Alpine Climbing Thoughts

Alpine Climbing Thoughts

Page Type: Article
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: 21-40 of 43

mvs - Apr 15, 2007 4:10 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Another and a response to MichaelJ

Hey that is a good one Excitable Boy! Added. I remember a situation where you suggested that, but I made a rappel just for me, and I ended up losing my ice ax, and a rope in the process and had to be talked calmly down over the bergschrund by you. Ah...good memories. :p

Aaron Dyer

Aaron Dyer - Apr 16, 2007 5:50 pm - Hasn't voted


This was awesome. It is good to see the feeling shared across the world. I would add with respect to partners.
Don't mind sharing a sleeping bag, bivy ledge, or food with your partner. When you are up there you are one person, not two.
The person you take on alpine climbs, especially hard ones, should be someone you are willing to die for, and vice versa, not just on the wall. I think that if you don't trust that person as much or more than you trust yourself, you don't belong there with them.
Don't be afraid to try living for something.


mvs - Apr 16, 2007 6:01 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: Yeah!

Thanks Aaron, those are thoughts from a good place, thanks for adding them here!


Klenke - Apr 16, 2007 8:29 pm - Voted 10/10

The ineffables

Michael: this is a great idea for an article as there are many things in climbing which are "in the moment" that are difficult to discuss or convey to others in non-climbing venues (such as at parties or bars or the comfort of a couch).

I'm sure if I cogitate I can come up with some pertinent thoughts of my own.

Edits: The last sentence of #27 seems to end prematurely. Did you mean to append to it? In C1, saavy should be savvy.


mvs - Apr 16, 2007 11:07 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: The ineffables

Thanks Paul! This article is turning into a community effort, with so many great extra tips in the comments. Cogitate away in your mountain fastness and bring your broodings to the valley! :D Oh and I edited the points you mentioned, danke.


mvs - Apr 18, 2007 3:46 am - Hasn't voted

Re: C3

Hey you have great text on your profile, thanks for sharing those thoughts! I think I'm wired in the same way.


gimpilator - Apr 18, 2007 9:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Great Article!

Thank you, I learned a lot.

If's there's one thing I might add, try to bring items that double or triple for different uses, like a sleeping bag stuff sack that doubles as a pillow with your fleece, or taking the snow baskets off your trekking poles to use as tent anchors instead of carrying snow-stakes. Common sense I guess.


mvs - Apr 20, 2007 7:10 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Great Article!

Hey, thanks! Most definitely I agree with you there. I'll add a few more: use your trekking poles as tent poles for a Betamid. Use your 3/4-length Thermarest as the "back padding" of your pack. For my BD Ice Pack, I can take out the little emergency sleeping pad, and stuff the Thermarest in it's compartment. It's as if I don't have to carry a pad! :D :D

I remember reading about a man filing down his toothbrush to nearly nothing. I was incredulous...why the hell is he brushing his teeth?!? :-P


mtnman455 - Apr 20, 2007 7:48 pm - Voted 10/10


I like it. Some good stuff I'll have to try like spending more time rock climbing in boots. Here is another peice of wisdom, "It is all training, and it's all the real thing." Meaning even the smallest adventure can cost you your life and even the most grand adventure will prepair you for the next.

sneaky steve

sneaky steve - Jun 30, 2007 1:58 pm - Hasn't voted


Good thoughts!

I like #10 and #20.

Bart Roskam

Bart Roskam - Jul 14, 2007 4:34 pm - Voted 10/10

Really good list

I like your list a lot and certainly are going to try to use some of it's points. However, I don't agree with point nr 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.)

There is a special feeling and beauty to camping out in the wild. On alpine trekkings me and my friends are 7 to 10 days totally independant and without meeting other people. Although we might climb less mountains, I think the experience is a lot greater. But this could be a personal thing.


mvs - Jul 16, 2007 5:38 am - Hasn't voted

Re: Really good list

Hi Bart, thanks for your feedback. Staying out in the wild for a night or 7 nights is a magical experience, and I don't want to discount that. And if you are doing a traverse of many peaks over days, sure, you can't help but travel heavier. I'm really trying to criticize bringing too much on a weekend trip.

