Our ambassador Victoria, @alpinewithv, is a jack of all trades when it comes to mountain sports. While her primary ambitions involve climbing to the summits of the most compelling mountains in the Canadian Rockies, she also dabbles in ski touring, snowboarding, cycling and waterfall ice climbing. During the week she sips on many cups of coffee while getting through run-of-the-mill office work, and every free second is spent planning and training for the big mountain dreams that light her soul on fire. We asked Victoria for a few tips on how to get into technical alpine climbing, and here’s what she had to share.
Occasionally, I get the question “How do I get into technical alpine climbing?”
Here’s my Story.
Very few people are lucky or determined enough to climb full time once they discover they are passionate about it and I am not one of those people. In the grand scheme of things, I have not done much, and I have a lot to learn, but it has still taken me six years to get to where I am today. On the weekends, I dabble in rock climbing, waterfall ice climbing and ski mountaineering, but what I enjoy most is getting to the summit of a mountain that requires both glacier travel and pitching out some rock sections.
I love having to deal with several different types of terrain, using the skills I’ve acquired over the years, and carrying all the equipment I need to complete the objective. All of this started with hiking to my first summit six years ago.
I was hooked. And weekend after weekend I ticked off the scrambles closest to home. That same summer I took an intro to rock climbing course, and while I didn’t do much climbing outside, the rope skills seamlessly transferred to learning how to ice climb that winter. Learning crevasse rescue and trad climbing skills happened in the following years and I’ve been trying to get as much as experience as possible doing all of it since.
Of course, hiring a guide to manage a lot of the risks for you is always an option, but to me, the experience is way more valuable knowing I have the skills to do it myself.
If photos of daring climbers in Chamonix and Patagonia make your heart beat faster and your eyes sparkle, but you’ve never been on a mountain before, here’s how to start on your journey there:
Skills — Yes, you can learn from your friends, but I strongly recommend learning from a professional. They are trained to teach and have a learning plan. Both are important when it's your life at stake on technical terrain.
Gear — And lots of it. Your place will start resembling an episode of hoarders, and that's perfectly normal.
Crew — Another great thing about taking courses is that you meet local outdoor enthusiasts that are at the same level and also keen to get out. There's no better way to retain those skills than to keep practicing outside and the people who spend hours on end with you in stressful situations and bad weather are bound to become friends for life.
Hiking and Scrambling
Cardio and general tolerance with exposure are crucial for any mountain activity so hiking and scrambling are a great way to start dipping your toes into it all. Difficult scrambles and exposed low 5th Class Climbing are something that I’ll never stop doing. It keeps me comfortable with exposure when I’m not attached to a rope and it requires navigational skills that come in handy on big mountains.
Rock Climbing – Sport
Here’s where gathering the equipment really starts. On top of all the clothing layers, backpack and helmet used for scrambling, now you need rock shoes, a harness, carabiners, a rope, quick draws, anchor kit, a belay device and chalk. This is also where starting to take courses is a good idea. You can then pass your belay and lead tests at your local climbing gym and send indoors year-round.
Rock Climbing — Trad
Knowing how to trad climb means being able to move away from the bolted routes and into placing removable gear yourself! It’s a good idea to convert your sport draws into alpine draws with slings if possible (some are not made to be converted) as placements can be out of the way and extending the draws reduces the rope drag. Additional equipment includes a set of cams, nuts and a nut tool. Half ropes are great for trad climbing because they reduce the rope drag and you can rappel further with them in case you need to bail off the route.
I’ve looked up definitions of what “mountaineering” is and the consensus seems to be that if you can walk on the ice or snow without pitching it out, it is not considered alpine climbing. I think finding routes with glaciers that are relatively flat is the easiest progression from dry rock to traveling on snow and ice. Prepare to purchase your most prized pair of boots along with a mountaineering axe and crampons. Knowing crevasse rescue, how to self-arrest in the event of a fall, as well as, how to cross a glacier as a team are essential here.
Even though glacier ice isn’t as steep, and is generally less technical, I have a soft spot for waterfall ice. It is usually located in the most beautiful canyons that are likely inaccessible during the summer. Being comfortable on waterfall ice probably means that glacier ice will be a piece of cake for you. The set of screws and ice tools needed for this come in handy on steep glacier alpine routes.
The Journey That Never Ends
Put it all together and you have what it takes to summit some beautiful and challenging peaks! I think this is as general as it gets on how to approach alpine climbing step by step if you can only spend a couple of days a week on it. If you are keen to try it, this is enough to get you sucked in so you can find your own way. I tend to be adventure hungry, so I spend most of my time seeking out easier routes that I can already climb rather than trying to push my grade.
You might find that challenging yourself on a single pitch brings you a lot more joy than getting baked on a glacier for 13 hours. Time is a resource constraint, and so is money, and everyone will have their own preferences on how to spend it climbing.
Equipment wears out, rope work skills need to be refreshed and every summit teaches you a new lesson. The mountains are a lifelong addiction and I can’t imagine spending my free time anywhere else.