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Alpine Training - A Students Perspective

Matt making his first ice lead on the North Face of the Petite Aiguille Verte, Chamonix

Already a competent UK based rock climber, Matt came out to Chamonix for 6 days of alpine training, three in in spring and three in early summer. Here, he shares his detailed analysis of each days training outcomes. This analytical approach to mountain training pays rapid and impressive dividends in terms of increased efficiency and skill in the mountains. These are Matt's personal notes which he is kindly sharing for all on-line. Hopefully some of these tips will be of use (not sure about the eggs and lentils for breakfast though Matt!!) they are not however a substitute for undertaking your own mountain training course with a qualified Guide and serving your own progressive apprenticeship as an alpinist. We hope to help you with this.

Things that I have learnt....

Ropework

Coils

I SUCK at coils, get good, at home, but do it right. Do two sets, keep the glacier travel ones on then if you need to put another set in for short roping, this way you can instantly go back to your glacier setup without measuring. You can practice this home with a mate so do it, maybe just at the crag when you have the ropes out?

Glacier travel.

15 - 18m between a pair, know how many hand spans that is. Tie a bite about 1 1/2 spans from your coils.

Crevasse rescue.

Your body anchor is probably going to be the best you get because most glaciers you can’t drill and ice screw and unless you absolutely know what you are doing a buried ixe axe belay is super dodgy. Possibly controversial :)

Preparation

One good thing I did do was to do LOADS of easy climbing in the gym. Climb for 45 minutes without getting pumped (it’s harder than it sounds), choose easy moves and do a variation of moves, traversing is really good, go feet first then feet behind on the same routes. Also try and find somewhere to practice your footwork and finding new footholds, a features wall for example, that helped a lot. Remember that bouldering V6 is nothing when you are on pitch 7 on your 100th V0- move of the day at 3500m.

One thing I would like to try is stair training. I was good on the flat, probably from running in general, but when we hit the hills I was pretty damn crap. This is when you really feel all that extra crap in your pack you decided to take “just in case”.

Running is not good preparation for walking up hill with a pack on.

Things I haven’t done but I think would be good (or told that it is good!)

Scottish Winter climbing

Long easier multipitch routes in Wales with scrambles for descents.

So if you turn up early and say you are getting a guide in 3 days then it might have been an idea to get up high earlier, just for a bit of acclimatization. Go up the midi with a map for the afternoon for example....probably helps.

Abseiling

Um...yeah... suffice to say there is a lot to learn here and getting it wrong is quite serious!

Overhand to join + 50cm. Pull each of the 4 strands tight. The 50cm is key, anything longer and you risk accidentally abbing off the wrong ends (it has happened!!!)

Have a look in a book for the right setup regarding cows tail, prussik etc. Make sure that the overhand knot is on the outside (furthest away from the wall) this means it will jam less.

Make sure you asses the abseil on the way up, easy to do if you are bringing someone up, if you are seconding then while belaying try and commit the previous pitch to memory. Look down the route! You really need to do this!! Probably good to write down a little routine for arriving at a belay, and also abbing down.

Most important! Make sure before you each take your cows tails off the anchor you both check each others gear and get onto the rope and have cows tails away. That way you both have to make a mistake at the same time for there to be a mistake. You will stuff it up sooner or later so get your partner to check you, and you check them. If there is a 1/1000 chance of a mistake and your partner checks carefully the chances of you both making the same mistake at the same time are now: 1/1Million. (1/1000 * 1/1000). Obviously its not as simple as that but it proves how good having a partner check is.

Once you unclip then clip the rope that you are going to pull. This alternates, so it’s easy to forget.

Be very careful on easy ground about dislodging loose rock, your partner does not want this and neither do your ropes.

Try not to swing around too much, especially if the ropes are sliding over sharp rock.

As you pull the rope through, use a slow consistent action, no jerking!

When you arrive at the belay don’t just assume the anchor is good, test it by popping the cows tail in and abbing so that your cows tail takes your weight. If you are suspicious you can shock load it a little while still on the abb rope. When you are about to abb off do the same in reverse (no shock loading though!) in that you test that you have put your belay plate on correctly and weight it before taking the cows tail out.

The person that is second on the rope is responsible for making sure it runs true back to the top anchor. This person should also take special care to keep the ropes separated as they undo their belay device upon arriving at the anchor.

As the ropes get pulled through the other person is taking loops till about 1/2 way of the single rope (so 1/2 of red vs 1/2 of the combined rope where the knot is) and then the other 1/2 are let loose below the belay. Once you have the knot at the belay then throw the coil *strategically*, ie, not down the nearest crack!

On easy ground do not put a knot in the bottom of each rope, it’s more likely to jam in something. However, this means you can rap off the bottom, so it’s very key to know where the belay is. Also on easy ground you are going to stop and regather and throw the rope, so use this time to check length etc. If it’s steep, night etc then maybe put the knots in. If the rope gets stuck do not panic. Try a few tactics at the belay first (need to learn those a bit more) like using a prusik and putting more of your body weight on it (get on a belay first, don’t shock load the anchor!) also you can try moving from side to side. Do not solo up to free it! Be careful that if you pull it there is a chance that this will cause rockfall. Get close into the wall first.

