29/01/2015 15:17:00

Words by NeedleSports

Alpine Climbing

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These notes are intended to assist the climber who has already gained considerable knowledge of rock climbing and Scottish winter mountaineering and is fully aware of its risks but still wishes to progress into Alpine Mountaineering, both in summer and winter. They are brief and not designed to be comprehensive in any way.

Ultimately climbing is a dangerous sport and claims many casualties each year. One of the guiding principals of British climbing and mountaineering is that it is the individual climber is responsible for his or her own safety. If you cannot accept this then this site and probably climbing in general is unlikely to suit you. May we refer you to this very interesting site instead!

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Cartoons © Tami Knight

Alpine Climbing – Summer

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Photo: Alpinists in the Dauphinee.

Venturing to the Alps for the first time can seem a little daunting, and so in way it should be, for all the risks of Scottish Winter Climbing are there, with the additional ones of stonefall and crevasses. However the rules of the game are fairly simple and the rewards fantastic - to see the rising sun illuminate the Matterhorn as one summits on the Dent Blanche is an experience not to be forgotten.

There are many instructional books available on Alpine Climbing Skills, but in the end there is only so much that you can learn from a book or computer, and if you have no-one trustworthy to show you, there is no substitute for learning the basics of glacier safety with a qualified Mountain Guide. Plas y Brenin administers the Conville Trust which provides subsidised Alpine Skills courses for young impoverished climbers and which can reduce the cost of a three day course to about a third.

Below is my own Alpine Gear Ticklist based on many years of experience. Not all of it is essential by any means, and you may think some items are needed which are not mentioned. In many ways, the less you carry, the greater your chance of success. Items that are available from us, and other suppliers can be clicked on for more detail. What is never quite clear is exactly how much hardware to take. It is probably better to take a fair amount as far as basecamp, and then select from that for each route, as inevitably stuff gets abandoned/lost and bad weather often forces a retreat to crags where a full rack may be required. It can often waste a good day having to go into Chamonix or wherever simply to buy extra abseil tat or replace a lost wire. Likewise it is best to take with you plenty of spare torch batteries, suncream and gas cylinders (though not the latter if you are flying).

 

Alpine Climbing - Summer & Winter Kit

Main Kit

Trekking Poles

Not perhaps essential in summer, and a definite encumberance on many climbs. However if you suffer from knee/ankle injuries they may be useful. Brilliant for winter where route approaches often involve wading through heavy snow.

Technical axe

A 55cm alpine style curved pick axe or similar is probably the best all round alpine axe, being short enough for technical climbing and long enough for glacier work. We would only recommend a pair of drooped pick tools for more technical routes (TD and above).

Technical hammer

A shorter hammer 50cm or 45cm is best - or consider a really lightweight "third tool" instead for voie normal type routes where some harder sections may be expected.

Alpine Axe

If you are taking a pair of drooped picked tools, it may be worth having an alpine axe (see above) for use on easier routes.

Leashless Axe Leashes

Having used (and got tangled up in) many a tat and micro-krab botch-up over the years, we took little convincing that a purpose built "Double Spring Leash" is the best we have found to stop those expensive and useful axes taking a tumble down the nearest crevasse.

Crampons

12 point semi-rigid for preference (Grivel Airtech or similar) - alpine climbing is mainly walking, so only take fully rigid crampons on the hardest routes!

Boots

Once it was all plastics but now boots like the Scarpa Phantom, and Sportiva Batura provide a more comfortable lighter alternative. For winter, plastics or high altitude boots like the new Sportiva G2 SM are best if you want to avoid frostbite.

Helmet

Absolutely essential. Lightweight and probably white (for coolness), make sure it has head torch fixing points.

Expedition Sack/Gear Bag

A large bag to transport and store this lot in.

Climbing Sack

Should be big enough (ca 55L + 10L extension) for routes involving several bivis, but light enough to use as a crag sac.

Ropes

Must be dry treated and preferably a pair for harder routes. Beal's 8.1mm Iceline or Mammut's 8.5mm Genesis are both great choices, but 9mm ropes will do fine. For easier, "voie normal" type routes, many parties would use a single 8.1mm, 8.5 or 9mm rope, rather than carry a weightier 10mm even though these slimmer ropes are not rated for single use.

Harness

Something light with adjustable leg-loops, or better no leg-loops at all like DMM's Super Couloir, both of which you can put on without having to put a cramponed boot through a leg loop (tricky on a steep slope!).

