Climbing your dream alpine route comes down to two things: the right partner and the right moment. Tim Neill has some tips on how to find both.
The solid foundation of any good alpine trip is your climbing partner. I was lucky that my first trips were with my best mate and regular climbing partner from home. We climbed together at home in Snowdonia, on rock and snow (when there was any), and had similar aspirations and strengths.
We knew each other totally – from comfort levels on technical terrain to moods. On reflection, this is what made our trips so successful, with back-to-back routes and great summits. We were both 100% for each plan and shared all decisions. So, when you meet someone like this, this is your time, as they say. Make the most of it.
We achieved a lot on those early trips, with plenty of variety too. Whether it was our laid-back ethos, I’m not sure, but if conditions didn’t look good, we did something else: either a shorter or easier climb, or sometimes just headed south to Ceüse. It’s important to have ambitions, but in the mountains they have to be realistic.
Because we climbed together at home, we were able to prepare well for the Alps together. Although we were totally obsessed rock climbers, we mixed it up before each summer trip away. We did lots of easy long routes (often in big boots with a pack), whatever the weather, and in the winter we’d often climb lots of easier routes, rather than one tricky one.
We’d bivy at the crags and top off our fitness regime with lots of long hill-walks, running and biking. The result was a good team: able to move efficiently on all types of mountain terrain, whether soloing on easy ground, moving together or swinging leads. We developed a good, safe system for abseils, and felt comfortable down-climbing on snow and rock.
But the one thing we didn’t have – like many Brits – was good crevasse-rescue skills. We knew enough to rope up when the glacier was snow covered, and to keep the rope tight in obviously crevassed terrain, and I think we knew how to prussic back up the rope.
We definitely didn’t know how to make a good belay in snow, how to transfer someone’s weight onto to it, and whether to haul them out or check if they were OK. I’m glad we had the good sense to minimise the risk in the first place, but I shudder to think what could’ve happened had our luck ran out. If you do touch the void, it’s good to have a fighting chance of sorting it out, but avoiding the touch in the first place is the best way to roll.
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When people ask what routes to try on their first trip, I’ll say choose something modest, well within your grade and inspiring. Obviously we didn’t do this. We walked up from the valley to the Frendo Spur, through a lot of fresh snow, got a bit strung out, hugged on the top and walked back down. Whilst it was a big learning curve, we were very lucky, and this was the last route I did that went over guidebook time.
On every alpine climb you do, you’ll refine your skills and realise what kit you used, and what you didn’t. We took the same amount of stuff on the Frendo as I took on my Duke of Edinburgh expedition and consequently went heavy and slow. Yet, a few years ago, I climbed a snowy Fitzroy, in Patagonia, with less stuff than I’d take for a day’s winter cragging in the Scotland.
On the Frendo we took a Trangia stove (lol), couscous, cheap chocolate, Lipton tea bags and sleeping bags more suitable for Glastonbury. Oh, and enough of a rack to aid climb on El Cap. I remember the big sleeping bag and not enjoying the bivvy food too much. Last summer on a blast up the Peuterey Integral, we had a Jetboil, Tetleys, soup, sausage, pasta and Haribos, (yum) no sleeping bags and the rack you’d take for a quick route on Stanage. We were fast and well fuelled. How times change!
The Alps are huge. I’d suggest thinking about what you and your partner really want to do, and what you’re capable of. Choose somewhere that suits you, with lots of options, both modest and challenging. Go with the flow, but be ready! I’ve got plenty of routes that I still want to do, and I’m just waiting for the right moment. Good luck finding yours.
IFMGA Mountain Guide Tim Neill presented the 2012 BMC Alpine Lectures with Nick Bullock. Tim works part-time at Plas y Brenin, spending the rest of his time cragging or guiding clients. For guiding in Snowdonia, Scottish winter and throughout the Alps contact email@example.com.
This issue’s expert is IFMGA Mountain Guide Steve Long. Passionate about climbing and sharing his knowledge, Steve is Technical Officer for Mountain Training UK and heavily involved with international training standards.
Q. How did you start alpine climbing?
A. My first interest was from books like The White Spider, The Hard Years, I Chose to Climb and Alan Blackshaw’s Mountaineering. My first real trip was on the BMC bus (a discounted and discontinued London to- Chamonix bus service).
Q. What was your narrowest escape?
A. That trip was a massive learning curve. My first proper route was also the Frendo Spur. It’s arguably the hotspot for British accidents: it’s long, serious and no place for an Alpine novice. I made several errors: picking up a stranger on the campsite as a partner, getting lost on the crevasse approach and falling near the top – resulting in a broken wrist and hanging bivouac. If I could start again, I’d go on a Conville course.
Q. What style of alpine climbing does British climbing prepare you for?
A. Getting benighted! But us Brits are also pretty good at placing runners and setting up belays with leader-placed gear. We also tend to find the ice routes technically straightforward. Big-wall climbing suits, because there’s still a place for the slow and steady approach.
Q. What skills do new alpinists lack?
A. Efficient movement: glacier travel, fast change-overs at belays and route-finding. Novices tend to unnecessarily change into rock shoes on relatively easy ground, or in and out of crampons. There is a tendency to carry too much kit, to tackle fairly technical routes at altitude, and then find that the routes seem to go on for ever. Alpine routes are much bigger than our routes, so build up experience gradually. Us Brits also bivy too much; if there’s a hut available, use it and travel light.
Q. Top tips for the budding alpinist?
A. Get a feel by bagging some easy peaks first, ideally with an experienced friend with a good track record. Alternatively, get some tuition from a Guide. Conville Trust courses are a cost-effective way of achieving this, but places are in high demand. Build up gradually, increasing altitude, commitment or technical difficulty one at a time. That’s why the Frendo Spur is such a bad idea for a novice: it’s got all three on the same route!
British Mountain Guides
Looking for a British Mountain Guide? Check out the BMG: the national body for IFMGA Mountain Guides. www.bmg.org.uk
BMC Alpine Essentials DVD
Packed with information and advice on all the skills and techniques you need for alpine climbing. shop.thebmc.co.uk
Conville Alpine Courses
Subsidised alpine training courses for younger climbers. www.jcmt.org.uk
Check out our essential alpine know how
Read more climb skills articles
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