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.

Faster and lighter? From the Alps to Scotland – Part I

I’ve just returned from a week in Chamonix, in the French Alps. From squirming up narrow granite chimneys, to traversing precarious snow arêtes, to climbing ice choked gullies on weighted crampon points, it was an excellent week and a valuable mountaineering experience. As well as reflecting on what we did, I’m writing this two-part post to answer a question: what lessons from alpine mountaineering can be applied to trekking and mountaineering in Scotland?

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Part I, here, covers what we did. In Part II (next week) I’ll focus on answering the question above.

First, some context. Chamonix is a region in the Rhône-Alpes region of France. The town itself lies in a valley bordered by the Aiguille Rouge mountains to the north and west, and the incredible Mont Blanc massif to the south and east. The latter is undoubtedly the main attraction here. The jagged granite spires of the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), the Aiguille de la M. (2844m – so called because its profile looks like a letter M) and others soar above Chamonix, dominating the southern skyline. To the southwest lies the snowcapped dome of Mont Blanc itself at 4809m. The summit exudes a languid impregnability, its blunt profile a calm contrast to the sharp relief of the surrounding spires. But Mont Blanc is no baby; it has a reputation as the world’s most dangerous mountain, with the massif averaging around 100 fatalities per year. This dubious honour is largely down to the sheer number of ill-prepared visitors every year, led by guides more concerned with their bank balances than client safety. To an extent, it’s a matter of statistics.

So, Chamonix is a very popular destination. Every year thousands of tourists roll up for summer trekking and mountaineering, and winter skiing and snowboarding. I was there with a friend, Rich Andrews. Our aim was to focus on ice and mixed routes, pushing up to D+ (Difficile+) or possibly TD (Tres Difficile) – roughly equivalent to Scottish Winter Grade V. We also had a keen eye on some of the classic arête routes in the area. We initially placed less of an emphasis on pure rock climbing routes, and more of a focus on cold climbs.

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Looking back towards Mont Blanc du Tacul from the finish of the Arête des Cosmiques

In the end we managed four days out and four routes. On Monday we started on the classic Arête des Cosmiques, a relatively easy AD (Assez Difficile) 3 rock ridge which finished at the Midi station. The Aiguille du Midi lift (telepherique) whisks you from the lowly 1030m Chamonix up to the lofty 3842m height of the Midi station in about half an hour. After a descent from the station via a snow arête, a one kilometre drop into the Chamonix valley just inches from our boots, we were the first on the route. The previous couple of days had seen some fresh snow, meaning that much of the rock was buried in powder and holds had to be excavated before they could be used. This made for a relatively slow going, but an enjoyable start to the trip.

Next up, on Tuesday, was our first ice/mixed route, the popular Chèré Couloir (D 4) on the north-facing triangle of Mont Blanc du Tacul. Getting there requires a traverse of the Col du Midi, a mostly flat expanse of snow-covered glacier. We crossed in excellent weather; walking at 3530m can be pretty warm in the late summer sun. The couloir actually runs up to the top of Mont Blanc du Tacul but the first five pitches are the steepest and most interesting; many people only climb them and then abseil down. So that’s what we did. After crossing the bergschrund at the base of the climb over a snow bridge, Rich led the first, third and fifth pitches. I led the second, and the fourth (crux) pitch. The ice on the fourth pitch banked up to about 80 degrees and was beautiful. Solid axe placements on good ice made for a secure pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The ice was quite stepped out, courtesy of the many climbers who had been up Chèré Couloir already this year.

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Steep ice on Chèré Couloir. Photo credit: Rich Andrews

After a rest day with some cragging at Les Gaillands on Wednesday, the weather turned warmer on Thursday. We decided to do a rock route because few winter routes were in condition – a sad consequence of climate change in the Alps. The Rébuffat-Pierre route (TD- 6a+) on the Éperon des Cosmiques is a beautiful five-pitch trad climb on clean granite. It’s one of Gaston Rébuffat’s original top 100 climbs on the Mont Blanc massif, and for good reason – the climbing, the aspect and the views are spectacular. And so was the weather! Rich and I decided to climb light for this one, leaving our rucksacks on a rock ledge near the bottom of the face. I led the crux pitch, a 6a+ granite overhang 150m above the glacier. To be honest it felt easier than the official grade suggested, but pulling up and over that roof was fun, if intimidating. We abseiled down the face afterwards, although it is possible to top out onto the Arête des Cosmiques and finish along it at the Midi station.

Rébuffat-Pierre route, Aiguille du Midi

The crux overhang on the Rébuffat-Pierre route. Photo credit: Rich Andrews

Another ridge route, the Arête des Papillons (D), capped off the week. Unlike our previous climbs, this one was lower down in the valley – in the shadow of the crenellated Aiguille du Peigne (3192m) – so no snow or ice was expected and we climbed in approach shoes and rock shoes. The arête ascends about 250m and has two cruxes, both graded 5c. The second of these is the more interesting; we squeezed between two rocks in a section known as ‘the letterbox’, before a thin and airy traverse around to the right. Rich led these cruxes. After a few more difficulties we finished the route via an abseil off to the south side and a walk back down to Chamonix.

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Belaying on the Arête des Papillons

In just four days, Chamonix had offered us everything from committing ice climbing, to airy traversing above dizzying drops, to steep and technical trad. It’s not difficult to see why it’s such a popular venue for climbers, walkers and mountaineers from around the world. But what lessons can be taken from this experience (and alpinism in general) to improve on the quality, enjoyability and technicality of mountaineering in Scotland?

The Alps certainly are a different beast. Scotland’s mountains are undoubtedly wild and remote, but sheer scale of Alpine peaks presents a new and different set of challenges. The alpine climate can be extreme, especially in winter. Risks such as crevasses force the alpinist to take specialist safety equipment and to take extreme care when routefinding. Alpine routes are also more committing in terms of time, and so the consequences of an error are potentially far more serious. Above all, in the Alps, speed of progress is critical.

In Part II next week I’ll consider how these lessons I’ve been putting into practice over the past week, and those which have been developed and written about by famous alpinists over the years, have real relevance in Scotland as well as Chamonix.