I got back from my first climbing trip to the Alps a bit over a month
ago. My friend Andy and I spent two-and-a-bit weeks in the Écrins
climbing routes graded Facile and Peu Difficile, and generally having a
blast. I'd wanted to go to the Alps for years, but I'd heard so much
about how hard and scary Alpine climbing was that I consistently failed
to get a trip together. This year I finally overcame my fears and
disorganisation and made it out there, and I found that low-grade Alpine
mountaineering (the stuff I was interested in, in other words) was much
easier, more fun and less scary than I'd been led to expect. I wish I'd
gone five years ago.
Some of the stuff I read beforehand was useful (in particular, I
recommend the BMC's DVD [Alpine
Essentials](https://www.thebmc.co.uk/alpine-essentials-dvd), which does
a wonderful job of demystifying Alpine mountaineering), but I was still
left with some misconceptions and gaps in my knowledge. Here's some of
what I wish I'd known back then; [the usual
### There is absolutely no need to go to the Dolomites first
People kept telling me that I should go to the Dolomites and do lots of
long rock routes before attempting the high Alps. I'm sure the Dolomites
are lovely, but this is nonsense. If, like me, you want to do low-grade
mountaineering on high mountains, go and do it. Experience of 10+-pitch
rock routes is not necessary; I doubt it's even very useful. Moving
together on scrambling terrain in big boots is a different skill.
### It's nothing like the books
Climbing memoirs and films concentrate disproportionately on the
super-hard routes and the times when Everything Went Wrong. It turns out
that there are plenty of easier routes too.
### Guidebook times are perfectly achievable
I received differing advice on this. All the books and DVDs stressed the
importance of completing routes within guidebook time, and only
increasing your grade/altitude/length once you were doing so. However,
most of the *people* I spoke to said that this was an unrealistic aim.
One guy even said that 1.5x guidebook time was a more reasonable target,
but that I (as a Slow Climber) should allow double. In the event, we did
almost all of our routes either within guidebook time or only a few
minutes over. On the one exception, the South Ridge of the Aiguille
Centrale de Soreiller, we took 4.5h versus 3h, but (a) the time quoted
was for the shorter variation of the route, and we did the longer
variation, (b) we deliberately decided to pitch the exposed summit ridge
rather than moving together, having assessed the glacier below and
deciding it would be safe to descend later in the day.
### It's not that scary
All the books said "you need a few days to get used to the sheer scale
of the Alps". I really didn't find this. Granted, the Écrins are not the
tallest part of the Alps, but the exposure levels were at most about
double what I'm used to from Scotland, and I felt pretty much at home.
In fact, I found fear-management much easier than on the average UK
roadside crag. If you can handle the Cuillin Ridge, you'll be fine.
That said, learning the [Litany Against
Fear](http://dune.wikia.com/wiki/Litany_Against_Fear) is not a bad idea.
It actually helps, and as an earworm it beats the hell out of *Brown
Girl in the Ring*.
### The days needn't be that long
Similarly with the oft-repeated advice that Alpine days can be really
really long. Our longest day was ten hours (although we stopped back at
the hut - it would have been more like 14 if we'd descended to the
valley the same day); I've done 13-hour winter days in Scotland, and
14-hour days in summer. Or 18-hour days if you count epics. There are
obviously plenty of very long routes in the Alps, but *you don't have to
do them*. Pick a shorter route and move fast.
I suspect that most advice to newbie Brit alpinists is aimed at
hot-headed wannabe Sheffield hardmen. The exposure's huge and the days
are long if you think that 10m of gritstone is a long route. Which
reminds me of the time I was climbing Curved Ridge in summer with three
friends, moving roped together, and two know-it-alls with Yorkshire
accents told us that they'd been climbing for thirty years and what we
were doing was "not a recognised rope technique". Hey, how about you (a)
fuck off back to Stanage, and (b) pick up a fucking book? I'm sure if
you ask nicely in the climbing shop they'll help you with the big words.
### You'll spend a lot of time downclimbing
The *voies normales* are, almost by definition, the easiest routes up
the mountains. Hence, if there were an easy route off the top, you'd
have climbed that instead. You may be able to abseil some sections, but
there's no guarantee of this.
