Starting out in Alpinism
- Tuesday 8th October 2019
The first steps in Alpine terrain can be some of the most exciting, but also potentially dangerous, of any mountaineering career.
Being well-prepared beforehand can help out massively. Here, Dave Evans from Plas y Brenin (National Mountain Sports Centre) highlights a few key areas that often catch folk out on their early Alpine experiences and look at how to avoid the worst of them.
All photography: www.pyb.co.uk
A New Environment
The first major hurdle is understanding that the mountains you want to operate in are very different to those you are already competent in at home in the UK. Simply put, these hills are just a lot bigger. The impact of this is felt in so many ways on your first trips in the Alps. You must get to grips with these differences and respond accordingly, planning your journeys carefully to fit with the scale of the mountains and consequent increase in potential hazard.
Alititude and Acclimatisation
One of the first major differences we feel when heading up high in the Alps is the lack of oxygen in the air relative to what we are used to. This will be felt by most people in some way from about 2,000m upwards. From 3,000m people will usually feel a very noticeable loss in performance unless previously acclimatised. It is generally accepted that climbing high during the day but sleeping low in the evening will help a speedy and efficient acclimatisation process. In an ideal world you would try to increase the altitude you climb to, and sleep at, by around 500m a day from 2,500m upwards. This is made significantly easier in areas with high mechanical uplift systems such as Chamonix or Zermatt. Starting with relatively short, easy days, at higher altitudes, but returning to a lower level at night will also get you warmed up and in tune with the mountains a bit more. If you are in more remote areas without lift systems, try to avoid staying at higher huts straight away, as sleeping at high altitude often presents a fairly uncomfortable proposition when un-acclimatised.
Glacier Travel and Objective Dangers
The Alpine chain is a much younger range of mountains than those at home in the UK and are also still totally under the influence of permanent ice sheets at medium to higher altitudes. Consequently the associated level of hazard associated with travelling amongst these peaks is considerably higher, and to do so safely we must develop a healthy awareness of these.
Safe Travel on Glaciers: The Hazards presented by travelling around/crossing crevasses and bergschrunds are fairly obvious but the skills required to manage these safely are a little more complex. Generally speaking, when travelling on glaciated terrain, all members of the party should be tied on to the rope, evenly spaced along it. The more people on the rope the better, as there is greater ballast to hold the weight of someone going through into a crevasse. When climbing as a pair you should aim to have at least 20m of rope between you to make sure you are a safe distance apart if someone goes in. Shortening the rope is discussed a little later in the article.
Crevasse Rescue Skills: The presence of the rope alone is not going to get someone out of a crevasse, so all members of the team need to be proficient in the skills of prusiking up a rope and setting up a hoisting system from ice screws or a buried ice-axe belay. These skills need to be fully practised before any Alpine trip, particularly if you haven’t looked at them for a while.
Wet v Dry Glaciers: Travelling on a snow-covered glacier is a very different thing to one that is stripped of all fresh snow. Route choice and decision making becomes significantly more difficult when a glacier is well-buried unless, as is more common in winter, the crevasses are mostly filled in. Often mountaineers are at greatest risk of breaking through during a stormy period after a dry spell, when crevasses are merely superficially covered. A good understanding of prevailing mountain conditions is, therefore, important when undertaking any tricky journey in the Alps. Information about the condition of specific glaciers is normally available from local guides' offices or hut guardians throughout Europe.
Time of Day/Solar Heating: Most people go to the Alps during their summer holidays, certainly for their first few experiences. This is logical to an extent as the days are longer, weather often kinder, and temperatures not so low. This does present its own set of problems in the big mountains, however. It has been standard practice in the Alps to start your days very early and finish by late lunch time throughout the history of the activity. This is not without good reason, as the mountains are significantly less stable than those in the UK and any rise in air temperature caused by solar radiation will make the likelihood of rockfall increase massively, as ice bonding loose rock together begins to thaw. This issue may have an impact on route choice as in the middle of the summer these days there are periods when it is barely freezing in the middle of the night at 4,000m.
Snow and Avalanche: It is still important, even in the summer season, to be aware of the ever present potential for the development of wind-slab at higher altitudes. A thorough understanding of snow stability and safe travel are as important there as in Scotland in winter.
