How To Hone Your Alpine Psyche

© Dave Willis
Alpine dawn, Gross Glockner, Austria

  © Dave Willis
Alpine dawn, Gross Glockner, Austria
© Dave Willis
Andy Kirkpatrick gives us ten tips on staying psyched for the mountains:

You can read more about Andy Kirkpatrick, and check out his lecture details, on his WEBSITE

I was emailed by a climber this week asking if I had any ideas on improving mental attitude for alpine climbing, which I guess means, “how do you feel less worried about hurting yourself and push your limit”. So here's a brief run down of ideas on making you feel like Silva Karo!

Don't have kids

I struggle with my alpine psyche just as much as the next climber, and having children, and partners, and parents, who love you doesn't help. This was brought home to me this year climbing Zodiac with Ian Parnell, who it's far to say is one of the most balls-to-the-wall climbers Britain has ever produced. Anyway, being a father put a big dent in his psyche on that route, and this man, who'd led A5's and more chop-routes than anyone I know, was turned into a semi-gibbering wreck on a pitch he'd have flown up pre-daughter -some thing he freely admitted to. All of a sudden all he could see were ways to die -not a nice frame of mind.

Most of the best alpine climbers, with a few exceptions, aren't parents. They are fully married to climbing, and have very few things that hold them back in their passion. This means they remain more focused, and less weighed down by thoughts of responsibility; plus they can climb more, further improving their alpine psyche. The top British alpinists are slowly slipping away to the pressures of fatherhood (Cross, Parnell, Powel, Benson) while those without kids are pushing on (Bullock, Bracey, Helliker). If you are a parent then there are some climbers who manage it (Pretzl, Fowler, Turner) but it's never easy, but it does give you that 'fowler-esque' drive to make every second count when you're on the hill.

But anyone who has kids knows, the sacrifice of ice and snow is one well worth it. Sure, it makes life harder, and puts a dent in your climbing, or crushes it all together, but what you gain WILL be worth the sacrifice, even if it doesn't always feel like it when you're pining for the mountains when sat at the ball pool.

Build a positive alpine picture

It's easy to get into a very negative frame of mind about alpine climbing, seeing only the hazards rather than the beauty. This mental picture weighs down on your psyche, colouring your alpine dreams with dark hues that just aren't there in reality. If all you see are crevasses, avalanches, rock falls and storms, then you're in a bad place. Sure these things are there, but they minor players in the brightest most beautiful playground on the planet.

Alpine dawn, gearing up (Bernese Oberland).  © Jeremy Cowen
Alpine dawn, gearing up (Bernese Oberland).
© Jeremy Cowen

Don't believe the hype

Reading books by me or Mark Twight would probably give anyone the willies about alpine climbing, and although they are perhaps good texts on the mindset of climbers pushing their limit, they tend to be quite bleak. Read books by Rebuffat and Bonatti to find the romance that is alpine climbing. For me and Twight alpine climbing is a one night stand, but for these guys it was a courtship.

Feel up for it

Twight said 'the fitter you are, the harder you are to kill', and this, probably more than anything, has the biggest effect on your psyche. If you climb technical objectives (rather than cardio ones) then I'd argue that actual fitness was less important than people imagine, and just being able to climb Scottish V and rock climb Severe in plastics (with some jiggery-pokery) whilst carrying a rucksack, and all day, will get you up most ED routes in the Alps. What's important is that you feel as fit as you can be, meaning training hard before you go.

Training for alpine climbing is like no other training, and is best done by pushing yourself as much as possible, and in as many ways as you can. As a starter I'd focus on building stamina (mental and psychical) as well as strength. If I was to set out the best training you could do I'd say it would be a combination of triathlon-type training mixed with cage fighting training!

Many people say they don't have enough time to train, but one hour a day of really intensive training is all you need, and by intensive I mean training that makes you want to puke.

One month of this type of training before a trip will really iron out any self doubt.

