I got back from my first climbing trip to the Alps a bit over a month ago. My friend Andy and I spent two-and-a-bit weeks in the Écrins climbing routes graded Facile and Peu Difficile, and generally having a blast. I'd wanted to go to the Alps for years, but I'd heard so much about how hard and scary Alpine climbing was that I consistently failed to get a trip together. This year I finally overcame my fears and disorganisation and made it out there, and I found that low-grade Alpine mountaineering (the stuff I was interested in, in other words) was much easier, more fun and less scary than I'd been led to expect. I wish I'd gone five years ago.
Some of the stuff I read beforehand was useful (in particular, I recommend the BMC's DVD Alpine Essentials, which does a wonderful job of demystifying Alpine mountaineering), but I was still left with some misconceptions and gaps in my knowledge. Here's some of what I wish I'd known back then; the usual disclaimer applies.
There is absolutely no need to go to the Dolomites first
People kept telling me that I should go to the Dolomites and do lots of long rock routes before attempting the high Alps. I'm sure the Dolomites are lovely, but this is nonsense. If, like me, you want to do low-grade mountaineering on high mountains, go and do it. Experience of 10+-pitch rock routes is not necessary; I doubt it's even very useful. Moving together on scrambling terrain in big boots is a different skill.
It's nothing like the books
Climbing memoirs and films concentrate disproportionately on the super-hard routes and the times when Everything Went Wrong. It turns out that there are plenty of easier routes too.
Guidebook times are perfectly achievable
I received differing advice on this. All the books and DVDs stressed the importance of completing routes within guidebook time, and only increasing your grade/altitude/length once you were doing so. However, most of the people I spoke to said that this was an unrealistic aim. One guy even said that 1.5x guidebook time was a more reasonable target, but that I (as a Slow Climber) should allow double. In the event, we did almost all of our routes either within guidebook time or only a few minutes over. On the one exception, the South Ridge of the Aiguille Centrale de Soreiller, we took 4.5h versus 3h, but (a) the time quoted was for the shorter variation of the route, and we did the longer variation, (b) we deliberately decided to pitch the exposed summit ridge rather than moving together, having assessed the glacier below and deciding it would be safe to descend later in the day.
It's not that scary
All the books said "you need a few days to get used to the sheer scale of the Alps". I really didn't find this. Granted, the Écrins are not the tallest part of the Alps, but the exposure levels were at most about double what I'm used to from Scotland, and I felt pretty much at home. In fact, I found fear-management much easier than on the average UK roadside crag. If you can handle the Cuillin Ridge, you'll be fine.
That said, learning the Litany Against Fear is not a bad idea. It actually helps, and as an earworm it beats the hell out of Brown Girl in the Ring.
The days needn't be that long
Similarly with the oft-repeated advice that Alpine days can be really really long. Our longest day was ten hours (although we stopped back at the hut - it would have been more like 14 if we'd descended to the valley the same day); I've done 13-hour winter days in Scotland, and 14-hour days in summer. Or 18-hour days if you count epics. There are obviously plenty of very long routes in the Alps, but you don't have to do them. Pick a shorter route and move fast.
I suspect that most advice to newbie Brit alpinists is aimed at hot-headed wannabe Sheffield hardmen. The exposure's huge and the days are long if you think that 10m of gritstone is a long route. Which reminds me of the time I was climbing Curved Ridge in summer with three friends, moving roped together, and two know-it-alls with Yorkshire accents told us that they'd been climbing for thirty years and what we were doing was "not a recognised rope technique". Hey, how about you (a) fuck off back to Stanage, and (b) pick up a fucking book? I'm sure if you ask nicely in the climbing shop they'll help you with the big words.
You'll spend a lot of time downclimbing
The voies normales are, almost by definition, the easiest routes up the mountains. Hence, if there were an easy route off the top, you'd have climbed that instead. You may be able to abseil some sections, but there's no guarantee of this.
