It seems that regardless of mental or physical preparation, on first acquaintance the sheer scale of the Alps is always daunting. To the British climber the environment is at first an alien one with the skills gained during winter no longer adequate. It is time to begin the learning process again
What are these new alpine skills?
From your winter experiences you are familiar with crampons, axes and snow belays and comfortable with mountain navigation and the assessment of snow conditions and avalanche risk.
What more do you need to know?
To put it simply it is timing. To this add ‘choosing the right route at the right time’ and you have it pretty well covered. Let’s consider these points:
Timing and route choice.
Ask anyone what they like about the alps and you get a lengthy list of exciting experiences and situations. The downsides of being in the alps revolve around the weather, the crowds on popular peaks and the initial difficulty with fitness. Choosing a route based on your best estimate of conditions is crucial to safe alpine climbing. Alpine regions can have lengthy periods of unsettled weather and sharp variations in temperature.
Making forward judgements about conditions, even with the aid of meteorological forecasts is, for some an art form, but for most educated guesswork at best. You should take the following into account:
- Stone fall threat (increases with temperature). Routes once thought of as “safe” may now receive regular stonefall - be aware that conditions may change each year.
- Snow conditions and how they might change during the day.
- Cornice or serac threat
- Avalanche threat
Critically, these considerations apply to both ascent and descent. A common error is to focus purely on the technicality of a climb and assume that the descent will “take care of itself”. Timing is not just about matching your route choice to the prevailing weather and conditions, it is also about making a realistic assessment of your fitness and acclimatisation. Fatigue, especially in descent can lead to serious mistakes and fatal accidents. The unexpected can happen and so it is essential that you have the reserves to deal with situations you have not anticipated.
Moving quickly and efficiently on the varied alpine terrain requires a wide range of skills. These will not be learnt by reading this article and whilst many books and videos go into much more detail the best way to acquire alpine skills is in practice. Knowing what skills you need is the first step towards controlling the risks.
The over-loaded beginner is a common sight in alpine villages (we know because we have all been there!). Judging what kit is essential and what you can do without is a fundamental alpine skill, so the distinction must be made between essentials and luxuries and you should have a feeling for the relative importance of various items. Being overloaded not only slows you down but can make the whole climb a miserable experience. These decisions are not always simple. As an example - if you were planning a route with a bivouac and could choose only one additional item, would you take a stove or a sleeping bag?
Basic Movement Skills
Moving quickly does not mean an uncontrolled frantic rush. The underlying proviso is that you should be moving safely. It may be obvious sitting at home reading this piece, but this means avoiding tripping up and consideration for others on the mountain. Far too many accidents are caused by careless climbers dislodging rocks onto those below. Moving quickly is more about avoiding wasting time and taking decisions efficiently than it is about rushing.
Two key elements of efficient glacier travel are route choice and rope work. Parties should cross snow-covered (“wet”) glaciers roped together 15m apart with tied off coils to shorten the rope. You will find clear descriptions of these techniques in books and videos. The important thing is not to fall into a crevasse - by exercising careful judgement and route choice.
Three in one hoists may sound great in theory, but it can be very difficult to get someone out of a crevasse even in ideal practice conditions. Whilst you should know how to do crevasse rescue, it is an experience best practised for, but always avoided! Having an idea of snow conditions on the glacier and where crevasses are more or less likely to be is useful when planning your approach to a route.
Dry glaciers that are not covered by snow and where crevasses are clearly visible are not too problematical, but where crevasses are hidden beneath snow good judgement is required. Treat the glacier as you would a route:- move quickly over safe easy sections and with more caution when unsure. Don’t be afraid to take extra precautions - whatever others around you may be doing - if you are crossing a particularly thin snow bridge.
Snow and Ice
Good alpine technique is based on efficiency with fitness and pacing playing a much greater part than in the British mountains. You need to have confidence not only in your own ability but also in that of your partner since alpine snow and ice climbing will often involve moving together. Because being slow on a snow and ice route can mean having to cope with deteriorating conditions, building up experience on shorter routes is recommended.
In order to climb even a medium length alpine route in reasonable time you will probably need to move together at some point. This involves shortening the rope by taking coils. The length of rope out is dependant on the terrain. Whist you would be predominantly moving at the same time, placing runners or even taking belays for short difficult sections is part if the process. The important thing about moving together is judgement. Judgement when to get the rope out, when to shorten it, when to take a stance, when to keep the rope tight, who to send in front, etc. etc.
The ground should be easy enough for you and your partner to move quickly and confidently without the security of a totally reliable belay. Making a mistake when moving together can have dire consequences so building up experience and confidence on easier safe routes is recommended. Remember, the aim when moving together is to be safer than if you were each independent, but quicker than if you were pitching the route.
When looking at route grades you need to be thinking in terms of what you can get up quickly. In Britain we think nothing of taking an hour over a difficult pitch, but in the Alps we need to change attitude and think in terms of climbing at around three or four pitches an hour. You also need to be quick at stances, forsaking the usual 5 minutes sorting the rack, having a chat and checking the route description. The change over should basically consist of one climber moving past the other grabbing the rack as they go! Trying to keep to a detailed route description can often cause unnecessary delays and you are better off thinking in terms of following natural lines. If a route is predominantly ‘technical’ rock it is likely that the speed gain from climbing in rock shoes will more than compensate for the burden of carrying mountain boots.
At the most, the route is only half completed when you get to the top - it is not over until you arrive back in the valley. You need to pace yourself with this in mind. A large proportion of accidents in descent are 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 mental and physical effort as the ascent. Speed again comes fundamentally with techniques and efficiency, not short cuts.
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.
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