French style: moving quickly in the Alps

Posted by Rich Cross on 07/05/2003
When there's a storm brewing, you need to be able to move fast.

So how do the French move so fast? Top tips for avoiding unplanned bivvies this summer, by Rich Cross.

The tiny speck you’ve been casually observing on the glacier below is suddenly grappling for space on your belay ledge. He’s treading on your ropes, having a quick smoke whilst he takes in through his magic plate, and you just know that in a minute or two he’s gonna overtake…without even saying s’il vous plait?. Déjà vu?

Traditionally the average Brit has had a rough deal in the Alps, being thought of by the continentals as slow and inept. In part this may be true, Brits who are technically very good on home ground can find it hard to adjust from the belt and braces approach to the alpine ‘risk management’ techniques. The skills for moving safely but quickly in the Alps don’t come overnight, but there are a few tips and techniques that can help:

>Be fit
It goes without saying that fitness and acclimatisation are essential for efficient mountain travel. Training in the UK to make the most of your trip should focus on cardiovascular as well as specific climbing fitness. Training can continue into the trip by indulging in some backbreaking hut walks (compulsory in Switzerland!), which can also save cash en-route to a climb. But once you are back in shape exploiting cable cars will put you at the bottom of your chosen route feeling fit and fresh, if a little guilty, rather than virtuous but knackered. Acclimatisation is a complex issue and always needs to be dealt with sensibly to avoid debilitation/death. A gradual build-up at the start of any trip with a couple of nights spent sleeping high in huts will help greatly. Even at modest elevations an unacclimatised party can be severely hindered, so don’t be blasé.

> Have knowledge
In the mountains knowledge is power. Gather as much information about your climb from as many different sources as possible. English guidebooks can often be outdated as glacial activity and rock falls alter the state of both routes and approaches. Try local guidebooks, magazine articles, other climbers, local guides offices, and web discussion forums. Armed with confidence you can now carry the correct gear, anticipate the line and conditions, and so travel faster.

> Light is right
Other than accessible beta, the other biggest aid to the modern climber is lightweight gear. In the Alps light is usually right, and you’ll have the satisfaction and efficiency of movement that comes from a simple approach. Weight can be shaved from every part of your kit, from wire gate karabiners to light leather mountain boots and polystyrene helmets. One of the easiest weight savings to make is by having a light rucksack and waterproofs. Bearing in mind you’ll usually be climbing on a “Beau Temps” forecast, leave the Scottish body armour at home. Shop around for lightweight breathable coatings or Paclite Goretex for good emergency protection.

> Have a plan
Think carefully about your logistics and have a clear-sighted plan for every outing. Include timings, approach, descent and what you need to take etc, but temper your plans with realism. Only by climbing inside your technical limits will you be able to travel efficiently and safely. Conversely, being overly cautious and bringing bivvy gear ‘just in case’, will almost certainly result in you using it. As ever, the harder and more committing the climb, the finer the line you will have to tread, and the more pure judgment and experience will come into play.

> Climb harder
Sorry but it’s true. The single biggest aid to speed is pure fluid climbing ability. Anyone can learn all the tricks in alpinism, but the fastest are usually also the most technically gifted. So if you want to improve, train harder, try harder and get out more.

> Time’s ticking
Think about time management down to the last detail to reduce dead time on the stance. When on pitched ground everything needs to be done whilst belaying, including eating, drinking, and looking at the topo. Using a self-locking magic plate means you can take your hands off the rope to achieve this whilst still safely belaying the second.

> Use your strengths
Always play to the strengths within your partnership. Plan ahead and try to make sure people lead on the ground that suits them best. This is especially important on mixed routes that may involve several different styles of climbing. Maximise the combined skill of the team to keep movement fluid.

> Block leads
On long pitched routes consider block leading. This technique is very popular in places like Yosemite, and involves one person leading four or five pitches consecutively before the second takes over. This way the climb can be broken down into a number of blocks, which can offer many advantages:

• Psychologically, four or five blocks can be easier to deal with than the thought of 25 swung leads.
• The leader can get fully psyched or ‘into the zone’ for their block.
• The second can chill out and rest for a couple of hours at a time.
• The leader can study and get mentally prepared for the next pitch above, which can help to speed up route finding.
• No one is sat on a belay ledge for too long, so you stay warmer and don’t stiffen up.
• If little gear is placed on a pitch the changeovers are very fast, as the second only has to pass back the gear they extracted rather than swapping an entire rack.