 

Hardware

Slings x 6

Take lots of slings, they are very quick to place, and can be used as extenders too.

Quickdraws x 10

Take lots in case you go valley cragging on an off-day, or even end up in the Verdon. On a typical Difficile route, 4 plus your slings would probably do. Wiregate krabs save weight and don’t freeze up.

Set of Wires

Again this may be cut down for the actual route to say, Rock 1, Rock 3, Rock 5 and Rock 7, but take lots to basecamp in case you abandon some on your first route.

Set of Cams

Ditto (sort of). For many easier routes it is probably not worth the extra weight.

Pegs

Ditto (sort of). Worth having a few blades if nothing else, as they may get you out of a sticky situation.

Icescrews x 6

You'll certainly need one apiece for crevasse rescue, and more if you intend doing any big ice/snow faces.

Warthogs x 2

These drive in/screw out “turf screws” can be handy for the rock hard black ice that is often encountered in the alps in summer and winter, but they are not essential and are quite heavy.

Belay Plate

In fact best to take two to base, and learn how to do an Italian Hitch in case you drop one.

Prusik Loops

Essential for crevasse rescue an useful for ab tat for retreats too. Practice how to use them before you need to! Alternatively, ascenders work better but are heavier.

Ab Tat

Take plenty of abseil tape or cord to abandon as you abseil down when things go horribly wrong. 5mm cord and 10mm tape are the lightest you can use safely and are both OK as long as you check for sharp edges.

Abalakov Threader

For making Abalakov Threads for belays or abseils.

 

Bivi Gear

Tent

Something solid for your valley base.

Inflatable Mat

Worth having for the valley - you'll sleep better.

Down Sleeping Bag

A super lightweight one, probably 1 or 2 season, is best for summer as the less weight and bulk the better, and it can be used without clothes at valley level and with clothes at altitude. In winter, you really need something that you can survive in, say 4/5 season.

Bivi Bag

Essential, and it should be a breathable one, not a glorified plastic bag.

Closed Cell Foam Mat

Better than a Thermarest for bivi's as it's lighter and indestructible.

Bivi Boots

Very useful for winter bivis and well worth their weight.

Pee Bottle

Very useful for winter bivis. Make sure it's clearly labelled, and large enough (1litre)!

Stove

For summer use, a micro gas stove is fine (but see note on fuel below). For winter use take an MSR XGK or similar as gas won't burn effectively below 0°C.

Fuel

We can't send fuel by post, hence it doesn't feature on our website. Be aware that screw-threaded gas cylinders are not widely available in remote alpine valleys and it is best to take them with you (though not if travelling by plane). An Adaptor is available to convert pierceable gas cylinders to screw threaded. Burning Paste is useful in winter.

Lighter and Matches

Preferably both and x 2!

Plate

Something that doubles as a bowl.

Mug

A large one if you want your fair share of the soup.

Pan

Something light and quite large. It makes little difference to the weight and is less likely to spill.

Knife, Spoon, Fork

Though real 'ard men use use their pitons!

Cling Film, Plastic Bags and Ties

Handy for wrapping up sandwiches made the day before.

Water Container

A large one, and if there is not water en route, consider taking two.

 

Climbing Clothing

Wicking underpants x 2

Much better than cotton.

Wicking longsleeve T

Much better than cotton. Longsleeves to stave off sunburn.

Belay Jacket & Expedition Hood or Down Jacket

This item of Buffalo is super for summer use as spare clothing, being light and still warm when wet. If you don't like it then a down jacket will do. For winter, take the full Buffalo Double-P System for preference (ie Big Face Shirt, Half-Zip Salopettes, Belay Jacket & XPD Hood) and ignore the next four items and the above two. Or take summer kit, with tougher waterproofs and extra pullovers.

Fleece Midlayer 

Pullover or jacket according to preference.

Waterproof Jacket

Very lighweight - if you get the forecast right you should not need to wear it.
Waterproof Trousers Very lighweight - ditto.

Windproof Top

Wear this in preference to a waterproof and carry the waterproof in your sack. You'll be far more comfortable and will not need to stop all the time to adjust your layers. It can be a lightweight softshell or, lighter still, a Pertex top.

Softshell Trousers

Hardwearing, stretchy and fairly wind and weather resistant.

Thick Socks x 2

Go for good quality if you can afford it - your feet will appreciate it.

Liner Socks x 2

Ditto - but only take them if you need them to stop blisters.

