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Advice for starting out in alpine mountaineering

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I've been trying to work out what is the best route for myself into alpine mountaineering. I realise that there are plenty of courses run by reputable outfits such as Jagged Globe, ISM etc and they all seem to be around the £1500 mark for a week. I was wondering though if any of the forum users had any better or alternative ideas for how to start? 

Some background about myself:

Too old to qualify for Conville courses!

A couple of years experience of scrambling grade 3 and leading up to S.

A couple of winters on routes at II

Been up a couple of 2500m-3000m peaks in Germany and Spain involving some mild scrambling (grade 2?), hut stays, long days. (no snow).

Obviously covid could prevent anything happening this year but I'm trying to stay optimistic.

Any advice or suggestions would be much appreciated. 

 Doug 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

cheapest option is likely to be with friends or with a club. But you could look at courses by UCPA (see https://www.ucpa.com/adultes ). Although French I think they run some courses in English & they are (relatively) cheap as they are subsidised by the French government.

 Al Randall 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

1.  Join a club.

2. Buy a book/DVD of Alpine techniques.  BMC used to do a very good DVD.

3. Practice in a familiar environment.

4. Go and get on with it but start slow and easy.

The techniques are easy to learn but a lot of stuff that you need to know is based on experience and good judgement. Glacier travel and moving together are probably the hardest to learn and the most alien to experienced UK climbers regardless of their technical competency and grade climbed. Sometimes the size and scale can seem a little overwhelming.

Al

Post edited at 12:56
In reply to OldGrouse:

Thanks for the replies. Yes, should really look into joining a club as a priority.

 I have some regular climbing partners but they are less interested in heading out to the alps for the foreseeable future. Assuming I can find a partner what's peoples thoughts on hiring a local (english speaking) guide having practiced techniques in the UK? Unnecessary for fairly easy (<AD) peaks?

 Webster 05 May 2021
In reply to Doug:

im certian UCPA will run courses in English as a considerable chunk of thier client base is scandinavian!

 Gwinn512 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

When you say "alpine mountaineerring", what are you trying to do? And what skills do you lack to do it?

Rather than thinking of it as one big area, that you go on a course to somehow learn, try to use and slowly expand your current skillset on things that are just about within your comfort zone, and can be done in isolation (and later combined on bigger objectives):

  • Trad climbing - climb lots of UK trad, get your lead grade up, it will all come in handy
  • Winter climbing - try and climb more and harder stuff in Scotland
  • Camping / being in the outdoors - try and go to wild camping in worse conditions / snow, do some snowshoeing/ski touring
  • Glacier travel - take a crevasse rescue course, then go on easier glaciers in the Alps
  • ...

I find the UK is amazing for acquiring all the sub-skillsets required for alpine climbing, as you get a chance to practice almost all of the things in isolation, only adding difficulty where you want to.

Rather than say, going to the Alps, and attempt a climb, which will require a high degree of skill across multiple of the above areas.

Personally, rather than pay for a course, put the same money towards trips which will expand your limits slightly and be fun. And if you don't have a partner, you probably want to join a club first.

In reply to Gwinn512:

Thanks, all great advice. In answer to your question I wouldn't be looking to do anything harder than PD initially , so would assume glacier traversal / crevasse rescue skills would be the priority. 

The responses would suggest I'm not mad for forgoing "formal" courses out in the Alps! Which is what I was hoping.

Post edited at 15:54
 Al Randall 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

You could of course seek out rock only routes that do not require a glacier approach and associated skills but some would say that's not really experiencing THE Alpine experience at it's best.

Al

 Rob Parsons 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

> The responses would suggest I'm not mad for forgoing "formal" courses out in the Alps! Which is what I was hoping.

If you get fit beforehand (both hill fit, and climbing fit - to whatever your current levels are) then you could do a lot worse by going on a two-week course in the Alps run by some reasonable operator. It's no bad way to kickstart things.

> Assuming I can find a partner what's peoples thoughts on hiring a local (english speaking) guide having practiced techniques in the UK? Unnecessary for fairly easy (<AD) peaks?

