Alpine climbing or “alpine mountain climbing” is one of the relatively more dangerous forms of rock climbing and mountaineering. It’s not for the faint-hearted because you’ll literally be climbing a mountain, and they’re by no means easy to scale.
Yes, the outcome is fulfilling, but the journey is full of unexpected complexities such as adverse weather conditions. It’s a common misconception that hard alpine climbing involves snowy or icy mountains – it’s gonna be harder than you can imagine regardless of whether there’s ice, snow, or neither of the two.
So it’s important to prepare for any abstract scenario that could happen so you can put out the fire ASAP. I remember my first day of alpine climbing with my friends. It was fun but complicated. We didn’t reach the summit and ended up going back after the halfway point.
Still into it? Good, because alpine mountain climbing is difficult but not impossible. With proper training and preparation, you can even reach the summit. Let me show you how in this quick guide.
What is alpine climbing?
“Alpine climbing” can mean more than one thing these days. Free climbing (without gear or equipment) and oxygen-free climbing (without supplemental oxygen) are also classified as “alpine climbing” because of the similarities.
The concept goes as far back as the 1300s when the French poet Petrarch became the first-ever recorded alpine climber when he reached the summit of Mont Ventoux.
Alpine climbing is a discipline of rock climbing and mountaineering where you climb a mountain or “rock climb in alpine conditions.” It challenges you to incorporate the technical skills of rock climbing with the unpredictability of climbing a mountain to reach the summit.
This discipline of climbing is broadly classified via two different subsets –
Classification based on climbing-style
- Free climbing is where you don’t use any gear at all.
- Aid climbing is where you use the equipment for assistance.
- Clean climbing where all the equipment and holds are used.
Classification based on the geographical area
- Alpine rock climbing
- Alpine ice climbing (you’d need a hand ax for this one)
- Alpine mixed climbing
Two more terms are commonly thrown around forums and other places of community discussions – alpine-style climbing and alpinism. And they’re technically different from alpine climbing.
Alpine-style isn’t a climbing discipline but a choice. It’s identical to free climbing in terms of the “no gear rule,” but it’s broader than just “mountain climbing.” The climbers get incredibly better at climbing faster and efficiently. Alpinism, on the other hand, is the art of mount climbing and reaching the summit.
1. How is it different from rock climbing and mountaineering?
In alpine climbing, you’re essentially climbing a rock wall (just bigger), so why not call it rock climbing? Or mountaineering, because obviously. That’s because they’re all different.
Alpine climbing is much more arduous than rock climbing and mountaineering. Any rock climbing route above 5.10 is no joke, but a 5.6 becomes deadly during climbing.
Mountaineering, on the other hand, encompasses a whole new set of activities – from ascending various mountains to rock climbing and bouldering at specific parts of the mountain.
2. How to become a good alpine climber?
To get good at alpine climbing, you need to scale rock climbing walls much more efficiently and quickly. You’ll also have to adapt to the shift in weather patterns, the drop in temperature, and the difference in atmospheric pressure.
We’ll dive into these factors in this guide. Now let’s get to the fun stuff.
What makes the alpine climb so dangerous?
Honestly, nearly everything about alpine climbing makes it more dangerous than other disciplines of rock climbing. It’s not a sprint, but a marathon. You need to be able to expertly climb rocky or icy walls, walk long hikes with heavy equipment and scale your way through a literal glacier.
Yes, it’s extremely dangerous. Here are the factors that make alpine climbing deadly for newbies and ill-prepared climbers:
1. The Temperature Will Freeze You
“Alpine conditions” mean that the temperature will decrease to crazy levels as you climb higher. The average atmospheric temperature of an alpine climate is between 34.7 and 37.4 °F (1.5 and 3 °C).
2. The Shift In Atmospheric Pressure Is Revolting
The cold temperature is actually the least of your worries if you’re dressed right because atmospheric pressure is a bigger issue. The atmospheric pressure decreases the higher you go, and the decreasing pressure will affect your blood pressure while you’re climbing.
The lower atmospheric pressure also means a difference in air composition. Your body will inhale less oxygen for the same amount of breath as you go higher. You need to be prepared for all these weather conditions beforehand.
3. It’s An Untethered Experience
Unlike chartered rock climbing walls, you can’t find bolts to clip onto while alpine climbing. There are no quickdraws for you to lead climb on. You’d need a hammer for your bolts and a small hand ax if you’re climbing on an icy wall.
How to prepare and train for alpine climbing?
Preparing and training for alpine climbing are “very simple.”
Actually, it’s a mission and a half. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Hone Your Technical Climbing Skills
First and foremost, become a good lead climber before you try alpine climbing. Your technical climbing skills – from putting bolts to grabbing holds and maintaining posture – should be precise, if not perfect, in their own way.
Becoming good at lead climbing will give you the combination of speed, flexibility, and accuracy that you need for alpine climbing.
2. Adapt To Severe Weather Conditions
As you know, it’s not sunny in alpine conditions. You have to practice and adapt to severe shifts in weather conditions, climb with winter clothing, and haul heavy weight on your back. You also have to familiarize yourself with the use of supplemental oxygen on the go or in mid-air (while climbing).
3. Alpine Climbing Courses
Take specific courses or solve routes to become good at alpine climbing. Upper Exum Ridge, a known route in the Grand Teton National Park (Wyoming), can offer some ice climbing practice if you visit during the appropriate season.
Your local climbing gyms are an excellent place to start, but alpine climbing requires a lot more in-depth knowledge of all sorts of stuff. You must understand the various gears and equipment that literally mean life and death in such harsh conditions.
Pro Tips: How to get started with alpine climbing?
Lastly, here are some of the tips that I learned from experience.
1. Don’t Go Alone
After knowing all the potential dangers, it’d be foolish to go alpine climbing alone. Even if you’re an excellent climber, nature is unpredictable, and anything can happen out there. You need a trustworthy companion with you on such a harsh trip.
2. Time & Equipment Management
Humans aren’t meant to live in such severe weather conditions, so you have to learn time management before going alpine climbing. You gotta be quick and decisive about most decisions. You also must check your equipment multiple times, so there’s no room for error.
Mobile phones can be unreliable in the mountains – the GPS is prone to failure, and the battery can die at the wrong time. Do the proper research, understand the area and print a topo. It’s old but effective.
4. Know Your Limits
Start easy and raise the difficulty level gradually as you improve. You don’t need to start with the harshest mountain. Similarly, it’s okay to temporarily accept defeat when your body is at its limit and circle back to it later.
There are tons of good alpine climbing courses in the United States, such as Alpenglow Expeditions, Timberline Mountain Guides, SWS Mountain Guides, and many more.
Now that you know the nuances of alpine climbing, from training and preparing to risks and dangers, you should know that there are so many pros too. Yes, it’s not just anybody’s sport, but it’s also a lot of fun.
The moment you reach the summit isn’t just fulfilling, but the view from up there is seriously underrated.
So don’t rush anything. Practice hard and become a fantastic climber so that if and when you get the chance to try alpine mountain climbing, you’ll have the time of your life.