Gaiters

If using leather/fabric boots.

Neck Gaiter

For cold conditions (especially winter) a fleece one. A silk neckerchief or Buff is handy in summer.

Balaclava

For emergency use.

Headband

Very useful for ascents where you are sweating buckets but risk getting your ear-tips frost bitten if you don't wear a hat.

Warm Hat

For when you stop moving so fast, or it gets colder.

Liner Gloves

For summer approaches

Thicker Gloves

For winter approaches.

Buffalo Mitts

Brilliant emergency mitts, light and very warm.

Climbing Gloves

Don't put them on until you actually start climbing as you will sweat into them too much. Take two pairs if its a long mixed or ice route.

 

Other Clothing etc

Overnight Bag

For travel and basecamp/valley stuff, it is worth having a separate bag of clean kit.

Personal

Washkit, Shampoo, Underpants, Socks, T Shirt, Pullovers, Shoes, Sandals, Coat

Pillow

You may mock, but car journeys (as a passenger!) are greatly improved, as is comfort on the campsite

Food – Evening Meals

Totally personal and probably best bought locally. Beware that too much dehydrated food can leave you dehydrated yourself. Supermarkets seem just as good for instant food as many specialist outdoor brands, and about half the price. Breakfast Mix is muesli and milk powder mixed together meaning at bivis you just need to add water.

Food – Breakfast and Lunch

Marmalade, Peanut Butter, Honey, Bread, Breakfast Milk, Chocolate, Tea, Coffee, Powdered Milk, Nuts, Biscuits, Cake

 

Miscellaneous

Camera

Get one small enough to hang around your neck and stuff down your shirt.

Spare Memory Card

Most people will use digital cameras these days. Make sure you have enough memory for all those wonderful climbs you are going to do.

Compass

Essential.

GPS

Useful but not essential (and it's all extra weight).

Altimeter Watch

Or a watch at least, preferably with an alarm. But an altimeter watch is very useful.

Whistle

Essential.

Maps

Essential.

Map Case

Not essential, but consider a plastic bag at least.

Guide Books

Useful.

Goggles

Ski-goggles with almost clear lenses can be a life saver in a storm, particularly in winter.

Glacier Glasses

Essential unless you want to go snow-blind.

Sun Cream Essential.

Lip Salve

Essential - make sure it is an anti sunburn one.

First Aid Kit Essential - but you'll almost certainly chuck it out at the last minute.

Pocket Knife

Very useful for all sorts of repairs. Don't put it in your hand luggage!

Passport Bag

Something to keep all your valuables dry in.

Head torches x 2

Well … at least one.

Spare Batteries

Take a set on every route.

Biro

Or pencil, anything to write with.

 

Documents

Tickets

Don't forget them!

Passport

Is it in date?

Insurance

Essential. Mountain rescue and medical treatment is not free in most Continental countries. Getting choppered out could cost you thousands. As could medical treatment. Even in EU countries you are likely to have to pay a considerable proportion of the costs and if you are in Switzerland, all of them. The major UK alpine climbing insurers are the BMC and the AAC. The former is dearer but covers your kit, the latter is rescue and medical only but also gets you discounts in many alpine club huts (which is available also from the BMC but at further cost).

European Health Insurance Card

Get one of these from in case you need to see a doctor in another EU country. This card has replaced the old E111.

Credit Card

Essential, but be aware that quite common UK cards are not accepted everywhere.

Cash

&/or travellers cheques.

Foreign Money

Cash will be essential in many alpine huts.

Driver's Licence

Don't forget it if you are picking up a hire car or taking your own.

European Breakdown Assistance

Essential if you are taking your own car abroad.

Spare Car Key

In case your rucksack goes down a crevasse.

Road Map or Sat Nav

To stop you getting lost.

Dictionaries

In case you do get lost.

 

Getting There

Easyjet   

Cheap flights to alpine areas

Ryan Air

Ditto. Though beware that both these airlines now have so many hidden charges that standard airlines can be almost the same price and are generally a lot less hassle

ATS

Handy transport when you get there with all that kit

 

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Colwyn Jones near the summit of the Dent Blanche with the Matterhorn in the background.

 

Alpine Climbing - Winter

First off, this page is not about icefall climbing. It is about climbing the traditional Alpine mountain routes in winter. This is not a pursuit to be recommended to anyone who has not served a resonable summer alpine apprenticeship and has done a great deal of Scottish winter climbing as well.

