By Rob Collister
In the following article respected UIAGM/IFMGA Mountain Guide Rob Collister - who has been fully trained and guiding since 1976 - takes a look at Alpinism from the perspective of the entry level mountaineer. This article is designed to help an experienced climber, who has a good base level of experience in the likes of Wales, the Lakes District or Scotland, graduate to the greater ranges, with the Alps being the next logical step...
Alpine climbing looks deceptively glamorous in the photos. What disconcerts many British climbers on their first visit to the Alps is the sheer effort involved. The three-hour walk up to a hut with a heavy pack, the need to be on the move before daybreak to ensure good snow conditions or simply sufficient time, and a day which will be a minimum of six hours sustained movement, will often be twelve and, if things go wrong, may be much longer, all combine to make it a strenuous pastime. (On one memorable occasion we left a hut at midnight to return exactly 24 hours later, having been on the move the whole time and, to rub salt in the wound, having failed to complete our route.) To a large extent physical attributes determine who enjoys the Alps. Some revel in 'the magic of long days', the utter content that comes at the end of an exhausting climb, the rewards in proportion to the effort expended. Others are more suited to the bursts of explosive energy needed in high-standard rock-climbing, and for them the steady rhythm – plod, some would call it – of an alpine climb, holds few attractions. However, whatever type you are, fitness is essential if you are to enjoy an Alpine holiday, and the fitness that comes from hill-walking or running will be of more use than weight training or climbing wall fitness. Even starting from a high hut, the majority of alpine climbs are far longer than anything we have in Britain, and on top of that there is the debilitating effect of altitude.
Altitude is something one can do little to prepare for. It is common to suffer from a headache and loss of appetite the first night in a hut, and unless you want to feel thoroughly miserable you will not choose a 4000m peak for your first route. But most people acclimatise fairly quickly and after a few days it ceases to be a problem. The rate of acclimatisation does vary with individuals, though, and bears to no relation to fitness. A few unfortunates simply cannot adjust at all to the reduced amount of oxygen available, even at relatively low altitudes. For them Diamox might be the answer. But otherwise, it is better not to tamper with your body's chemistry. I question the trend towards using Diamox as a matter of course on expeditions; it is, after all, using a drug to improve performance which seems a dubious practice, frowned on in most sports.
nother important factor in the Alps is the weather. In Britain, even in winter, weather is usually just something we put up with. But in the Alps, storms can be so violent that you can move neither up nor down. More commonly, rock-climbs become plastered with snow in minutes, making them desperate, if not impossible. And electric storms, originating as convection clouds over the plains, are common in the afternoons, even in good weather. Few things are more terrifying than being on a high ridge, static electricity buzzing all around, knowing you are a prime candidate for the next lightning strike. Because routes are long and the weather rarely settled, speed comes to mean safety. It is necessary to forget the casual, laid back approach of British crag-climbing and cultivate a sense of urgency. Not for nothing do the French refer to the start of a climb as 'l'attaque'. Chiefly, this is a frame of mind, a determination to 'get up and go' but technically it is expressed by moving together with a shortened rope and a handful of coils wherever feasible, rather than climbing pitch by pitch. Coils are dropped or taken in to avoid holding each other up, partners keeping a runner between them on exposed ground and taking direct belays around rock spikes to protect one another on anything awkward and moving on with a minimum of fuss or time loss. It is a technique calling for constant vigilance and it is not easy to do well, but it is a skill well worth developing.
Climbing down is another skill we do not practise in Britain. Even when they have made good time on a climb, most British parties will be left behind by Continentals on the descent. It is also the most dangerous part of the day. Rock descents are often down couloirs vulnerable to stone-fall started by other parties, so speed is important. Snow will be soft, but overlying ice, and crampons will be balling up (anti-balling plates are worth their weight in gold here). Just when mind and body want to relax and let go after the tensions of the climb, you have to concentrate harder than ever. Abseils are particularly dangerous. The weak link is usually the anchor, so commando-style leaps which look impressive but shock-load the anchor are a bad idea. Unless descending an ice slope or a vertical wall, it is worth using a single rope and keeping abseils short. The longer they are, the greater the chance of a loop catching round a spike, or the knot joining the two ropes jamming in a crack. Always test in situ pegs, and preferably back them up for the first person down. Be very suspicious of old abseil slings. Every time a rope is pulled through a sling it burns a groove in it and, in addition, nylon is susceptible to ultra-violet light and deteriorates rapidly at altitude. It makes sense to carry a length of 6mm cord and cut it as and when you need it. It is a good idea to tie a knot in the end of the doubled rope, so there is no chance of sliding off the end of it. If you are the first person down an abseil, belay yourself before coming off the rope, preferably out of the line of fire of rocks dislodged by the rope or your partner. Then pull one end of the rope to make sure it can be retrieved. There is nothing more frustrating, time consuming and potentially expensive than a jammed abseil rope.
