/ Gaining Alps experience
Looking for advice please. After various changes in circumstances due to working abroad etc, I’m finally getting back to the hills. Recently been up curved ridge, anoch eagach, An Teallach etc and now with the appetite whet i’m looking to broaden the horizons. Was comfortable up to E1 lead, some minor winter routes.... the cuillin ridge is on my horizon but a logical progression I’m thinking is to organise some Alps stuff now then I’ve got something to aim for in the summer. I’d love to do the Matterhorn but they ask for previous Alps experience from the companies I’ve looked at. So, if I could pick peoples brains/ experience, which companies are recommended from the users here? Obviously cost is a consideration, but more important is the value of what’s paid as to what’s gained/ achieved. One company was offering an alpine intro with a possible mt Blanc add on at the end (High Mountain Guides I think it was). What approach have people taken to preparing for the bigger stuff? Thank you in advance for any help given.
We just went and did it. Back in the 60's and 70's it was seen by many as just a natural progression. Gritstone crags, Welsh and Lakes mountains, Scotland in winter and after some UK experience the Alps and for many the greater ranges. No training, no courses, no unnecessary expense. I can't see any real reason why it still couldn't done that way. I would say don't rush it but my first alpine route was the Frendo Spur which in retrospect was too hard for a first alpine route so I rushed it and it did put me off alpine for a couple of years. When I got back into it I started very gently and worked my way up over a number of years. Get the BMC Alpine Essentials DVD, it's very good and will teach you most of what you need to know. Experience can't be taught so practice the techniques as best you can before you go out there. Enjoy, it's given me over 50 years of pleasure.
That’s been my general approach up to now with all I’ve done but with the risk averse environment we live in now, the advice always seems to be to go on courses etc. The main pro of that being getting a positive outcome from limited time off work/ money spent. Ive also anticipated your advice and got the bmc dvd already so i’ll get stuck into that pronto!
I'm firmly in the 'just do it' camp, perhaps after revising ropework and relevant skills in the UK and getting your head around the unique challenges of the alpine environment. Get yourself on something easy, see how you get on and go from there. The main complication will be glacier travel, which is obviously something we don't have to worry about in the UK. Long days, early starts and being able to move efficiently too - but that's something that isn't too dissimilar to longer Scottish routes in limited daylight.
Screw the risk-adverse envionment. If you're confident in your skills and your ability to cope, get out and give it a go!
Maybe go to a non-glacial alpine area, or a minimally glacial one.
Might I recommend the Alps Maritimes. Great routes up to 450m long, most things can be done in and out from the road-head in a day. Wonderful solid granite.
Whilst not wishing to dismiss this as an option I would comment that to many people Alpine climbing IS about snow and ice and glaciers etc. and if you take trips that avoid them you will not gain experience.
> Maybe go to a non-glacial alpine area, or a minimally glacial one.
> Might I recommend the Alps Maritimes. Great routes up to 450m long, most things can be done in and out from the road-head in a day. Wonderful solid granite.
I had five alpine summer trips ( including nf routes to D+ before I did any graded Scottish winter routes, possibly the best way round to do it .
There is a lot more to think about with Alpine climbing compared to trad and winter climbing back home. A lot of it is due to the much bigger scale - so you have to move quickly including moving together for example. You also need to have a good understanding of when to start your day and why. Glacier travel is another aspect which will be new for you.
You can just go there with friends and see what happens but you’ll have a more productive and safer time if you go on a course or two. I would recommend courses focusing on skills and techniques rather than particular summits. That’s how I started anyway. You can do the summits yourself once you have the skills. Although of course you would be more likely to get up and down safely with a guide.
Like some of the others who have replied, I followed the then traditional route of hillwalking, rock climbing, winter climbing (very little) then the Alps. Was a good preparation for when I then started Scottish winter climbing. But that was back in the 70s & my impression is that unless you have experienced friends or a club to climb with, a short course seems very common now.
