Essential Alpine Climbing Skills

Alpine climbing offers incredible adventure, but requires skills that aren’t needed for shorter cliffs and boulders closer to home.

When summer comes and the high peaks of the Rockies, Sierra Nevada and other great ranges melt out, climbers head to higher altitude.

Here’s a list of 5 must-have skills for alpine climbing.

Go Light

Just as we told you with long distance hiking, this philosophy must extend to everything from your toothbrush to your rope and rack.

When it comes to your climbing gear, you have to shave ounces, and the easiest way to do that is by using ultra-light carabiners or alpine quickdraws (as shown in the video).

On a traditional climb, you’ll probably carry dozens, so finding slim wiregate carabiners will drop ounces immediately. You’ll have to find other ways to maximize use of minimal gear, too.

Some climbers carry multiple cams on a single carabiner on their harness, and clip each with a slim alpine runner. Keep weight in the forefront of your mind, and you’ll find tricks like that. Remember: Ounces make pounds!

Cover Ground Quickly

You don’t have to climb as fast as Ueli Steck, but you should aspire to.

High up in the mountains, you’ll often find lots of easy climbing. Even routes with stiff grades that are given for the hardest pitches can consist mostly of moderate terrain. So it behooves any climber who ventures into thin air to dispatch with the easy ground quickly.

Training for this stuff is a breeze: Just find easy routes and approach them as if competing for time trials. Learn to climb safely—but swiftly—through the easy sections and you’ll avoid more bad weather and have more time for other things: Like more climbs!

Move Fast Up There

Anyone who has spent a lot of time alpine climbing in the mountains has learned to fear lightning. At high altitude, the weather is fickle and it can creep up with the quickness.

That’s why you want to make sure you are exposed for the shortest possible duration of time.

That often means making it to the summit before afternoon storms whip up and the skies open. The best way to do that is to start early. The term “alpine start”—usually meaning before dawn—arises for this very reason.

Build Endurance

Climbing difficult mountains is about keeping a brisk pace for long periods of time. Alpine style routes often consist of a long approach hike, some boulder or gully travel, lots of scrambling and a long descent hike.

You are on your feet, moving constantly for many hours at a time, but rarely exerting yourself at or near your physical limit.

Training for this kind of challenge is pretty easy: You don’t even need a mountain. You just need to find a way to make sure you’re expending energy steadily at a moderate pace for a long time. Some alpine climbers train for this kind of thing by doing double- or triple-workout days including swimming, biking, running, weight lifting and climbing.

Find some combination of those which pairs endurance activity with something more demanding on your muscles, like bouldering, and you’ll be ready for the mountains in no time. If you can find some lightweight options, you may also want to choose one of these supplements to increase endurance and energy.

Learn Snow Travel

A lot of climbers are out of their element when it comes to snow. But in the alpine climbing realm, you’ll have to tango with the stuff at least every now and again. Even if you’re a skilled skier or snowboarder, chances are you rarely travel against gravity on it.

First, you should consider some light crampons that can be fitted over your hiking shoes. It may seem an unnecessary burden, but if you are faced with a long slick slope covered in snow, you’ll be thankful you have them.

Ditto for an ice axe, which has the added benefit of being used for self-arrest. Should you slip and fall, you can turn onto your belly and press the axe into the snow with your bodyweight. The pick will dig in and you’ll stop your descent.

Routefinding

In the mountains, numerous crack and ledge systems can make for a confusing path. Follow the wrong crack and you may end up at a dead end.

Or worse: high above your last protection and unable to place any pieces. This is a difficult skill to learn, but once you how to piece together a route, you’ll never get lost in the high peaks.

For one thing, you must learn to read climber’s topographical maps, which detail a route’s characteristics. When you’re on the rock, you’ve got to notice other subtle clues, too: look for chalk; other climbers have come before you and left hints.

At first, reading the rock is like reading a new language. But once you know its subtleties, you’ll never forget what it is saying and you’ll be an educated traveler ready to hit some alpine style slopes.

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