Why do it?
No climb is over till you are finally off the glacier. But, to quote Arnold Lunn, who was a keen climber until he broke his leg on Cyfrwy Arete on Cadair Idris and became more interested in skiing, 'No moments are more wholly satisfying than those which follow the safe return to easy ground'. If I seem to be dwelling on the dangers and discomforts of Alpine climbing, it is because the Alps are more dangerous and more tiring than our own hills, even Scottish ones in winter. Yet the rewards are great too. There are instants of sheer joy, as when you find a trickle of pure cold water halfway up a sun-baked rock spire, or pull round a corner to find the deep, vibrant, stained glass blue of King of the Alps in front of your nose, or when, after hours of shivering on north-face stances watching sunlight creep towards you, finally you climb into its warmth as into a loving embrace: these are the moments which last a lifetime. And there is the time of which Lunn speaks, stretched out in a flowery meadow, or allowing gravity to carry you down the zig-zags of a well-made path, when the world is a marvellous place and it seems that 'all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well'.
Glaciers and glacier travel
It is glaciation, cloaking the mountains in snow and ice and splintering the rock into fantastic shapes through the freezing and thawing of water in cracks, that makes Alpine mountains so spectacular, exciting and of a siren beauty. Glaciers are the bodies of permanent snow, hardened by time and pressure into ice, that flow out of the mountains. They are fed by the heavy snowfall of winter and melt in the warm temperatures of summer. When the rate of melt is greater than the natural rate of advance due to gravity, the glacier is said to be retreating. For 150 years the glaciers of the Alps, and indeed of everywhere except Antarctica, have been retreating, growing steadily smaller and becoming covered with rock or moraine, that falls on to the ice from the surrounding mountainsides. A moraine-covered glacier is in effect a rubbish tip of the mountains, and about as much fun to walk on. As few can fail to be aware, that process has speeded up dramatically in the last 30 years, radically altering many climbs.
Glacier ice is a plastic substance. It is soft enough to flow downhill, but stiff enough to crack open when stressed. Such stress occurs on the outside of a bend, for example, or whenever there is a steepening of the valley floor, or sometimes at the sides, simply because friction is causing the ice to flow slower than in the centre. In all these cases, the glacier will split open to form crevasses. These can be anything from an inch to fifty yards across. The smaller ones are usually the nastiest because less obvious. Glaciologists tell us that crevasses cannot form to a depth greater than 150 ft, but there is scant consolation in that.
In summer, the lower parts of most glaciers, when not covered with moraine, become bare of snow, revealing so called dry ice. Here crevasses are quite without malice and provide useful places to practise ice-climbing and rescue techniques. Higher up the mountain, however, they become masked by snow and a very different proposition. Immediately in front of you a crevasse may be invisible, but to the right or left a faint dimpling of the surface is often discernible, and it may prove to be the continuation of an open hole some distance away. In winter, or after fresh snow, these signs are hidden and great care is needed. Glaciers are probably at their safest in Spring when there is still a lot of snow about but freeze/thaw is strengthening the bridges. In summer, crevasses are usually safe early in the morning when the snow is frozen hard, but by the afternoon it will have softened, and the bridges will be in a precarious state. As the season goes on, crevasses become increasingly open. By the end of August, glaciers and icefalls which were straightforward ski runs in April can be all but impassable. It is a good rule always to rope up, even on a well-tracked glacier, unless you know from personal experience that there are no crevasses. Tracks in the snow or other parties wandering about un-roped are no guarantees that the glacier is safe. If hollow, probe it with your axe (easier if you have one of a sensible length, say 55–65 cms, rather than a pterodactyl) or a ski-stick. If your axe goes straight through, or the bridge collapses into the depths, try again elsewhere! It is not unusual to have to weave back and forth across a glacier, crossing or jumping each individual crack at its safest point. Late in the season, the only bridges remaining may be wildly improbably cantilevers of dripping ice. Often they are stronger than they look, but take no chances. Arrange a strong belay and cross on all fours to spread your weight as much as possible. (For constructing snow anchors, see The Handbook of Climbing, Fyffe & Peter.)
