Alpine a to z

Posted by BMC on 03/05/2002
Aguille Rouges. Credit: Andy Miles.

The Alps. Breathtaking. Adventure waiting on a plate just an Easyjet hop away. But also disturbingly confusing for the first time visitor. So if you don’t know the difference between E111 and the Euro, and think that moving together sounds a bit risqué then let Stuart Ingram educate you. It may be a foreign language, but here’s the dictionary.

A is for AMS.
Acute Mountain Sickness, also known as Altitude Sickness. One of the major differences between climbing in the UK and the Alps is the altitude. Even though almost everyone can climb at European altitudes with little difficulty apart from mild breathlessness, laboured breathing uphill or a slight headache, it makes sense to be prepared. Build up experience and acclimatise well before tackling a big objective such as Mt Blanc - be patient - and by the third peak or so you’ll be more than ready for the higher routes and able to concentrate on the ascent rather than your splitting headache. See the BMC website for full details on AMS.

B is for Bivvis.
Wild camping is forbidden throughout most of the Alps, but bivvies are usually permitted “from sunset to sunrise” in the mountains, and are a good option to escape the crowds or save money, at the cost of the extra equipment needed. Avoid close proximity to huts though, as the guardian will have little time for non-paying customers cluttering up his patio or using his toilets! En route bivvies are a common feature of alpine routes, but it’s best to acquire some experience before biting off these bigger challenges, and of course there are the unexpected bivvies – a common feature in bar tales but miserable in reality – plan well to avoid these.

C is for Crowds.
Yes, it’s official - the Alps can be crowded! If you’re
used to doing your own thing then some venues in the more popular areas can come as a shock. Crowded routes means overtaking parties (or being overtaken), an increased risk of stonefall, and a generally hectic experience, so minimise the impact on yourself and the environment by choosing a quieter venue and avoiding the very popular routes. If overtaking or being overtaken be polite but firm – don’t delay a faster party unnecessarily or allow this to happen to you - speed is of the essence in safe Alpine climbing!

D is for Descent.
A route is only half completed when you reach the top, and you need to pace yourself with this is mind. A large proportion of accidents occur in descent due to exhaustion and lack of concentration. The process of descent, be it abseiling or down climbing, is a complex activity and requires as much attention as the actual ascent, if not more. Speed will always come from efficiency and experience, not short cuts, so remember to research the descent before committing to the route and be thoroughly confident on your rope work and navigational skills before venturing upwards.

E is for Equipment.
Before extracting your credit card and leaping into a shop, take a look at what you already have, it may be enough. Bear in mind that temperature fluctuations are huge, from scorching heat on a sunny glacier to teeth chattering gullies, so plan your clothing accordingly. You’ll certainly need basics including a rope, ice axe(s), suitable boots and a compatible pair of crampons (for more information on boots and crampons see past issues of Summit or pop into your local retailer). Of course no amount of gear is any good if you don’t know how to use it – consider it essential to get some practice in, ideally on an Alpine skills course.

F is for Food (and water).
On all ascents don’t neglect your food and hydration requirements. Food should be palatable, light and quick to eat, but it is hydration that can be the real key to success. High temperatures and altitude dehydration are almost guaranteed, so make sure you drink plenty of water – you might need up to 5 or 6 litres per day if working hard. Carry a decent size water bottle, or hydration bag and use it, and remember that melting snow/ice for water takes ages, and drinks your stove’s fuel supply.

G is for Guidebooks.
Wherever you go, there will be a guidebook to the area - the seminal Alpine Club guides are well established, and cover a good range of the classic snow/ice and mixed routes, but for pure rock routes a topo guide is often clearer. Usually the guides will indicate how long the route should take (Guidebook Time), and it is important to remember that this is an average time for an averagely competent party. Initially pick shorter routes with low times, until you get a feel for your speed on the hill, and with practice and efficiency you should soon be moving at a good rate on the more demanding outings.

H is for Huts.
Alpine huts get incredibly busy, so find out when they are open (usually late June – early September) and get your booking in early, preferably directly with the hut guardian. The local tourist info usually has the numbers. Average cost will be £30-£40 for a night's food and lodging, but this can be reduced by using the BMC Reciprocal Rights Scheme – further details from the office.

I is for Insurance.
This is something you must not do without in the Alps. Unlike in the UK, mountain search and rescue is not free of charge and neither is hospital treatment and repatriation. A form E111 does not give cover for any remotely dangerous activity, and if you are uninsured and have an accident it could easily cost you £20,000 or more, so be prepared! The BMC offers a comprehensive range of insurance policies to cover every eventuality – check the website or contact the office for details.

J is for Judgement.
This is that ephemeral quality that those old “mountain men” have – some blend of knowledge, intuition and gut feeling that tells them when to turn back, when a particular slope will avalanche or why you really should try a different route. Call it bad karma, good vibes sixth sense, whatever – it only comes with experience and being out there. So, if you ever have a nagging feeling that something is wrong when you’re out adventuring, consider listening to what it’s telling you…

K is for Knots.
A good knowledge of knots (and ropework) and how to tie and use them quickly and efficiently is a cornerstone of safe and enjoyable alpine climbing. If you are already familiar with the knots used for rock-climbing, there isn’t too much learning to do – many good manuals (including the BMC Knots publication) and courses can provide the necessaries.

