As climbing has grown in popularity, so has every climbing discipline. More climbers are getting on belay at rock gyms, are roping up at sport crags, and cutting their teeth on trad and ice than ever before. The same is true for alpine climbing.
Not so long ago, alpine-style ascents were a rare breed. Today, many climbers practice the fast, light, pure form of alpine climbing, tackling hard routes at high elevations from the Himalaya to the Alps to the Alaska Range.
Let’s dive into the topic of alpine climbing, answering a few key questions about the practice. For starters…
What is Alpine Climbing?
Alpine climbing is one of many styles of climbing. Other types of climbing include sport climbing, trad climbing, bouldering, indoor climbing, aid climbing, ice climbing, deep water soloing, and mountaineering.
In short, an alpine climb requires two general stipulations. The term refers to 1) a technical climb 2) that is completed in an “alpine” environment. Let’s tackle that first requirement.
What is technical climbing?
Technical climbing refers to climbing where the climber must use all four limbs to ascend the route (as opposed to hiking or scrambling, where you may use your hands now and then, but not at all times).
Alpine climbing can incorporate technical pitches of rock, ice, and mixed terrain. On rock, 5th class (YDS), is generally considered the start of “technical” terrain. On ice, WI2 is considered the start of “technical” climbing, though ice pitches are fluid, unlike rock, and the same pitch can vary in difficulty depending on the season and weather conditions.
Now, let’s discuss the second part of the “alpine climbing” definition, which states that an alpine climb must occur in an alpine environment.
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What is an alpine environment?
Alpine environments are high-elevation regions, typically above treeline, where wind, snow, and ice are common. The elevation of alpine environments will vary depending on the region of the world you’re in, but generally, around 10,000 feet above sea level is a fair starting point for “alpine” terrain. Basically, we’re talking about climbs that are in the mountains.
So, an alpine climb is a technical climbing route that exists at a high elevation. It doesn’t matter how large or small it is. It can be one pitch or 30. It can lead to the summit of a 20,000-foot peak in Pakistan, or it can simply ascend a small alpine rock face in the Colorado Rockies.
All that matters is the alpine location that the line itself possesses sustained technical difficulty.
What is the Difference Between Alpine Climbing and Mountaineering?
Alpine climbing and mountaineering are the two main types of climbing you’ll find in the mountains.
Mountaineering is the classic mountain climbing style, in use since the early days of expedition climbing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Mountaineers are focused primarily on ascending the mountain, and frequently trek up and down to acclimatize, setting up various camps at different elevations, using porters, and overall “siege-style” tactics to gain a summit. Check out our mountaineering trips>>
Alpine climbing, meanwhile, refers to alpine routes with technical difficulty, as noted above. In short, mountaineering is when the climber’s primary goal is simply overcoming weather, elevation, and other conditions at high altitudes to gain the summit, while alpine climbing revolves around overcoming the technical difficulties of a specific route.
Mountaineering can involve everything from hiking to snow climbing, but oftentimes mountaineers never need to ascend any technical pitches to reach the summit. Alpine climbs will contain some amount of sustained, technical climbing.
You’ll also hear the term “alpinism” thrown around interchangeably with alpine climbing, but the two terms aren’t the same. A three-pitch ice route at 12,000 feet on a peak in the Wasatch Range is technically an alpine climb, and a climber completing that route would be “alpine climbing,” but that’s not alpinism.
Alpinism refers to fast and light, ground-up ascents on high-elevation summits, as opposed to the up-and-down, siege-style tactics used by mountaineers. An alpinist on Everest or K2, for example, would go up and down the mountain in a single push, carrying their own gear and charting their own course.
How to Get into Alpine Climbing
Alpine climbing is perhaps the most difficult and dangerous form of climbing. It’s not for beginners. To climb technical routes in the alpine, you’ll need a cohesive knowledge of almost every aspect of rock climbing, ice climbing, and mountaineering.
You’ll need to be able to climb technical rock, ice, and mixed terrain, and you’ll need to deal with numerous alpine hazards, like avalanches, snowstorms, altitude sickness, and sub-freezing temperatures.
Most people who get into alpine climbing come from one of three worlds. Some alpine climbers start as hikers, then expanded into the world of mountaineering, cutting their teeth on trekking peaks like Rainier (14,411 feet) and Shasta (14,179 feet), before trying more technical routes and mountains. Others begin as rock climbers, learning technical rock climbing at sport crags and in gyms, then expand into higher elevation alpine rock climbs, as well as ice climbing. Still others come to alpine climbing from a backcountry skiing background, ascending couloirs and other snow and ice formations to access ski and snowboard lines, naturally learning more about technical climbing as a result.
Regardless of your background, you shouldn’t start alpine climbing until you’re an experienced climber at lower elevations, and until you’re experienced with rock, snow, and ice.
However, alpine climbing adventures with a guide are a great way to dip your toes in the water. You’ll get to experience technical (or non-technical) routes at high elevations, all with the safety and guidance of a veteran IFMGA-certified Mountain Guide. If you want to begin alpine climbing, this is the way to do it!