Surprised no one has mentioned the courses run by the Conville trust, they are designed for people like you & are (relatively) cheap.
There are many routes in the Chamonix area that can give you the feel of alpine climbing without the glaciers. 12 and 14 pitch rock climbs that start near huts but in many ways they are less serious than a day out on Cloggy but many would argue that it's merely rock climbing with alpine views and not the true alpine experience.
I'd add that there are also many moderate alpine routes, ideal for first experiences, accessible from safe (as far as glaciers go) glaciers. Obviously you still need to know what you're doing - but if you're a competent climber with winter experience it's not too hard to put together being roped up, being able to self-arrest, being able to build a snow anchor and being able to set up a 3:1 haul or other suitable system.
I personally think the major challenge is being able to move efficiently and use the rope efficiently - not wasting time when transitioning from moving together to pitching a short step, to moving together, etc - and being able to judge which system is most appropriate for the current situation. But these are all things which can be practiced and refined in the UK on rock and in winter.
A lot of the 'do this course!' advice comes, directly or indirectly, from the people making a living running courses.
If money is no object and time is tight, it's probably a good way to pick up skills quickly. If you're cash poor but time rich then you can probably afford to spend a summer, or part of a summer, learning things gradually.
I'm sure many of my generation would have taken advantage of "fast tracking" by attending a course or hiring a guide if a) we could have afforded it. I didn't know anyone who could and b) if there had been any available. There may well have been some but as we couldn't afford them I suppose we didn't even investigate. Either way it says something about the wide gap in disposable incomes of different generations.
I agree with your post , grid.
We had access to the Snell's field and biolet campsite scene every summer. Lots of information exchange, some very good but a lot of doomsday mentality.
I was also very lucky to happen to join a mountaineering club that had a disproportunate number of top Alpinists in its membership at the time. No shortage of access to good advice and inspiration.
I'm one of the just get out and do it brigade.
France and Switzerland are great if you have some experience but I think that alpine beginners are best off in Austria.
I suggest that you try the Oetztal for easy, enjoyable, and popular routes on 3000m mountains with good lines of retreat and people to help if you need it. The huts are also excellent.
If you want an even easier introduction, try the Stubai Glacier Traverse. There is no real climbing, unless you try the Zuckerhutl, but it would give you good glacier travel experience, along with some very easy snow and scrambling.
The Austrian Alpine Club has good introductory courses if you want one.
I think I’m leaning this way. I’ve been to italyband a couple of other places and the scale compared to the UK is something else. I suppose doing a bit in the UK a sort of 6th sense is built up towards to cut off for times etc, but this can become a bit cloudy abroad. I’d defo need to brush up on ropework and I doubt i’d Be feeling as comfortable at HVS without some practice so ai’d better get my finger out!
I’ll look into this. Cheers Doug
Well pointed out. I noticed a big difference in time protecting the An Teallach traverse for a less experienced second I was with. I’d defo feel better being more ‘slick’ so some more experience familiarising is prob a better thing. Hopefully off up to the cairngorms next week with my old climbing partner so we’ll see how that pans out. I Wouldn’t have a clue with haul systems etc, hence my inclination towards a course. Although he’s been employed in rope access ever since so maybe a good idea to quiz him!
Defo not time rich!
My first alpine trip was to Chamonix, aged 17, staying on Snell's field. It was a natural progression from Lancashire quarries, to Scotland in summer, then Scotland in winter, then Chamonix.
I scared myself stupid (even my 17 year old self).
There is a lot to think about in alpine climbing. Climbing above a glacier means you need to be fit and well acclimatised (to make the walk-in in reasonable time), able to climb wearing a sac (not necessarily empty - you could have ice gear and bivvy gear in it), fast (there's a lot of pitches), with good judgement on route finding, weather etc.
So don't do it all at once. Either go to a "traditional" alpine area (Arolla is good), and do a bunch of snow peaks and easy scrambles, gaining experience in glacier travel and acclimatisation. Or go somewhere more rock-orientated, but with the bigger routes so you can learn to climb fast (so fast and efficient rope-work is key), and understand more about route finding. You will still get the weather (afternoon thunderstorms), and fitness from the walk-ins.
