How to become an Alpine Mountaineer, part 3: Climb a Mountain.
The Alps are scary.
This post is that list of mountains I’ve climbed, that I said I would post. I’ve made a lot of progress in the last two days I’ve had off. I’ve been up two routes, the Petite Aiguille Verte and the Aiguille du Belvédère, with different people. Both times I failed to summit, for different reasons.
Somehow, exposure of 1000 meters feels much more dangerous than the 120 meters you get in the UK.
Take, for example, my first alpine route, the North East ridge of the Petite Aiguille Verte. I made a lot of mistakes.
- We were late starting
- We were slow and inefficient
- We didn’t come to a consensus on when to remove crampons, so our route preferences were different.
- I dropped my ice axe. There is no way I’m going to get it back.
- I slipped on a steep section of snowy glacier and had to ice axe arrest.
- I punched a hole in my calf with my crampon when slipping into uneven slushy snow.
- We heard enormous rockfalls from the bigger mountains around us.
- We saw black holes where peoples feet had knocked through snowbridges over crevasses.
Despite all that, it was fine. I learnt a lot and gained at lot of confidence. The most important thing I learned?
The Alps are scary.
The mountains here are big. They are pointy. They are falling apart; seracs melting, crevasses in glaciers, and massive rockfalls. To get anywhere in the top pinnacles is very committing.
Somehow, exposure of 1000 meters feels much more dangerous than the 120 meters, you would get, for example, on Striding edge in the Lake District. Either way, you’re not walking away from that kind of fall.
I have the skills to get myself up and down lots of things and more importantly, I have the self awareness to know if and when I don’t.
Its not like climbing mountains in the UK. In the UK *certain people* complain about 45 minute walk-ins. Unless its a direct lift accessed peak, it takes three of four hours to reach the part that feels like a mountain. The routes themselves are committing. The easy (F/F+ ‘facile’) and not too difficult (PD ‘peu difficile') routes might be the easiest routes on the mountain, but they are still some of the hardest routes I’ve ever done.
What scares me is that if something goes wrong, there is no easy escape. Instead, down climbing technical terrain or abseiling are the only options. It makes Glencoe look like a walk in the park.
I’ve realised quite how hard it is to climb mountains in the Alps. But despite that, my confidence in my own skills and judgement has still increased dramatically. I have the skills to get myself up and down lots of things and more importantly, I have the self awareness to know if and when I don’t.
The mountains scare me, but thats not a bad thing: awareness and being over cautious is better than naive indifference.
Climbing in the Alps is a head game. It boils down to being able to make the decisions about what needs to be protected with a rope and what doesn’t. What protection is worth the time to set up, and when making a bomb proof anchor takes too much of the limited time available for climbing. To make those calls without any faff and with total efficiency you need in order to make ‘guidebook time’ (being within the suggested time scale) takes a lot of practice, and both times, I’ve been a long way off.
Perhaps the most dangerous thing is to compare myself to other mountaineers. People solo things I would take a rope on. Weather thats because they are better and more experienced than me, or because they don’t have the skills and equipment to do so when they will probably be fine. On the Belvedere, we saw both, and they were all fine. But I’d rather it wasn’t me- like I’ve said, 1000 meters of exposure feels like a lot. People climb harder routes and longer routes than me. Abseiling into a Bergshrund on the Glacier des Grands Montets was well… scary. I didn’t know enough to be sure that it was a good idea. The team behind, who had done a longer, harder route us said afterwards “it wasn’t that bad. I just wish I’d remembered to put my hood up.” But, they can get themselves out of things that I can’t. Maybe one day I will, when I’ve seen it all before. I just need to remind myself not to feel guilty before that point.
In the end though, its all fine.
- The mountains scare me, but thats not a bad thing: awareness and being over cautious is better than naive indifference.
- I have improved, dramatically, and will continue to do so. I’m not about to call myself an Alpinist just yet. But, one day.
- I’m capable of knowing when to turn around, and willing to do so.
- The photos look hardcore anyway.
- The potential for bagging back down mountains in the Alps can be as good as in Scottish winter, except its warm and sunny enough to dry your trousers afterwards.