Alpine walking and climbing - A brief overview

Checking out the descent route - Eastern alps

What is this 'Alpine' thing?

In the UK Alpine climbing often refers to climbing in the European alps, usually as part of a small self-sufficient group. The scope of Alpine climbing is huge so this is just a brief description of what club members have found to work over the years. Adventurous trekkers looking to do some high level routes might also find this useful as many of the same scenarios apply. The term ‘Alpine style’ is also often used to refer to a style a climbing used in the higher ranges where the climbers move quickly without a great deal of support. The tendency to climb in the morning to make the best use of Alpine weather patterns has led to the term "Alpine Start". An "Alpine Start" can occur from 11:00 PM on long routes to not long before sunrise for shorter routes and often begins in the dark using head torches

Triglav, Julien alps

New rules apply.

All of the alpine ranges in Europe are higher than the Scottish mountains and have additional challenges: Permanent snow fields and glaciers, thin air at altitude, rotten loose rock, severe weather at any time of year, French guides with terrified clients pushing past  – all require knowledge of how best to deal with or avoid these natural hazards.

Probably the most significant difference in climbing in higher mountains is how much more natural elements come into play. In Scotland we tend to have fairly well defined summer and winter weather (wet & cold and wetter & colder respectively) and most of us are aware that a breezy valley day can mean it’s blowing a gale on the tops but we often still venture onto the hills relying on picking safe ways or sheltered routes. In higher mountains this may not be an option and the weather often dictates whether you stay in camp or climb. Even though we can have very extreme weather conditions in Scotland getting caught out on higher mountains can mean lower temperatures and higher winds or unseasonal snowfall that can make a route impossible.
Even when the weather is not ‘extreme’ just ‘unusual’ it can make a big impact on route choices; a dry glacier crossing is generally safe and easy, not so when it’s covered by 20cm of drifted overnight snow that cover the crevasses. Similarly the old snow patches that are easy to cross on a warm sunny day might require crampons and axes when it’s overcast and cold.

Given that the weather plays such a big part in what you can safely do the best thing is to have a plan for any conditions you are likely to encounter. When the high routes might be out of condition there is still a lot to do in the valleys. Or know the transport links and have a plan for alternative areas, sometimes the bad weather can be localised and moving 20km can get you back into the sunshine – have a plan ready before you go so you don’t waste valuable climbing time. Ask ahead – contact local climbers/guides/accommodation owners to find out if the weather conditions are what would normally be expected for the time of year.

Micro route planning – the alps are young in geological time, this equates to sharps peaks and ridges quite unlike most of our older, more weathered, mountains. This means that the option of taking an easy route off might not apply – the easiest route on or off might be the one you are ascending. Know what your options are for your chosen route, where you can turn back or take an alternate path and where you might end up, know when you are committed.

Be careful in the sun – apart from wearing high factor sun screen be aware that the summer time sun can turn the firm neve of an alpine start into unstable mush by mid day, release rocks frozen into the ice and make ice falls prone to collapse – plan not to be there.

Crevasse on the Marmolada glacier, Dolomites

Glaciers and permanent snow fields
 - The white stuff

Glaciers and summer snow fields are part of the attraction of alpine climbing and often provide the easiest route through otherwise very rough terrain. Moving safely requires good snow craft, practice and the right equipment. First you must assess the route (see above) and determine the minimum additional equipment required to keep you safe in the conditions you expect to encounter:

  • Occasional soft snow patches only – ice axe
  • Hard or continuous snow – ice axe + crampons
  • Steep continuous snowfield - ice axe, crampons, basic climbing equipment
  • Dry glacier - ice axe, crampons, basic climbing equipment + ice screws and pulley equipment
  • Wet glacier - ice axe, crampons, basic climbing equipment, ice screws, snow belay, pulley equipment, probe
  • Steep snow/ice - climbing axes, crampons, climbing equipment, ice screws, snow and rock protection as required

If you are carrying a rope it is usually a good idea to have some abseil tat that can be abandoned if you have to retreat.

Crossing glaciers should always be done roped even dry glaciers that look easy – consider it as practise for the steep, wet, dangerous ones. Roping up for glacier travel involves shortening the rope by wrapping coils around the body and then tying them off so that between 10m and 30m of rope connects the leader to the rest of the party  - generally speaking the more people the safer when crossing glaciers. The amount of rope out depends on the steepness of the glacier and other objective dangers such as snow cover/condition and the known presence of crevasses. On the safest terrain only a short length of rope might be used to avoid the rope dragging over a wet and rough surface whilst at the other extreme up to 30m of rope might be used (with knotted sections) to give enough time to slow a fall.