Crevasses, what happens when you fall?
Sooner or later, however, you will go through a crevasse whose existence you never suspected. Whether you plunge to the bottom, find yourself dangling at the end of a rope contemplating a bright circle of daylight somewhere above you, or merely feel your legs kicking in space while icicles tinkle far below, will depend entirely on your partner. The key to safe travel on glaciers is a tight rope at all times. Coils held in the hand will only increase the distance of a fall and the difficulty of stopping it. The most effective way of checking a fall is to throw yourself onto the snow in a self-arrest position. Body weight, combined with the friction of the rope biting into the lip, are normally sufficient – but only if there is no slack rope. It all happens very quickly and there are no substitutes for alertness, quick reactions, and a tight rope. Admittedly, that is easier said than done at the end of a long, tiring day and on a glacier there is definitely safety in numbers. In a party of three or more, 8–10 metres of rope between climbers will suffice, with spare rope carried around the shoulders and tied off. If anyone falls, it will usually be quickest to haul them out from the top, either with a straight heave if there are plenty of hands available, or by improvising a pulley-hoist. However it will often be necessary to drop the victim another end of rope first and arrange this over a rucksack at the lip so that the rope does not bite into the snow. The more usual, and the more hazardous situation is two climbers roped together. Here, it is always possible that one will drag the other into the same hole. To reduce the chance of this happening, a longer distance between climbers – 12 to 15 metres – is advisable. When climbing as a pair, it is essential that you can both prusik efficiently, since even with the most elaborate improvised hoists it is extremely difficult, and may prove impossible, for one person to hoist another when so much friction is involved. Little gadgets like a Ropeman, a Tibloc or a Petzl pulley can all help, but in general prusik knots or similar but more efficient variations, work quite well enough. Whatever the temperature on the surface – and the combination of ultra-violet radiation and reflected glare from the snow can be quite literally scorching to skin and eyes without protective cream, lip-salve and dark glasses – the inside of a crevasse is a bitterly cold place. Snow is, moreover, highly abrasive. It is worth always wearing gloves or mitts on snow, and preferably a long-sleeved shirt.
Avalanches in alpine mountaineering
If crevasses are an ever-present danger in
summer alpinism, avalanches are perhaps less of a hazard than at other times of the year. The greatest danger is from ice-avalanches. When a glacier flows over a projection or rock hard enough to withstand the crushing, grinding weight of ice above it, be it high up on the side of a mountain or in the flow of a valley, the ice will split open into ice-cliffs or seracs, which are continually collapsing and changing shape as the ice behind presses inexorably forward. The dangers of working through an unstable icefall are usually obvious and when the instability is not great, they can be fun to climb, presenting a series of technical problems to overcome. Not such an obvious hazard, and easily overlooked, are hanging glaciers poised hundreds, sometimes thousands of feet above. There are many approaches to routes, and even hut walks, that pass beneath such hanging masses of ice. Seracs seem more prone to collapse in the heat of the afternoon when melt water acts as a lubricant within cracks in the ice. Bonatti, on his frequent excursions to the Brenva Face and the Grand Pilier d'Angle on Mont Blanc, both of which are threatened by enormous seracs on the approach, used to carry a thermometer and did not bother to leave the hut unless the temperature at night was well below freezing. That he is still alive seems to justify his caution. Nonetheless, seracs can and do fall at all times of day and night and at all times of the year; gravity will always have its way in the end. The best policy is always to look above you before stopping for a break, and to accelerate whenever you are in the vicinity of hanging ice, even if you are plodding wearily along much-used descent routes like the Nantillons or Violettes glaciers. Snow, as opposed to ice, avalanches are less common in summer. Nonetheless, after prolonged bad weather, conditions will always be potentially dangerous for at least 24 hours, especially on lee slopes where windslab can form. Wet snow avalanches can occur almost anywhere in the heat of the afternoon, though fortunately they usually don't. A layer of snow lying on ice becomes so saturated with water that it suddenly slides away with a hiss, even on easy-angled slopes. The depth may not be great, but it will still knock you off your feet, and if there is steep ground below, the result could be fatal. Moral – try to avoid long, open slopes facing south or west in the middle of the afternoon.
