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A GUIDE TO ALPINE MOUNTAINEERING


August 08, 2009

By Rob Collister

In the following article respected UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide Rob Collister - who has been fully trained and guiding
since 1976 - takes a look at Alpinism from the perspective of the entry level mountaineer. This article is designed to help an
experienced climber, who has a good base level of experience in the likes of Wales, the Lakes District or Scotland, graduate to
the greater ranges, with the Alps being the next logical step...

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

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

A nother 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.

DESCENTS

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'.

GLACIERS AND GLACIER TRAVEL

It is glaciation, cloaking the mountains in snow and ice and splintering the rock into fantastic shapes through the freezing
and thawing of water in cracks, that makes Alpine mountains so spectacular, exciting and of a siren beauty. Glaciers are the
bodies of permanent snow, hardened by time and pressure into ice, that flow out of the mountains. They are fed by the heavy
snowfall of winter and melt in the warm temperatures of summer. When the rate of melt is greater than the natural rate of
advance due to gravity, the glacier is said to be retreating. For 150 years the glaciers of the Alps, and indeed of everywhere
except Antarctica, have been retreating, growing steadily smaller and becoming covered with rock or moraine, that falls on
to the ice from the surrounding mountainsides. A moraine-covered glacier is in effect a rubbish tip of the mountains, and
about as much fun to walk on. As few can fail to be aware, that process has speeded up dramatically in the last 30 years,
radically altering many climbs.

CREVASSES

Glacier ice is a plastic substance. It is soft enough to flow downhill, but stiff enough to crack open when stressed. Such stress
occurs on the outside of a bend, for example, or whenever there is a steepening of the valley floor, or sometimes at the sides,
simply because friction is causing the ice to flow slower than in the centre. In all these cases, the glacier will split open to
form crevasses. These can be anything from an inch to fifty yards across. The smaller ones are usually the nastiest because
less obvious. Glaciologists tell us that crevasses cannot form to a depth greater than 150 ft, but there is scant consolation in
that. In summer, the lower parts of most glaciers, when not covered with moraine,
become bare of snow, revealing so called dry ice. Here crevasses are quite without
malice and provide useful places to practise ice-climbing and rescue techniques.
Higher up the mountain, however, they become masked by snow and a very
different proposition. Immediately in front of you a crevasse may be invisible, but
to the right or left a faint dimpling of the surface is often discernible, and it may
prove to be the continuation of an open hole some distance away. In winter, or after
fresh snow, these signs are hidden and great care is needed. Glaciers are probably
at their safest in Spring when there is still a lot of snow about but freeze/thaw is
strengthening the bridges. In summer, crevasses are usually safe early in the
morning when the snow is frozen hard, but by the afternoon it will have softened,
and the bridges will be in a precarious state. As the season goes on, crevasses
become increasingly open. By the end of August, glaciers and icefalls which were
straightforward ski runs in April can be all but impassable. It is a good rule always
to rope up, even on a well-tracked glacier, unless you know from personal
experience that there are no crevasses. Tracks in the snow or other parties
wandering about un-roped are no guarantees that the glacier is safe. If hollow,
probe it with your axe (easier if you have one of a sensible length, say 5565 cms,
rather than a pterodactyl) or a ski-stick. If your axe goes straight through, or the bridge collapses into the depths, try again
elsewhere! It is not unusual to have to weave back and forth across a glacier, crossing or jumping each individual crack at its
safest point. Late in the season, the only bridges remaining may be wildly improbably cantilevers of dripping ice. Often they
are stronger than they look, but take no chances. Arrange a strong belay and cross on all fours to spread your weight as much
as possible. (For constructing snow anchors, see The Handbook of Climbing, Fyffe & Peter.)

CREVASSES, WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FALL?

