Planning Your First Alpine Trip

Alpine Trip Planning

The following information will help you plan safe mountain adventures in the future. This only covers the basics but will point you in the right direction, with useful information on interesting areas, resources and further reading.

The Alps cover a huge area, with a fantastic variety of mountaineering and trekking. Below we describe a few of the more popular valley bases.

The classic venue with something for everyone. Well served by lifts and a good base in poor weather as half days can be snatched by using the cable cars to access routes quickly. Home to some of the best rock and mixed climbing in the world.

There is a lot of information available on conditions in the main guides office, and state of the art mountain forecasts (that are still wrong sometimes!). It can be very crowded.

Great for escaping the crowds and only 1 hour 40 mins from Cham. Lots of classic easy to mid grade mountaineering and some great rock climbing. No cable cars so fitness essential!

The Moiry hut is very easy to get to and offers a superb base for this beginner friendly area. The cirque of mid altitude peaks start from Facile and offer straightforward ascents on snow and rock, plus some airy AD ridge traverses. The main Zinal valley offers campsites and access to the Zinal glacier with its famous peaks such as the Zinalrothhorn.

Boasting the worlds most famous mountain, Zermatt is an inspirational (but expensive!) place to climb. Lifts allow quick access and there are some excellent routes starting around PD.

Good uplift facilities and numerous easier peaks both above and below 4000m. Several classic, harder traverses of 4000m peaks too. Alpine rock climbing above the Dri Horlini Hut.

alps-oberlandBernese Oberland
With many famous peaks such as the Eiger this is a coveted area. It has Himalayan scale glaciers within a ring of high protective peaks, and therefore access is more difficult than in many other regions. Valley bases tend to be on the outskirts of the range such as Grindlewald and Lauterbrunnen, with enormous or expensive hut approaches, so the area lends itself well to high level multi-day tours.

This is a wild unspoilt corner of the French Alps with no lift access and some very rugged terrain. Superb walking and easy mountaineering, plus a lot of harder face routes – but with a fairly serious feel due to the remoteness. Weather is generally better down here than further north, but can lead to dry/icy conds in a hot summer. The main Alpine centres are La Berarde on the west side of the range and Ailefroide on the east side.

alps-cosmiquesSuitable Outings
If you decide to go it alone next time you’re in the Alps you might need some ideas for things to go at. The following are suitable first trips for Alpine novices with good basic skills (please note these are only suggestions and we don’t guarantee their suitability, always check with local sources on conditions and weather before setting out)

From Chamonix: Cosmiques Arete on the Aiguille du Midi, AD. A brilliant PD+/AD mixed route with easy descent (the cable car!) Chapelle de la Gliere in the Aiguille Rouge, AD. An excellent 12 pitch VS alpine rock route.

From Zermatt: Pollux SW ridge. A steady AD mixed ridge with some fixed chains for assistance, to a nice 4000m summit.

alps-saasFrom Saas: Traverse of the Dri Horlini. An excellent AD rock traverse, technically interesting without too much commitment. Weismeiss. A mellow 4000’er and a good introduction to the higher peaks. Some interesting seracs, and possibly an icy exposed final slope in dry years so best done early season.

From Moiry: The Dent du Rosses is an excellent glacier excursion with a final rocky scramble at PD. Traverse of the Aiguille de la Ley is a short but fantastically exposed AD ridge traverse. Some loose rock on the flanks but very good on the crest, and interesting route finding early on.

For other outings consult the Alpine Club guidebooks to the area of choice but remember to check on conditions with the hut guardian, other climbers or the local guides office.

alps-seasonsThe Seasons
Hot summers are becoming commonplace in recent years, and subsequent melting of once permanent snowfields can cause real problems in the high mountains. Typically this causes: increased risk of rock fall as fresh gravel banks are exposed on ledges, drier glaciers with more exposed crevasses making travel difficult, and larger bergschrunds that are more difficult to cross. Once upon a time the classic ice and mixed routes of the Alps were climbable year round, but now it’s rare to see many of them climbed in mid summer season. You may not aspire to climbing technical routes, but if you do then the following approximate guidelines may help you get your timings right.

Ice and Mixed Routes: Unless you visit in winter/spring (much more serious with ski access etc), the best times to catch these routes are May/June or end of Sept/Oct when its cooler.

Classic snow routes: Again, early season is good as faces and ridges can strip down to bare ice later on, making them much more serious propositions.

Low altitude rock: Anytime is fine but beware snowy approaches/descents in early season which may need crampons etc

High altitude rock: Mid season (July/August) is best as any snow high on faces/ridges will have cleared allowing fast progress without resorting to crampons. By the end of August/September any fresh snowfall could be very slow to clear from anything with a northerly aspect, putting things back out of prime condition.

General Resources
There is an enormous amount of information available on most Alpine areas to help with general planning and logistics:

Grass Roots Info: Talk to people in huts and on the hill etc -Fellow climbers who have done your route that same season will have up to date info on conditions.

