Alpine Climbing Thoughts

Alpine Climbing Thoughts

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Activities Activities: Trad Climbing

Pithy platitudes

Descending snow after a climb...Coming down from Bear Creek Spire

I thought I'd write down my thoughts about alpine rock climbing. Mostly, this means climbing traditionally protected rock routes in an alpine setting, likely involving crossing glaciers or hiking a long distance. The routes will have loose sections that would disgust a sport climber. But for the alpine climber, it's all about accepting the mountain on it's own terms: you saw it from a distance, thought it beautiful, and now want to climb it. With this attitude of acceptance you will find great joy as you weave your story with the mountain.

These little notes aren't in any particular order. In my mind they are all equally important. Some are safety tips or basic common sense you've heard before or could guess. Any wisdom I've got comes in keeping them near to hand, where experience guides me on the next step.

If any of these strike you as pompous or high-toned, or just plain idiocy, then let me know in the comments. I just might learn something I need to know. :-)

1) The leader can do whatever he needs to feel safe. If it's gear every 5 feet, ok. If it takes him an hour, ok.

2) The follower tries to climb quickly. If he doesn't know how, he learns and constantly improves at cleaning gear and racking quickly.

3) Don't step on the rope, try to keep it coiling nicely. If it catches below you, it will be embarrassing at the least.

4) Always seek to get better. Hate downclimbing steep snow? Keep doing it anyway. Bad at climbing rock in crampons? Relish opportunities to learn. We are not professionals, but we have a professional's pride. We want to be the best we can. If we don't, then that one hateful thing will eventually stop us cold.

5) You need to trust your belay stations. Lean back on the rope. If the belayer feels nervous in his position, and strains to stand in an awkward way, then the leader can't feel secure either.

6) Always be busy, unless you decided to stop for lunch in the sun, when lavish inactivity is celebrated. If one is coiling the rope for abseil, the other can be tying knots in the end. If one is reading the topo, the other is moving gear to the rack.

7) Maintaining a feeling of positive confidence will make everything go smoother. Once a friend and I felt in over our heads in Red Rock Canyon. By actually ordering ourselves to change our attitude, we salvaged the day and revealed hidden strength. If anything might save your life one day, I think it is this one.

8) Don't let the look of something scare you. Go up to it, touch it. If it's still scary, work out the points you could retreat or rest or place protection from. Finally, if that act of breaking it down into smaller problems doesn't motivate you, then you can walk away with pride.

9) Other people will say scary things, or you'll see them retreating and wonder what's up. Most likely nothing important...try to find out for yourself.

10) To lead you have to shut up the mind that points out how weak you feel, how little sleep you got. Concentrate on climbing, not on..."not falling."

11) On the other hand, some days are not yours. Give up the leads, and laugh at the comedy of life. "Failure" makes success sweeter when it comes.

12) Always consider retreat, but don't be enslaved by it. For example, I might take a single rope. What are the consequences if a rappel retreat must be made? Well, I'll probably lose most of my rack building and leaving belay stations. That might be an acceptable trade-off, considering that we seek a 1-day ascent, have a good weather window, etc.

13) Question every piece of gear. There are no 10 essentials, there are only essentials. And they are different on every trip.

14) My experiences have shown me over and over that light and fast is safer. How many times have we passed the party with bulging packs, though they camped at the base of the route and we came from the valley? The energy savings become enormous.

15) A party of three is very good if they are experienced. They can share one stove, one rope, one rack, one tent. 1 leads, 2 follow together. On easy terrain, they simul-climb. On hard terrain, there are less difficult leads per person. In case of emergency there are more options. Glaciers are safer.

16) Simul-climbing is an important alpine skill. As are short-roping, improvised belays, bowline-on-a-coil and all the older techniques which people raised in gyms (hey, I was) consider exotic, unimportant or unsafe.

17) Momentum, once lost, is hard to regain. Keep the upward motion.

18) When possible, put in a piece and call down "off belay!" While the follower gets ready, add more pieces.

19) The alpine climber must accept that there are places where she cannot fall. Where her fall endangers others. This is the "mental toughness" part of the game. This is why an alpine climber must eventually have some familiarity with soloing. Rather than seeing this as completely unacceptable, start thinking pragmatically about it. Ask yourself after a pitch if you could have soloed it if you had to. If you are unwilling to think on these lines, then you should be very careful about going on hard alpine climbs. You may be tested in ways you haven't prepared for.

