Articles - Alpine Climber: Difficile & Beyond. Chapter 1 - Preparing for D routes

by Martin Moran and Bruce Goodlad 

 The second of Climber’s special Alpine supplements moves into the intermediate realm. With growing experience and technical skills you can master long routes of Assez Difficile and then tackle some of the great classics of Difficile standard. Within this bracket are some of the finest ridge and face climbs of the Alps – magnificent testing routes like the Zmutt Ridge of the Matterhorn, Peuterey Ridge of Mont Blanc and traverse of the Grandes Jorasses. To the modern rock climber Difficile rock grades of IV to V (UK 4b-5a) may seem laughably low, but when transposed to long exposed ridges at 4000m altitude they deserve every respect. The routes featured in this supplement count among the finest and hardest climbs established anywhere in the world up to 1930. Modern developments have barely diminished their challenge or reward. In this supplement we aim to give you insight and inspiration into the domain of Difficile with detailed guides to five benchmark routes at the grade. Enjoy, and have a great summer’s climbing!



Preparing for D Routes

What is a Difficile? In the UIAA Alpine grading system the D grade comprises
the following:

  • Steep face climbs on snow and ice up to 60° with possible mixed climbing on icy rock.
  • Seriously exposed and delicate snow ridges of considerable length.
  • Major rock or mixed ridge climbs featuring rock pitches of IV and IV+ with possible short sections of V.

Rock grades of IV/IV+ cover the HS to MVS (4a-4b) bracket. A pitch of grade V rock will be sustained VS (4c-5a) climbing. The typical mixed climbing standard of a D route is Scottish grade II and
III. However, rock sections quickly rise to Scottish IV and V when they are snowed-up. Choosing your first D routes: If the grade definition sounds a little daunting, remember that there is a strong presumption that any route featuring a sustained pitch of grade IV should be graded Difficile and this has led to classification of several ‘soft-touch’ D routes, which are relatively straightforward, other than a single crux pitch. For example, the Kanzelgrat on the Zinalrothorn used to have a fierce reputation because of its grade V crux, yet this 30m section is the only bit of the route to rise above AD in standard. Furthermore, many pure rock routes of grade IV/V, especially those at lower altitudes, are now bolt protected, eliminating both seriousness and route-finding challenge, and yet are still graded D.

An Assez Difficile climber can smooth the transition to D by selection of one or two of these impostors in the grade, before trying the real thing! Remember too, that there is a considerable difference in standard between the subdivisions D- and D+. For a newcomer to the grade a D-, like the Tour Ronde North Face, is a wiser choice than a D+, like the Ober Gabelhorn North Face.

Another smart plan is to select initial D routes on peaks that have an easy way off, so that the complexities of the route are not compounded by an epic descent. Peaks like the Breithorn and Mont Blanc du Tacul are suggested objectives, rather than the Aiguille Verte or Grandes Jorasses.

Finally, length of route does make a big difference, even if much of the climb is straightforward. The Dames Anglaises Ridge on the Aiguille Blanche de Peuterey features no pitch harder than III, yet is one of the most feared and rarely climbed D+ routes in the Mont Blanc range, due to its complex approach and enormous length. Go for shorter routes, until your confidence has grown, before you head off to the South Face of Mont Blanc!



The ability to handle D routes is less a matter of physical fitness and more to do with technical skill and mental fortitude. Many rock climbers who happily go cragging at HVS or sport climbing at 6b would shy off from tackling a big alpine D route. Specific technical skills and mental toughness are best developed on winter mixed routes, where all the challenges of the Alps are replicated, albeit on a smaller scale, but often in far worse weather.

As a comparative guide to Alpine grades let’s take the classic ridges on Ben Nevis:

  • Castle Ridge (III, 4), Alpine grade AD; short crux, otherwise straightforward.
  • Tower Ridge (III/IV, 4), Alpine grade AD+; complex crux section high on the route.
  • North-East Buttress (IV, 4), Alpine grade D-; long sustained and inescapable.
  • Observatory Ridge (IV, 5), Alpine grade D+; technically demanding and capricious.

Failing a Scottish winter session, long mountain rock routes of Hard Severe to HVS standard provide something of the atmosphere of an Alpine D, as well as encouraging the swift fluid movement that is vital in the Alps. A few days spent multipitching on Lliwedd, Cloggy or Scafell will be well repaid once you are on the Chamonix Aiguilles.



Venues for Difficile routes


In Eastern Switzerland the Bregaglia Range offers many superb D  rock routes on peaks of modest altitude – a great training ground without serious glacial terrain. The Bernese Alps have some excellent D ice faces (Blüemlisalp, Äbeni Flue), some monstrous high-level ridges (Lauteraargrat and SE Ridge of the Finsteraarhorn) plus the ultra-classic Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger – a short spectacular D, well-furnished with fixed ropes. Nearly every major peak of the Swiss Valais Alps has a classic D – but the Zmutt on the Matterhorn,

on the Weisshorn and Ferpècle Ridge of the Dent Blanche are extra-special. In the Ecrins massif the traverse of La Meije stands out as one of the greatest expeditions in the Alps, but there are other fine D’s like the traverse of the Sialouze. However, the Mont Blanc massif is the true Mecca for the D climber – with routes of every length and style. The climbing potential of the range really comes into its own for a D climber. Head for Chamonix after a season gaining confidence on AD routes in the Valais Alps of Switzerland, coupled with a spring spent exploring the back-catalogue of VS and HVS cracks on gritstone. You’ll then be ready for the long mixed routes and athletic granite of the Mont Blanc range.



Don't miss Chapter Two in the supplement, which will look at time and weight savings hints for when you're on the route.

If this Alpine Climber series has left you wanting for more, then go to the Alps & Beyond feature library where you'll find a range of other alpine articles.

For overseas insurance covering you for Alpine climbing check out the Climber Marketplace for a variety of options.


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