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Part 3 of the Beginners Guide to Alpine Mountaineering deals with huts, mountaineering gear and trip planning.


A Beginner's Guide to Alpine Mountaineering – Part 3

Part 3 of Rob Collister guide to alpine mountaineering looks at mountain huts, gear for Alpine mountaineering and planning your trip.

If you've missed Part 1 (Alpine scale, altitude, weather and descents) and Part 2 (Glaciers and avalanches) go back there now.

Mountain huts in the Alps
alpine hutMost routes take two days. The first is spent walking up to a hut, which need not be the Purgatory which it is often painted if you take your time and keep your eyes open for chamois, marmots and birds of prey, or sit down to examine the miniature world of bright colour and delicate shape of the flowers you are walking through; not to mention the wild strawberries, raspberries and bilberries you can find to eat.

The second day is the long one, starting early, climbing to a summit, descending to a hut and probably continuing to the valley. An economical use of energy is to do two or three routes from the same hut before returning to the valley ready to appreciate simple luxuries like a wash, clean clothes and fresh food; on the other hand, there is something more satisfying in traversing a mountain and descending to a new valley or a different hut.

swiss hutHuts are not as spartan as the name suggests. True, accommodation is in large communal bunks and sheets are not provided with the blankets, but now huts are supplied by helicopters rather than porters, meals, beers and wines are no more expensive than in restaurants lower down. If you are a member of an alpine club with reciprocal rights or have the BMC reciprocal rights card, you are eligible for half-price. Whether you get your money's worth depends on how many nights you spend in huts. The cheapest option is to take your own stove and cook in the room set aside for self-catering, though this is not permitted in Switzerland. A good compromise, avoiding the expense of buying meals, but saving the weight of stove and pot, is to take your own food and give it to the guardian to cook for a small charge; or you can simply buy hot water and subsist on cuppa-soups, bread, cheese and plenty of brews.

Unfortunately, many huts are hideously crowded during July and August. There is nothing new in this. In the Badminton Library volume on Mountaineering, C T Dent wrote in 1892, 'For those not afraid of solitude there is a great charm to be found in a stay at one of these huts'. But Raeburn, writing in 1920, commented 'Those who go in August nowadays will find this rather sarcastic; the "solitude" is of much the same nature as that enjoyed by the sardine in its tin'. Since Raeburn's day, many new huts have been built, and existing ones enlarged so that some are intended to hold two hundred people. But the number of climbers has increased also. It is not uncommon at popular huts to find yourself sleeping on the floor or a table, and lovers of solitude would be better off in the North of Scotland.

An alternative to the huts
In good weather, I would always choose to bivouac. You don't have to have a Goretex bivi bag to be comfortable. You can work wonders with overhung boulders and dry-stone walling, and a poly sheet and bits of string can provide shelter without the condensation of a poly-bag. A few minutes with an ice-axe will level and smooth the most uncompromising of sites. Admittedly, it means more to carry, but if you return the same way, bivi gear can be left under a boulder rather as early lady climbers used to hide their skirts. To arrive with plenty of time to find a site that is both comfortable and safe, to cook in the warmth of the evening sun, and to watch the day fade and the stars come out from the warmth of your sleeping bag is a facet of the Alps totally missed in the clamour of a hut.

Planning ahead
Whether you bivouac or stay in a hut, it is always worth checking out the path you will be stumbling over sleepily by the light of a head-torch the following morning. It is frustrating to say the least to waste time gained by an early start blundering about in the dark looking for the right way onto the glacier or to the foot of your climb. Time spent in reconnaissance, as they say in the military, is seldom wasted.

Gear for alpine mountaineering
If you are to climb rapidly for a long time, the last thing you want is a heavy rucksack on your back. Terray, in Conquistadores of the Useless, describes how he and Lachenal came to recognise that they must carry only what was essential, rather than what might come in handy. Yet one ignores the hazards of high mountains at one's peril. My own feeling is that it is plain foolishness to venture into the mountains with a bothy bag of some sort, and that a little piece of karrimat, carried down the back of a rucksack, is of more insulation value than a down jacket, and far lighter (and cheaper!).

climbingIt is worth, however, having plenty of hill-food – chocolate, dried fruit and so on – and a water-bottle is important. A litre bottle is sufficient, as its main purpose is to reduce discomfort. You are bound to become dehydrated during the day, but determined drinking at night is the answer to that, not a gallon of water on your back. As you get fitter, the parched mouth and craving for liquid will decrease.

