What is alpine climbing all about and how do you attack and proceed in this activity?
Climbing peaks and routes in the high mountains demands careful preparation and a certain amount of experience. When becoming an independent climber or taking your practice to the next level, you clearly need to know your capacities and limits. Only by stepping up slowly, choosing the right objectives and acquiring the adequate skills before, this adventurous sport becomes safe and highly enjoyable.
Below is an introduction and explanation to what we call alpine climbing and how we usually approach it. The information is meant to serve as a complement to our Alpine Climbing Courses. We do not encourage or take any responsibility for anyone trying out these activities without our expert supervision.
What is Alpine Climbing?
Alpine climbing is a broad term which we all have different images and experiences of. But when we speak about alpine climbs we basically refer to rock, ice or mixed routes and ridge lines in high alpine terrain.
Alpine rock climbing is typically multi-pitch rock routes of 150-700m of climbing. In Chamonix these routes are often equipped with bolts or pitons at frequently used anchor stations, but in between those, the pitches are climbed mainly by putting your own protection (traditional gear: cam devices, stoppers etc.) We climb these routes in friction shoes and light back packs.
Alpine Ice Routes, are often a mix of ice and snow. It can be a couloir (so called goulotte) or a face with sections of ice-falls and snow field. Often ice routes in the mountains will also contain rocky sections, in which case it will be called a Mixed Climb. We climb this kind of terrain with crampons and 2 ice axes, using ice screws, pitons (usually in place on the classic routes), and some trad gear for protection in the rocks.
Alpine Ridge Climbs or Classic Mountaineering involves climbing on both rock, ice and snow. The objective can be a summit, peak or ridge line. It can b technical climbing or walking terrain. We climb in mountaineering boots, bringing crampons and an ice axe. The ways to protect your party depends on the terrain, often it’s just the rope around rocky features on the ridge.
The people coming to Chamonix in summer for a week-long Alpine Intro Course have typically been intruduced to alpine climbing either by trying out rock climbing or mountaineering (or both).
For example, having completed our 5-day Mt Blanc course, and liking the steeper and technical climbing, many people get the serge for more and wish to learn how to safely and successfully plan and carry out their own alpine adventures.
Of course all levels of climbers, complete beginners to experienced, have the possibility to improve and get to the next level. Starting from the former skills and knowledge you have about climbing and mountaineering (if any), you can learn and practice new techniques to improve efficiency and safety.
How to Proceed
Putting together the pieces of climbing and mountaineering skills you need can be done in many ways and eventually they will come together by practice and experience. In a place like Chamonix, we have the possibility to introduce educational elements while climbing beautiful routes. Learning by doing, under expert supervision, is a great way to gain both knowledge and experience.
The approach we like to take is staring with the basics of rock climbing before proceeding to more committing routes in the high mountains. Which skills (A-F) to focus on depends on your interests and preferred disciplines, but having a certain knowledge of all types of climbing makes you more confident in general in alpine terrain.
Going through the following steps, mastering each of them in order, is a logical way to build up and progress:
A: Get familiar with climbing gear; belaying, lead climbing bolted routes, rappelling.
B: Climb multi-pitch, partly bolted routes; building anchors, belaying from the top and efficiently handling the ropes.
C: Learn how to place traditional gear and do easier long routes with natural protection. Building belays and organizing the gear gets more complicated when protection points are not already in place. Alternative ways to progress on easier ground, such as moving with a “running belay” or with just a short rope, is yet another skill to master.
D: Knowing about glacier safety and crevasse rescue is essential before moving into the high mountains. Even the pure alpine rock climbs often involves glacier approaches. Get familiar with using with crampons and ice axe, and learn how to build anchors on snow and ice. Practice how to pull someone out of a crevasse, as well as self arrest techniques.
E: Climb ice or snow routes in glacier terrain. Transferring your multi-pitch rock climbing techniques to ice and snow.
F: Climb mixed routes, changing over between different climbing techniques; climb in pitches, move together, set up rappels and necessary belay stations, crampons on and off etc. Climbing ridge lines is a great way to practice, and there is usually a lot of route-finding involved too.
Next: To take on bigger objectives, speed in essential. Efficiency is gained by improved rope-work, quickly finding the right belay settings and getting a wider repertoire of belay techniques. Fast mulit-pitch rappels and quick decisions will save you hours on the mountain.
When practicing educational elements such as safety and speed techniques, it is convenient to decrease the physical difficulties of the climb. Therefore we do not climb routes on our maxumum ability when trying to learn how to place trad gear for example. On the other hand, if trying to improve our climbing technique, we try to emilinate the stress of exposure and educational tasks – we might go bouldering or top-rope sport climbing.
Depending on the topic you want to practice, choose a suitable climb. It should not be too difficult or exhausting. Acclimatization is another factor to consider. To feel well and maintain a sharp mind is obviously crucial for an efficient and safe learning process.
– Alpine climbing and mountaineering courses with private UIAGM mountain guide.
– Guided alpine rock climbing in Chamonix.
– Guided mountaineering in the Alps.
– Equipment lists for alpine climbing and mountaineering.
– Photo galleries from our climbing adventures. More photos you find in our Mountaineeirng and Alpine Rock Climbing albums on Facebook.