First Alpine experience(s). Is this normal?

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 BikingLampy 16:40 Mon

(This has a certain amount in common with this thread

-booked through "reputable UK company" and a Patagonian guide who seemed to know everyone and used a factory-made Prussik loop to tie the middle man in (not me - I was the skinny guy on the far end) when there was 3 of us.

I'm 90% mountainbiker (but with a bit of industrial access in my history); this was my first alpine climbing trip - something different as a 50th birthday present to myself. The week was booked as a "Matterhorn trip", and I'd done a lot of prepwork for it - roped scrambling courses, lap after lap after lap of the autobelay routes at my local wall and a lot of solo scrambling. (A shame the very nice chap I was partnered with for the 2:1 client/guide ratio first 3 days had done zero climbing at all and was utterly out of his depth)

The first shock was that the guide (IFMGA) was new to the Alps - he was only there for a month total and was doing some of the routes for the first time with paying guests. He had a real chubbie for the Matterhorn, and was quite disappointed when it became obvious that it was never going to go (too much snow on it - most of the fixed gear was still buried at the point we had to make the go/no go call). He still wanted to go, essentially using my holiday to do a recce of the place, which was a hard no-no from me - if there was a decent chance (say 50/50) of getting up, I was game for a fight, but I wasn't up for blowing the cost of a (for me VERY expensive) holiday just to punter around. Plan B was Dent du Geant, which again he'd not done before. 

Now with my (ex-) MTB guide head on, there was no way I'd take guests down a trail I'd not ridden before - especially in big mountains. I'd want to be able to detail any obvious dangerous sections, or strict no-fall areas and I'd want to know what was coming so I could ride it with flow and give the guests following me the best experience. I mentioned this to the resort host, and he just brushed it off as not something to worry about. We obviously survived the experience, so arguably he was right, but I'm still a bit surprised...?

The big thing though, was how busy the routes were - Cosmiques and Entreves were busy but generally well mannered and I had some nice chats with people from all over, but Dent du Geant was basically a giant clusterfunk with everyone out for themselves, belay points stuffed with krabs to the point getting your own gear out was difficult, rope everywhere, some groups doing long pitches very slowly; others doing short pitches much faster and chaos ensuing (one slow group was being deliberately and vocally obstructive). One memory is of having to tunnel under/through a group who'd overtaken me then got stalled by the traffic at a set of chains to follow my rope now buried under all their string - all whilst stood on a narrow flake at the top of the main face. At one point I managed to mislay one of my guide's cams - I *know* I'd cleaned everything that was attached to our rope. Turned out someone had unclipped it from our rope (why?) and misclipped it back to a different one. (Fortunately the owners of the new rope recognised who it belonged to and returned it). But if stuff like that is happening, it feels like it would be really easy for a fatal error to happen, just as a result of the confusion. The summit was heaving - a quick photo and off we went again. The whole thing felt like a brawl - not with the mountain (which I was expecting), but with my fellow climbers, and there was very little time to savour the experience.

The guide reckoned he'd never seen anything like it either - maybe it was a perfect storm of a situation with the first good weather window and a later than optimal start as we couldn't get accom in the Torino hut, and it sure as hell was a memorable experience, but it was a long way from the peace and quiet I usually go to the mountains for! The views and landscape were out of this world, but it feels like if I do this again, it'll be a long way from Chamonix!

Post edited at 16:41
 pec 19:07 Mon
In reply to BikingLampy:

My experience of the Dent du Geant wasn'tquite as bad as yours but there were a lot of guides showing a casual disregard for the safety of their clients, other climbers and even themselves.

It sounds like the short weather window may have contributed to greater busyness on your ascent making matters worse.

Nonetheless, we actually had to rescue one guide who abseiled over an overhang only to find himself hanging free in space, unable to contact the rock, with less than a metre of rope left and no back up prussick to his belay device to stop him falling off the end of the rope.

On the ascent the same guide had displayed remarkable contempt for his hapless client who was clearly bricking himself and had fallen off, only to be shouted at like he was an idiot.

We had to shout to another guide to warn him he was going to abseil off the end of his rope as he came bounding down towards us without having equalised the lengths of each rope strand so that the shorter end wouldn't reach the abseil point. Again, he had no prussick back up.

There was also the usual barging past people on stances, standing on peoples heads on abseil points and running their abseil ropes through the same maillon as somebody else who was still abseiling.