It's surprisingly warm up there
My previous experience of climbing in snow and ice had all been in Scottish winter conditions, where your fingers are usually painfully cold, touching the rock ungloved will chill you to the bone, hydration tubes freeze solid, and if you stop for more than a minute you'll need to layer up or dance about or both to keep warm. This was not the case in the Écrins. I did most routes in just a base layer, with my thin belay jacket coming out for summit stops or the occasional fixed belay in the wind. My hardshell only got used during rainstorms in the valley, and my outer gloves were entirely unused. Softshells were more useful: in particular, my Rab Sawtooth softshell trousers were excellent.
On the Barre des Écrins, a guide asked me "do you get many days like this on Ben Nevis?" "Oh yeah, we get some sunny days, even in winter." "No, I meant with the wind!" "Oh, right. In Scotland, we don't consider it windy if you can hold a conversation."
Staying hydrated is hard
Non-freezing hydration tubes make it easier to take a drink without stopping - and you will have very few stops if you're doing it right - but we kept running out of water in the heat. The lack of stops also means you can't do much to adjust your layering system if you get too hot. On our first route - which took a mere 4.5 hours hut-to-hut - I drank the whole of my 2L hydration bladder, then knocked back a 1.5L bottle of water on my own back at the hut.
We also struggled to eat enough on the routes; we never properly hit the wall, but we were definitely suffering from depleted blood-sugar on several occasions. My normal strategy is to scoff chocolate biscuits and sandwiches on belays, or eat while hiking, but this doesn't work when you're moving together on class 3-4 terrain, need your hands to make progress and can't spare the time to stop. I suggested filling our drinking bladders with Gatorade or something similar to Andy, but apparently when he tried that on a previous trip he lost a tooth. Suggestions?
Lassitude is a real thing
I was astonished how little energy I had down in the valleys. The heat sapped the power to do anything except lie about and drink tea.
You'll do a lot of traversing
It turns out that
- you have muscles in the side of your calves
- they're used a lot when you traverse steep slopes
- almost nothing else trains them.
You'll need to switch very quickly between belayed climbing and moving together
File this one under "try not to stop for any reason" - you quite often reach a spot where you can belay the leader over a tricky bit, but the second wants to move off immediately once the rope comes tight. This argues for the use of direct belays off spikes, a technique which horrified me when I first saw it but to which I quickly became accustomed.
Fitness is useful, but you don't have to be an elite super-athlete
I had an ambitious training plan, involving half-marathons and marathons and mountain marathons, but due to various injuries and illnesses and my local gym closing down and other such excuses, I utterly failed to go through with it. Consequently I headed out to the Alps well below my usual level of fitness and carrying about 15kg of excess weight. About a week before I went out, I ran 10km and got delayed onset muscle soreness, so long had it been since I'd done any running. And, you know what? I was mostly fine. The walk-ins to the huts were hard, largely because we were doing them in the heat of the afternoon (see above, "lassitude is a real thing"), and I was pretty spaced out with tiredness on the descent from the Barre des Écrins, but I managed. More fitness would definitely have helped, sure, but lack of fitness wasn't (usually) the limiting factor.
Alpine star fields are amazing
Install a star-map app on your phone before you go. Trust me on this.
So what would be a really useful training plan for that sort of trip? I suggest the following:
- Do as much hillwalking as you can. If it involves some scrambling, all the better. Practice traversing steep slopes.
- Practice climbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice downclimbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice climbing with a full bladder (once again, you don't want to stop if you can avoid it).
- Do lots of long, grade I/II Scottish winter routes: the kind of thing where you want to move together. This was the only part of this training programme that I actually did, and I'm extremely grateful for it.
- Practice your French (or the language of whatever country you're visiting). High school was a long time ago for me, and it's embarrassing asking "Parlez-vous Anglais?" all the time. Also, the English-language guidebooks are selective and concentrate a lot on the more aspirational routes; reading the local guidebooks will give you more options.
tl;dr Alpine climbing is the Best Thing Ever. All the fun of Scottish winter climbing without the hot aches.
Me on my first Alpine summit, La Grande Ruine 3765m. More photos here.