Faster and lighter? Part II – Five alpine lessons for Scottish mountaineering

What’s the difference between mountaineering in the 4000m+ peaks of the Alps, and Scotland? More importantly – what lessons can we take from alpine climbing to become better trekkers, climbers and mountaineers here in the UK?

Part I provided an introduction to Chamonix, where I’ve just spent a week, and summed up what I did. This post, Part II, answers the question: what lessons from alpine mountaineering can be applied to trekking and mountaineering in Scotland? In this post I’m mainly talking about winter mountaineering in Scotland, when applying lessons from the Alps is most important.

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain

Moving together roped over glaciated terrain (Col du Midi, Chamonix)

What is the ‘alpine style’?

In alpine mountaineering it’s important to manage both time and energy as efficiently as possible. After all, if you run out of time you’ll be finishing your route and/or your descent in the dark, which makes things much less fun and much more challenging. Worse, you may have to spend the night on the mountain and wait for first light before you can move again. If you run out of energy, needless to say, you’ll be in trouble. At best you’ll be burnt out and at worst you’ll risk exposure or exhaustion.

So ‘alpine style’ mountaineering is all about travelling fast and light. The idea is to make it to the top of a peak or a route as quickly and efficiently as possible before coming down again, and so avoid running out of time or energy. It emphasises self-sufficiency; advocates of the alpine style don’t take get out of jail cards like tents with them in case things turn bad (the extra weight would slow them down). The drive for self-sufficiency and speed means a deliberately frugal approach to heavyweight equipment (though weight can still add up on multi-day trips). In the Alps or the Greater Ranges where weather windows can be brief, speed is safety, so it’s no surprise that the alpine style is now the de facto approach for many modern mountaineers.

The alpine style was taken up by pioneering mountaineers like Reinhold Messner and Chris Bonington in the 1970s on expeditions to the Greater Ranges. In these cases they were applying an ethic, which had been developed in the Alps, to peaks of much greater scale than those in the Alps; peaks whose size meant that they weren’t obviously suited to the alpine style. Before the 1970s, expeditions had depended on the expedition or ‘siege’ approach to mountaineering, with fixed ropes and several camps being established as parties made their way laboriously towards the summit over many days. However, the likes of Messner and Bonington proved that the alpine style could be successfully  applied to very high mountains in the Himalaya. Yvon Chouinard’s 1978 book ‘Climbing Ice’ was one of the first popular books promoting the ethic. And much more recently, elite mountaineers like Ueli Steck have since taken the fast and light ethic to its fullest extent in speed ascents of the Eiger Nordwand and others. This is sometimes referred to as ‘extreme alpinism’.

So what lessons can we learn?

It should be pretty obvious from the above that the alpine style demands a healthy amount of experience to be able to apply safely! Alpine style mountaineers rely on their experience and skill to find the balance between placing lots of speed-sapping fixed protection and maintaining a good rate of progress.

But even if you’re not an alpine god like Ueli Steck, many alpine style lessons can be applied to Scotland and its piddly (by comparison) munros. Lesson can be learned from elite mountaineers and adapted for less extreme (but still challenging) Scottish winter situations.

#1 – Embrace minimalism (within reason!)

When it comes to speed, the most effective way you can help yourself is by cutting down on weight. Try to adopt a consciously minimalist approach to packing, and pack light. Ask yourself what’s essential and what’s an added extra. On a short day, can you drink an extra 500ml before setting off and so reduce the amount you need to carry? Can you take lighter food, maybe taking out that apple and replacing it with dehydrated berries? Do you need two axes for a Scottish Winter Grade II traverse, or will one do?

Look at your kit, too. It’s a simple fact that you usually get what you pay for, and lighter gear is more expensive. The amount you want to invest in personal gear is your choice, but there are some wise choices to be made. Instead of bulky crampon-snagging external gaiters, can you use winter softshell trousers with internal snow gaiters and reinforced hems? Is your rucksack a 2kg army surplus throwback to the 1940s, or is it a 900g clean-profile modern job? Can you upgrade your fluffy 11mm single rope to a dry-treated 9.5mm? There are so many considerations and it’s impossible do them all justice in one blog post. Fortunately, there are lots of more detailed info sources out there to help you with this – check out Dave MacLeod’s video here on what to pack for Scottish winter climbing, for starters.

There’s an important proviso here. Being overly minimalist, to the point of being underprepared, is dangerous and is never recommended. The Scottish climate is unpredictable (see #2 below) so it’s essential not to skimp on core essentials like a bothy bag, hardshells (i.e. full waterproofs), a GPS, a headtorch and spare food for emergency energy.

An unroped approach to Number 4 Gully, Ben Nevis - 3 March 2013

An unroped approach to Number 2 Gully, Ben Nevis

#2 – Check the forecast and conditions

In the Alps, weather systems are usually fairly predictable and forecasts are generally reliable. Nonetheless, Alpine climbing demands a healthy respect for the severity of bad weather at altitude. Alpine climbers will generally not venture out if the forecast is bad.

In Scotland, the situation is different. Uncertainty in the forecast is normal and frankly, if you want to wait for the perfect weather day, you won’t be getting out much! So check that forecast and prepare accordingly. The point is not that an uncertain forecast should have to stop you heading out because you’ve packed a super-light minimalist rucksack – the point is that what you pack is always a judgement call based on the best quality information you can get.

Check online sources too – the ukclimbing.com logbook pages and forums for beta (information) on route conditions is the best place to start. And always make sure you check the avalanche forecast and snowpack conditions at www.sais.gov.uk.