Mountain huts in the Alps
Most routes take two days. The first is spent walking up to a hut, which need not be the Purgatory which it is often painted if you take your time and keep your eyes open for chamois, marmots and birds of prey, or sit down to examine the miniature world of bright colour and delicate shape of the flowers you are walking through; not to mention the wild strawberries, raspberries and bilberries you can find to eat.
The second day is the long one, starting early, climbing to a summit, descending to a hut and probably continuing to the valley. An economical use of energy is to do two or three routes from the same hut before returning to the valley ready to appreciate simple luxuries like a wash, clean clothes and fresh food; on the other hand, there is something more satisfying in traversing a mountain and descending to a new valley or a different hut. Huts are not as spartan as the name suggests. True, accommodation is in large communal bunks and sheets are not provided with the blankets, but now huts are supplied by helicopters rather than porters, meals, beers and wines are no more expensive than in restaurants lower down. If you are a member of an alpine club with reciprocal rights or have the BMC reciprocal rights card, you are eligible for half-price. Whether you get your money's worth depends on how many nights you spend in huts. The cheapest option is to take your own stove and cook in the room set aside for self-catering, though this is not permitted in Switzerland. A good compromise, avoiding the expense of buying meals, but saving the weight of stove and pot, is to take your own food and give it to the guardian to cook for a small charge; or you can simply buy hot water and subsist on cuppa-soups, bread, cheese and plenty of brews. Unfortunately, many huts are hideously crowded during July and August. There is nothing new in this. In the Badminton Library volume on Mountaineering, C T Dent wrote in 1892, 'For those not afraid of solitude there is a great charm to be found in a stay at one of these huts'. But Raeburn, writing in 1920, commented 'Those who go in August nowadays will find this rather sarcastic; the "solitude" is of much the same nature as that enjoyed by the sardine in its tin'. Since Raeburn's day, many new huts have been built, and existing ones enlarged so that some are intended to hold two hundred people. But the number of climbers has increased also. It is not uncommon at popular huts to find yourself sleeping on the floor or a table, and lovers of solitude would be better off in the North of Scotland.
An alternative to the huts
In good weather, I would always choose to bivouac. You don't have to have a Goretex bivi bag to be comfortable. You can work wonders with overhung boulders and dry-stone walling, and a poly sheet and bits of string can provide shelter without the c
ondensation of a poly-bag. A few minutes with an ice-axe will level and smooth the most uncompromising of sites. Admittedly, it means more to carry, but if you return the same way, bivi gear can be left under a boulder rather as early lady climbers used to hide their skirts. To arrive with plenty of time to find a site that is both comfortable and safe, to cook in the warmth of the evening sun, and to watch the day fade and the stars come out from the warmth of your sleeping bag is a facet of the Alps totally missed in the clamour of a hut.
Whether you bivouac or stay in a hut, it is always worth checking out the path you will be stumbling over sleepily by the light of a head-torch the following morning. It is frustrating to say the least to waste time gained by an early start blundering about in the dark looking for the right way onto the glacier or to the foot of your climb. Time spent in reconnaissance, as they say in the military, is seldom wasted.