Actually, with your long trips I'm sure you put as much thought into traveling light as anyone. But there is no doing without food, sleeping bag, etc. I did a 7 day trip (best trip of my life) with technical climbing and wrote about the equipment we carried here:


AJones - Nov 20, 2007 6:41 pm - Voted 10/10

I agree (mostly)

I think this is a good write-up. The only thing I would question a little is your first point, about a leader being as slow as he/she needs to be ("if it takes an hour - OK"). This doesn't really fit in with a number of your other points (e.g. "My experiences have shown me over and over that light and fast is safer") about doing everything to be as fast as possible. This I totally agree with. However, if you are climbing with a leader that is putting pro in every 3-5 feet on a big alpine route, the time this takes up , actually makes you (the other person) less safe (by quite a bit). I get your point though - people need to climb at a level that makes them comfortable, but again, this conflicts with a bunch of your other points (about simu-climbing, etc.). My bottom line is I wouldn't climb a big alpine route with a leader that wasn't reasonable fast and confident. I would climb a shorter (e.g. Grade II or III) route with them, but not something where their speed (or lack thereof) would put me in danger. This (slow leading) is actually a more common occurance in the alpine than one might think, and a major cause of epics. That's my two cents worth (maybe a little more than two cents). Cheers.


mvs - Nov 21, 2007 6:04 pm - Hasn't voted

Re: I agree (mostly)

Good point, I agree with you completely. When I wrote that point I was really thinking about the point right after it: that the follower should move very quickly, willing to sacrifice style if need be in order to climb fast. I think I was looking for a way to say that, and expressed it by saying that the lead can go as slow as he needs to, but the follower has a certain duty to hurry if the occasion demands it.

You are right about the danger to themselves and others posed by such "leaders" on climbs. When I see that happen or hear about it, I'm kind of struck by the lack of self-awareness. As time drips by and the sun goes down, and the exasperated partner loses patience, at what point do they reflect on their performance?

I think of the audience for this document as folks with enough self-awareness to recognize that this kind of "leading" is beyond the pale.


AJones - Nov 22, 2007 10:17 am - Voted 10/10

Re: I agree (mostly)

When I was reading your (good) reply; it reminded me of this freind of mine that I took on his first big (17 pitches) alpine climb. I was going to do all the leading, and I had asked him to try to be as fast as he could seconding. He took me a little too seriously. I could barely keep the rope tight on him while he was seconding, he was so fast. By the end of the climb, my biceps were cramping up (no kidding) from trying to pull in the rope so fast. The last couple of pitches, I had to tell him to slow down, I was getting too tired belaying him. I think I saw him smile smugly.....

On the other hand, I've also had experience with slow leaders, and it is an awkward situation. Like you say, at what time do you say something, knowing that it may cause friction between the two of you, but at the same time, it's you who are in danger as well. This is a tricky situation, and worth some more discussion. I wonder how others handle it.


mvs - Nov 23, 2007 7:22 am - Hasn't voted

Re: I agree (mostly)

Yes it is tricky. I myself have never successfully conveyed to anyone that they are too damn slow and maybe shouldn't be out there at all unless they get better.

I have lots of patience with folks on that part of the learning curve, as long as they know they are really slow, want to keep improving and offer to give up leads if time pressure demands it.


adventuretactical - Sep 24, 2009 8:33 pm - Voted 9/10


The more info put out, the better. Very refreshing and helpful, even for an older climber like myself (well 38 isn't that old, yet, is it?)..LOL!

One point I'd like to add in regards to when and how to speak up about something to a climbing partner, especially while on the route, is never at any time should either climber feel that they can't speak up about anything that they feel is important to bring up. Both climbers (or all in the party) should be able to discuss ANY issues that come up that they are concerned about at the appropriate/safe time to do it. With age, comes experience over the years and with experience comes discretion on how to work together to keep everybody safe, alive and enjoying the routes taken (-:


adventuretactical - Sep 24, 2009 8:35 pm - Voted 9/10

So True

Also, what Aaron Dyer said (-:


FabienenCordoba - Nov 8, 2009 6:47 am - Hasn't voted

The alpine grade explained

The alpine grade is supposed to sum-up the various sources of difficulty on an alpine climb. You might be interested to know that contributors to published an article explaining the alpine grade. I just translated it to english:


TimB - Nov 18, 2010 12:24 pm - Voted 10/10

good article

Some very interesting stuff.
Thank you for sharing

Viewing: 21-40 of 43