Alpine Climbing Advice
Some useful alpine climbing advice and tricks for moving efficiently in the Alps, for established Alpinists.
How do some teams manage to move so fast?! That tiny speck you’ve been casually observing on the glacier below is suddenly grappling for space on your belay ledge. He’s treading on your ropes, having a quick smoke whilst he takes in through his magic plate and you just know that in a minute or two he’s gonna overtake you…!
British climbers who are technically very good on home ground can find it hard to adjust from our ‘belt and braces’ approach to adopting alpine ‘risk management’ techniques. The skills for moving safely but quickly in the Alps can be hard won, but there are many common sense tips and techniques that can help – these are some of the things that we teach on our more advanced alpine climbing courses:
Fitness and Acclimatisation
It goes without saying that fitness and acclimatisation are essential for efficient mountain travel. Training in the UK to make the most of your trip should focus on cardiovascular as well as specific climbing fitness. Training can continue into the trip by indulging in some backbreaking hut walks (compulsory in Switzerland!), which can also save cash en route to a climb. Once you are back in shape however, exploiting cable cars whenever possible will put you at the bottom of your chosen route feeling fit and fresh, if a little guilty, rather than virtuous but knackered. Acclimatisation is a complex issue and always needs to be dealt with sensibly to avoid wasting valuable time feeling ill. A gradual build-up at the start of any trip with a couple of nights spent sleeping high in huts will help greatly. Even at modest elevations an un-acclimatised party can be severely hindered, so don’t be blasé.
Knowledge is Power
In the Alps especially, doing your homework is essential. Gather as much information about your climb from as many different sources as possible. English guidebooks can often be outdated, as glacial activity and rock fall etc alters the state of routes and approaches. Try hut guardians, local guidebooks, other climbers and local guides offices as useful sources of information. Nowadays much information is passed on through Alpine climbing conditions reports and forums – though the quality of such information needs to assessed. Armed with the confidence that you now know your stuff, you can carry the correct gear, anticipate the line and conditions and travel faster.
Light is Right
Other than accessible beta, the other biggest aid to the modern climber is all the lightweight gear that’s readily available. In the Alps, light is usually right – giving you the satisfaction that comes from a simple approach and efficiency of movement. Weight can be shaved from every part of your kit – from wire gate karabiners and high tech modern boots, to polystyrene helmets. One of the easiest savings to make is by having a light rucksack and waterproofs. Bearing in mind you will usually be climbing on a ‘beau temps’ forecast, leave the heavy Scottish body armour at home. Shop around for modern lightweight fabrics such as Goretex Paclite for good emergency protection.
Think carefully about your logistics and have a clear-sighted plan for every outing, including timings, approach, descent and what you need to take. If you are climbing inside your technical limit and can safely make ‘guidebook time’ then you can travel light, but be mindful of unexpected time pressure from difficult conditions, other parties and bad weather etc, and what you might need to cope with these factors. Conversely, being overly cautious and bringing bivvy gear ‘just in case’ for example, will almost certainly result in you using it. The harder and more committing the climb, the trickier these decisions will become, so good judgment and experience will come into play.
The trick is to go light, but still plan in some resilience so you can cope with unexpected difficulties – eg ‘It’s a long route and the forecast is good. We won’t take full bivi gear, because it’s too heavy and it will only slow us down – but we will still take lightweight waterproofs, a warm spare top each and a two man survival shelter (weighs just 250g). That way, if it’s colder than expected, or if the weather changes, or we take longer than planned etc. we are still able to cope’. A similar approach to a hard or committing face, might be to know a few improvised aid climbing techniques and to carry enough abb tat to be able to retreat!
First of all, the single biggest aid to speed is your own climbing ability. Anyone can learn all the tricks in alpinism, but the fastest are usually also the most technically gifted. So for all of us wanting to improve; training harder, trying harder and getting out more is the first step – a north wales rock climbing holiday might be a good investment!
Think about time management down to the last detail. To this end, whilst climbing on pitched ground everything needs to be done whilst belaying, including eating, drinking, looking at the topo etc. Using a self-locking magic plate (ATC Guide, Reverso etc) means you can belay a second but safely take your hands off the rope to do jobs, therefore using the dead time sat on the stance. Taking coils in whilst using a magic plate, so you can set off immediately the second arrives is a good example of how to save time using this technique.
On long, pitched routes consider block leading. This technique is very popular in places like Yosemite and involves one person leading 4 or 5 pitches in a row before the second takes over. In this way the climb can be broken down into a number of blocks, which can offer several advantages:
Mentally, 4 or 5 blocks can be easier to deal with than 25 swung leads, as:
The leader can get fully psyched or ‘into the zone’ for their block. The second can chill out and rest for a couple of hours at a time. The leader can study and get mentally prepared for the next pitch above, which can help to speed up route finding. No one is sat on a belay ledge for too long, so you both stay warmer.
