Articles - Alpine Climber: Difficile & Beyond. Chapter 2 - On the route
by Martin Moran and Bruce Goodlad
Weight–saving tips and limitations
A lightweight ethic allows for more enjoyable as well as faster Alpine climbing, but it can be taken to extremes with serious consequences. Nearly all D routes should be completed without a bivouac, but a sufficiency of clothing and requirements in event of emergency must be carefully considered. If your emergency planning consists solely of a mobile phone and helicopter rescue insurance, just pray you don’t get trapped by a storm high on Mont Blanc. Some tips:
a A single nylon group shelter offers the most effective emergency protection for a party, being lighter and warmer than taking individual bivouac bags
b A single 60m rope (such as the 8.9mm Mammut Serenity) will suffice for most D routes involving abseils, rather than two 50m double ropes, saving over a kilogram of dead weight in the sack. Most abseil points are 25 or 30m apart at maximum.
c Liquid requirements - do you really need to take 3 litres of water on the days route? Every litre is 1kg of load! Try to trim your liquid requirements to 1 1⁄2 litres max.
d A super-light short ice axe can suffice on rock routes where no steep snow/ice terrain will be encountered. And do all members of a team need to carry ice hammers just for a couple of pitches of steeper ice to gain a rock ridge? At D standard you should be more than capable of seconding a bit of 55° snow/ice with one axe.
e Make all your runner extenders and long slings out of expendable knotted 7mm cord or 8mm tape, which can then be used as ‘tat’ for abseil retreat or descent.
Hazard evaluation - prioritising the risk factors
You’ve read the textbooks and now you are on your own on a real D route. Your mind is bursting with technical information, conflicting ideas of where to go, how to rope-up or belay and what is likely to fall on one’s head. At this higher Alpine standard there seems to be an endless array of hazards, pitfalls and judgements.
The answer to this nightmare is to simplify. Clear your mind of all unnecessary clutter and at each phase of the day prioritise the critical risk factors and key needs of the moment. Focus solely on these and progress will be smooth and safe. Let’s do a typical summer Alpine route, for example the North Buttress of the Aiguille du Chardonnet, a mixed D- route with tricky AD descent.
1 You leave the hut at 2am – the night is warm but there’s a frozen crust on the snow that is bearing your weight. Sense the danger – if you are too slow getting up the route you’ll be mired knee-deep in slush by the middle of the day and could even face avalanche risk. Your priority? Speed. Push your fitness to get quickly over the Tour Glacier to the base and minimise belaying to make maximum use of the conditions. This may mean soloing or moving together on easier parts of the route where you might otherwise belay.
2 An hour after dawn you are climbing the upper snow spur on a shortrope without belays – the need for speed is still essential. Suddenly the snow thins, your crampons hit brick-hard ice, you don’t feel so secure. The angle is over 50° – you MUST belay. Put some ice screws in and switch to pitched climbing. Security is now the sole priority. The time factor is irrelevant if you don’t live to reach the summit!
3 11am; you’ve lost an hour to the ice pitches and the snow is mushy on descent of the West Ridge. Thoughts are drifting towards the cold beer you’ll sink back at the Albert Premier Hut. Your mate goes down first and fixes the odd running belay. There are 15m of slack rope between you. As you plough down facing in, some steps give way, others bottom on to ice. This scabby ground steepens to 50°. It is tempting to continue downclimbing this stuff but a slip could be disastrous. Don’t prolong the risk; stop, sacrifice some slings and make a couple of abseils. It seems such a nuisance when safety is so close, but at this stage of the day time is no longer important. That beer can wait!
Don't miss Chapter Three in the supplement, which outlines some simple tips for quicker, safer Alpine climbing.
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