underestimate your ability to cope with the terrain and choose a lower grade of route.
Reading the situation correctly
Experienced alpinists recognise misjudgements at an early stage and are prepared to adapt their plans accordingly.
Fear keeps us alert and vigilant to danger. Fear in itself is not bad, however it’s not always the best advisor. Listen to your inner voice. Recognising your own limits and operating within them is a better way to climb.
Pack the right gear - less is more
Obviously, you need to have the right gear with you according to the route you are climbing.
Consider carefully what you need. Good preparation increases your chance of success and climbing with a lighter pack is definitely more fun. Keep it simple. Focus on the essentials. Ditch any ballast.
The overall grade takes the following factors into account: altitude, ascent and descent including length, difficulty of approach and exposure, danger, commitment, and technical difficulty, orientation to the sun and exposure to weather.
This system originated with UIAA Roman numerals, but it is now generally shown with French letters and is increasingly being used worldwide.
Straight forward rock scrambling or easy snow slopes; possibly some glacier travel; often climbed ropeless except on glaciers.
PD: Peu Difficile/a little difficult.
Longer and at altitude with snow slopes up to 45°. Some technical climbing and more complex glaciers.
AD: Assez Difficile/fairly difficult.
Steep climbing or long snow/ice slopes above 50°; for experienced alpine climbers only.
Sustained hard rock and/or ice or snow; fairly serious stuff.
TD: Tres Difficile/very difficult.
Long, serious, remote, and highly technical.
ED: Extremement Difficile/extremely difficult. The most serious climbs with the most continuous difficulties. Increasing levels of difficulty indicated by ED1, ED2, etc.
There are so many routes to climb. Here are some suggestions to get you started. We list them in two groups: five routes to maybe climb with a guide where you can push yourself and improve your skills, and five less complex routes to consolidate your skills, and develop yourself further.
Routes to climb with a guide
Location: Upper Vinschgau, Alto Adige / Südtirol, Italy
Grade: AD (UIAA VI-, 45º)
Starting point: Hintergrathütte, above Sulden
Skills required: Crampon skills, glacier travel and crevasse rescue, movement on rock and moving together rope work.
Gear: full glacier equipment, carabiners, slings, ice screws (optional).
The Hintergrat or East ridge of Ortler is an impressive and famous route with exposed ridge climbing that leads to the Ortler summit.
Location: Zermatt or the Val d’Ayas
Starting point: Ayas hut or the Klein Matterhorn lift
Skills required: Glacier travel and crevasse rescue, rock scrambling and belay techniques.
Gear: Glacier travel kit and a few extenders and slings for the fixed ropes. There are spikes to protect the rock sections.
Mont Blanc de Cheilon
Starting point: Cabane de Dix
Skills required: Crampon skills, glacier travel and crevasse rescue, movement on rock, moving together ropework.
Gear: Glacial travel and crevasse rescue kit, small rock rack.
Starting point: Diavolezza lift
Skills required: Glacier travel and crevasse rescue, rock scrambling and belay techniques.
Gear: Glacier travel kit and a small rack.
Half Traverse of Breithorn
Location: Zermatt or Val d’Ayas
Starting point: Klein Matterhorn or Ayas hut
Skills required: Crevasse rescue, movement on steep snow/ice, movement on exposed rock, moving together and pitching.
Gear: Glacier travel, crevasse rescue and small rock rack.
Routes to climb independently
Traverse of Pigne d’Arolla
Starting point: Dix or Vignettes hut
Skills required: Glacier travel and crevasse rescue
Gear: Glacier travel and crevasse rescue kit.
S-N Traverse of Weissmies
Location: Saas Grund
Starting point: Allmageller hut
Skills required: Scrambling on rock, moving together on rock ropework, glacier travel and crevasse rescue, crampon skills.
Gear: Glacier travel kit, standard alpine kit plus a helmet.
Location: Val Savaranche
Starting point: Vittorio Emanuelle or Chabod huts
Skills required: Glacier travel, crevasse rescue, crampon skills, rock scrambling and basic moving together on rock.
Gear: Glacier travel, crevasse rescue and 3 quick draws for the rock.
Traverse of Crochues
Starting point: Index lift
Skills required: Easy rock climbing and moving together
Gear: Small rock rack and helmet; you might need an ice axe early in the season.
