What is Alpine style climbing (and why I love it)

Mick Fowler has been a leading mountaineer and climbing adventurer since the mid 1970s and is hugely respected by his peers. Today we hear his thoughts on ‘Alpine Style’ mountaineering.
Over to you Mick…

‘Alpine Style’ – To me this is the only way to climb mountains! But the words don’t capture what it’s all about…

Climbing Alpine Style is all about mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, carrying all one’s food, shelter and equipment and leaving no trace of one’s passing. It is the way the vast majority of climbs in the European Alps are climbed, hence the name.

For Alpine Style in the Himalaya imagine two people crossing a bergschrund together and climbing unsupported to a summit over a period of say 6 or 7 days and then finding their own way down the mountain. During that time they would rely on no-one else but themselves. That is what I mean when I say ‘Himalayan Alpine Style.’

Gave Ding, c6,500m, West Nepal. 2015. Paul Ramsden and me posing before taking 7 days to climb and descend a challenging unclimbed mountain in a valley not previously visited by Westerners. The very essence of Himalayan Alpine Style climbing. Can’t beat it.

Alpine Style is in sharp contrast to Expedition Style (or Siege Style) mountaineering.

Expedition Style was the traditional way of climbing in the Himalaya and involves doing everything possible to maximise the chance of the objective being achieved.

Ethical considerations are secondary and fixed ropes, camps, high altitude porters, bolts and as much equipment as necessary are used.

In short Expedition Style is about using every resource possible to get to the top whereas Alpine Style is a minimal impact activity in which a small number of mountaineers enjoy exercising their skill and judgement while tackling their chosen objective.

Why do I prefer Alpine Style climbing?

Well, to me it is the only satisfying way to climb. Alpine Style enhances the mountain experience, the climbers are more ‘at one’ with the mountain.

Success is far from guaranteed. The mountain is respected and given a chance. Objectives that are too hard are left in pristine condition for future generations.

Alpine Style climbers enjoy the close comradeship of their partner; they move quickly and enjoy the climbing and the commitment whilst exercising their skill and judgement to stay safe.

But, it can take a long time to understand big mountain terrain and build up the skills necessary to succeed in mountains as big as the Himalaya.

In the early 1980s, when I started climbing in the Greater Ranges, Alpine Style was not as established as it is today. I had a grounding of climbing in the Alps and enjoyed the commitment and satisfaction I felt climbing as part of a self-contained pair.

As I started to climb further afield it was only natural that I should stick with the style I was familiar with.

My first such Greater Range climb was in 1982 on a 5,800m mountain called Taulliraju in Peru. We were climbing as a team of two, always my preferred number, and neither of us had spent more than a couple of nights bivouaced on a climb before.

After four sitting bivouacs on the face I remember us feeling very ‘out there’ and just a little bit frightened. We discussed going down. The weather was good and there was no reason to but, as with anything, it can be intimidating taking things to new personal limits.

On that occasion we were successful and now, 35 years later, I can still vividly recall the feeling of being the only two climbers on the mountain gradually overcoming difficulties and gaining height while a widening panorama of mountains and jungle opened up around us. Wonderful!

When climbing Alpine Style in the Himalaya a small tent gives an enclosed environment and I find it well worth the extra weight. In the Alps, where the commitment level is less, I would rely on a bivouac sack. Photo – North Face of Changabang, 1997.

My first trip to the Himalaya was to the exotically named Bojohagur Duonasir in Pakistan.

Naturally, we climbed Alpine Style but that time we were not successful. At 7,300m the mountain was considerably higher than anything I had been on before.

We were not used to the challenges of altitude, we gained height too quickly, we were cold, didn’t fully understand how to look after ourselves and didn’t know the limits of our kit.

To be successful when Alpine Style climbing in the Himalaya one needs to be confident and comfortable in one’s surroundings. On Bojohagur we were not!

Me, absolutely exhausted while dismally failing in an Alpine Style attempt on Bojohagur. We underestimated the effects of altitude, the extreme environment and didn’t take the right kit. Himalayan Alpine Style climbing can be a steep learning curve. (I couldn’t fault the rucksack though. 😉 )

There is some variation in the approach that comes under the heading of Himalayan Alpine Style. Very fast and very light (after a lot of acclimatising) is popular with some.

Fans of this approach sometimes shun bivouac equipment and climb non-stop for 48 hours or more. That’s not for me. I enjoy being in the mountains and have no desire to rush unless there is a good reason to do so.

Others climb more slowly but have a system where the leader climbs without a sack on difficult ground and securely fixes the rope which the second then jumars up.

All that rope climbing is not for me. Still, others prefer climbing as a rope of three. That has the benefit of being able to share communal kit but to me every person above two risks diluting the true Alpine Style experience.

I find there is something very special about two people relaxed and enjoying multi-day climbing together in the greatest mountain range on earth.

So, everyone develops their own way of Alpine Style climbing in the Himalaya. Mine involves climbing with a single partner in almost exactly the same way as in the Alps.

Andy Cave enjoying a memorable bivouac during an Alpine Style attempt on the then unclimbed Mt Grosvenor in Sichuan Province, China. Minimal equipment and maximum commitment are key tenets of Alpine Style climbing in the big mountains.

I have been doing this regularly since that trip to Taulliraju back in 1982. Along the way, I have made plenty of mistakes and found a system that works for me.

For those starting out or part way along that learning path, my top ten tips for Alpine style mountaineering will hopefully be of assistance.

Until next time,
Mick Fowler