Hut Guardians: Are often guides and will also get constant feedback from passing traffic, so they will have detailed info for local routes. Guardians are well used to being quizzed on the phone and often speak English so don’t be afraid to ask.

Local Guides Offices: Again will have up to date info on routes in their local valley, and also provide a weather forecast and telephone numbers for local huts.

Tourist Information: Usually provide local and national forecasts and will often book huts for you if you don’t speak the local lingo.

Guidebooks and Maps: Please see further reading list.

Internet: Many sites are available providing detailed weather forecasts and conditions forums etc, and the Alpine Nations each have a site providing up to date contact details (many numbers in the Alpine Club guidebooks are now outdated) for their network of mountain huts. A good all round resource is the Alpine Guides website A huge effort has gone into grouping together lots of useful information for the public and also to make planning easier for our guides. On the Alpine Conditions page there are direct links to the following: mountain forecasts for all the major Alpine areas including synoptics, rain radars and webcams, Swiss/French/Italian hut network sites, cable car opening times for the Chamonix valley, alpinism/ice climbing/ski touring conditions forums, and avalanche forecasts. There are also good links for travel services including Swiss rail and airport transfers, accommodation, and a huge amount of other stuff. Elsewhere on the site there are useful articles on a range of subjects including: Alpine climbing tips and skills for novice and experienced climbers, navigation, ice climbing and equipment advice.

Emergency Phone Numbers
Mobile phones have gone a long way towards making the Alps a safer, less committing (less exciting…?) place to climb. They have limited coverage in some areas but we recommend you always take one with you. Plug these numbers into your phone before you head onto the hill:

PGHM Chamonix rescue service: +33 450 531689
Valais Alps Rescue (Swiss): +41 274 512291
Swiss National Rescue (REGA): +41 1414

Rescue Apps

With modern location enabled smart phones, one of the best rescue apps you can download is Echo112. Developed in conjunction with the Swiss National Rescue Organization, REGA – it’s totally free, available for ios and android and is a very reliable app that when you press the big red button, will ring the national rescue service for the country you are in and send them your exact location at the same time.

This is crucial for any Alpine climbing trip. In the event of a serious accident you may end up in a helicopter evacuation, then hospital for several days followed by emergency repatriation to the UK, and the associated astronomical bills. Both the BMC and Snowcard provide insurance that covers these factors, plus cancellation and lost baggage. It’s tried and tested and it works.

Further Training
The big decision now is whether to go it alone, or whether to use a guide for further instruction or just to take the stress out of it all. Many people who have used a guided service once decide that it’s a good way to maximise time spent on the hill, and will continue to use guides for most of their holidays in the mountains. Some will use them occasionally if they want to brush up on skills or to tackle something special that’s technically or logistically out of range. Others go it alone from there on in – let the adventure begin…!

Some Useful Instructional Books

• Alpine Mountaineering – Bruce Goodlad. A good, up to date alpine training manual written by our friend and fellow British Mountain Guide, Bruce Goodlad. Written from the perspective of climbers coming from a background of mountaineering in the Uk, the book also contains a useful recommended routes section at the back, to guide you on your early alpine climbs.
• The Complete Guide to Rope Techniques – Nigel Shepherd. Some complex information but well laid out and includes crevasse rescue systems.
• Avalanche Safety for Skiers and Climbers – Tony Daffern. Lots of snow science…
• The Mountain Skills Training Handbook – Pete Hill. Aimed at the UK environment but includes lots of useful instruction on a wide range of mountain skills including snow craft, simple rope work, emergency procedures etc.

Some Useful Guidebooks

British Alpine Club Guidebooks:
Several are now getting out of date and should be used carefully and in conjunction with local information sources:
• Valais Alps East
• Valais Alps West
• Ecrins (notoriously unreliable, check local info first!)
• Bernese Oberland
• Bregaglia and Bernina
• Dolomites
• The 4000m peaks of the Alps – Selected Climbs The new 4000m peak baggers bible.

Other Guidebooks:
• Rockfax – Chamonix (good photos, but limited coverage and various errors)
• Snow, Ice and Mixed Climbs in the Mont Blanc Massif Vols 1 and 2 – Damilano. Excellent, up to date and in English. Includes many easy snow/mixed routes as well as the harder routes.
• Rocfax – Dolomites (best English guide to the Dolomites).
• Schweiz Plaisir East – Mid grade cragging and Alpine rock routes in eastern Switzerland, Salbitschen etc
• Schweiz Plaisir West – Mid grade cragging and Alpine rock routes in western Switzerland and France
• Schweiz Plaisir South – Mid grade cragging and Alpine rock routes in Switzerland, France and Italy, inc Bregaglia

• French – 1:25000 IGN series covers the whole of France.
• Swiss – excellent and available in 1:25000 for mountaineering/walking (brown cover), 1:50000 with ski touring routes marked on (blue cover) or 1:50000 walking/touring maps (green cover).
• Italian – generally poor but French/Swiss sheets are available for many Italian areas along the border.
• Aosta Valley – new 1:25000 series to Gran Paradiso, Monta Rosa etc published by L’Escursionista editore.