As already mentioned these mountains are on a much larger scale to any of our summits at home, and consequently they need to be broken down into chunks. There are a few areas where it is possible to do substantial summits in a day from the top of a ski lift, but throughout most of the Alpine chain, journeys are facilitated by the use of huts. They have become an integral part of mountaineering culture in Europe, some hut guardians becoming as famous as the mountains surrounding them. It is an interesting observation that many Brits prefer to camp or bivouac to save money on their first forays into the Alps, which ironically removes a pretty big part of the assisted learning process accessible to all who stay in huts, and take notice of what is going on around them. The Guardians who run Alpine huts generally have very extensive knowledge of their region, many of them being former mountain guides, some of them well-known climbers. This means they are a fantastic resource of knowledge on current mountain conditions and routes. The other way of accessing information in huts is to listen to and chat to Guides and climbers that are going to similar places to you and find out their thoughts. Most will be happy to talk about their plans.
Hut Etiquette: It is very important to remember that there are certain protocols associated with staying in huts. You will generally be put in a room with people going to similar places to you, so you will all be getting up at the same time. Making loads of noise and waking everyone up is generally not appreciated. Also you will have blankets on your bed, but will be expected to bring a little silk sleeping bag liner with you to keep everything cleaner. You will also be expected to fold your blankets and leave the place as you found it when you leave. Generally it is advisable to take some earplugs as you will normally be in a dorm with a lot of other mountaineers and associated noises.
Prices: Generally in the region of 60 to 80 euros including dinner and breakfast and 30 to 40 euros if you choose to stay in the hut but take your own food. Another option is to eat in the hut on your way past in the evening but continue to bivouac some distance up the hill. It is generally poor form to bivvy anywhere near the hut and you may well get moved on. This does reduce the length of your day but you have to leave a nice warm hut and get in your sleeping bag outside. It is also worth remembering that you can walk up and stay in a hut in poor weather and get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the perfect weather window, which would be unpleasant in your bivvy bag.
Start Time and Journey Time
Most people find it pretty shocking getting used to the times you have to start climbing in the Alps. This is hopefully now an obvious tactic to avoid the hazards of solar radiation as mentioned above. Getting down earlier means less exposure to the increased risk of rockfall, and minimises the likelihood of falling through any snowbridges crossing large crevasses. The impact of the additional hazards of heat exhaustion and sunburn are also minimised, so it’s not unusual for folk to start Alpine routes between 2am and 4am and generally trying to be down by lunchtime. It is very important to remember what you are dealing with on a big Alpine day. It is entirely possible you will be climbing more than 1,000m and will generally be aiming to then descend all the way to the valley in the same afternoon. All in all this is a large undertaking and requires a high level of fitness and general endurance.
Alpine Ropework, Moving Together
Possibly one of the most misunderstood aspects of Alpinism, and potentially misused, is the dark art of moving together. As we have established when climbing in the Alps you are very much against the sun’s clock and, as such, are always striving to save time in the day. Efficiency is the key here and knowing when to stop the pitched climbing, shorten the rope and move simultaneously with your partner is crucial for covering long stretches of moderate ground quickly, but still with an appropriate level of safety.
Shortening the Rope: Having an efficient system for taking coils of rope around your body and tying them off appropriately, is critical, and one that can be easily practised at home. Generally when moving together on more moderate terrain you would aim to have around 20-30m of rope between you and always have a minimum of two or three pieces of protection. The length of rope out would depend on the nature of the ground, the steeper and more technical the greater length of rope. The decision of when to stop, place a belay and start pitched climbing is, of course, down to the leader of the team. When you are moving well and getting these decisions right it feels amazingly satisfying. If you are getting it wrong it can feel very laborious or very dangerous. Remember all members of the team need to have plenty in hand when moving together to avoid unnecessary risk to everyone.
Prior Preparation and Training
As mentioned above, the days you will be undertaking are generally bigger than most in the UK which, when combined with the effects of altitude, normally give new Alpinists a bit of a rude awakening. It really helps to be fit for the hills before you get out to Europe, so you can maximise the opportunities when on your trip. The more uphill work you can do the better really. Any amount of walking, running and cycling will help, but there is no preparation like getting a rucksack on and going uphill as much as possible. It also really helps if you are in tune with the mountains, so going out in the UK scrambling and rock-climbing as much as you can will prove very useful. Going out on large mountain crags and moving together over moderate terrain where you might normally be reasonably happy without a rope, but doing it efficiently, can help a lot when it comes to moving on an Alpine ridge.
