Alpine skills: how to speed up

Posted by Baggy Richards on 10/07/2015

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?

Kit
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.

Guidebooks
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.

Fitness
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.

Efficiency
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
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.

Hydration
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.

Attitude
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. 

EXPERT Q&A

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!

BUY: BMC Alpine Essentials DVD

Packed with information and advice on all the skills and techniques necessary for alpine climbing. Buy from the BMC shop.

WATCH: the BMC Alpine Essentials DVD trailer on BMC TV:

WATCH: Explore the Alps with the Conville Trust on BMC TV:

WATCH: This is fast! Ueli Steck soloes the Grand Jorasse on BMC TV

 



« Back

Post a comment Print this article

This article has been read 21030 times

TAGS

Click on the tags to explore more

LINKS

AMI

RELATED ARTICLES

Climb skills: how to find your alpine moment
0
Climb skills: how to find your alpine moment

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.
Read more »

Tech skills: gear for alpine rock
0
Tech skills: gear for alpine rock

The meteo says “beau temps” for the next few days, and the sun is shining. You’re psyched and ready to leave the campsite to get your teeth into some real alpine rock. But in the alpine playground speed is king, so make sure you’re travelling light with the right kit.
Read more »

We've Summit Extra for you: new free alpine edition
2
We've Summit Extra for you: new free alpine edition

Dreaming of alpine adventures? Get a digital dose of mountain inspiration, injected straight to your tablet or phone with our new Summit Extra: Alpine Edition.
Read more »

Post a Comment
Posting as Anonymous Community Standards
3000 characters remaining
Submit
Your comment has been posted below, click here to view it
Comments are currently on | Turn off comments
1
1) Anonymous User
09/08/2014
Some good advice, but maybe a little too general on the equipment side? Rather than state that kit needs to lighter and less of it, you could have provided your own kit list with essential and (a few) optional items.

RELATED ARTICLES

Climb skills: how to find your alpine moment
0

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.
Read more »

Tech skills: gear for alpine rock
0

The meteo says “beau temps” for the next few days, and the sun is shining. You’re psyched and ready to leave the campsite to get your teeth into some real alpine rock. But in the alpine playground speed is king, so make sure you’re travelling light with the right kit.
Read more »

We've Summit Extra for you: new free alpine edition
2

Dreaming of alpine adventures? Get a digital dose of mountain inspiration, injected straight to your tablet or phone with our new Summit Extra: Alpine Edition.
Read more »

BMC MEMBERSHIP
Join 82,000 BMC members and support British climbing, walking and mountaineering. Membership only £15.72.
Read more »
BMC SHOP
Great range of guidebooks, DVDs, books, calendars and maps.
All with discounts for members.
Read more »
TRAVEL INSURANCE
Get covered with BMC Insurance. Our five policies take you from the beach to Everest.
Read more »