On that question: you can get into trouble on easy routes, or on difficult ones - so there is no simple answer. But I assume that your overall aim is to get competent enough that you can tackle routes you want to do with friends, rather than always using guides.

 Chaildn 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

> Thanks, all great advice. In answer to your question I wouldn't be looking to do anything harder than PD initially , so would assume glacier traversal / crevasse rescue skills would be the priority 

> The responses would suggest I'm not mad for forgoing "formal" courses out in the Alps! Which is what I was hoping.

I went on a spur-of-the-moment 'Intro to Alpinism' course by Jagged Globe, with similar experience to you, and I wouldn't recommend it.

The guide and course attendees were all lovely, but I felt it was:

-  geared towards getting people who enjoy hiking/the outdoors who have little or no  rope/climbing/leading experience.

- a little slow going teaching skills because of the above

- prepping people for other guided trips e.g. Mt Blanc or the Matterhorn (not a bad thing at all, but not my objective, or probably yours) not independent trips

I imagine that's much of the reason the Conville course is so recommended, because it's much more likely the accepted atendees have similar existing skills, experience and ambitions.

Looking back, I feel like my money would have been much better spent going out to the alps with a friend/partner and hiring a guide for a day (or two) and specifically going over the basic skills they teach you like glacier travel, moving together, crevasse rescue, ice/snow anchors. Then going up some easier objectives with your friend/partner to practice those skills.

...but obviously finding a partner with similar experience and ambitions is much easier said than done!

Post edited at 17:35
 Mark Haward 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

Different options suit different people.

   The courses you mentioned are excellent and will give you a great starting base for climbing independently and are, arguably, the fastest and safest way to learn but do not come cheap and some people actually prefer a self taught method.

   As Al has said the BMC Alpine Essentials is an excellent starting point. I would also recommend the Bruce Goodlad alpine climbing book. It even has recommendations for areas and routes for novice climbers.

    Joining a club that does regular alpine trips may work for you, or going with some like minded friends and learning together; but you mention this may not be an option. You could always use the UKC forum for finding a potential partner (s) - just make sure you meet and climb with them in the UK before committing to climbing with them in the alps. 

   As Gwinn and Al pointed out there is a lot you can do, learn and practice in the UK in preparation. Long days walking and scrambling in the hills for fitness. Possibly going down scrambling routes too, at a grade you are very comfortable with of course. Linking several climbs together at the grades you are comfortable with. Getting more crampon / axe experience and skills next UK winter if you can't get to the alps this summer..

   Practice some of the techniques from the DVD / book in a comfortable and familiar environment in the UK. You could hire a guide or instructor for a day in the UK. It is even possible to learn / practice many of the glacier rope work skills in the UK too. Some clubs will often arrange for a day of glacier / alpine preparation instruction with costs split between the group.

    You could hire a local guide once in the alps for a couple of days. Personally I would recommend hiring a British guide ( member of the ABMG ). Unless on a course many continental guides focus on getting you up and down a peak / route rather than focussing on teaching you what you may need to become an independent alpine climber.

   Enjoy the journey...

 gravy 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

Unlikely to be of benefit this year but the Conville people do occasionally let older folk take last minute cancellations. Other than that take it easy, build your experience and fill the knowledge gap by cultivating more experienced friends and partners. There are always clubs.

 pec 05 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

> The responses would suggest I'm not mad for forgoing "formal" courses out in the Alps! Which is what I was hoping.

Until relatively recently nobody went on formal courses, you combined your experience of trad climbing and winter climbing, got yourself to Chamonix and just got on with it.

There's no reason why people still can't do that anymore, we just live in a more risk averse society in which we've been conditioned to think we can't do anything until someone "official" has told us it's ok.

 waitout 06 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

I think;

- learn as much as you can re alpine ropework, strategy, basic climbing yourself, ideally over the warmer months/off season

- find a guide who is also an instructor (don't confuse the two nor expect one from the other) and book some on-mountain learning time, capitalizing on what you learned yourself (it's a waste of time & money getting an instructor to teach you what you could have learned in a t-shirt yourself)

- ideally do a trip or two like that with different people to get a variety of input. This stuffs not rocket surgery, but there good and better practices

- building a network of people to partner with takes time, expect to pay for some guiding till it's rolling out, as well as solo stuff on easy routes. Don't let days and seasons slip by due to not having partners because in the end it's your 'resume' that helps secure that.

