Want to Get into Alpine Climbing? Here’s How to Get Started.

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“How do I get into alpine climbing? It seems like a great way to escape the crowds, but a little intimidating. What is a good progression?

– Joanna W


The truth is that you are right on both counts. Many alpine climbers stare at a snow-swept expanse of wild, beautiful, pristine rock – and try not to wet their pants. That said, it’s a great way to find beauty and solitude, but it’s often uncomfortable.

However, the discomfort factor can vary greatly depending on what you mean by “alpine climbing”.

If you want to climb Pigeon Spire in the Bugaboos, Canada, you must first learn glacier travel skills for the approach.Jonathan Bell, Unsplash

What is alpine climbing anyway?

Alpine climbing is technically defined as climbing anywhere in the alpine zone or above the tree line. That includes alpine bouldering and high-altitude sport climbing, as well as the remote, windswept peaks you’re probably referring to when you mention the intimidation factor. Alpine climbing can also mean ice and mixed climbing above the tree line. In some parts of the country, like the Pacific Northwest, some alpine rocks are only accessible via glaciated terrain and steep snow, requiring different skills.

If solitude is all you seek, the long approaches often required for alpine bouldering or sport climbing might be all you need. If so, great! All you have to do is pack a few extra layers and safety gear, and be aware of the weather.

First of all, if you are interested in multi-pitch routes or long traverses, be warned: the inconvenience factor increases here.

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Why is alpine climbing sometimes shit?

Let’s start with the mentioned gastrointestinal complaints. This can come from two sources. The first source: Alpine climbing is scary. Above the tree line, the weather is unpredictable. Vicious melt-freeze cycles often leave the rock brittle and loose, and rockfall is a serious hazard. Also, Bad Rock is difficult to protect. The second source: Alpine climbing, by definition, takes place at relatively high altitude. Different people react differently to altitude. Some get dizzy. Some get sick. Some produce a surprising amount of gas and find that their gut demands attention at inopportune moments. (You can’t call someone an alpine climbing partner until you’ve pooped next to them on a hanging belay.)

But even those who acclimate to the altitude — or experience no symptoms of altitude sickness at all — still feel tired and move more slowly in the thin, oxygen-poor air, especially above 8,000 feet or so. Normally that would be fine. But in many alpine areas, like the Rocky Mountains, afternoon thunderstorms are common. Paradoxically, quick action becomes critical precisely where it is most difficult. Have you ever heard the term “Alpinstart”? That means getting up early – as early as 1:00 or 2:00 am – to allow enough time to get back under the tree line before the lightning risk hits around midday.

Why is vacuuming worth it?

If you decide to get into alpine climbing, you will wake up terribly early. You’ll climb with frozen hands, yell at your partner over 30-mile winds, dodge hailstorms, re-climb inclines to free hopelessly stuck rope, and spend an awkward time wondering how slack is too slack when it’s Equipment in overall selection is used for placement. It’s part of the game. And in a masochistic way, it’s part of the fun.

Alpine climbing brings you wild adventures, access to untouched landscapes and routes so long and so beautiful they will make you cry. However, the trick to safely enjoying anything is to engage in it in the right way. Which brings me to your questions.

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How to get into alpine climbing

I have taken all of the following steps on my journey to becoming an alpine climber. If I had to do it all over again, I would take them in this order.

  1. Become an experienced trad climber. Work on your multi-pitch transitions, rappelling efficiency, improvised anchors, and gear placement until you feel confident you can move safely and smoothly over any terrain. You can learn a lot by reading a book or taking an online course, but learning from a human is invaluable. Find a mentor or take a personal class. I personally learned from a handful of experienced friends over two or three years. Then I took a one day anchor building course through REI just to get official confirmation that I was doing everything right.
  2. Spend time at altitude. If you want to push your weight to the limit, first make sure your lungs and gut can handle the altitude stress. Climb a peak the same height as your intended ascent to understand how your body is reacting. Example: I knew I ultimately wanted to climb technical routes on Longs Peak at 14,259 feet. So I hiked up the non-technical path as fast as I could. (I didn’t throw up, so I went to the next step.)
  3. Select all skills for the approach. Depending on where you live, you may have to cross glaciers or climb snow to reach technical alpine rock. Again, find an experienced mentor to teach you the basics, then practice those skills in practice. For example, before I climbed the Torment-Forbidden Traverse of the North Cascades, my partner and I practiced crevasse rescue systems at home and at the gym, and I went out with another experienced friend to brush up on my snow self-catching skills in the gorge.
  4. Do you have a safety plan? Whenever you are climbing in a remote location, tell someone at home where you are going and when to call for help if you are not back by a certain time. Bring plenty of food, water, and layers in case you get lost or get knocked out. It’s also wise to pack a personal locator beacon for rescue in case a serious emergency arises. Whenever I climb, I bring a headlamp, a first aid kit, a Garmin inReach Mini, and a pair of walkie-talkies to keep in touch with my partner when they’re out of range.
  5. Get a good partner. Find someone with alpine experience and a good feel for the mountains. In alpine sports, it’s important that you have a partner you can trust to make wise decisions and keep the stoke going. You are likely to suffer, so choose someone you can enjoy suffering with.
  6. Start small. Start with easy climbing and start in summer. Summer conditions are more forgiving and the days are longer, giving you more room for error. I followed friends on alpine routes for a year or two before organizing and leading my own ascent. For this I chose Blitzen Ridge (5.4). At about 13 miles round trip it was a long day but well within my climbing abilities. That’s a good thing, because there were a lot of difficulties finding the route. There was fatigue. And there were certainly gastrointestinal complaints. The day was only a success because my partner and I gave ourselves a large buffer of time and difficulties.
  7. Ascend slowly. After your first successful alpine excursion, choose something more difficult, with either a longer approach or a tougher incline. Remember that both take time and effort, which you must balance with better climbing efficiency and sharper route finding.
  8. Know when to turn back. With alpine climbing you are completely at the mercy of the mountains. To do it safely, you have to get past the send-at-any-cost mentality and realize that success often means jumping off at exactly the right time. A good sense of the mountains means knowing when conditions, weather and your timeline combine to give you the green light or close your window faster than you can handle it. In the big mountains, climbing is a privilege and an honor, but so is the climb in general – even if you end up just walking with your gear.
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