20) Be very careful about trying to impress people. I came very close to serious injury once because I wanted to appear strong to someone I admired. Now when I feel this attitude welling up, I actively crush it with a purposefully subdued performance. I am still learning.

21) Write down your trips in as much detail as you can stand. I can't articulate why this is important, but I think it's done a lot for me.

22) Always start the day early. Like 5 am early.

23) Use the thinnest rope that makes sense. On a glacier 8mm or less. A typical Cascades pattern is glacier followed by 5.5 ridge. Take a 50 meter 8mm rope, then double it for the rock climbing on the ridge.

24) Another example of always seeking to learn: you lead alpine 5.9, but the route is only 5.5? Then leave the cams at home, you need practice placing nuts and hexes. Or climb in boots to improve your ability at that.

25) You don't need a real tent in the summer. A Betamid is enough.

26) Never cook anything that requires more than bringing water to a boil for a moment.

27) If your partner had to leave his gear on the route, split the cost with him. Be considerate, your partner is just like you, mourning the loss of a 50 dollar piece of gear as much as you would. Share your money, share your food and respect. You need to trust each other completely and these respectful gestures help build a relationship.

28) If you like to laugh and sing or be silly on climbs, you probably want partners who are the same.

29) It's probably good to have one partner bold, and the other cautious. What's best is when these traits flip-flop on different kinds of terrain. You may also find a pattern like, you drive hard up the route, and your partner pours on the coal to lead on the descent while you coast. Such things are just one reason why old partners can top previous feats.

30) Did I mention simul-climbing? Don't expect to avoid it on 1000 meter routes!

31) This is one of the greatest things you'll know in life. Be proud of your skill and enjoy the rich rewards of technical alpine travel.

Additional suggestions from the comments

Commenters have made some great suggestions, let me add them here.

C1) Downclimb rather than rappel. It is faster than you think it will be. Or rather, rappelling is slower than you expect. By the time you get out the rope, flake it, build an anchor, toss, rappel, re-toss because the angle is low enough to downclimb, knock off some rocks, and then put the rope away again, your savvy partner is down by the stream squeezing water out of his socks! Here is how to do it: when you see a rappel anchor, don't automatically plan to use it. Instead, look over the edge, test out a downclimbable route. If you went down 10 feet, and don't get the feeling it's possible, then happily rappel.

This tip is from "Excitable Boy," a partner with much more experience (and years! HAHA! just kidding.) than me who taught me a lot on some long fast and light day (<24hr) trips. A big thanks to him for everything!

C2) From Nigel Lewis. The SERENE anchor mnemonic

S = Solid (goes without saying)
R = Redundant (if one piece fails, the other still works)
E = Equalized (share the weight out, no slack in the system)
NE = Non Extending ( If something fails, you don't drop a few feet or swing off wildly to one side)

The art of placing protection can, and has, filled books. I really like the John Long "Climbing Anchors" books. Ask your partner for feedback on your gear...did any pieces come out? Also doing a few C1-C2+ aid climbs will teach you sooo much, because you have to stand on every piece you place! You really start to learn what is solid.

C3) Actually from me. Please appreciate the loved ones who allow you to fulfill your (obsessive?) climbing goals. Don't take advantage of your partner by disappearing every weekend. Spend as much time or more with your family, who are after all way more important than any north face.


Post a Comment
Viewing: 1-20 of 43
Augie Medina

Augie Medina - Apr 10, 2007 7:55 pm - Voted 10/10

Interesting Reading

Thanks for distilling your experiences into suggestions and principles for others to consider.


mvs - Apr 11, 2007 2:57 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Interesting Reading

You are welcome, glad you liked it! I was inspired by The Chief's article on big wall soloing to write down some thoughts about "the game". :D


Corax - Apr 11, 2007 5:03 am - Voted 10/10

The Game

Excellent. Very valid points and thoughts. They all make sense to me. You can write books on the topic, but you've managed to make a very compact list of it.
# 22 is a hard one for me :-)


mvs - Apr 11, 2007 7:16 am - Hasn't voted

Re: The Game

Haha! You would have killed me that time I pretended it was 15 minutes later than it was, waking my companions at 1:45 am instead of the 2:00 am they were promised! By the time we were roped up though, they didn't hate me :-). But the softening snow on a warm night was heavy on my mind...