Gear for alpine mountaineering
If you are to climb rapidly for a long time, the last thing you want is a heavy rucksack on your back. Terray, in Conquistadores of the Useless, describes how he and Lachenal came to recognise that they must carry only what was essential, rather than what might come in handy. Yet one ignores the hazards of high mountains at one's peril. My own feeling is that it is plain foolishness to venture into the mountains without a bothy bag of some sort, and that a little piece of karrimat, carried down the back of a rucksack, is of more insulation value than a down jacket, and far lighter (and cheaper!). It is worth, however, having plenty of hill-food – chocolate, dried fruit and so on – and a water-bottle is important. A litre bottle is sufficient, as its main purpose is to reduce discomfort. You are bound to become dehydrated during the day, but determined drinking at night is the answer to that, not a gallon of water on your back. As you get fitter, the parched mouth and craving for liquid will decrease. Clothing can seem a problem since it is bitterly cold before dawn and liable to be extremely hot during the day. In practice, you warm up very quickly once on the move, even in the early hours, and generally you need to wear less than in Scotland in winter. Longjohns are not necessary, and not worth carrying in reserve, either – it is a rare person who is prepared to undress completely to put them on when it gets cold. Better to regard waterproofs, bottoms as well as tops, as an extra insulating layer to wear first thing in the morning, on windy summit ridges or when the weather breaks. Fingerless mitts are useful, not just for rock-climbing in cold conditions, but for wearing under mitts to fiddle with crampon straps, cameras and so on; they are better value than finger gloves, which wear out at the tips in no time, unless they are made of windstopper fleece. As for hardware, it is not worth the extra weight of a hammer, except for specific ice-routes; most rock routes are littered with pegs or bolts and most climbs are easily protected with chocks. In fact, on routes up to Difficile, plenty of long tape slings and three or four rocks on wire are ample. However, it will be an unusual climb on which you can dispense with axe and crampons. (For an explanation of the Continental grading system see the introduction of any guide book.)
Planning an alpine mountaineering trip
The highest and most heavily glaciated region is that known as the Western Alps, and roughly comprises the Mont Blanc massif on the French-Italian border, the Pennine Alps on the South side of the Rhone Valley, spanning the Swiss-Italian border, and the Bernese Oberland to the North of the Rhone Valley which is totally in Switzerland. As you travel South and East the weather tends to improve and the mountains become rockier, till you reach the Julian Alps in Yugoslavia, the Maritime Alps in France, or the Dolomites in Italy, all of which are unglaciated.
Thinking beyond Chamonix
It is a sad fact, but true, that for most British climbers the Alps means Chamonix. Yet the Alps is a huge and diverse area with several other major centres, and full of charming valleys to explore and small villages from which to climb. I strongly recommend that you do not go to Chamonix for your first season. True, the climbing is magnificent and justly famous, but there are many more suitable places in which to start – Kandersteg, Arolla, the Bernina, the Otztal, the Ecrins to name but a few – and Chamonix, alas is a 'scene'. There is nothing new in this. Even in the Thirties, Shipton hated the 'fevered competition' the place engendered. In such an atmosphere, it is all too likely that the tyro will be enticed onto a route too hard for him or her (not technically, perhaps but in terms of length and seriousness), or will become demoralised by the epic replays and big talk in the bar, and never leave the valley.
Climbing at the right grade
Apprenticeship is not a popular concept when you can be climbing the upper E grades within months, or even weeks, or starting to climb. But an understanding of high mountains, be it conscious or intuitive, does take longer to acquire, and there is much to be said for not attempting anything harder than AD Assez Difficile, (fairly difficult) in your first season, whatever your grade on rock. A familiarity with snow is invaluable, too; and I mean snow, not vertical water-ice! The traditional progression from English or Welsh rock, to Scottish snow and ice, to alpine mixed climbing, makes a lot of sense. The best way to start is with a friend who already has two or three seasons experience. Failing that, it is worth considering a course. A glance at the ads in any of the magazines will show that there are plenty to choose from. Any employing British Mountain Guides, recognised internally, will be professionally run and good value. I don't advise teaching yourself and learning the hard way, however laudable that may seem in theory. Mistakes are too likely to be fatal. I tried it my first season, and having endured a cold and miserable forced bivouac on my first route, was very nearly killed on the third when an abseil spike broke. I learned lessons I have never forgotten, such as the need to move together and with urgency on easy ground, and to be very cautious of abseils; but I could have learned as much, or more, in safety with someone more experienced. Finally, do get your BMC insurance. An accident can literally cost a fortune, especially a lengthy stay in a Swiss hospital. On that cautionary note, 'Bonne Course'.
About the author
Rob Collister (a professional IFMGA/UIAGM Mountain Guide), is available for guiding trips in the Alps, including glacier journeys, introductions to Alpine climbing, classic climbs and more serious one-to-one Alpine ascents.