- research what you like so you have ideas for when potential partners come by. These things often start in the pub by joining a conversation, so being seen to be on the ball (and paying the round) shows aptitude. The solid fella who's psyched, easy to get along with, on time and is going somewhere with it gets more invites than the wannabe rock star.

- having a fancy new rope helps. Alpinists are obsessed with things like that and being able to say "I'll bring the rope" goes down well. If you can't afford it, a hip flask of Speyside for after achieves similar. Do both and you will be turning away partners.

- don't bookend yourself prematurely. This stuff can lead to the greatest peaks on earth and if that's in the back of your mind keep it watered. More than once idle chat on the trip home in the car has lain the seeds for stuff they write books about. It gives a healthy direction to things.

- if you're married, start working on a portfolio of excuses to be gone before sunrise half the weekends of the year.

In reply to OldGrouse:

Check out the Austrian Alpine Club UK section.   Not sure about this year but next year shoudl be fine, fingers crossed.   https://aacuk.org.uk/x-austrian-training-alpine-skills

In reply to OldGrouse:

Thanks again for all the replies, much appreciated!

I think a lot will hinge on being able to get a regular partner(s) in the UK. As has been suggested many times, joining a club is a good place to start. Any suggestions for clubs in the Merseyside area? Vagabond?

With that in mind, if anyone is reading this thread and in a similar situation and looking for partners please send me a message and lets meet up!

On the other side of the coin: like Cahildn does anyone have any testimonials of courses being in a similar situation to mine? UCPA courses look very good value but my French is nil and its not clear whats expected in terms of language. Austrian alpine also looks good but would more likely be next year. 

 Mark Haward 06 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

I have always heard great things about these alpine courses from people who have been on them, just make sure you choose the one appropriate to your level through discussion with them:

Icicle Alpine Autonomy Course

Jagged Globe Alpine Techniques

ISM Classic Alpinism

You choose the type of learning, experience, the time and financial investment that suits you. Personally I was self taught with mates and loved that sense of independence and challenge. Others prefer a guide, course or a mixture over the years in their alpine journey. Guiding aside, alpine courses have been going strong since at least the mid 60s, and have really gained popularity in more recent years as a quick, effective and probably less risky way to become an independent alpine climber. .

    A slightly different and more economical option would be to do some self teaching ( with mates / club ) in the UK, then some more self learning on very easy terrain in the alps, then hire a guide for a day or two to refine your knowledge and get route recommendations for the area you have chosen. Then start climbing suitable routes independently. So instead of spending a lot of money on one week you could probably spend the same amount and get 2-3 weeks climbing in. The various courses often highlight areas and routes on their websites they often use which would give you some good ideas. Plus, nearer the time, you can ask the UKC hive where they would recommend. There are many very active alpine climbers who visit this website and I'm sure would be willing to share their ideas...

 gooberman-hill 06 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

It may be worth separating out the various bits of the full alpine experience and tackling them one at a time. Many of the high alpine areas combine long routes, glacier travel and poor rock.

Having first visited Chamonix at the age of 17 (staying on Snell's Field - an experience in itself!), I can confirm that hitting all 3 simultaneously is a good way to scare the crap out of yourself - despite a youthful over-reliance on my own immortality. 

Maybe think about starting more gently. The Maritime Alps have beautiful mountains (up to 3200M), with good rock and easy approaches (everything can be done in a day from the road, with no glacier travel). There are lots of good easier routes, from 200m up to maybe 500 or 600m at the biggest. So you can get a lot of mileage in and learn how to climb (ad get off) bigger routes quickly and safely (and at nice easy grades). Then you can add in glacier travel when you have built up some experience.