Alpine winter mountaineering has most if not all of the same problems as alpine summer mountaineering with several additional ones, most notably increased cold, and shorter hours of daylight, and you will need to decide from the outset whether to take the go-for-it-in-a-day lightweight approach or the possible bivi approach.

Possible Bivi

Expect temperatures ranging from -10°C at night down to -30°C. Although in dry alpine air, -10°C does not feel too bad, -30°C is perishing, and you will need to be prepared for bivouaccing in such conditions even if you don't intend to. Thus your rucksack should include a good 4/5 Season Sleeping Bag, a High Insulation Sleeping Mat, a Bivi Bag, and a stove (gas stoves won't work in these temperatures - take a petrol stove such as the MSR XGK) and food, even if you plan to do your climb in one day. Of course you will then climb more slowly because you are carrying a large rucksack. You will also tire more rapidly.

So you are more likely to have to bivi, but the consequences of an enforced bivi out in winter without a good sleeping bag could be very serious and indeed has proved so on many occasions. Again, a bivi may be on the cards due to the shorter hours of daylight. Deeper snow on the approach, and snow covered holds on rock pitches may add to the difficulties and also the time taken. Another danger is that there are few people about in the alps in winter. Whilst this has definite benefits (less stone-fall and so on) it also brings extra risks in that there maybe no-one to come to your aid or even notice if you have an accident.

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Photo Above: Steve Carruthers on the Forbes Arete of the Chardonet (Chamonix) in March - not only were there no other climbers on the the route, there were none on the mountain! An unlikely scenario in summer.

 

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Finally close attention must be paid to the Meteo as if a storm brews up you could be in a very serious position indeed. In this age of mobile phones and pocket radios it would be as well to have a valley contact from whom you can get weather forecasts on a daily basis.

Photo Left: Trying to get a brew going on a gas stove in an alpine hut in winter - not a great success.

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The benefits of winter alpine climbing are many. For a start big north-facing ice and mixed routes that are seldom in condition in summer these days may be in superb nick. Moreover they are unlikely to have anyone else on them. Huts will be empty and generally unwardened and much cheaper (by law, all have to have some shelter open - remember to take your own food and some change for the honesty box). Though storms can be very serious, long periods of stable weather are also likely. Routes and huts can often be skied into making approaches and descents much less tiring and much more fun. Generally this is no use if your descent is on another side of the mountain but on easier routes it may be possible to carry short skis. If you can't ski (and realistically you need to be skiing red runs without falling and be capable of doing kick turns facing outwards on very steep slopes), then consider snowshoes. Whatever your approach method, a pair of Trekking Poles will be found invaluable. It is also worth seriously considering carrying one or all of the following: Avalanche Tranceiver, Snow Shovel, Avalanche Probe.

Photo Right: Ian Conway on the North Face of the Droites in Winter

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Go for It in a Day

All the above applies, but you still reckon you can get from the valley/hut to the summit and back in a day.

This may be feasible if:

a) you are fit,

b) the forecast is excellent for several days,

c) you are climbing well below your limits,

d) the route is short, and,

e) you know the area very well and are unlikely to get lost,

f) and you don’t have an accident.

If you are convinced of this, then you just have to accept the risk of being benighted without proper bivi-gear, and take the absolute minimum you need. You should move faster and consequently achieve your target - but if you blow it you could lose all your toes - or worse.

If the above criteria don't apply, then reconsider the Possible Bivi approach as listed above.

Photo Left: Steve Caruthers trying to keep to the neve in a sea of rock hard black ice on the North Face of the Tour Ronde in winter.

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Finally do not forget to check out the avalanche danger and also comments that other climbers may have made in the register at the Guides Bureau - much the same things as you might do in Scotland in winter. If avalanche warning flags are showing you may be invalidating your insurance if you ignore them.

Bon chance!

Photo Left: Skis can often make the approach much easier and safer in winter. The descents are more enjoyable too. If you can't ski, consider Snowshoes.

 

“If the conquest of a great peak brings moments of exultation and bliss, which in the monotonous, materialistic existence of modern times nothing else can approach, it also presents great dangers. It is not the goal of grand alpinisme to face peril, but it is one of the tests one must undergo to deserve the joy of rising for an instant above the state of crawling grubs. On this proud and beautiful mountain we have lived hours of fraternal, warm and exalting nobility. Here for a few days we have ceased to be slaves and have really been men. It is hard to return to servitude.”

- Lionel Terray