It doesn't mean that you won't have the amazing views, and you might have some snow-fields to cross (a pair of running crampons, and maybe a light-weight axe helps), but you don't need to worry about crevasses!
The choice is yours...
Why is your post directed at me, I'm not the one seeking advice?
Never too old to learn, Al.
just replying to your original post about alpine climbing being about glaciers for many people - then got carried away a bit
Just checked your profile and if you're still based in Glasgow...
Scottish winter is good prep for alpinism, it seems to be really good training (a long walk with a hefty pack, some climbing, a long walk, repeat x2 days). It also gets you more comfortable in crampons and using tools. Last year was amazing; if we get decent conditions this year it's possible (albeit not easy) for someone working full time to manage 20 routes, or even more. Read some Mick Fowler (hero of heroes) for inspiration.
I've been kinda spoiled for time (I can manage 7 weeks in the alps most summers, in two 3 and a half week blocks). One thought; while Chamonix is famous for it's easy/convenient access (cablecars), Cham does seem to have worse weather than many other areas. I've found I got way more done in the Ecrin, even budgeting days for walking up to a hut.
With a week or two a year you probably won't manage to get a huge amount done; your time off won't coincide with perfect conditions on your dream routes, partners will be hard to come by, lifts will be closed. And of course you need to acclimatise, sort food and gear etc. But if you keep going back, again and again, any chance you get, sometimes things will fall into place and you will have days out that will give you a warm glow every time you think about them.
I'd second CliffPowys that it's a good idea to start in the glaciated Austrian groups (Oetztal, Zillertal, Stubai, Pitztal for instance) before visiting the 4000ers. The basics aren't hard to learn, but it's good to be confident with them when you're also having to cope with altitude, earlier starts and longer slogs, and the chance of more extreme conditions and weather.
My first two trips were very much learning by doing with a supposedly experienced older partner in the Bergell and Ortler groups. The third year we went to Saas Fee for my first 4000ers and I had the feeling that we simply weren't safe. The next year I did two one week courses, intermediate and advanced, in the Stubai alps; they were real eye-openers and I learnt a hell of a lot about weather, route finding, crevasse rescue and self-arrest techniques, moving fast together, all sorts of stuff. The next years I was finally in Chamonix, the Bernina and Zermatt with a new good partner doing big classical routes and was very, very glad that I'd had all the previous experience.
There have been some incredibly helpful, thoughtful and useful replies to your original questions. Here are some further thoughts:
- We all learn and think in different ways, what suits one person may not suit another. Self teaching can be an effective way to learn and develop for some, a course or working with a qualified guide may be better for others. You have to make this judgement call for yourself.
- I was also totally self / peer taught. If we have access to really competent peers this can be an excellent way to learn. However, we are not always aware if our peers ( more experienced people we learn from ) are indeed highly competent themselves. After several seasons in various alpine locations I felt competent, then did an intermediate course ( with ISM ). The course highlighted my unconscious incompetencies and enabled me to step up my game in terms of grade / commitment and safety on routes. So for me, a combination approach has worked.
I personally would still recommend a self taught approach for many people but that doesn't mean that it would work for everyone.
- Looking at your profile, you appear to be a competent climber. However, I don't really know so the following is a tentative suggestion: There are so many sources of great information I suggest you could teach yourself and practice / hone ( perhaps with the help of others ) some of the alpine skills such as glacial ropework and moving together. Then hone these skills even further on your own first alpine trips.
- If you do decide to go on a course then I have heard strong recommendations from many people for Jagged Globe, Icicle and ISM. For a truly bespoke approach, with the skills and experience you have already, you may find hiring a British Mountain Guide ( with a friend to split the costs ) for three or four days more use than a basic course.