### It's surprisingly warm up there
My previous experience of climbing in snow and ice had all been in
Scottish winter conditions, where your fingers are usually painfully
cold, touching the rock ungloved will chill you to the bone, hydration
tubes freeze solid, and if you stop for more than a minute you'll need
to layer up or dance about or both to keep warm. This was not the case
in the Écrins. I did most routes in just a base layer, with my thin
belay jacket coming out for summit stops or the occasional fixed belay
in the wind. My hardshell only got used during rainstorms in the valley,
and my outer gloves were entirely unused. Softshells were more useful:
in particular, my [Rab Sawtooth softshell
On the Barre des Écrins, a guide asked me "do you get many days like
this on Ben Nevis?"
"Oh yeah, we get some sunny days, even in winter."
"No, I meant with the wind!"
"Oh, right. In Scotland, we don't consider it windy if you can hold a
### Staying hydrated is hard
Non-freezing hydration tubes make it easier to take a drink without
stopping - and you will have very few stops if you're doing it right -
but we kept running out of water in the heat. The lack of stops also
means you can't do much to adjust your layering system if you get too
hot. On our first route - which took a mere 4.5 hours hut-to-hut - I
drank the whole of my 2L hydration bladder, then knocked back a 1.5L
bottle of water on my own back at the hut.
We also struggled to eat enough on the routes; we never properly hit the
wall, but we were definitely suffering from depleted blood-sugar on
several occasions. My normal strategy is to scoff chocolate biscuits and
sandwiches on belays, or eat while hiking, but this doesn't work when
you're moving together on class 3-4 terrain, need your hands to make
progress and can't spare the time to stop. I suggested filling our
drinking bladders with Gatorade or something similar to Andy, but
apparently when he tried that on a previous trip he lost a tooth.
### Lassitude is a real thing
I was astonished how little energy I had down in the valleys. The heat
sapped the power to do anything except lie about and drink tea.
### You'll do a lot of traversing
It turns out that
1. you have muscles in the side of your calves
2. they're used a lot when you traverse steep slopes
3. almost nothing else trains them.
### You'll need to switch very quickly between belayed climbing and moving together
File this one under "try not to stop for any reason" - you quite often
reach a spot where you can belay the leader over a tricky bit, but the
second wants to move off *immediately* once the rope comes tight. This
argues for the use of direct belays off spikes, a technique which
horrified me when I first saw it but to which I quickly became
### Fitness is useful, but you don't have to be an elite super-athlete
I had an ambitious training plan, involving half-marathons and marathons
and mountain marathons, but due to various injuries and illnesses and my
local gym closing down and other such excuses, I utterly failed to go
through with it. Consequently I headed out to the Alps well below my
usual level of fitness and carrying about 15kg of excess weight. About a
week before I went out, I ran 10km and got [delayed onset muscle
so long had it been since I'd done any running. And, you know what? I
was mostly fine. The walk-ins to the huts were hard, largely because we
were doing them in the heat of the afternoon (see above, "lassitude is a
real thing"), and I was pretty spaced out with tiredness on the descent
from the Barre des Écrins, but I managed. More fitness would definitely
have helped, sure, but lack of fitness wasn't (usually) the limiting
### Alpine star fields are *amazing*
Install a star-map app on your phone before you go. Trust me on this.
So what would be a really useful training plan for that sort of trip? I
suggest the following:
- Do as much hillwalking as you can. If it involves some scrambling,
all the better. Practice traversing steep slopes.
- Practice climbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice *down*climbing easy routes in big boots.
- Practice climbing with a full bladder (once again, you don't want to
stop if you can avoid it).
- Do lots of long, grade I/II Scottish winter routes: the kind of thing
where you want to move together. This was the only part of this
training programme that I actually did, and I'm extremely grateful
- Practice your French (or the language of whatever country you're
visiting). High school was a long time ago for me, and it's
embarrassing asking "Parlez-vous Anglais?" all the time. Also, the
English-language guidebooks are selective and concentrate a lot on
the more aspirational routes; reading the local guidebooks will give
you more options.
tl;dr Alpine climbing is the Best Thing Ever. All the fun of Scottish
winter climbing without the hot aches.
![Me on the summit of La Grande Ruine](http://i.imgur.com/fEhXApRl.jpg)
*Me on my first Alpine summit, La Grande Ruine 3765m. [More photos here](https://www.dropbox.com/photos/c/oHOaHkMw1bxMaUM).*
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