#3 – Start early and finish early

This is good practice at any time of year, and especially when a beer or an evening stretched out in a warm tent after a hard day beckons! But Scottish summer days are very long, so early starts are far more important in winter. When it comes to Scottish winter days you might only have seven hours of daylight to play with, and the first and last of them will be dawn and dusk. So an early start is essential. Winter lines like those on the north face of Ben Nevis, for example,  frequently have long walk-ins and you may have an hour or two of walking before you can even start climbing. It’s quite normal for climbers at the Ben Nevis North Face car park to set off at  4am. In the Alps, depending on the route, it may be as early as 11pm the night before! But early starts pay off – the certainty of knowing that time is on your side is priceless.

#4 – Work on your fitness

Although Scottish mountaineering can be extremely challenging, it doesn’t usually demand the wholesale adoption of an Alpine style ethic. Days out in Scotland tend to be short and single, meaning that you can afford to place more of an emphasis on thorough protection (more on this in #5 below). Not so in the Alps, where multi-day trips can really push you, especially because of the added challenge of being at high altitude.

Whether in the Alps or Scotland, if you don’t have the cardio fitness and stamina to keep up a good rate of progress then you’ll be letting yourself down. The key to this one is preparation. Build up your fitness in advance through long days out – cardio fitness and endurance training beats pumping iron in the gym. Upper body strength is important, yes, but if your legs are exhausted by the time you get to the start of a climbing or scrambling route then it won’t matter if you can do one arm pull-ups on a two-finger hold.

#5 – Move quickly!

Last and by no means least is the importance of moving quickly and efficiently. In the Alps, long routes mean that fixed pitches are often unacceptably slow. Alpine mountaineers will generally move together over easier sections of technical ground, either individually or roped together. In the latter case, it’s normal to use fixed protection in the form of running belays, which the leader will place and the last climber on the rope will remove. This is also known as simul climbing.

Traversing easy ground on the Aonach Eagach

Moving unroped over easy ground on a winter traverse of the Aonach Eagach

The benefits of moving quickly apply to both Scottish summer and winter, whether you’re trekking, climbing or mountaineering. In Scotland, the tendency is to treat every pitch on climbing routes as a fixed pitch with a belayer. Whilst this is secure, it’s very slow. Consider the possibility of simul climbing on easier sections well within your ability. As always, it’s important to use your experience to assess the suitability of a section for moving together. Simul climbing is better suited to winter climbing or summer scrambling than steep rock routes. For example, you certainly wouldn’t try to simul climb a multi-pitch VS (Very Severe) trad route! But on ridge routes like Tower Ridge on Ben Nevis where fixed pitch climbing would take ages, simul climbing is a necessity in summer or winter. Knowing when to run it out and move together (roped or unroped) comes with experience, but it’s important to keep in mind the need for speed and to avoid slowing yourself down where possible.

Ben Nevis weekend double

The weekend (3-4 September) saw a double ascent of Ben Nevis, a grandstand view of the annual Ben Nevis Race to the summit and back, plus a reminder (not that it was needed) of the Ben’s capacity for spectacularly grim weather.

On Saturday I led a decent-sized group up to the summit for Large Outdoors, a company with a good reputation for adventures which have a social side. Along with the capable services of two other guides, Iain Smith and Alan Cameron, the entire group of 27 made it to the summit for a well deserved photo at the trig point. It was a great day with plenty of conversation about whether or not mountains should be on TripAdvisor (verdict: they shouldn’t) and the merits of climbing higher than midges can fly.

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At the summit shelter

Despite being late in the season, the Pony Trail was still very busy and the damp weather hadn’t dampened peoples’ enthusiasm. Part of the reason for the crowds was the annual Ben Nevis Race. Held every year since 1951, the race sees some of Scotland’s best (and strongest-ankled) fell runners haring up to the summit and back down. These athletes are very good and very single-minded; we saw a few slipping and falling on the wet grass, only to bounce straight back up again and carry on their mad descent. This year’s winner was Finlay Wild, who finished in an impressive 1:28:45 – only 3 minutes and 11 seconds longer than the all-time record.

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Race runners on descent

I’d had Tower Ridge in my sights for a while before Sunday. It’s a classic Grade 3 scramble and one of Scotland’s iconic mountain ridge routes. Marie joined me for an early start, and we set off at 7.30am from the North Face car park in light drizzle. After an initial misstep (going too far up Observatory Gully in the mist) we gained the high ground and made good progress. Despite a ‘brief ridge’ of high pressure being forecast by MWIS, the mist clung to the crags all day and we were constantly drizzled on. The wet and slippery rock made for a slightly more challenging experience but we made good progress, enjoying the occasional views down to the Allt a’ Mhuillin and – further northwards – the Loch Lochy munros.

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Looking north, with Carn Dearg Buttress in the background

The rope first came out for a pitch at the start of the Little Tower, where the ridge steepens quite sharply. Good holds on wet rock saw us up and over this initial obstacle in good time. The next milestone, the Great Tower, was easily scrambled over and then around via the Eastern Traverse. It was a lot of fun, but sadly the view was hidden by the dense cloud.

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An atmospheric Eastern Traverse

The short wall up the eastern edge of the Great Tower was (unexpectedly) the only white-knuckle part of my day as I soloed it in the wet, and with a heavy rucksack, before toprope belaying Marie after me. Tower Gap – the grand finale and the crux of Tower Ridge – is fantastically exposed. There’s nothing like lowering yourself over an edge with nothing but 200 metres of empty space beneath your feet.

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Facing Tower Gap. Photo credit: Marie Cheung

The climb out of Tower Gap, on a blank wet slab in walking boots, was a sting in the tail but by then we were on a roll and cruised up to the top of ridge and the summit plateau. It was an excellent day made more memorable by good company and the claggy weather. And the sun finally came out as we reached the plateau!