Herb - Apr 11, 2007 5:55 am - Voted 10/10

Well written...

...nice to read, agreeable and valuable. #8 and #14 are particularly true...
Thanks for some insight in your personal experience.


mvs - Apr 11, 2007 7:14 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Well written...

Thank you Herb. I agree, those two have given me a heap o' golden days!


arturf - Apr 11, 2007 6:06 am - Voted 10/10

19th point rules!

We usualy call it "section without mistakes" on the route.


mvs - Apr 11, 2007 7:13 am - Hasn't voted

Re: 19th point rules!

Thanks! Yep, much as I want everyone to see alpine climbing as a reasonably safe pursuit, the fact that these "do not fall" places exist will render the whole game madness to some observers. May as well spell it out.

Nigel Lewis

Nigel Lewis - Apr 12, 2007 3:27 am - Voted 9/10

Serene anchors

I was taught this mnemonic for building anchors at the belay.

S = Solid (goes without saying)
R = Redundant (if one piece fails, the other still works)
E = Equalised (share the weight out, no slack in the system)
NE = Non Extending ( If something fails, you don't drop a few metres or swing off wildly to one side)

If you build this into your belay point, your experience will remain SeRENE!



mvs - Apr 12, 2007 7:32 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Serene anchors

Yes, that is a good way to remember the anchor building skills, thanks Nigel!


Blair - Apr 13, 2007 12:49 pm - Voted 10/10

Great Stuff

Thanks for sharing, lots of good information for aspiring alpine climbers. Thanks alot mvs!


mvs - Apr 16, 2007 5:29 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Stuff

Absolutely, so glad you found it useful!


myles - Apr 13, 2007 1:50 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks mvs

I loved numbers 10 and 11. I've been in both places, fortunately with a partner who was in the same places on opposite days.

Good stuff, here--it's all about getting out there.


MichaelJ - Apr 13, 2007 6:11 pm - Hasn't voted

22 & 25

I'd say 5 am barely qualifies as an alpine start. Midnight is what I'd consider early.

Would you really take a Megamid to Alaska or any of the Greater Rangers? I had one nearly destroyed on Liberty Ridge in the summer.


mvs - Apr 15, 2007 4:06 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: 22 & 25

Yeah, it's a good point. I have to qualify that my tips here are circumscribed by my experience. The point about the Megamid really applies to alpine climbs in the North Cascades, on peaks with elevation of 8000 to 9000 feet. I haven't climbed in Alaska, and wouldn't imagine expecting a Megamid to be sufficient on Mt. Hunter or something like that!

Brad Marshall

Brad Marshall - Apr 13, 2007 10:11 pm - Voted 10/10

Thanks MVS

All good points. A friend of mine loves those alpine (5 AM) starts so much the bastard dragged me out of the tent early almost every day on Denali. Have to admit it was nice going back down the Ice Headwall while everyone else was climbing up.


sm176811 - Apr 14, 2007 3:18 am - Hasn't voted

I could not agree more!

I totally agree with every philosophy that you have listed above. Especially - I am a true believer in Alpine style and your No 14:

14) My experiences have shown me over and over that light and fast is safer. How many times have we passed the party with bulging packs, though they camped at the base of the route and we came from the valley? The energy savings become enormous.

is right on dot!


mvs - Apr 16, 2007 5:27 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I could not agree more!

Thank you sm176811! Your alias reminds me of my old CompuServe account :-D. Yep, you can't go back. Also, I confess, I just don't have any fun with a 70 pound pack, no matter what the view!


m_dquist - Apr 14, 2007 3:45 pm - Hasn't voted

One More

You should add "Success is determined by survival" to your points.


ExcitableBoy - Apr 15, 2007 9:35 am - Hasn't voted

Another and a response to MichaelJ

I would add "Downclimb rather than rappel when possible".

MichaelJ: Megamids are popular on Denali. Following rule 14 might have kept you from getting caught in a storm on Rainier.

Viewing: 1-20 of 43