Clothing can seem a problem since it is bitterly cold before dawn and liable to be extremely hot during the day. In practice, you warm up very quickly once on the move, even in the early hours, and generally you need to wear less than in Scotland in winter. Longjohns are not necessary, and not worth carrying in reserve, either – it is a rare person who is prepared to undress completely to put them on when it gets cold. Better to regard waterproofs, bottoms as well as tops, as an extra insulating layer to wear first thing in the morning, on windy summit ridges or when the weather breaks.

Fingerless mitts are useful, not just for rock-climbing in cold conditions, but for wearing under mitts to fiddle with crampon straps, cameras and so on; they are better value than finger gloves, which wear out at the tips in no time, unless they are made of windstopper fleece.

As for hardware, it is not worth the extra weight of a hammer, except for specific ice-routes; most rock routes are littered with pegs or bolts and most climbs are easily protected with chocks. In fact, on routes up to Difficile, plenty of long tape slings and three or four rocks on wire are ample. However, it will be an unusual climb on which you can dispense with axe and crampons. (For an explanation of the Continental grading system see the introduction of any guide book.)

Planning an alpine mountaineering trip
The highest and most heavily glaciated region is that known as the Western Alps, and roughly comprises the Mont Blanc massif on the French-Italian border, the Pennine Alps on the South side of the Rhone Valley, spanning the Swiss-Italian border, and the Bernese Oberland to the North of the Rhone Valley which is totally in Switzerland. As you travel South and East the weather tends to improve and the mountains become rockier, till you reach the Julian Alps in Yugoslavia, the Maritime Alps in France, or the Dolomites in Italy, all of which are unglaciated.

Thinking beyond Chamonix
It is a sad fact, but true, that for most British climbers the Alps means Chamonix. Yet the Alps is a huge and diverse area with several other major centres, and full of charming valleys to explore and small villages from which to climb. I strongly recommend that you do not go to Chamonix for your first season. True, the climbing is magnificent and justly famous, but there are many more suitable places in which to start – Kandersteg, Arolla, the Bernina, the Otztal, the Ecrins to name but a few – and Chamonix, alas is a 'scene'. There is nothing new in this. Even in the Thirties, Shipton hated the 'fevered competition' the place engendered. In such an atmosphere, it is all too likely that the tyro will be enticed onto a route too hard for him or her (not technically, perhaps but in terms of length and seriousness), or will become demoralized by the epic replays and big talk in the bar, and never leave the valley.

Climbing at the right grade
Apprenticeship is not a popular concept when you can be climbing the upper E grades within months, or even weeks, or starting to climb. But an understanding of high mountains, be it conscious or intuitive, does take longer to acquire, and there is much to be said for not attempting anything harder than AD Assez Difficile, (fairly difficult) in your first season, whatever your grade on rock.

A familiarity with snow is invaluable, too; and I mean snow, not vertical water-ice! The traditional progression from English or Welsh rock, to Scottish snow and ice, to alpine mixed climbing, makes a lot of sense. The best way to start is with a friend who already has two or three seasons experience. Failing that, it is worth considering a course. A glance at the ads in any of the magazines will show that there are plenty to choose from. Any employing British Mountain Guides, recognised internally, will be professionally run and good value. I don't advise teaching yourself and learning the hard way, however laudable that may seem in theory. Mistakes are too likely to be fatal. I tried it my first season, and having endured a cold and miserable forced bivouac on my first route, was very nearly killed on the third when an abseil spike broke. I learned lessons I have never forgotten, such as the need to move together and with urgency on easy ground, and to be very cautious of abseils; but I could have learned as much, or more, in safety with someone more experienced.

Finally, do get your BMC insurance. An accident can literally cost a fortune, especially a lengthy stay in a Swiss hospital.

On that cautionary note, 'Bonne Course'.

Text © Rob Collister and travel-quest 2006, all photos © Rob Collister 2006

Rob Collister, a professional Mountain Guide (IFMGA/UIAGM), is available for guiding trips in the Alps, including glacier journeys, introductions to Alpine climbing, classic climbs and more serious one-to-one Alpine ascents.