Do you want to get started in alpine climbing? Here’s how to get started.

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“How can I get started in alpine climbing? Seems like a great way to escape the crowds, but a bit intimidating. What is a good progression?

—Joanna W.


Actually, you are right on both counts. A big part of alpine climbing is looking at a wild, beautiful, untouched expanse of rock covered in snow, and trying not to poop your pants. I mean, it’s a great way to find beauty and solitude, but it’s often uncomfortable.

However, the discomfort factor can vary greatly depending on what you mean by “alpine climbing.”

If you want to climb Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos, Canada, you’ll first need to learn glacier travel skills for the approach.Jonathan BellUnsplash

What is alpine climbing anyway?

Alpine climbing is technically defined as climbing anywhere in the alpine zone or above the tree line. That includes alpine bouldering and high-altitude sport climbing, as well as the remote, windswept peaks you’re probably referring to when you mention the intimidation factor. Alpine climbing can also mean ice and mixed climbing above the tree line. In some parts of the country, such as the Pacific Northwest, some alpine rocks are only accessible through glacial terrain and steep snow, which require other skills.

If you’re just looking for solitude, the long approaches often required for alpine bouldering or sport climbing might be all you need. If that’s the case, great! All you need to do is pack a few extra layers and safety gear, and keep a close eye on the weather.

However, if you’re interested in multi-pitch routes or long traverses, be careful first: this is where the discomfort factor kicks in.

Why Alpine Climbing Sucks Sometimes

Let’s start with the aforementioned gastrointestinal upset. That can come from two sources. The first source: alpine climbing is scary. Above the tree line, the weather is unpredictable. Vicious cycles of melting and freezing often leave rock fractured and loose, and rockfall is a serious hazard. Also, bad rock is hard to protect. The second source: alpine climbing, by definition, takes place at a relatively high altitude. Different people react to altitude in different ways. Some get dizzy. Some have nausea. Some produce staggering levels of gas and find that their intestines demand attention at inopportune times. (You can’t call someone a fellow alpine climber until you’ve shit next to them in a hanging meeting.)

But even those who acclimatize to the altitude, or who don’t have any symptoms of altitude sickness in the first place, still feel fatigued and move more slowly in the thin, oxygen-poor air, especially above 8,000 feet or so. plus. Usually this would be fine. But in many alpine settings, like the Rocky Mountains, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Paradoxically, moving fast becomes critical in the environment where it is most difficult to do so. Perhaps you have heard the term “alpine start”? That means getting up early, as early as 1:00 or 2:00 a.m., to allow enough time to get back below the tree line before the lighting hazard hits around noon.

Why is it worth sucking?

If you decide to take up alpine climbing, you will wake up terribly early. You’ll climb with icy hands, yell at your buddy in 30+ mph winds, dodge hailstorms, re-climb inclines to free hopelessly stuck ropes, and spend an uncomfortable amount of time wondering how loose is too much when it comes to attaching gear. in full choice. It’s part of the game. And, in some masochistic way, it’s part of the fun.

Alpine climbing will bring you wild adventures, access to pristine landscapes and routes so long and beautiful they’ll make you cry. However, the trick to enjoying it all safely is to do it the right way. Which brings me to your questions.

How to start alpine climbing

I have taken all of the following steps in my journey to becoming an alpine climber. If I had to do it over again, I would take them in this order.

  1. Become a competent professional climber. Work on your multi-pitch transitions, rappelling efficiency, makeshift anchors, and gear placement until you feel confident in your ability to move safely and smoothly on any terrain. You can learn a lot by reading a book or taking an online course, but learning from a human is invaluable. Find a mentor or take a class in person. I personally learned from a handful of experienced friends for two or three years. I then took a one day anchor building course through REI, only to get official confirmation that I was doing everything right.
  2. Spend time at altitude. If you want to push your limits on lead, first make sure your lungs and intestines can handle the strain of altitude. Take a brisk walk up a peak at the same height as your potential ascent to understand how your body reacts. Example: I knew I finally wanted to climb technical routes on Longs Peak at 14,259 feet. So I hiked the non technical trail to the top as fast as I could. (I didn’t vomit, so I proceeded to the next step.)
  3. Check any skill for focus. Depending on where you live, you may have to cross a glacier or climb snow to get to the alpine rock technique. Again, find an experienced mentor to show you the ropes, then work those skills out on the field. Before climbing the North Cascades Torment-Forbidden Traverse, for example, my buddy and I practiced crevasse rescue systems at home and at the gym, and I went out with another experienced friend to brush up on my snow self-arrest skills. Broken.
  4. Have a safety plan. Every time you climb to a remote location, tell someone at home where you’re going and when to call for help if you don’t return by a certain time. Bring plenty of food, water, and layers in case you get lost or careless. It’s also smart to pack a personal locator beacon for rescue should a serious emergency arise. Every time I go up, I carry a headlamp, a first aid kit, a Garmin inReach Mini, and a pair of walkie talkies to keep in touch with my partner when he’s beyond screaming distance.
  5. Get a good partner. Find someone who has alpine experience and good mountain sense. On the mountain, it’s vital that you have a partner you can trust to make smart decisions and keep your momentum going. You are probably going to suffer, so choose someone you can have fun suffering with.
  6. Start small. Start with easy climbing and start in the summer. Summer conditions are more forgiving and the days are longer, giving you more room for error. I followed friends on alpine routes for a year or two before organizing and leading my own climb. For that one, I chose Blitzen Ridge (5.4). At about 13 miles round trip, it was a long day but well within my climbing ability. It’s also a good thing, because there was a lot of difficulty finding routes. There was fatigue. And there was certainly gastrointestinal upset. The day was only a success because my partner and I left a great buffer, both in terms of time and difficulty.
  7. Level up slowly. After your first successful alpine outing, choose something a little more difficult, either with a longer approach or a harder slope. Keep in mind that both add time and effort, which you’ll have to compensate for with better climbing efficiency and more accurate route finding.
  8. Know when to turn around. Alpine climbing puts you at the total mercy of the mountains. Doing it safely means leaving behind the send-at-all-costs mentality and realizing that success often means rescuing at just the right time. Good mountain sense involves knowing when conditions, weather, and your timeline combine to give you the green light or close your window faster than you can work. In the big ranks, getting to the top is a privilege and an honor, but so is getting out there in the first place, even if you end up taking your gear for a walk.

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