If little gear is placed on a pitch the changeovers are very fast, as the second only has to pass back the gear used, rather than swapping the entire rack over.
Keep belay changeovers speedy and efficient. Three minutes saved on every belay will save an hour over 20 pitches, which could easily be the difference between beers in the valley, or a night sitting on your rope! An efficient racking system really helps here: bandoliers can be useful for passing things like quickdraws back and forth. Rope management is crucial and if leading in blocks the ropes will need to be restacked so the leader’s ends com from the top of the pile again. With a little practice (and the help of a magic plate) you can start to restack the ropes once your second is 5-10m below you. When they arrive the bulk of the rope will be organised with just the bottom 5-10m lying the wrong way up in a separate pile (try it out, but don’t forget to take in your mate!)
Always play to the strengths within your partnership. Plan ahead and try to make sure people lead on the ground that suits them best. This is especially important on mixed routes that may involve several different styles of climbing. This really maximises the combined skill of the team and keeps movement fluid.
Of all the alpine climbing advice that we give, moving together efficiently will save you more time than anything else. It is an essential skill that improves greatly with experience, so any practice on easier climbs in the UK is time well spent – such as a north wales scrambling course. Your ability and confidence will dictate the standard of ground you are prepared to move together on and the nature of the terrain will dictate the length of rope between each climber. Key factors are:
- Knowing when it’s appropriate to move together, as opposed to pitched climbing.
- Being able to change techniques quickly and without tangles etc.
- Using the rope effectively to allow safe fluid movement.
Remember that its all about compromise – you can never be 100% safe, but the idea is that you should be safer than when soloing and faster than when pitching.
The ultimate moving together skill, ‘simul-climbing’ involves moving with most of the rope out on technical ground that would normally be pitched. Prussic devices such as Tiblocs are placed on runners above crux sections to hold the second should they fall – and prevent the leader being yanked off! Other runners are placed as sparingly as you dare to conserve the rack and increase the distance you can travel before regrouping.
This technique requires lots of practice to perfect, and careful thought in using the Tiblocs to prevent rope damage. Limitations are: the size of your rack, rope drag and you ability to climb confidently without a belay! This is a great thing to practice on ice couloirs with the occasional bulge, as there are no rope drag issues. Simul-climbing has resulted in some awesome speed climbing achievements well documented in the press and is a great tool to have in your alpine skills box.
Adopt a common sense approach to route finding. In the UK we have detailed blow-by-blow route descriptions in most guidebooks. By contrast, Alpine guidebooks may have one small paragraph for a vertical kilometre of climbing, so the imperative is for you to interpret it properly. Use the information to guide you, but be prepared to take a step back and ask yourself ‘if I was the first person to climb this, where would I have gone next?’. This often solves route finding problems, but if not, don’t be afraid to look around the corner and rule out other options before committing yourself to an uncertainty. Five minutes exploring can save hours of wasted time battling up the wrong line!
Keep your rope work simple. Plenty of long extenders and twin or single ropes (where appropriate) will keep your management much cleaner and faster, and prevent other teams from threading in between your double ropes – damn! Consider climbing on a full weight rope and carrying a thin line for pulling on abseils (5.5mm dyneema is often used). This is a specialist technique but does have advantages when you have to haul, aid climb or jumar. In the Alps it’s best applied on ice lines where there’s little friction pulling the abb ropes, or ‘up and over’ type routes where you’re descending an easier line – ie carrying a 2nd rope as backup in case of retreat.
Borrow a technique from Yosemite speed climbers. Carry a good rack of cams on long pitched routes, they are much faster to place and clean on average granite terrain than nuts or hexes. Also keep a good look out for fixed runners and belays which can be used quickly, but remember to always check pegs and tat first.
Learn to climb rock quickly and efficiently wearing crampons. For Scottish mixed experts-no problem. This is a real skill, but can save hours of fiddling around changing footwear when faced with technical bare rock sections.
Make sure you don’t become too tired/lazy to eat and drink properly. Have lots of snacks and fluids easily accessible (drinks bladders are good in warm weather) to ensure a steady flow of carbs. Also try to stay cool when climbing to prevent overheating and dehydration, then add a layer if necessary to belay in.
Have a safe and efficient system in place for abseiling. Hours can be saved in the day if the descent is slick and quick. Crucial points include:
- Using a cows tail to clip into belay stations quickly.
- Using a french prussick as a backup and for working on the rope whilst abbing.
- Keeping communications simple (some teams use a loud yodel to mean ‘rope free, come on down’, as its easy to distinguish from other teams who may be on the mountain and it can be heard in nasty weather.
- Keeping both team members active all the time eg. whilst one is pulling the ropes, the other can be threading the next anchor. As soon as the knot arrives, first man down can attach their abseil plate etc while the remainder of the rope is being pulled down. This kind of continuity is the key to speedy rapping.
Finally, practice your overtaking skills…… and don’t forget to have fun!