Being an inexperienced Alpine climber can be a daunting prospect when faced with a myriad of choices. This is compounded by information overload on the internet. Below are some tips to keep you safe and help you prepare for your first or second alpine trip.
1. Choose the right area for your first alpine experience. It’s no good rocking up to Chamonix and then realizing that there aren’t a huge amount of options for novices. The ones that are good can be expensive due to lifts and very busy.
Saas Grund or Arolla in Switzerland are better places to be based as the valley bases are higher and most peaks and huts can be accessed without lifts.
2. Swat up on the area you have decided on. There is an amazing amount of information on the net and in guidebooks for all areas of the alps.
Have a rough plan with a progression through the week building up to a goal. Flexibility is key and plan in options A-Z if conditions or the weather is poor.
3. Train for your upcoming adventure. Climbing, running and general aerobic fitness is key. With this in mind long days on the hill in the UK are best.
Climbing long classic VD to VS’s quickly in the UK mountains is more valuable than cranking 7a in the climbing wall. Climbing in big boots with a rucksack is a skill that needs to be nurtured and often overlooked by novice Alpinists.
4. Pack Light or as I say, LFF (Light, Fast and Flipping Freezing, if you get it wrong). You should be able to get everything into a 35 litre rucksack excluding the rope. I often see people with rucksacks the size of houses with spare everything ‘just in case’.
If the weather is bad in the mountains you won’t be climbing in them so get the lightest waterproofs and insulation layers possible. Leave your Scottish winter oil skins at home! Slim down your climbing rack, cut labels out of your clothing and spare straps off kit, get obsessed with saving every gram.
5. Climbing partners can make or break an alpine trip. Try and climb with the partner in the UK and come up with some ground rules. What are you combined strengths and weaknesses. What goals do you want to achieve and at what cost, huts and cable cars are expensive.
Picking up a random partner on the campsite is possible but can be a disaster waiting to happen.
6. Economise to a point! Huts, cable cars and kit is all very expensive. If you’re on a budget then I would say camp or bivouac but use lifts to get there. Adding thousands of meters of uphill walking in the heat the day before your big alpine route does no one any favours.
7. Be realistic with your objectives and build up gradually. Biting off a huge chunk of ‘alpine epic’ in the first week might put you off for life.
It’s very easy to get swayed by campsite banter but think rationally about your experience and how you may extract yourself from a tricky spot. Having said this everyone will have an epic in their first season I had several of which I learnt a lot…they make great pub talk but at the time they can be terrifying.
8. Learn from other climbers in the campsite and on the mountain. Climb with your eyes open and watch what other experienced climbers or Mountain Guides are doing. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
When I’m working it makes my day if some independent climbers ask me a question about conditions or how to overcome a technical issue on the mountain.
9. Climbing as a small team can be less stressful than climbing as a pair. It’s good to hook up with other climbers of similar levels to do routes as independent teams but ‘together’ to share knowledge and decision making en route.
10. Have fun but most of all learn from your mistakes. You will have epics even if you follow all the above rules. It’s part of the alpine game but when the going gets tough think ‘more haste less speed’.
Don’t make potentially dangerous decisions because your stressed and in a rush slow everything down and double check.
In my first alpine season I made every single one of the above errors and had some monumental epics. It wasn’t big or clever but taught be some valuable lessons.
Dropping your rucksack with everything in from the top of the Aiguille du Grepon and spending 48 hours abseil retreating in rock boots and a jumper with no food or water nearly ended my first alpine season. Ever since that incident I’m obsessive about clipping rucksacks into belays.
Olly Allen, IFMGA Mountain Guide at Mountain Tracks