Alpine Mountaineering Advice
Alpine mountaineering advice for a first trip to the Alps.
Cheap flights, increased knowledge and good equipment have made the alpine experience safer, more pleasurable and easier to access than ever before, with a resultant increase in popularity. However Brits visiting the Alps for the first time, are often blown away by the scale and unused to the skills required for safe and efficient travel. Here we describe the essential differences between climbing in Uk and the Alps and give useful advice for first time British alpinists to help make the transition. If want to learn some more advanced skills, to help you climb more efficiently on technical ground, then check out our Alpine Ninja article too.
Compared to our 3/400m long mountaineering routes, the Alps seems enormous on first acquaintance, with some routes exceeding 1500m or even 2000m. This coupled with altitude, glaciers, stone fall and violent electrical storms all ads up to an unfamiliar environment with hazards lurking around every corner. Understanding these hazards and minimising risk as you journey through this testing environment is the art of safe alpine climbing.
There are many skills you can practice in the UK to help you prepare for that first alpine season. Rock climbing skills, as well as snow and ice techniques are directly transferable from the crags and mountains of the UK.
Scotland is a great training ground where you can learn to crampon (remember your first line of defence against simple accidents is good footwork) and use an axe for self arrest, climbing and belaying.
More specific skills such as using a prussick knot, which is the basic building block for escaping a crevasse fall or hoisting someone else out, can easily be practised on small crags at home.
If you want to learn current best practice and tap into the experience of a professional guide, then consider one of our alpine mountaineering courses.
Successful climbing in the Alps requires you to work to a time table and use every part of the day productively. Using maps and guide books to create a realistic plan for the day will hopefully prevent a bone-chilling bivouac and see you back in the valley for tea and medals
Seeking up to date information about your route is also crucial as the Alps are in a constant state of flux, with glacial recession and rockfall creating drastic change even over the course of one season. Hut guardians and the local guides bureau are excellent places to gain information, as are your fellow climbers.
The altitude is a real threat to any climber arriving fresh from the UK. The effects can be felt usually from 2000/2500m upwards and by 3500m it can be totally debilitating. Common effects are a lack of appetite, headache, nausea, lethargy and generally feeling on “death’s door”. It’s crucial to acclimatise gradually at the start of any trip by sleeping and climbing at progressively greater heights, for example a trip to climb Mont Blanc should include at least a four day build up before you go to 4800m. More information on altitude and mountain medicine can be found on the BMC website.
The alpine environment is often extreme, with temperatures that can vary between –5C at night and +30c during the afternoon on open glaciers. This heat can cause wet snow avalanches on any steep slope that catches the mid morning and afternoon sun. The same process can loosen the cementing effect of the snow on loose rock debris, creating stone fall too. The sun can be equally damaging to the skin, the importance of good sun cream and eye protection is all too often underestimated: just recently we heard a scary statistic stating that 80% of retired German Mountain Guides had some instance of facial skin cancer!
Falling into crevasses is a problem to consider, as many alpine excursions involve glacier travel at some point and seracs (large ice cliffs that form when a glacier plunges over a rock face) can fall down at any time of the day or night – their stability being largely down to gravity.
Lastly, the weather can be especially savage, with afternoon lightning storms costing many lives. The Scottish ethos of climbing in the harshest weather is not recommended!
Approaches, Huts and Bivouacs
For the climber the great thing about most alpine bases (apart from the bars and fast food) is their ski infrastructure. This means cable cars can often be taken to within minutes of your alpine hut and cut out hours of painful slog on hot alpine hillsides. Most huts require some walking however, as they are often tucked high amongst the cliffs, but paths are usually well maintained and may even involve exposed ladders or cableways bolted onto steep cliff faces. Huts are a fantastic resource, managed by national alpine clubs to allow climbers to get an early start on their chosen route without carrying heavy bivvy gear and lots of food. They can vary from small bivvy huts with no facilities all the way up to large mountain hotels complete with showers and single rooms. The average hut will have simple dormitory beds and a guardian who provides a 3 course evening meal and breakfast. Alternatively you can often bring and cook your own food. Half board in a hut costs around £40 per night.
Camping is an option for those on a budget, but you need to be sensitive and pitch up at least a few hundred metres from the nearest hut. Also be aware that camping is actually forbidden between sunrise and sunset so make sure you decamp and hide your gear during the day. Bivouacs are the answer for those seeking the ultimate alpine experience and can often be the highlight of the trip on a crisp starry night. Many bivvy sites can be found in natural caves or under boulders, but commonly you will find yourself lying on a patch of gravel on a glacial moraine! Keep gear as light as possible – most people make do with a goretex bivvy bag and a 2 season sleeping bag or a down duvet jacket.