Alpine Sunrise over Switzerland from the Col du Tour  © industrialiceman
Alpine Sunrise over Switzerland from the Col du Tour
© industrialiceman

Get the skills

I've met a few SAS guys over the years and the thing that impressed me was not their ability to get difficult jobs done, but their ability to never stop training for those jobs. This meant that, when the time came to do something dangerous, they knew instinctively what to do, both as an individual and as a team.

This carries over to alpine climbing, meaning practicing as much as possible the techniques and systems that you'll rely on. Once you have a technique in the bag you will feel confident you can do it and that confidence will increase your over-all confidence. If you're into big easy routes this may mean training your rope techniques - moving together, self rescue etc. - to the point that it's second nature (trying to remember how to tie in short on the Frontier Ridge isn't great). For harder alpine routes practice jumaring (with prussics, tiblocs, ropeman, jumars and belay devices), aiding, hauling, simul-climbing, self-rescue and bivys so when that time comes, you're not learning it on the job.

Get a good partner

It's possible to climb hard with a partner you've never met before, but building a good partnership is the ideal. Like Posh and Becks, a strong partnership is stronger than both parties combined, plus a partnership that trains together, stays together.

What's your motivation

If you're struggling with your alpine psyche it may be worth asking yourself if you really want to be alpine climbing in the first place? Maybe you're a rock jock and would be better off doing big safe alpine bolt ladders, or via ferratas, or big walls, and leave all that snow behind. Maybe skiing would scratch your itch, or perhaps just a spot of nice alpine bouldering would do it for you. Are you alpine climbing because that's what you feel you should do next?

Ueli Steck...Colton-Macintyre (VI,6) Speed Record  © Jon Griffith, Alpine Exposures
Ueli Steck...Colton-Macintyre (VI,6) Speed Record
© Jon Griffith, Alpine Exposures

Get a leg up

Climbing with much more experienced climbers can be a big shot in the arm for a climber, giving you the opportunity to watch and learn from someone who's already learnt from their mistakes. Also tackling a much harder route on a top rope can put harder climbing into perspective. Employing a guide for a day or two in the UK, or Alps, is well worth it (make sure you get a guide who's willing to teach you, not just drag you up a mountain).

See the magic

The Alps is an amazing place. It's also a place you can go climbing. By which I mean it's worth seeing the Alps as more than just mountains to climb, because on 9 out of 10 days you won't be able to climb them. Explore the trails on foot, searching out amazing vantage points; ski up to huts for the night; explore the range on a bike;go canyoning; paint a picture; do anything to make your alpine trip fulfilling. You may find that, the less you need the mountains tops, the nearer they become.

Alpine climbing sucks

Alpine climbing is a mugs game. It's an expensive and often fruitless search for the irreverent, filled with limitless frustration and unsatisfied desire, and broken dreams and nightmares fulfilled.

Alpine climbing will strain or destroy relationships. It will break up unbreakable partnerships. It will bankrupt you. It will break you. It may well kill you.

Do you still want to be an alpine climber?

If the answer is YES then your psyche has passed the test!

  • You can read more about Andy Kirkpatrick, and check out his lecture details, on his WEBSITE

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27 Nov, 2009
Really enjoyed that one, thanks Andy. Think I'll be a vicarious alpinist.
27 Nov, 2009
Great article Andy. I might try training till I puke everyday for a month and see what happens.
27 Nov, 2009
Food for thought Andy thanks. On the kids front, i sorted that one in my head the other day. "people who don't have kids, don't know what there missing" "people who do have kids, do know what there missing" Kind of sums up the perspective from both sides. I have Kids. No one could have explained how fantastic it was being a dad before my son was born so I could have happily carried life without kids, but after he was born I now couldn't imagine my life without him in it.
29 Nov, 2009
Great article, Andy. Thanks. Andy Kirkpatrick wrote: Ah well, that puts my (and I suspect many annual holiday alpininsts') modest achievements and aspirations properly into perspective!!
2 Dec, 2009
My wife is expecting our first baby in March and I wondered how this would affect my head....... after reading this article it looks like I'm fu**ed! Thanks Andy
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