Articles - Expedition Climber: Getting started in Mountaineering.
Summit ridge of Breithorn (4164m) Photo: Peter Vesterskov
Tom Briggs - Posted on 26 Feb 2009
Most courses begin with an initial day of glacier instruction, covering the basics of ice axe and crampon technique. You can then climb to a mountain hut and learn the rope work skills required for glacier travel, before an ascent to an Alpine summit. A week-long course would typically progress with more technical rope work instruction, crevasse rescue techniques and a valley-based rock skills day. You would then move onto technically harder and longer mountain days. Along the way you could expect to learn about conditions in the mountains, route finding and navigation, choosing the right clothing and equipment, as well as short roping techniques for efficient movement on rock, snow and ice.
Of the many popular valley bases in the Alps, Arolla in Switzerland is an excellent choice for a first taste of alpine mountaineering. There are a variety of ‘introductory level’ peaks, which are not as big or committing as in some other areas. There are no cable cars or trains in Arolla, so you have to walk to the mountain huts, but it’s quieter than, for example, Chamonix and is an ideal place to start out on your big mountain career.
Alpine guides.Most of the guides working in the Alps are extremely familiar with the classic routes and have built up a vast wealth of knowledge and experience of the mountains. They know what to do and when to do it, in order to take best advantage of the conditions. Expect to learn a lot in a wee k and feel confident about being able to use these skills on bigger peaks, or in your own personal alpine mountaineering.
Possible mountain routes.Pointe de Vouassan (3489m)
This is a good, introductory summit reached from the Aigulles Rouges Hut. The voie normale via the left bank of the Aiguilles Rouges glacier valley (F) is an excellent climb for alpine novices on glaciated terrain, with a rocky summit.
Pigne d'Arolla (3796m)
The ESE flank of the Pigne d'Arolla is climbed from the Vignettes Hut and is on snow all the way. The summit gives wonderful views across the Alps and on a clear day, of the Mediterranean.
L'Eveque is an elegant snow and rock peak, which is best approached from the Vignettes Hut. The NE ridge (PD) is a popular objective. From the Glacier du Mont Collon, the standard route weaves around crevasses to reach the north flank of the mountain. This face is an attractive sight from The Vignettes Hut as it catches the evening sun. There can be some icy sections to eventually reach the rocky summit. A couple of ‘scrambling’ pitches lead to the summit, with superb views east towards the Matterhorn.
Mont Blanc (4807m)
Western Europe's highest mountain is a realistic objective if you’ve already spent a week getting fit, acclimatised and up to speed with alpine mountaineering techniques. The Goûter Route is the most popular route on the mountain, being technically the easiest and more objectively safe than the North East Ridge from the Col du Midi. Most people stay at either the Goûter Hut or the Tête Rousse on the way up, and either hut on the way down. The scary part of the climb is the notorious Grand Couloir, which you need to cross quickly en route to the Goûter Hut. There is frequent stone fall down the couloir so it’s not a place to dawdle. Storms are a common occurrence on Mont Blanc. If you’re climbing without a Guide make sure you check the Météo forecast before going on the mountain, talk to the Hut Guardian and Guides in the hut, and exercise extreme caution if it looks as though the weather is on the turn.
In the mountains, Alpine huts vary from multi-storey buildings with private rooms, to ones that have communal sleeping rooms with bunk beds or one very large sleeping platform. You will be provided with blankets and a pillow and need to bring along a sheet sleeping bag (a silk one is light weight). Also bring your earplugs! In addition to the dining room, most huts have basic facilities such as a washroom and drying facilities. The hut warden cooks the meals. Hot water costs extra and it’s a good idea to bring along your own tea bags, coffee, sugar and dried milk to make up a flask.
Get up early
Sloshing around in soft snow on the glacier in the late afternoon is not much fun. Nor is the sound of falling rocks as the sun heats the slope above you. Check guidebook times, speak to the hut warden and start out early. Normally the warden will give you a wake up call depending on what route you are planning to do. If the approach looks tricky, it might be worth checking it out the day before, so that you can make more sense of it in the dark. Organise your gear inside the hut so that you know where everything is and can make a quick getaway.
An easy trap to fall into is to have a specific route or peak in mind, even before you travel out to the Alps. The Matterhorn is a classic example. If it’s recently snowed, don’t expect to be able to get on it for several days after sunny weather. Think positively – it might be that an opportunity presents itself that you hadn’t previously considered.
From the horses mouth.“After weeks of unsettled weather in the Alps, we arrived in Arolla to brilliant sunshine and the stunning setting of Hotel Mont Collon. Sunday consisted of ensuring everyone was secure on their feet, with a walk through the mountains to the glacier. Moving in crampons across the glacier without tearing through gaiters was the main order of the day and (nearly) everyone completed it without having to reach for the sewing kit and super glue! The next day we were off for our first night in a hut with a gentle walk through the morning to arrive mid-afternoon to a welcome and steaming bowl of pottage de cultivateur, soon to become a tour delicacy. We were off next morning at 5am to attempt the day's peak and continue the acclimatisation programme. Everyone summited in beautiful conditions, with stunning views of the Matterhorn, Bernese Oberland and Mont Blanc. On the way down, the learning continued with lessons in both crevasse rescue and accurate snow ball throwing.”
For a lot of Alpine climbs you need very little equipment and the ‘light and fast’ approach makes perfect sense. Forget heavy outer shells, as you will be too hot and sweaty wearing them. Breathable, stretchy and windproof Schoeller and soft shell style fabrics are better and can be coupled with a lightweight shell, if it looks like there may be afternoon rain storms. Mont Blanc however can be extremely cold and you should not underestimate how many layers you will need, as well as warm gloves and boots.
• ‘B3’ rated Alpine mountaineering boots eg, Scarpa Cumbre (Code: 310133) or Scarpa Freney XT GTX Duratherm
• Shortie style gaiters, eg. Rab Hispar Gaiters (Code: 340497)
• Schoeller trousers
• Softshell jacket e.g. Rab Vapour-Rise Trail (Code: 160892)
• Lightweight hard shell jacket e.g. Rab Latok Alpine Jacket (Code: 120039) and over trousers
• Rab Generator Vest (Code: 150348) or lightweight synthetic jacket, e.g. Berghaus Ignite Light
(Code: 150338 -– men’s, or 150341 -–women’s)
• Floppy sun hats with neck guard or wide brimmed hat with buff (Outdoor Research)
• Grivel G12 Newmatic AB Crampons (Code: 510934)
• 30 - 40L pack. Don’t be tempted to take anything bigger than this!
e.g. Osprey Mutant 38 (Code: 390713)
• Leki Carbonlite walking poles (Code: 340185)
• Grivel Air Tech axe (Code: 510937)
• Petzl Tikka XP (Code: 620240)
• Petzl Elios helmet (Code: 510739)
• Black Diamond Bod harness (Code: 510562)
• Black Diamond ATC Guide belay/abseil device (Code: 511262)
*Cotswold Outdoor product codes are shown in brackets for stocked items. Got to cotswoldoutdoor.com
Part two: Mera Peak