Similaun Normal Route / West Ridge
Location: Vent, Austria, southern Ötztal group
Starting point: Similaun Hütte at the Niederjoch
Skills required: Easy scrambling, moving together, glacier travel and crevasse rescue.
Gear: Glacier travel, helmet, a few extra slings might be worth taking.
Alpine climbing can be entirely unpredictable. Make sure you talk to your partner about the types of risks you are both ready or unwilling to accept and bear this in mind when you make decisions. Trust your instincts and remember that turning back is part of the experience of climbing in the mountains.
There are many ways to learn the ropes as an alpinist.
If you have a friend who is a competent and experienced alpinist, ask them. Learning from them might well be the easiest and most friendly way to be introduced to alpinism.
Join your local climbing club. This can be a cost-effective way to learn to climb and meet potential partners and others you can learn from.
While it’s possible to learn from an experienced mentor or friend, we recommend signing up for classes taught by trained professionals. A qualified IFMGA Mountain Guide can offer guided trips and teach you the technical skills you’ll need. Spending some time with a guide can really help you progress faster, as they will be able to assess your experience and ability, develop those skills during your time together, and then suggest appropriate routes for you to climb independently.
Alternatively, go on an alpine climbing course run by professional mountain guides. Either an alpine preparation skills courses or a full alpine climbing course in the Alps or the Dolomites. There are many organisations, schools and clubs that provide this kind of training. We can highly recommend our partner organisations.
General climbing and mountaineering skills
Any time you spend climbing and generally in the hills, will help you to adapt to long days in an alpine environment. Good teamwork and moving together securely is key to efficient travel through the high mountains. Long mountain days, over scrambling terrain with your alpine partner are ideal as your initial training.
Traditional Rock climbing
Trad rock climbing is the basis upon which all other technical climbing skills are built. Efficient and safe belaying, leading, gear placement skills, ropework, building and equalising anchors and abseil technique all need to be second nature, and the skills mastered in traditional rock climbing transfer directly to alpinism. Again, learning to move quickly is important here. This might even include pulling on gear. Learn to jug through challenging sections where it’s faster for the follower to use aid climbing techniques instead of free climb. Having proficient aid climbing skills will also help improve your confidence and speed on the sharp end.
Safe alpine climbing in winter and summer requires efficient movement over snow and ice with crampons. You also need to be able to climb rock steps wearing crampons rather than wasting time removing them and putting them back on again. Mixed winter climbing provides a good grounding. Familiarity in using an ice axe for support, self-arrest and cutting steps is useful for crossing any snow patches. Winter mountaineering can help develop these skills and prepare you for technical mixed and ice climbs.
It’s worth learning to confidently climb frozen waterfalls. When it comes to alpinism, ice climbing is one of the most important skills to learn.
Ice climbing teaches you to move efficiently, have good crampon footwork, how to place ice screws and build belays and Ablakov V-thread abseil points in ice. It will also teach you what clothing works for high-octane activity in freezing cold weather.
Ice climbing skills need to be built up slowly. Taking a leader fall while ice climbing is much more serious than in rock climbing, as you are wearing crampons and carrying sharp tools. It’s worth learning the skills with a certified guide or trusted mentor. Make a point of practicing your mixed climbing skills as much as possible so you are comfortable with it in the mountains. Mixed or dry tooling, essentially means rock climbing with ice tools and crampons.
Improving your cardio-vascular fitness will help prepare you for and enable you to get more out of alpine climbing. Running, cycling and swimming are a good way to achieve this, as is any other regular sport.
Specific training to match your alpine aspirations is always a good idea. This might involve long back-to-back days in the hills with a similar weight pack and plenty of ascent and descent, or linking as many pitches as you can during a long weekend.
If you don’t know where to start alpine climbing, for your first alpine routes, there are a lot of unknowns, so choose routes below 3,500m in altitude with simple approaches and descents, several grades easier than what you would normally climb.
The guidebooks’ suggested timings for hut approaches and routes provide a good benchmark to compare how you are doing.
Start on shorter routes, where you can relax and will have plenty of time to complete them, rather than jumping straight onto 4,000m peaks where you might be stressed and short on time.