L is for Lightweight.
Not only equipment, but also in style – do you really need 2 pans for the stove? Choosing your gear carefully (and yes, perhaps spending the extra buck on quality lightweight gear rather than making do) and then deciding what you need even more carefully is a vital Alpine skill. Moving light and fast can help reduce the risk of objective dangers, and is definitely more enjoyable. So think again before staggering off with a pack the size of a refrigerator.

M is for Moving together.
Not something your mother warned you about, but an essential technique for “making time”. The members of a party (2 upwards) are connected via short lengths of the rope (20-40ft depending on terrain) and move together unbelayed over easier ground where a slip or fall is unlikely. Most routes contain flat sections of glacier or ridge, or easy rock scrambling which can be negotiated in this way, saving time for the harder sections to be climbed as normal. Again it is wise to take some instruction in this area before using it in anger, and to start with routes that are well within your ability before pushing the boat out. Learning how to move together safely and efficiently will probably improve your alpine climbing more than anything else.

N is for North Face.
Home to many of the ultra-classics of the Alps, the North Faces are the traditional proving ground for the up and coming Alpinist. They are cold, steep and forbidding places that should only be tackled after a thorough apprenticeship in more friendly surroundings. Routes to aspire to/fear can be found on the Droites, the Grande Jorasses and of course the mother of all North Faces – the Eiger.

O is for Objective Danger.
Objective danger can be defined as those risks that you can’t actually remove, only lessen your exposure to and the Alps are full of them. Icefall, avalanche, rockfall, storms, crevasses, even other climbers can pose threats that do not manifest themselves until they are upon you. Fortunately, common sense can significantly reduce many of the risks – wear a helmet, be avalanche aware, don’t linger under looming ice-cliffs, check the weather!! Again, experience of these dangers will increase your ability to deal with them – see Judgement.

P is for Planning.
The climb begins well before the climb, as the saying goes and careful preparation will save you a world of pain on the hill. Make sure your gear is in good working order, practise your skills, and research your route. Know your partner’s (and your own) skills and weaknesses. Check the local knowledge – is your route “in nick”? Is the forecast good? Don’t wait until you’re on the route to find out…

Q is for quote.
"Climb if you will, but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a Lifetime. Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end" - Edward Whymper after the Matterhorn tragedy in 1861. It remains sound advice to this day.

R is for rise’n’shine!.
The “Alpine start” is a concept viewed with horror by most, and a masochistic glee by some, but it’s an essential part of Alpine climbing. In order to complete certain sections of most routes before (a) the midday sun turns them to 3ft deep slush, (b) the (likely) afternoon storms and (c) the last ‘phrique down, a sickeningly early start is often necessary. Don’t be surprised to find yourself gearing up at 2 or 3am for the longer routes! (This also helps you get ahead of other parties on popular routes – safer, quicker and more pleasant.)

S is for Snow.
The Eskimos have over 30 words for it and they’re not wrong – there are many different kinds of the white stuff, and not all of it friendly. By knowing the different types, their adhesive properties and how they lay on mountain topography, you can minimise your chances of being caught out (what we’re really getting at here is another “A”, Avalanche awareness. Several good publications exist – check out “Chance in a Million” (SMT) or “Avalanche Safety” (Baton Wickes) – read one and you’ll live to build snowmen another day!

T is for Telepheriques (and mountain railways).
Unlike the UK, some parts of the Alps are well serviced by ‘phriques (cable-cars) and mountain railways, making the higher parts of the mountains readily accessible. Saving energy and time (if not money – return trips are about £30!) can be a bonus so don’t be afraid to take advantage.

U is for UV light.
It might give you a nice tan to show off, but at the same time it’s damaging both your body and your gear. It’s vital to protect exposed skin when above the snowline or on glacial terrain. Your personal climbing equipment is also degraded over time with exposure to UV and should be checked regularly for signs of damage (be especially wary of fixed abseil slings – if in doubt, back it up!). The BMC “Care & Maintenance” booklet offers a wealth of useful advice for monitoring your gear.

V is for Vagabond.
The hedonistic club of hardcore British alpinists from the 60’s, based in Leysin, Switzerland. Tales of punishing training schedules, extreme and audacious ascents and even more extreme partying abound, and involve such figures as Dougal Haston, Allan Rankin, Guy Niethardt and Chick Scott. Thankfully, things are (usually) a bit more chilled these days!

W is for Weather.
The weather in the Alps can be by turns hotter, colder, wetter, calmer, more benign or infinitely more terrifying than in the UK. Fortunately most of the Alps are served by a detailed forecasting service, but learn some of the basic signs of approaching bad weather for yourself. The forecast is an essential guide, but (as we all know) not always 100% correct!

X is for Xenophobia.
Don’t add to it! There have always been conflicts and competition between different nations in the Alps. Whether it’s British alpinists “stealing” a route from under the noses of the French, or the Italian/French rivalry over some of the routes in the Mt. Blanc range, it isn’t pretty. Remember, the mountains are there for everyone – always be polite and courteous, even if you are not being treated that way yourself.

Y is for Yellow Snow. Don’t eat it!
Seriously though, this kind of pollution is an increasing problem in the Alps, and constitutes a serious health hazard in the more popular camping/bivvy sites. When you have to go, do it considerately and at a good distance from water sources and other climbers. See the BMC leaflet “Tread Lightly” for further advice in this area.

Z is for....Zermatt
The home of the most famous Alpine peak of all, the Matterhorn (and its Zmutt ridge!), and Zillertal – a beautiful mountain sports destination high in the Austrian Alps.



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