Alpine climbing probably sounds like an endeavor requiring a lot of skills, practice and a lot of gear. Truth be told, probably more than you could imagine. The mountains are beautiful places, but the dangers are real and ever present. Most climbers know someone who has had an accident or worse in the mountains, and the alpine environment should not be taken lightly. But for those who are inclined to pursue these adventures, there are ways to develop your skills that will substantially increase your security.
In recent years, Alpine climbing seems to have attracted a lot of attention, but I feel there is also a lot of confusion or misrepresentation about what it is. Personally, I would define alpine climbing as using technical climbing skills in a mountain environment. There is a difference between mountaineering and alpine climbing and the skill set required for each. While these two disciplines share a lot of common ground—navigation, crampon skills, fitness and glacier travel skills—alpine climbing takes things a step further, requiring “pitched” climbing, whether that be on ice or rock. For example, I wouldn’t include the standard route on Mount Rainier as an “alpine” climb, as to me, this more into mountaineering. Nonetheless, the skills required for such an outing should be considered prerequisite for many alpine objectives. Climbs like the West Ridge of Forbidden Peak, the Diamond on Longs Peak or the North Ridge of the Grand Teton fit more into the mold of what I would consider classic alpine outings.
Start In A More Controlled Environment
My approach to alpine climbing is quite simple. If alpine climbing is a culmination of disciplines, first you need to gain competence in those disciplines. To start, it’s best to separate the climbing from the mountains. You will progress much more quickly with your technical skills in a more controlled setting, like at a crag or even a climbing gym. As your movement skills develop, you can start adding to your technical skills. For example, if you can lead climb on bolts, start to make the transition to leading on traditional gear. Next, consider upping the ante by going out in more unpleasant conditions, but still to relatively easily accessed locations. Learn to deal with nature’s elements in places that won’t put you in peril if things go south. I grew up in New England, where often going out for a few pitches of ice climbing meant dealing with temps well below zero. Heck, even rock climbing often meant dealing with numb fingers and all-too-often wet patches of rock. But in hindsight, these were great skills to have learned for future endeavors.
Then Add In Some Mountain Factors
The other side of the coin involves dealing with mountain environments. Keep it simple. The best way to get a feeling for mountain environments is simply to spend time in the mountains. This can be done by going for a hike, ski touring or camping out for a weekend. This will help you gain confidence and fitness and feel less intimidated for more involved mountain pursuits. These days I feel there is so much emphasis on physical training and not enough emphasis on spending time in the mountains. I got my start by hiking and camping around the White mountains. And while these outings may not seem glamorous, these types of experiences allow you to get a sense of weather and how your body responds to long days, hunger, cold and heat. It also allows you to dial in your gear and layering systems so when you start to go climbing in the mountains you can focus more of your energy and attention on the climbing and less on the conditions.
Learn To Hold Your Objectives Lightly
Perhaps the best skill to learn while tackling alpine objectives is patience. We live in world where convenience is king and people are accustomed to getting nearly everything “on demand. It doesn’t work that way in the mountains, which makes this environment even more special and sacred. There is often a fine line between pushing it and taking too much risk. This line varies depending on your experience. Make sure you’re not too fixated on an objective or on a schedule to see the big picture. If conditions or weather are bad, or you’re not feeling it, don’t be afraid to sit it out. No, you probably won’t make the cover the Alpinist by turning around, but exercising good judgment is a highly undervalued skill that can save your life. Conditions in the mountains come and go alongside our own personal fitness and motivation. Learn to have the patience to let these align and be conservative on choosing your objectives.
Hire A Guide
Another great way to gain some skill and experience is to hire a guide for a day. I have no problem with people trying to figure stuff out on their own, but good mentorship is integral to progressing safely in the mountains. There are also often opportunities to get instruction through various climbing and alpine clubs and at different climbing festivals, and I would advise seeking this out when you’re getting started. Techniques change over time and it’s important to learn up-to-date techniques and learn how to do things right the first time. Going out with a guide for a day of instruction or on an alpine climb can go a long way toward improving your skills, your confidence and your security. If reading is your thing, there is some great books to help you along your way, like “Freedom of the Hills,” Mark Huston and Kathy Cosely’s “Alpine Techniques,” and Steve House and Scott Johnson’s “New Alpinism.”
The mountains are a special place and offer a great escape, a place for solitude, adventure and a place to connect with nature. In today’s digital world, I find myself needing adventures in the mountains more than ever. But it’s important to separate risk from adventure. While we can never eliminate risk in the mountains, don’t confuse high risk and “epics” for adventure. Take the leap into the alpine world slowly and do so in a calculated way. Gain skills and your experience over time, not overnight. Start out small. Seek out professional instruction and good mentorship, and remember that patience and humility are some of the best skills to have in the mountains.