Heading to the Alps this summer? It's time to leave the kitchen sink at home and think fast and light. Baggy Richards and Steve Long are here to help you save some weight and time.
It’s day four on the North West Face of Bionassy. It should be a two-day route but it’s just become apparent that we’re unfit, have the wrong type of kit and too much of it. We’re using time consuming techniques and can’t move fast enough. Sound familiar? There’s an old saying that you can spot a Brit in the Alps a mile away. It was true for us then and it could be true for you now. But how can you speed up?
Most Brits use Scottish winter experience to prepare for the Alps. That’s great, but don’t just blindly pack the same kit. Gear has advanced immensely (as has the cost!). But giving it some thought will pay dividends. Make the right choices and you’ll be carrying less weight, feel lighter and more agile - and so speed up.
Don’t be taken in with manufacturers claims though - many may use the words alpine and lightweight, but it’s not always the case. Ever weighed your kit? I suggest you do. The first time I did I was astonished at how much it all weighed. You may well have a favourite sack but I bet you that it’s too heavy. Do you really need heavy-duty waterproofs? Go for some Paclite instead, and if it’s a good forecast leave them.
Carry the lightest pair of boots you can. Could you get away with approach shoes for the descent, perhaps adapting lightweight crampons to fit? The list goes on: axes, harnesses, the rack, ropes, boots, and clothing - it all adds up. Only take what you really need and don’t be afraid to adapt kit, get the scissors out if need be. Your aim is a small and light sack just like the guides you see.
Look at different guides for the same route. This gives you far more detail, especially for the descent. Photocopying the route and descent for all climbers means that you can all look at the description whilst on the lead or at any belay.
The fitter you are the faster you will move. To get fit for the Alps means effort, and it’s not much use remembering this a couple of weeks before a trip. Get out biking, running and mountaineering months before. Gym work is not enough. You need long mountain days focussing on speed and efficiency with your alpine partner. Work together to get rid of your old habits and bring in the new.
Being able to place and remove gear and belays quickly whilst leading and seconding is a key attribute that cannot be over emphasised. It’s vital for alpine speed but often overlooked. Build single point belays if swapping leads, or use the rope (often quicker) if you’re block leading. Block leading is where the leader climbs consecutive pitches, a useful technique but one rarely used by Brits. It’s ideal if the two of you have different specialities - five crack pitches followed by five slab? Get the right person for the job.
When seconding, climb quickly, if it’s tricky then just strip the runners and leave them on the rope until you reach the belay. On the stance forget racking gear as you do at home - it wastes time. Use bandoliers or slings and swap them on stances. Yes, it is different; you need to change your habits.
Moving together is often avoided by Brits but is essential on many routes. Practise this at home with your alpine partner; learn to climb efficiently and quickly. If you don’t know how then seek expert advice.
This is a real catch 22 - carry too much and it slows you down, don’t drink enough and it slows you down. Stack the odds in your favour. Drinking loads the night before, in the morning and on the approach ensures you’ll be well hydrated as you start the route.
Carrying a platypus means you can keep topping up whilst climbing. Including an isotonic drink helps, and gives you added calories. Avoid Powerbar type snacks en-route as your body uses a lot of liquid to digest these. For bivis take herbal drinks, as these aren’t diuretics. And finally, carry a piece of tube in your helmet to suck up any water you find en-route.
Huts and uplift
See these as an aid not an expense. Using them means that your legs are fresh, your bivy kit is in the campsite not on your back, and there’s no need to carry all that extra food.
If you’re taking your annual 2/3 weeks off work and heading to the Alps then don’t mess around. Aim to be successful. Don’t do all you can to make the trip as cheap as possible then fail to prepare, blaming the weather or conditions for failure.
You and your partner need to mean business whilst climbing, it’s no good one or both of you being negative. Start handling the rack, ropes and climb with a sense of urgency. C’mon, speed up. You’re not on holiday now you know.
AMI member Mark “Baggy” Richards has been climbing in the Alps since 1980. He holds the MIC, is an AMI committee member and formally worked for Plas y Brenin.
This issue the climbing expert is Steve Long - British Mountain Guide, MIC holder and founding member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors (AMI).
Q. What rock grade should I be able to move fast on?
A. The simple answer is the grade of the route you plan to climb! But there’s more to it than that. Practice linking multiple mountain routes together to simulate the scale of an alpine climb - see what grade you can move fast on, and still have something in reserve for the crux pitch.
Q. How do I know when to move together?
A. Moving together is a way of climbing fast without pitching and is a dark art to Brits. Good communication and trust are essential, you and your partner need to vary the ropework according to your ability, the level of the climbing and your acceptance of risk. At the fastest end of the spectrum you’ll both move together with a short length of rope between you, using the occasional solid spike or boulder as a quick direct belay for the occasional awkward step. At the slow end of the scale you’ll be pitching the route in a UK style. Somewhere in between you’ll pay out maybe a third of the rope and move together with the leader placing fast runners, and then regrouping once all the gear has been deployed.
Q. What are your fave lightweight items?
A. Photocopy the route and descent description. Use Blizzard bags for the best value warmth to weight ratio. For simple brews the Jetboil style of stove is fantastic. And if you must carry an axe then get one with a light shaft but steel head if it’s only for easy ground. Don’t worry about contradictory advice, experiment on non-committing climbs and decide for yourself. For example, personally I prefer to use a simple water bottle - they cost nothing, are very light, less prone to freezing and don’t have that stupid mouthpiece that comes off and wastes all your water over your spare clothes. My favourite item though is a luxury - I carry a light waterproof camera on a neck sling. It’s the work of a moment to grab a photo or some video and the memories are priceless.
Q. Should I climb in big boots to save weight?
A. This is about speed, not weight. Wear mountaineering boots when they are faster (on routes with lots of snow or mixed climbing, or climbing that is mostly below grade III). Otherwise, change into rock shoes. I climbed the Walker Spur in dry conditions on a busy day and out of all the people I met on the route, I was the only one climbing in big boots.
Q. What’s the bottom line for moving fast?
A. Teamwork and efficiency. A harmonious and well-prepared team can enjoy the climbing, chill out on the summit and cruise back down, if they communicate well and avoid “faffing”. They will overtake people who rush in between bouts of ferreting around inside a rucksack. In the morning, an organised team can be at the front of any queues for food or toilet facilities. That means getting ready the night before. And the most important tip of all; do your research. Compare guidebooks and seek advice. The hut guardian in particular can be a mine of information - if handled diplomatically!
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