> Changeovers
Keep belay changeovers speedy and efficient. Three minutes saved on every belay will save an hour over 20 pitches - easily the difference between beers in the valley or a night sitting on your rope! An efficient racking system really helps here, and bandoliers can be useful for swapping things like quickdraws. Rope management is crucial and if leading in blocks the ropes will need to be restacked so the leader’s ends come from the top of the pile again. With a little practice (and again with the help of a magic plate) you can start to restack the ropes once your second is 5-10m below you. When they arrive the bulk of the rope will be organised with just the bottom 5-10m lying the wrong way up in a separate pile. Try it out, but don’t forget to take in on your poor mate!

> Move together
Develop the all-important but often misunderstood skill of moving together. This is a technique that improves greatly with experience, so practice on easy climbs in the UK. Your ability and confidence will dictate the standard of ground you are prepared to move together on, and the nature of the terrain will dictate the length of rope between each climber. Remember that it’s all about compromise, you can never be 100% safe - the idea is that you should be safer than when soloing, but faster than when pitching. The trick is knowing when to swap to this technique from pitched climbing, and managing to do so efficiently and without tangles.

> Simul-climb
The ultimate moving together skill, “simul-climbing” involves moving with most of the rope out on technical ground that would normally be pitched. Prussic devices such as Tiblocks are placed on runners above crux sections to hold the second should they fall and prevent the leader being yanked off! Other runners are placed as sparingly as you dare to conserve the rack and increase the distance you can travel before regrouping. This technique requires lots of practice to perfect, and careful thought in using the Tiblocks to prevent rope damage. Limitations are the size of your rack, rope drag, and your ability to climb confidently without a belay! This is a great thing to practice on ice couloirs with the occasional bulge, as there are no rope drag issues. Simul-climbing has resulted in some awesome speed climbing achievements well documented in the press, and is a great tool to have in your alpine skills box.

> Find your way
Adopt a common sense approach to route finding. Climbers in Britain are very pampered by detailed blow-by-blow route descriptions. Alpine guides may have one small paragraph for a vertical kilometre of climbing, so the incentive is for you to interpret it properly. Use the information to guide you but be prepared to take a step back and ask yourself “if this was my route where would I have gone next?” This often solves route finding problems, but if not don’t be afraid to look round the corner before committing yourself to an uncertainty. Five minutes exploring can save hours of wasted time battling up the wrong line.

> Rope work
Keep it simple. Using plenty of long extenders and twin or single ropes (where appropriate) is cleaner, faster, and prevents those sneaky French guides from threading in between your double ropes! Consider climbing on a full weight rope and carrying a thin line for pulling on abseils (5.5mm dyneema is often used). This is a specialist technique but does have advantages when you have to haul, aid or jumar, and is often used on hardcore mixed routes in the Greater Ranges.

> Take cams
Borrow a technique from Yosemite speed climbers. Carry a good rack of cams on long pitched routes, they are much faster to place and clean on smooth granite than nuts. Also keep a good look out for fixed runners and belays which can be used quickly, but remember, always check pegs and tat!

> Mixed skills
Learn to climb rock quickly and efficiently wearing crampons. For Scottish mixed experts this should be no problem. It is a real skill, but can save hours of fiddling around changing footwear when faced with technical bare rock sections.

> Look after yourself
Make sure you don’t become too tired or lazy to eat and drink properly. Have lots of snacks and fluids easily accessible - camelbaks are good in warm weather - to ensure a steady flow of carbs. Also try to stay cool when climbing to prevent overheating and dehydration, then just add a layer to belay in.

> Speedy rapping
Have a safe and efficient system in place for abseiling - hours can be saved if the descent is slick and quick. Take a cows tail to clip into belay stations quickly, and use an autoblock prussic for safety. Make sure you’re both active all the time, e.g. while one is pulling the ropes, the other can be threading the next anchor. And keep communications simple, some teams use a simple yodel to mean “rope free, come on down”, as it’s easy to distinguish from other teams on the mountain and can still be heard in bad weather.

> Take cover
Remember, no matter how fast you move, you need insurance in the Alps.

> Overtake more
Finally, practice your overtaking skills - and hey - have fun. Since that's the whole point to start with!



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