Sooner or later, however, you will go through a crevasse whose existence you never suspected. Whether you plunge to the
bottom, find yourself dangling at the end of a rope contemplating a bright circle of daylight somewhere above you, or merely
feel your legs kicking in space while icicles tinkle far below, will depend entirely on your partner. The key to safe travel on
glaciers is a tight rope at all times. Coils held in the hand will only increase the distance of a fall and the difficulty of
stopping it. The most effective way of checking a fall is to throw yourself onto the snow in a self-arrest position. Body
weight, combined with the friction of the rope biting into the lip, are normally sufficient but only if there is no slack rope.
It all happens very quickly and there are no substitutes for alertness, quick reactions, and a tight rope. Admittedly, that is
easier said than done at the end of a long, tiring day and on a glacier there is definitely safety in numbers. In a party of three
or more, 810 metres of rope between climbers will suffice, with spare rope carried around the shoulders and tied off. If
anyone falls, it will usually be quickest to haul them out from the top, either with a straight heave if there are plenty of
hands available, or by improvising a pulley-hoist. However it will often be necessary to drop the victim another end of rope
first and arrange this over a rucksack at the lip so that the rope does not bite into the snow. The more usual, and the more
hazardous situation is two climbers roped together. Here, it is always possible that one will drag the other into the same
hole. To reduce the chance of this happening, a longer distance between climbers 12 to 15 metres is advisable. When
climbing as a pair, it is essential that you can both prusik efficiently, since even with the most elaborate improvised hoists it
is extremely difficult, and may prove impossible, for one person to hoist another when so much friction is involved. Little
gadgets like a Ropeman, a Tibloc or a Petzl pulley can all help, but in general prusik knots or similar but more efficient
variations, work quite well enough. Whatever the temperature on the surface and the combination of ultra-violet radiation
and reflected glare from the snow can be quite literally scorching to skin and eyes without protective cream, lip-salve and
dark glasses the inside of a crevasse is a bitterly cold place. Snow is, moreover, highly abrasive. It is worth always wearing
gloves or mitts on snow, and preferably a long-sleeved shirt.

AVALANCHES IN ALPINE MOUNTAINEERING

If crevasses are an ever-present danger in summer alpinism, avalanches are


perhaps less of a hazard than at other times of the year. The greatest danger is
from ice-avalanches. When a glacier flows over a projection or rock hard enough to
withstand the crushing, grinding weight of ice above it, be it high up on the side
of a mountain or in the flow of a valley, the ice will split open into ice-cliffs or
seracs, which are continually collapsing and changing shape as the ice behind
presses inexorably forward. The dangers of working through an unstable icefall
are usually obvious and when the instability is not great, they can be fun to climb,
presenting a series of technical problems to overcome. Not such an obvious
hazard, and easily overlooked, are hanging glaciers poised hundreds, sometimes
thousands of feet above. There are many approaches to routes, and even hut walks, that pass beneath such hanging masses
of ice. Seracs seem more prone to collapse in the heat of the afternoon when melt water acts as a lubricant within cracks in
the ice. Bonatti, on his frequent excursions to the Brenva Face and the Grand Pilier d'Angle on Mont Blanc, both of which are
threatened by enormous seracs on the approach, used to carry a thermometer and did not bother to leave the hut unless the
temperature at night was well below freezing. That he is still alive seems to justify his caution. Nonetheless, seracs can and
do fall at all times of day and night and at all times of the year; gravity will always have its way in the end. The best policy is
always to look above you before stopping for a break, and to accelerate whenever you are in the vicinity of hanging ice, even
if you are plodding wearily along much-used descent routes like the Nantillons or Violettes glaciers. Snow, as opposed to ice,
avalanches are less common in summer. Nonetheless, after prolonged bad weather, conditions will always be potentially
dangerous for at least 24 hours, especially on lee slopes where windslab can form. Wet snow avalanches can occur almost
anywhere in the heat of the afternoon, though fortunately they usually don't. A layer of snow lying on ice becomes so
saturated with water that it suddenly slides away with a hiss, even on easy-angled slopes. The depth may not be great, but it
will still knock you off your feet, and if there is steep ground below, the result could be fatal. Moral try to avoid long, open
slopes facing south or west in the middle of the afternoon.

MOUNTAIN HUTS IN THE ALPS

Most 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. Huts 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!). It 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 demoralised 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'.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Collister (a professional IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide), 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.
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