Crossing glaciers safely requires the party to be roped together and the more people in the party the safer you will be. As a party of two you need a minimum of 14-18m of rope between you, the excess being carried in coils around the shoulders and tied off at your harness. Whilst travelling the rope should be snug between each person to prevent any fall building up momentum, and crevasses should be crossed at right angles rather than obliquely, for similar reasons. The most experienced route finder will usually go first to pick a safe line (prevention is better than cure), but if they accidentally ‘find a slot’ the fall should be held by dropping to the ground and getting some purchase with the axe. Next there are three options:
- If there are other people around just shout for help and with some extra manpower you can often pull someone out of a hole without any fuss.
- If the victim isn’t hurt then they can often climb/prussik out of the slot by using the person on top as a dead weight (always explore this option before you go onto number three).
- If the person below is hurt then you need to perform a rescue, firstly by creating a belay using your axe or ice screws and securing the rope to it. Next you need to create a mechanical advantage by engineering a hoist system: this is done using the spare rope around your shoulders and a special arrangement of prussic knots.
Crevasse rescue is a complicated business and easy to get wrong, especially under the pressure of a real situation. It is important to read around the subject, practice lots and preferably seek some professional training.
In the UK, most climbers either solo or use the traditional system of climbing in pairs doing alternate leads every pitch. However, in the Alps there’s a lot of exposed but straightforward ground on many routes that’s not safe to solo, yet not practical to pitch because it would take too long. This is where the technique of ‘moving together’ becomes essential, to ensure safe but speedy movement and avoid that miserable unplanned bivi – if you only remember one bit of alpine mountaineering advice, then remember it’s all about moving quickly and efficiently .
In a similar way to crevasse travel, the spare rope is taken as coils around the shoulders and tied off to the harness. Both climbers move together with the rope snug between them, the leader placing protection and the second removing it. Obviously it’s crucial to always have at least one good runner on the rope (and ideally about three). On rocky ridges with plenty of spikes and opportunities to place runners, you can move with only 10 or so metres between climbers, but on smoother terrain more rope will be needed to reach between runner placements.
Having this length correct is crucial as is being able to adjust it quickly, because too much rope can mean poor communication, more rope drag and may cause the rope to dislodge loose rocks, whilst too little can compromise safety. Moving together safely and efficiently is a completely essential alpine skill and can be practiced on many great ridges in the British Isles. Ideal examples are scrambles such as Cneifion Arete in Cwm Idwal (N Wales) and routes like Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis.
Moving together on terrain where no natural anchors are available, such as steep snow slopes or snow aretes, is a much more serious proposition, as it’s inherantly less secure – but nevertheless this is very common terrain in the alps. In these situations, good footwork is imperative as it’s your first line of defence (as is preventing slips becoming slides) so it’s best to move roped as close together as possible in order to eliminate as much slack as you can from the system. This usually involves the leader carrying some form of locked off hand coils, which is a difficult technique to master and an even more difficult one to apply safely. So a bit like learning to swim or drive a car, it’s a good idea to get some professional tuition on this one – preferably out in the alps on some real alpine terrain.
The descent is often the most trying part of any alpine day and tired bodies and brains can easily cause accidents. Many descents will involve down climbing intricate ground that can be intimidating and hard to read from above and will certainly require you to keep the rope on. Moving together can be applied in the same way as in ascent, with the front person placing gear to protect the party. This can feel a little weird at first as the second (ie the person at the ‘top’ of the rope) feels very exposed and should therefore be the stronger climber of the pair.
At some point on the descent it may get too steep to down climb safely and then it’s time to go into full-blown abseiling mode. On standard descents from classic routes there will usually be an in situ abseil anchor when it becomes necessary to do so – this will often be a collection of bolts/pegs or a rock spike threaded with an array of tape or cord. Always check the condition of both the tape and the anchors and if in any doubt back the system up with a good nut and replace dodgy old tat with some of your own 7mm cord/abseil tape.
It’s crucial to have a clean, efficient and speedy system in place in the UK before you head to the Alps as sometimes a descent may involve many abseils. Using a French prussik to back up your abseil device and having a clear communication system are all part of the deal and will ultimately save your life one day.
Good practice in the Alps is to have a sense of urgency and to be alert. From the loose rock underfoot, to the change of weather on the horizon and the deteriorating conditions of the snow – a good alpinist will be evaluating everything that affects the ascent, anticipate problems and avoid any time wasting.
Good luck out there!
This has been a whistle stop tour through the many areas of knowledge you should be seeking to develop as an alpinist. It can’t be exhaustive in a single article but it has hopefully highlighted some important points and survival skills that we teach on our alpine mountaineering courses. If on your next Alpine trip things don’t go your way and despondency sets in, remember that there is no such thing as wasted time in the mountains – the learning process is constant and experience is often hard won. Also remember that curious alpine reward of retrospective pleasure. As an alpinist you will undoubtedly suffer, but back down in the valley, face burnt and legs weak, it will all have been worth it and more.