- Finally, I can't speak for others ( and may just be a very slow learner ) but I have found alpine climbing a constant learning process. For example; there are many ways to rope up for glacier travel which have different advantages and disadvantages in different situations. The methods I use may depend on the competency ( or otherwise ) of the people I am with, the numbers, the state of the glacier which includes the weather / time of day, the nature of the route I am intending to do. I first learned one method and then have learned others over the years, especially when visiting different alpine venues. I have seen many people copying what a guide may do with their client without realising that the technique may not be so well suited for two equal partners or where they don't have the level of experience and skills that a guide has.
Have fun and see you out there...
As far as I'm aware, the Conville trust courses aren't available to people over 30 (like myself and the OP!).
But, if you look at the pictures on the site, you see people doing an alpine prep course in Cwm Idwal, which has got to be a great place to practice skills with an enthusiastic friend, no?
Some of the alpine routes - e.g. the normal way up Gran Paradiso - seem to be mostly long walks up snow slopes. I would have thought anyone who's led Scottish IV and grade 3 scrambles would be able to find some low-grade objectives to start up. Bruce Goodlad's book, Alpine Mountaineering, has an appendix that describes "first routes" in some detail (i.e. enough to assess whether you are likely to have the necessary skills). A good place to get some ideas?
Regarding the "teach yourself vs do a course" debate...
My first trip to the Alps was to Arolla (bad choice - go to Sass Fee instead) and we taught ourselves from books. We spent a couple of days in the Dix hut during crap weather at the same time as a group from Plas y Brenin. The participants were definitely learning more than us about the techniques of safe alpinism, but they were not making any decisions - the entire experience was sanitised for them by the presence of the guides who were keeping them safe. We, on the other hand, had to keep ourselves safe. We had to decide whether to push on or back off when the weather crapped out. At the time we felt we were learning more important things than the participants, but I suppose we just learned different things. And we might have felt different if one of us had fallen into a slot and the other hadn't handled it well!
I always suspected that theres an unofficial branching point in a persons climbing trajectory depending on whether or not they went the guided/course approach or not. Every course seems to lead into another course or another guided climb until next thing you know you're firmly in the grip of commercial climbing sucking oxygen from a tank on an 8000m hike but still don't know how to lead a pitch of ice or climb a moderately difficult alpine route. Its by no means an inevitability but at some point you need to take responsibility for yourself and break from the guides.
Most troubling, every lesson you learn in a course also comes at the expense of a missed lesson in decision making, resourcefulness and self learning. You might not survive such lessons but you need those lessons and they cannot be taught, only learned. In fact courses (and everyone telling you to take them) implicitly deny that you should ever even accept the risk of learning these lessons, and it is a risk. Ever pass by a guided group returning from a climb and try to ask them for route conditions up ahead? None of the clients ever make a peep. That's telling. The clients aren't thinking.
lead climbing is a microcosm of this guides and courses will normally go as far as teaching you to mock lead. Few actually put you on the sharp end, and the more dangerous the discipline the less likely. For instance I've never met a guide or course that will teach you to lead climb that will ever actually allow you to lead a pitch of ice without a top rope backup.
I dont know if the people pushing the courses approach have conflicts of interest or not but nobody wants to take responsibility for your life or death. You alone can make that decision. But consider that the top climbers are likely making the decision to take that risk. Alex Macintyre was illustrative. doing first ascents on the Jorasses N face at 21, dead at 30. Bijorn Ivan Artun is a more recent example. Piolet d'or contender at 29 5 years after taking up alpinism. Dead a year later. Mature climbers take risks, but don't forget risks have consequences.
I dont know if I should even be saying any of this. I don't have any idea what I'm talking about, it's just all speculation and guesswork at this point. However, I and most of my alpine climbing partners went sans courses, are climbing at a higher level than most courses will teach (albeit still a modest level) and we're still alive. Jury's still out on that last point, but despite the risk it's the only realistic path I've ever seen to becoming a mature independent climber.