I've never been greatly impressed by the professionalism of continental mountain guides (though I'm sure there must be some very good ones), and bad practice isn't rare to see but what we saw on the Dent was downright dangerous with multiple basic errors that should disqualify anyone from being in charge of anyone's safety.

Post edited at 19:09
 Abr 19:21 Mon
In reply to BikingLampy:

I did 2 X 4 week long trips to the Alps when I was climbing hard in my 20’s and realised it was not for me. Part of the things I didn’t like was the ways the guides operated….we didn’t use guides but virtually came to blows with some of them basically trying to bully people, including my mates and I when we were on the same routes etc….sounds like some of the same kind of practices are still going on. There are some fantastic guides for sure and their knowledge and professionalism is excellent but I’d definitely avoid the popular routes!

In reply to BikingLampy:

Wellcome to modern day alpine climbing. On the popular peaks, clusterf*cks at the belays are common and so are guides behaviour, including their pushiness and them stealing protection points. It is also one of the consequence of Earths overpopulation. Maybe we should have quotas on popular routes just like in Nepal?

 pec 21:24 Mon
In reply to pec:

I forgot to say in my post above that as well as not having a prussick backup, neither of the guides had knots in the ends of their ropes either, so reaching the end of the rope would have been curtains for both of them.

Post edited at 21:24
 pec 21:26 Mon
In reply to Stefan Jacobsen:

 Maybe we should have quotas on popular routes just like in Nepal?

The problem with that is that it would be the guides who get all the quotas which would only fuel their sense of owning the mountains.

In reply to pec:

We should have quotas on guides then

 pec 23:03 Mon
In reply to Stefan Jacobsen:


In reply to BikingLampy:

I climbed in the Alps for over 45 years.  I've lost count of the number of times I encountered rude, dangerous guides in that period. Nearly came to blows with one in the Dolomites when he climbed between me and my second on a traverse as I was still climbing and proceeded to unclip my ropes to replace with his own.

 McHeath 09:51 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

I‘ve only ever encountered the problem on crowded famous routes around the honeypot alpine centres. All the others I‘ve met on routes have been friendly and considerate.

 beardy mike 10:14 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

All of that sounds pretty unpleasant. But not all guides are equal, not all routes are the same. Try to find yourself a reliable guide, probably not one you just take of a t'internet outfit but someone who you select yourself because of personal recommendations and build a relationship with that person. I'm telling you right now, if you say to them you want to stay away from overcrowded, super popular routes, they will be busting to take you out. The reason those guides are the way they are is because they are doing the same thing day in, day out and are straight up bored, and just doing it to earn beer tokens...

In reply to beardy mike:

True but still unacceptable.  Of course, as in all walks of life, there are good and bad but there seems to be a disproportionate number of bad in this business.  Maybe it's simply because that is all we hear about.

 Howard J 11:05 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

I'm afraid that is normal, on the popular routes anyway.

In Britain we bring our culture of queueing to the crags.  Most of the time we are not under any great time pressure, so if we find ourselves on a busy route we often just accept the situation. Sometimes we might pass a particularly slow party, but we always ask first.

In the Alps, safety comes from getting up and down the route as quickly as possible before the afternoon storms arrive. If you are behind a slower party you just overtake them, perhaps using their gear to do so. On the most popular routes this can get messy, as you found. For Brits unfamiliar with this it can be a bit of a shock, and sometimes quite alarming.

Everyone has had bad experiences of continental guides, who at their worst appear to think that they are the only ones entitled to be on the mountain and who behave with cavalier disregard for the safety of any one else. Again, perhaps cultural differences come into play, but I wonder why the local climbers appear to tolerate it

"Guiding" in the sense of showing the way is only part of a mountain guide's role, and I would expect them to have the skills and experience to find the way even on an unfamiliar route. However on a trip expressly marketed to climb the Matterhorn I would expect the guide to be very familiar with it.  I would also expect them to have extensive local knowledge to find worthwhile alternatives if a planned route is out of condition. Your guide was no doubt fully technically competent, but I would have expected more than that, especially if going with a well-known company.

Perhaps the company took the view that these are straightforward routes which are well within the competence of any qualified guide. This is true, but you should not be paying for his on-the-job training while familiarises himself with the area. In your place I would probably complain to the company, and depending on their response I might not use them again.

