/ 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!
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