What Gear Do You Need for Alpine Climbing?
Alpine climbing is one of climbing’s most complex and technical disciplines. As a result, it requires a significant amount of gear. Let’s break it down.
By Owen Clarke
Alpine climbing is no simple endeavor. It combines components of all styles of climbing, from trad to big wall to mountaineering. As such, alpine climbing is one of the most difficult styles of climbing to master. In order to safely send most alpine climbs, you must be competent on rock, ice, and snow, not to mention able to handle the rigors of alpine conditions.
Even on the easiest of alpine routes, you’ll have to contend with high altitude, inclement weather, snow and ice, avalanche danger, loose rock, and myriad other hazards outside of the technical climbing.
In this article, we’ll break down the key pieces of gear you’ll need for most alpine climbs. Keep in mind that every route is different. The gear you need for alpine climbing will change depending on the climate, season, location, and route you choose.
Alpine Climbing Apparel
Unlike a mellow summer day at the sport crag or boulderfield, apparel is just as important as gear when it comes to your safety while alpine climbing.
You’ll need the full span of cold-weather gear, including long underwear tops and bottoms, synthetic, wool, or fleece middle layers, a down jacket, and climbing pants. The best alpine climbing pants will be lightweight and synthetic, ideally with a durable finish that can stand up to abrasion.
A waterproof, helmet-compatible hooded parka is another key piece of apparel (depending on the down jacket you buy). Rugged, waterproof-treated leather alpine climbing gloves are a great choice for an outer hand layer when rope-handling, but you’ll also need insulated gloves and/or liners to stay warm. A winter hat (one fits under your helmet) is another must-have, as are thick, warm socks.
Perhaps the most important component of your alpine climbing apparel, however, is your boots. An alpine climbing boot should be warm, stiff, and insulated, with a primary focus on fit. Typically, look for a boot ½ to one full size larger than your street shoes (so that you can accommodate those thick, warm socks). Depending on the elevation, time of year, and conditions, your boots might vary from moderate mountaineering boots like the La Sportiva Nepal Cube GTX to full-on double boots like the Scarpa Phantom 6000. Don’t forget to make sure your boots are compatible with your crampons (see “Gear and Protection” below)
Alpine Climbing Packs
The best alpine climbing pack is lightweight and compact. Alpine climbing packs are worn the entire time you’re on the climbl, so you want a streamlined overall profile, with thin, lightweight straps that don’t restrict your arm movement or get in the way of accessing your pro, belay device, and other gear on your harness. Some external features, such as ice axe loops, are a must-have, but too many zippers, attachment points, and other external components can lead to snags while climbing, so be wary.
Generally, a simple, top-loading pack with a cinch-style closure and a single large interior pocket is ideal for alpine climbing. Remember to consider your pack’s waterproofing, as well. Internal pack liners are a great way to ensure your gear stays dry.
The question “What Size Pack for Alpine Climbing?” isn’t easily answered, however. It depends on your objective. On single-day missions where you need minimal gear and pro, you might be able to get by with a 20 or 30-liter pack. On multi-day alpine objectives, where you’ll need to carry camping gear, food, and water, in addition to your pro and other climbing gear, a pack that is at least 50 liters is probably a better choice.
Alpine Climbing Gear and Protection
When alpine climbing, you’ll need all the typical gear for any roped climb, such as a harness, helmet, rope, locking carabiners, belay device, slings or runners, quickdraws, around 15 feet of 6-7mm cordelette, and a Prusik set or other jugging system to ascend (one loop for your waist, one for your foot).
While a standard rock climbing harness will work fine for most alpine climbs, the best alpine climbing harness will have a few advantages, such as Dyneema and Spectra material to reduce weight and water absorption, as well as ice clipper slots to help you rack your ice screws.
The same is true for draws. Standard rock climbing quickdraws can sometimes get the job done, but when alpine climbing, look for draws that are lightweight, easy to use with gloves, lengthy enough to maintain a clean rope line, and that feature a wiregate opening. (Wiregate biners are less likely to freeze.) Notch-free carabiner noses, which help prevent snags, are another boon.
Depending on the route, you will also need some combination of rock climbing gear (rock shoes and cams, nuts, or other rock protection) and ice climbing gear (ice axes/tools, ice screws, crampons). As we note in our blog “Understanding Alpine Climbing,” the terrain on alpine climbs can vary widely. Some may have zero pitches of technical rock, some may have zero pitches of ice, and many alpine routes will incorporate pitches of both rock and ice. The gear you bring will depend on the objective.
Avalanches are a serious hazard on alpine climbs, and as such, avalanche gear is also generally necessary. Your avalanche kit should include an avalanche beacon, shovel, and probe. Make sure all this gear is easily accessible in your pack (and in the case of the beacon, turned on before you begin your climb).
Overnight Gear for Alpine Climbs
Some alpine climbs are half-day or full-day affairs, but others entail multiple days on the climbl or in the mountains. Regardless, you should at a bare minimum bring a modicum of survival gear anytime you’re heading into the alpine, even if you plan on being home for dinner. These items include things like a rescue tarp, pocketknife, lighter, water bottle, headlamp, first aid kit, snacks, and spare batteries.
If you’re on a long, ambitious one-day mission, you may want to bring a small stove, fuel, and some form of bivvy sack or other shelter just in case, but if you’re planning a multi-day mission, these items are critical. Sleeping bags rated for at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit are generally a good choice for alpine climbing, though a lower rating may be necessary depending on elevation and conditions.
You’ll also need a sleeping pad and personal mess kit for cooking and eating (plastic bowl, mug, utensils, etc). Personal toiletries, medications, sunscreen, a water purification device (if you won’t be melting snow), and standard typical camping gear is also used on overnight alpine climbs.
Am I Ready to Start Alpine Climbing?
Remember, alpine climbing is a serious endeavor. You shouldn’t embark on an alpine objective until you’re experienced climbing on rock, snow, and ice, and until you’ve mastered your skills at lower elevations, without the objective hazards that altitude and the alpine climate add into the mix.
That said, guided alpine climbing adventures are an excellent way to safely get a taste of alpine climbing. You’ll cut your teeth on technical climbs in the alpine with a veteran IFMGA-certified Mountain Guide watching your back and showing you the ropes. There’s no better way to figure out if alpine climbing is right for you (and to learn the skills needed so you can start climbing on your own in the future).