Don't let this put you off Alpine climbing. There are plenty of quieter routes, and whilst you can still expect to be passed they should be less of a clusterf*ck. There are plenty of good guides, especially if you can go on a personal recommendation.

 beardy mike 11:07 Tue
In reply to Gaston Rubberpants:

I definitely feel like there is a bit of an echo chamber effect going on, I've met truly inspirational guides and instructors, and also some lousy ones. People are more likely to complain than praise. I agree that the behaviour is not acceptable and I've been on the receiving end many times. But I've also been on the receiving end of kindness and pleasantness. I learned a long time ago to stay away from trade routes where-ever possible as it's not just the guides who are a pain sometimes, it can be "civilians" too. Much better to be away from the hoardes.

 pec 11:08 Tue
In reply to beardy mike:

> The reason those guides are the way they are is because they are doing the same thing day in, day out and are straight up bored, and just doing it to earn beer tokens...

It does often seem like the guides are just in an unholy rush to drag their client up and back the mountain as fast as possible so they can get to the bar and compare notes with other guides about how inept their client was. But that's no excuse for fundamental basic safety errors which risk the lives of their client, themselves and other climbers whilst making no effort to provide a quality experience to their client who is paying a lot of money for it.

 Crest Jewel 16:54 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

If you decide to re-visit the Matterhorn again I would highly recommend Calum Muskitt IFMGA. Calum has had multiple successful guided client ascents of the Matterhorn. I believe Calum held the record number of guided ascents in one season outperforming Swiss Guides (that must have rankled).

A Patagonia Guide presupposes a highly competent Alpinist in an environment of Super- Alpinism with all the challenges Patagonia brings. Nevertheless, I believe it is best practice to guide clients on routes that are very familiar to them. This contributes and optimises the experience of the client. It's unfortunate that your experience was less than optimal. 

Post edited at 16:57
 Badpanda 17:48 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

Tales like this were why we avoided Cham for several years. We were there perhaps two weeks earlier and it was amazing. But we would defo not want to be on things like the Entreves any later (ie any busier)! I think these routes are just so damn famous (and very easy to access) so perhaps best at the very start of the season?

I share your culture shock at the Alps which is rather different to our UK communing-with-nature mindset. But there are many much quieter and more chilled areas. We also stick if we can to June or September. 

FWIW I've had really interesting conversations with Guides in the evenings in the huts and found them very generous with advice, sending photos etc. There's good and bad out there.

 Doghouse 19:36 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

> The first shock was that the guide (IFMGA) was new to the Alps - he was only there for a month total and was doing some of the routes for the first time with paying guests. o the mountains for! The views and landscape were out of this world, but it feels like if I do this again, it'll be a long way from Chamonix!

Not sure if it's the same company but I had exactly the same experience when on a trip with a "reputable UK company".  My guide kept shouting up to his mate for directions in Spanish, which I didn't understand but one of the other guys on the trip did and told me about later. 

They almost seemed to spot hire guides on the day - I had three different ones over a 10 day period and when I had an issue with one of the guides behaviours I was told they "weren't their guides'  and openly laughed at.  Things went downhill very quickly after that  

 Oscar Dodd 21:08 Tue
In reply to BikingLampy:

Re the Dent du Geant - my friend and I did it last year and had some very bad experiences with French guides. It was very busy (35 parties on the route that day according to the Torino Guardian), and a guided party began jumping the queue (bit of a dick move but not the end of the world). While my friend was clipped in to an anchor, the guide climbed through her ropes and belayed off a single bolt above her, before utterly shouting abuse at her for getting his ropes in a tangle (of course, she did not do anything) - by a long way the worse interaction I've had in the mountains. Other parties (unguided) were generally very friendly and were enjoyable to wait with on the belays. Gudied parties, although more friendly, generally had unhappy clients and very stressed out guides who were trying to manage the chaos - your story does not surprise me. 

IMO if you want a nice time climbing steer away from the classic and popular routes - normally if your willing to walk in a bit further and not climb something so well known you'll have the route to yourself and have a far more enjoyable time on climbing that is just as good if not better. 

 Alex Pryor 07:27 Wed
In reply to Badpanda:

My experience of Chamonix is from a multi-pitch rock climbing perspective rather than alpine climbing. Over ten years ago we spent 3 or 4 weeks climbing in Austria and often had the crag, and always the route, to ourselves. We visited Chamonix on our way home and did a few routes in the Aiguilles Rouges, where we encountered more climbers than we'd met in the whole time in Austria. I've not been back since.

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