The excess rope is wrapped around the body then tied off (hard locked) around the sternum. This provides support like a chest harness if suspended from the rope and stops you turning upside down. This rope is also what is used by the rescuer to set up a belay and hoist after escaping the system. When moving roped the climbers should always try to move at the same speed to avoid any slack building up in the system. To do this each climber must be aware of the speed of their tied in partners during normal progress and as difficulties are encountered.

Before moving across a crevassed glacier practise moving together roped, holding a fall while roped together, escaping the system, securing the belay and making a hoist system. These techniques can and should be practised on any steep grassy slope (preferably wet) long before you set foot on a real glacier. Moving roped across a glacier can be both safer and quicker than trying to skirt around crevasses without a rope.

Inspecting a snow bridge, Pyrenees

Moving together
 - mixed ground and efficiency

Just as moving roped on a glacier can be safe and efficient so can moving together roped in the correct terrain. When moving roped both climbers are tied into an end of the rope with a length of rope free between them similar to when crossing a glacier. The rope coils are often tied off in sections to facilitate lengthening or shortening the rope according to the terrain.

Moving together roped provides climbers with a compromise between pitching the route (safe, but slow) with the speed of moving un-roped (fast, but potentially dangerous). The benefits of moving roped are that, generally, much less time is spent on the route, reducing exposure to objective dangers such as avalanches or bad weather. This can be a major factor on routes with ice fields or exposure to rock fall where speed often equates to safety.
This technique is most often used where the route has ground that the party feel competent climbing interspersed with short technical sections or the odd hard step – the party staying roped-up along the whole route, but adjust the amount of rope out and the protection techniques according to the relative difficulty of the terrain.

On easy terrain the rope is often shortened and the party move together as they will when scrambling, maybe weaving the rope around natural spikes as interim protection. As the terrain becomes more serious and more protection is required some coils are dropped and the rope is lengthened. Runners are now placed by the leader and gathered by the second as the party progresses along the route until the supply of runners is exhausted. The second then re supplies the leader with the protection or takes over the lead and the process repeats until the nature of the terrain means it is no longer appropriate. Best practise is to have at least 3 pieces of protection as running belays on the rope at any one time to accommodate the placement and removal of gear. Once again all the climbers should move at the same speed and avoid any slack building up in the system.

On more difficult sections where a fall is quite possible then it is normal to resort to pitching. To maintain momentum not all of the rope may be deployed, just enough to get over the difficulties. These sections can be treated as mini-climbs by taking proper belays, placing runners as required and belaying as normal but once the pitched section is complete you should try to resume moving roped as soon as possible to keep your speed up.

It is quite a skill to make the judgments about which technique to use and when to use it. This only comes with practice and the key is being able to correctly judge the difficulty of each section of the route as it unfolds and choosing a rope technique that is appropriate for the team’s ability.

By the time you are considering using double rope techniques and putting on climbing shoes you are probably well into technical rock climbing territory and moving roped on such difficult ground is best left to experts.

Retreating from a route
 – live to climb another day

When planning a route it is always worth while scanning the exit options; typically these might involve multiple abseils from in-situ gear, abseiling from an ice or snow belay or crossing a glacier. To make sure you have the option include the necessary equipment – if the emergency exit involves a glacier crossing but your route does not make sure you pack enough glacier gear to get you through safely. If the route involves multiple abseils and you are not sure on the quality of the fixed gear take some extras and maybe some bits you do not mind leaving behind. Always carry some abseil cord you know you will use it at some point. 

The counter argument against always playing safe

Balancing risks is a part of the game; if your route crosses several large hard snow patches but is otherwise on rock then there is a case for NOT putting your crampons on, and removing them after, each snow field IF the extra time taken could cause the party to become significantly more exposed to a risk of rock fall later on the route. Similarly there is a danger in carrying too much protection and bivouac gear if the very weight of your safety equipment will slow you down to the extent that you are likely to end up using it! The real difficulty is that you are often making the decision based on UK experience and it doesn’t always map well to the alpine routes. Best thing is to try to talk to the local or people who have done the routes before – the advice might not always be good and sometimes it will be absolutely wrong but it is at least another source of information to base your decisions on. Ultimately being prudent and gaining your own experience will be your best guide.