Steve

In reply to OldGrouse:

Hi,

As many have said you can do a lot yourself by reading books and going at it slowly, I am based near Briancon and the Ecrins there are some suitable peaks near here that could work well, that are fairly straight forward (still need glacier travel knowledge) happy to help with a bit of advice about options. a good book is Bruce Goodlad alpine mountaineering, (he is also a great guide, see guide bit below)

Also, I would say get on some facebook groups and try and find some like minded people with similar experience, having a partner lined up saves a bit of stress and you can get to know each other and do a bit of training before hand, make sure you have similar goals etc. You may even find someone with a bit more experience willing to take you out. Just make sure you ask lots of questions to make sure you feel safe they do know what they are talking about, don't be embarrassed to ask, most climbers are happy to talk about their climbing

For guides its always of time v money issues, they cost but you will learn a lot faster and get it right first time rather than trail and error. Guides have set ratios so if you go with a group then the guide fee is split by the group so cheaper but you have to work at the groups pace and goals, if you book 1 to 1 you foot the whole bill but get 1 to 1 learning. I am not sure what is happening with British mountain guides this summer with brexit, in theory they will need a work permit which hasn't been sorted yet, but there are a number that live out here, happy to recommend some if you like. Don't rule out local french guides but make sure you get a recommendation and be very clear what you want from a course, if you just say I want an alpine summit they will tie you in and drag you to the summit, as that is what a lot of tourist want. you need to say you want to learn how to do it on your own they will show you. they run very good course when they know what you want. Again happy to recommend some in the Ecrins area all speak great English.

For me a good compromise would be to try and get a partner or a small group at the same level do lots of reading and watching video (sorry old I mean DVD's), and maybe a practice weekend in the UK, Then do 1 or 2 days with a guide covering the basics and then have the rest of the holiday to use what you have learnt and explore. that's probably a good split of time v money.

cheers Rob

 pdone 06 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

I think a lot will hinge on being able to get a regular partner(s) in the UK. As has been suggested many times, joining a club is a good place to start. Any suggestions for clubs in the Merseyside area? Vagabond?

Try a few clubs - Merseyside MC, Wayfarers' Club, Vagabond MC, St Helens MC.  They are all different and some might suit you more than others.  Only a fraction of their members will be alpinistes. 

Good luck.

 mysterion 07 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

With your experience I'd advise you just start doing it.

In reply to OldGrouse:

1. Read up; books, articles, etc.

2. Apply critical thinking to techniques taught, assess their suitability, test them out at your local crag.

3. Practice alpine rope work on UK scrambles with your chosen partner to learn the systems and get fit. A couple of months, every weekend should be sufficient. 

4. Assess your fitness and ability. Train the weaknesses in your systems. 

5. Choose an easy objectives where you can practice the skills. Just as you would with trad. 

6. Have fun. Keep cool, don't overheat.

7. Avoid grey ice, it's bullet hard, ruins the day and often is avoidable. 

Breithorn from Cervinia is good for a first time at altitude, it's a simple walk. Stay the night in the hut for aclimitisation bonus and early start before the first lifts to get the summit to yourself. Use the opportunity to practice crampon skills.

A day out on the Mer Dr Glace is also a good way to practice cramponing. The guides often set up little top ropes on steep sections, do this too. Watch them, monkey see monkey do. 

Grand Paradisio, little scrambling, more crevasse risk. Bit more of an alpine objective, bolt protected. Can be busy but will give you a feel of what that's like. 

Polluce, slightly harder, more fun, exciting towards the top, be confident in your crampon skills first. Castore, again a great day out. 

Books wise the Bruce Goodlad "alpine mountaineering" is good. Also the orthovox series from last year and the arcteryx academy films are worth watching online. 

 Trangia 08 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

I would suggest the Austrian Alps as being a better destination than the Western Alps for a first timer because you get the experience and excitement of Alpine climbing, ridges, glaciers, crevasses, avalanche risks etc, but because they are lower and smaller, they tend to be less serious, and take less time to climb. Of course they shouldn't be underrated, but in my experience they tend to not be as potentially dangerous as the Swiss or French Alps. The highest Austrian peaks are about 3,000 ft smaller than the highest Western Alp's peaks. Eg Gross Glockner 12,461ft - Mt Blanc 15,771 ft

 Rob Exile Ward 10 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

My youngest son has done a couple of UCPA courses and speaks no French at all, so that doesn't seem to be a problem.