Nutrition/Hydration Issues: It is worth remembering that the temperatures/altitudes and length of days will take it out of you more than your average British mountain day and staying on top of eating the right things and drinking plenty of fluid (contrary to popular belief that doesn’t mean litres of hut wine) will really pay dividends. Loads of easily digested slow release carbs such as flapjack or cereal bars and loads of water are key here.
Route Choice and Progression
It is so important when starting out in the Alps to go to the right mountain areas and choose the right routes. You have to take current prevailing conditions into account when picking a venue but doing your research and going to areas that are reasonably well-travelled and where information will be easily accessible to you, will make your life a lot easier. There are many inspiring but less popular areas of the Alps but it may be better to leave these for when you have gained some experience and will be less reliant on other people for info.
It is also vital to remember that the difficulty of route finding is so much greater on an 800m route than an 80m one. Often in an Alpine guidebook you will get the same amount of text to describe the 800m route as the 80m one in a British rock-climbing guide. You have to develop a certain ability at reading the terrain ahead and a feel for the line is on a much larger scale. It may well be advisable to choose a non-glaciated rock-climbing route to start off with and build up through your trip to the additional complications of tricky glacial approaches.
It is also sometimes tricky to accept the difference in how difficult a pitch, that you think should be easy, will feel at the end of a long day, with a big bag on your back, dehydrated and tired. You need to factor that into your choice of route early in your career, it being much nicer to be surprised by how quickly you get up something, rather than taking miles longer than expected and either making it down by the skin of your teeth or having to make an unplanned bivvy high on a mountain.
Like most things, it is way better in the Alps to build up reasonably gradually and learn as you go. This approach will lead to good development of skills at an appropriate rate and minimise the volume of epics experienced. Always remember you must have a flexible plan in mind when heading out to the big mountains and adapt it to the mountain conditions and the ability of the team.
Weather Issues: Remember when planning a mountain journey that the weather will always dictate what is appropriate at a certain time. No matter how much you want to climb your next big mountain, if the weather is no good up high you will not be going up it. It is particularly important to remember that if you are a well-travelled Scottish mountaineer, where we develop a strong ability to tough out poor weather in Scotland in the winter and still get routes climbed, it is different in the Alps. The mountains are so much bigger and more serious that trying things in poor weather will be potentially much more hazardous than in the UK.
Further Considerations and Survival Tips
Alpine climbing is a game of experience and patience. It is really important to remember that when the guys next to you on the camp site keep coming back with tales of massive routes climbed and success on every trip up high, that they have been at it for years and have the knowledge and judgement to go to the right places and do the right things, at just the right level for them. They know what that level is too. Be really careful when teaming up with folk you don’t know in the valley and make sure you always choose a route well within your relative abilities first. Getting over-excited and ending up in a situation neither of you knows how to get out of could be a great learning experience if you get away with it but could also be a total catastrophe
It is always worth bearing in mind the cost of lifts in the popular areas when planning your trip at home. It is so easy to keep looking at the access lifts like the Aiguille du Midi and Grands Montets give you above Chamonix, but don’t forget that the Midi is 57 euros return this year, which is a pretty hefty bill on a tight budget for one trip up the hill, before factoring any accommodation or food in to the equation. There ARE other good regions of the Alps to start out in other than Chamonix. It is very popular, largely because of the amazing mountains, but also because of the almost total lack of need to speak any language other than English. There is also so much information easily available on current mountain conditions and detailed mountain weather forecasts. You could also try Arolla in Switzerland, which has a huge amount of relatively easy peaks between 3,000 and 3,800m to get started on, or the Ailefroide valley in the Dauphiné region with some beautiful Alpine summits and some of the best granite climbing in Europe in the valley near the camp site.
Have a Great Time
There is no doubt in my mind that while it is a more challenging, complex environment to climb in, the Alpine regions of the world are also some of the most beautiful places to be. While starting out seems a very daunting prospect, as you progress and learn the tricks of the trade, it becomes a wonderfully involving activity. Moving well as a team in big mountains, making good safe decisions, and having successful trips, is a wonderfully fulfilling branch of climbing… enjoy!
For more information about the training courses that Plas y Brenin provide go to www.pyb.co.uk