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Addressed particularly to British climbers and mountain lovers, these articles discuss what to expect from climbing and mountaineering in the Alps – this three part series discusses scale, altitude, mountain weather, descents, glaciers avalanches and more ...


A Beginner's Guide to Alpine Mountaineering – Part 1

Rob Collister, a qualified UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide for thirty years, discusses mountaineering in the Alps from the perspective of the beginner mountaineer / climber, perhaps graduating from experience in Wales, the Lakes or Scotland where a visit to the Alps is the logical next step – the big hills beckon.

Alpine scale
Alpine climbing looks deceptively glamorous in the photos. What disconcerts many British climbers on their first visit to the Alps is the sheer effort involved. The three-hour walk up to a hut with a heavy pack, the need to be on the move before daybreak to ensure good snow conditions or simply sufficient time, and a day which will be a minimum of six hours sustained movement, will often be twelve and, if things go wrong, may be much longer, all combine to make it a strenuous pastime. (On one memorable occasion we left a hut at midnight to return exactly 24 hours later, having been on the move the whole time and, to rub salt in the wound, having failed to complete our route.)

To a large extent physical attributes determine who enjoys the Alps. Some revel in 'the magic of long days', the utter content that comes at the end of an exhausting climb, the rewards in proportion to the effort expended. Others are more suited to the bursts of explosive energy needed in high-standard rock-climbing, and for them the steady rhythm – plod, some would call it – of an alpine climb, holds few attractions. However, whatever type you are, fitness is essential if you are to enjoy an Alpine holiday, and the fitness that comes from hill-walking or running will be of more use than weight training or climbing wall fitness. Even starting from a high hut, the majority of alpine climbs are far longer than anything we have in Britain, and on top of that there is the debilitating effect of altitude.

Altitude is something one can do little to prepare for. It is common to suffer from a headache and loss of appetite the first night in a hut, and unless you want to feel thoroughly miserable you will not choose a 4000m peak for your first route. But most people acclimatise fairly quickly and after a few days it ceases to be a problem. The rate of acclimatisation does vary with individuals, though, and bears to no relation to fitness.

A few unfortunates simply cannot adjust at all to the reduced amount of oxygen available, even at relatively low altitudes. For them Diamox might be the answer. But otherwise, it is better not to tamper with your body's chemistry. I question the trend towards using Diamox as a matter of course on expeditions; it is, after all, using a drug to improve performance which seems a dubious practice, frowned on in most sports.

Mountain weather
Another important factor in the Alps is the weather. In Britain, even in winter, weather is usually just something we put up with. But in the Alps, storms can be so violent that you can move neither up nor down. More commonly, rock-climbs become plastered with snow in minutes, making them desperate, if not impossible. And electric storms, originating as convection clouds over the plains, are common in the afternoons, even in good weather. Few things are more terrifying than being on a high ridge, static electricity buzzing all around, knowing you are a prime candidate for the next lightning strike.

Because routes are long and the weather rarely settled, speed comes to mean safety. It is necessary to forget the casual, laid back approach of British crag-climbing and cultivate a sense of urgency. Not for nothing do the French refer to the start of a climb as 'l'attaque'. Chiefly, this is a frame of mind, a determination to 'get up and go' but technically it is expressed by moving together with a shortened rope and a handful of coils wherever feasible, rather than climbing pitch by pitch. Coils are dropped or taken in to avoid holding each other up, partners keeping a runner between them on exposed ground and taking direct belays around rock spikes to protect one another on anything awkward and moving on with a minimum of fuss or time loss. It is a technique calling for constant vigilance and it is not easy to do well, but it is a skill well worth developing.

Climbing down is another skill we do not practise in Britain. Even when they have made good time on a climb, most British parties will be left behind by Continentals on the descent. It is also the most dangerous part of the day. Rock descents are often down couloirs vulnerable to stone-fall started by other parties, so speed is important. Snow will be soft, but overlying ice, and crampons will be balling up (anti-balling plates are worth their weight in gold here). Just when mind and body want to relax and let go after the tensions of the climb, you have to concentrate harder than ever.

Abseils are particularly dangerous. The weak link is usually the anchor, so commando-style leaps which look impressive but shock-load the anchor are a bad idea. Unless descending an ice slope or a vertical wall, it is worth using a single rope and keeping abseils short. The longer they are, the greater the chance of a loop catching round a spike, or the knot joining the two ropes jamming in a crack. Always test in situ pegs, and preferably back them up for the first person down. Be very suspicious of old abseil slings. Every time a rope is pulled through a sling it burns a groove in it and, in addition, nylon is susceptible to ultra-violet light and deteriorates rapidly at altitude. It makes sense to carry a length of 6mm cord and cut it as and when you need it. It is a good idea to tie a knot in the end of the doubled rope, so there is no chance of sliding off the end of it. If you are the first person down an abseil, belay yourself before coming off the rope, preferably out of the line of fire of rocks dislodged by the rope or your partner. Then pull one end of the rope to make sure it can be retrieved. There is nothing more frustrating, time consuming and potentially expensive than a jammed abseil rope.

Why do it?
No climb is over till you are finally off the glacier. But, to quote Arnold Lunn, who was a keen climber until he broke his leg on Cyfrwy Arete on Cadair Idris and became more interested in skiing, 'No moments are more wholly satisfying than those which follow the safe return to easy ground'.

If I seem to be dwelling on the dangers and discomforts of Alpine climbing, it is because the Alps are more dangerous and more tiring than our own hills, even Scottish ones in winter. Yet the rewards are great too. There are instants of sheer joy, as when you find a trickle of pure cold water halfway up a sun-baked rock spire, or pull round a corner to find the deep, vibrant, stained glass blue of King of the Alps in front of your nose, or when, after hours of shivering on north-face stances watching sunlight creep towards you, finally you climb into its warmth as into a loving embrace: these are the moments which last a lifetime. And there is the time of which Lunn speaks, stretched out in a flowery meadow, or allowing gravity to carry you down the zig-zags of a well-made path, when the world is a marvellous place and it seems that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well'.

Part 2: Glaciers and avalanches >>

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.

Part 2 of A Beginners Guide to Alpine Mountaineering is now available and discusses glacier travel and avalanches.