Last post was too long, long story short: Making decisions in the presence of risk is the most important skill an alpinist has. Problem is you never know if you made the right call, and you can get away with bad calls for a while before it catches up with you. How you negotiate that ambiguity is up to you, it cannot be taught, and every climb you go on with a guide/every course you take postpones your learning of this most essential and difficult to acquire skill.
The solution? Grab a buddy, go to the alps, and don't die.
You can ask a guide or instructor to teach you anything, you are their client. Of course when in the alps most people want to do routes. But if you don't necessarily have all the skills, then hire in the UK, learning how to drop and add coils quickly, multi pitch abseil decent, when to pitch or move together. Get the skills, then go gain the experience.
If you hire someone, see it not just as a means to tick a route, but a 8,10, 24 hrs window to suck as much knowledge off them as possible. Ask why they used that knot, why did we walk this way when others chose a different path across a glacier. You've paid for their time.
Then out on your own next time, if your skills and admin are up to speed you can focus on the route choice, the weather, those decisions and just move fast.
Depends on the course, the guide and the client. Many clients aren’t too interested in learning about conditions and the whys and wherefores. Equally, many courses are focused on getting up this or that summit as opposed to development of general skills and helping people to become self sufficient. If someone wants to develop and progress, they should choose courses focused on general technical climbing and take the opportunity to ask the guide questions. Then, with a modicum of experience and an awareness of some of the basic techniques and dos and don’ts you can have a go at doing your own thing. That’s how I started.
That’s not to say that the self-taught approach doesn’t work - I’m sure it does for plenty of people. However there’s a lot to think about in the Alps compared to rock climbing back home (many more ways to get killed), so it’s easy to get into a mess because you don’t know what you don’t know. You can have a great trip or not get much done and even get in trouble - depends on the people (some have better innate judgement than others) and the luck of the draw (crossing a snow bridge in the afternoon, it might hold for 9 parties but collapse under the 10th - who didn’t know to make sure they weren’t late descending off the route).
Maybe not relevant to Vinders, but I quickly learnt to be very prudent with potential French partners as many appeared to have done a lot in the mountains (ski touring, climbing, walking etc) but when we went out as a pair or in a small group it became clear that they had rarely been out except in a led group - either a guide or in a CAF group led by someone experienced. I now know to carefully ask who they had climbed with as well as what routes they've done
Good point. French don't have a monopoly on this though. Got blind sided on an alpine trip by an American after rock climbing with him extensively for a year. Had a good international alpine resume but turned out he'd done most of it all with a guide. Conveniently failed ever to mention that. The additional warning here is that he was a solid rock and ice climber at the crag but but that alone didn't translate to competence in the alpine.
Went in all gung hoe suggesting routes which seemed too hard and ambitious for me and turned out to be unable to even do the easy classics once there, largely due to fear and poor tactics (e.g. Wasn't comfortable taking up coils and simuling easy terrain). Trip ended in basecamp after climbing the easiest route in the area in 3x guidebook time. You'd think he'd have been at least willing to learn but that option wasn't on the table either. Maybe there's a deeper lesson here to how relying on guides might cripple someone... it's just one dude though so hard to generalize.
Anyway, used to be I was more interested in the ticklist but I've realized asking about prior partners on those routes is also really important.
The single biggest thing that will hold you back from gaining experience is the lack of like minded partners!!!!! Ones that are Committed, Reliable, have Free time, and you can get on with! I would concentrate on finding them first, then the rest will automatically follow. As Bogpetre eluded you need to be savvy enough to weed out the duck eggs, which is where local climbing days can come in. Clubs are always a good start, join as many as possible. Also short courses, (yes courses!) can be a good way to network at the same time as gain knowledge, so don't rule these out! Unfortunately my old technique of hanging around bars jumping into conversations doesn't seam to work as well as it used to, think the modern climber got the health complex thing and don't hang out there anymore, still can't seam to kick the habit though!! Enjoy the journey!!
This Alpine Conditions page gives a summary of what is being climbed at the moment, what is 'in' nick and what the prospects are...