Easy routes in the Alps are a joy, whether snow plods or rock - as Mo Anthoine discovered, you don't have to come back from every route completely wasted and with bulging eyes to have had a good time. Climbing mountains like Disgrazia or Pyramide Vincent, or routes like the Moine or Pt Louise (Ecrins) should give memories for a lifetime without near death experiences. You can always crank it up later if you're so inclined.

My personal tip - the key to glacier travel as a rope of two is knotted ropes. Nobody knew about that when I started in the 70s, and I never believed that one person would be able to hold the other in the event of a crevasse fall; this was quite inhibiting! Knotted rope made a whole load more sense.

  

 Safaribrit 10 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse: If you’re NW based ... try Merseyside MC. 

In reply to OldGrouse:

If you get guidebook advice or directions for Chamonix area that are not bang up to date the info may be suspect at best or dangerous at worst, so much has changed over a short timespan as snow ice retreated

Make sure you get up to date info!

 Al Randall 10 May 2021
In reply to Rob Exile Ward:

I never had doubts about holding a climber falling into a crevasse, I did that several times, but I had huge misgivings about the chances of being able to get one out without further assistance unless they were able to help themselves to a large extent.

Al

 colinakmc 10 May 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

I came to the alps late, after a few decades of Scottish summer & winter mountaineering and a wee bit of climbing (nothing too hard cos I’m crap at it and would just hold folk up!) Did a course basically to figure out the new hazards - rockfall and crevasses - but as someone else said it’s a very different experience and not the same as doing your own thing. (Although it was good to spend time with Martin Moran)

Since been back a few times with a club and confirmed (1) that PD and PD+ are basically “hillwalking plus”; (2) Going yourself (or rather with self guided friends) has a totally different feeling  and (3) a small minority of (my) club members are up for the high tops, so your trips can take careful planning.

If I got to do it again I think I’d try and get a posse together for an independent trip but then procure a guide for a couple of days’ coaching on ropes and crevasses, then just get on with it.

In reply to OldGrouse:

From personal experience pair up with somebody with experience. That may be more difficult nowadays as not as many climbers see alpinism as a natural climbing progression. Many years ago myself and a friend went to Chamonix and did precisely nothing. We didn’t have any relevant experience other than rock climbing. A couple of years later I went back with an experienced partner and we did 3 of the classic n. faces in 1 month including the Eiger, my first mixed route. For me no better example of climbing with an experienced partner getting results. Don’t fret about glacier travel. Dry glaciers are the roads to the mountains and don’t provide many problems, but short rope on a wet glacier and know how to set up a rescue, easily learnt from online vids. Good luck.

 bogpetre 08 Jun 2021
In reply to OldGrouse:

Crevasse rescue and wall rescue are similar enough that you can gain lots of the self rescue skills you need from a class at a local gym. Glacier experience and technical abilities can be developed in parallel. There are lots of accessible easy glacier routes in the alps you can get on to start developing this experience without undue hazard. Getting some PDs, PD+ and AD- routes under your belt is a good idea. Winter climbing and ice cragging experience will help you with some of the most basic technique, like not tripping over your crampons and swinging your axe efficiently.

Biggest impediment will be your partner. Can you find someone else who is also interested in getting started like you, who is willing to commit the time and money, and with whom you get along? Clubs might be one way to find those people, but I've never had any luck there. Too much talk, not enough action. If you can find relevant local classes, that might be a better option. Whereever you go, keep your head up and try to get a sense of how long people have been languishing about without getting serious. A dedicated individual climbing full time should be able to go from zero to AD routes in a couple of weeks. If you find yourself surrounded by people who have been stuck there for years, you're in the wrong club, but sadly a very typical one.

Post edited at 05:15

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