Don’t rush it in bad weather or when you are tired. Seems obvious, but that is when most accidents happen, so it can’t be that obvious.

Double check things! Each anchor is different and each rope setup is different really. If you screw your screw gate up the rope being pulled through can unwind it. I saw that on my first multi pitch route in the alps and also a rope jamming so it clearly all does happen.

Ice abbs

Making an Abalakov is both enjoyable and entertaining. The name alone will inspire hours of belay entertainment, especially if the harness pinches. It’s a serious business though. So you V thread some tat based on 2 holes you drill with your ice screws. Easy. Not exactly. It requires 2 of you, or really good experience to make the points of the V match. When drilling go all the way in at 45’ horizontally and around 30’ (ish) vertically down. Holes should be about 20cm apart. You need 2 abalakovs to abb off, so you need to make sure that they are offset horizontally and vertically. About 40-4=50cm should do it in good ice.

Make sure you equalize the tat (you can probably have pre cut lengths in long and short cord for this) Use an overhand to tie the tat. Test it before you commit to the anchor, as usual.

Belays

More Alpine advice than rock, if you are constructing your own belay and there is no option but to throw in a crappy belay then you attach to that as a backup and then try and position yourself as a standing braced belay so not all the force is straight on the belay. Use the crappy belay as backup.

Protection while moving together is a bit of an art mixing speed and safety, where experience is really key. Loop the rope around rocks/flakes etc opposite to the side you will fall, if it’s a long traverse remember that your partner has to second it.

If you have your cows tail from the belay and you know you are just going to another you don't need to pass it round behind you, you just clip to the coils and stuff it away tidily.

Ice axe belay

Basically this has to be good, if it’s not good well....

So cut down a trench at 90’ (not 90’ to the slope, actually 90’) you can even cut more than 90 so that the axe isn’t going to pop out. If there are many layers find a solid one, but dig down about a foot in general. It is important that your trench is flat, so use your hand if you need to make that possible. Cut a channel as narrow as you can using the pick straight down the middle at a right angle to the trench, then tie a clove hitch to the balance point of your axe and stick it in the hole (clove hitch at back) make sure that axe is solid up against the lower side of the trench (in the direction of pull) that is where the anchor gets it’s strength. You can push the snow from the top of the trench onto and over the axe totally burying it, this makes it slightly stronger but careful not to disrupt the lower wall of the trench, As usual give it a good old test if you can.

Ice screw placement + belay

In general really try and get down to some good ice with your adze and hack away a sort of dustbin sized area of ice.

If you suspect the ice is not a whole screw deep go nice and smooth and try not to grind the teeth off your lovely new ice screws on the Chamonix granite.

Important! When removing an ice screw remember the routine of tapping it on your axe then blowing out the core, You don’t want it freezing in there. Disaster.

Tat

So you’ll come across the odd bit of tat on the hill. Looped around a rock etc, or ready for you to abb off. Some useful lessons...Slings take UV damage and really aren’t that reliable, maybe as a backup but not as primary. Cord may look faded but the core is still strong. Can you move the cord around completely and examine it? It might look good mostly but be frayed at the back behind the rock it’s wedged in. Check it! If in doubt use your own cord, and don’t be afraid to cut away tat that looks crap.

Movement.

Crampons

Need to pay more attention on easy ground. Downclimbing is massively key here, need to get good at that. Speed on easy ground needs practicing, especially in crampons. Key word is efficiency! All that climbing movement massively pays off though. Silent with the crampons.

Climbing steeper ice like a north face then try and find a nice rhythm depending on the snow conditions. Don’t kick a bazillion steps or swing 20 times each placement. When placing an axe or kicking in crampons there is a sweet spot where enough is enough. Learn to be more precise and efficient, judge the conditions then you can get into a rhythm.

Rock Climbing

If you’re a brit you’ll be way better at this than all the other things it seems, but bear that in mind and concentrate on the other things. Alps is all about endurance though, so masses of easy climbing is a great base. Careful with grades, 5c at 3500m is not 5c in your local climbing gym.

General

Don’t need to wear a helmet as you cross the glacier, too hot, can’t take it off.

Need to be more careful judging loose rock.

Retreat/Descent

Basically the quicker you get to valley the better, even if it’s fine. Faff in the valley where the air is good. The second you are down you are recovering. Going downhill ropped up.....you can bomb it a bit and it costs the same, maybe less than going slowly, also traversing you can go a lot faster than you think. Stay below your anaerobic threshold and you are good.

Panic and troubles

Sometimes things happen. It doesn’t have to be a disaster, it might just be dislodging some loose stone and see it fly into the unknown, crashing down the hill, or it might be seeing the abseil ropes rocking a big old rock or flake, it might be a little slip or a trip, but stuff will happen. A rope may get stuck. In these moments it is important not to rush. I left my ixe axe at a belay because I was totally shitting it about a rock the ropes were touching and rocking. You just have to be aware that things happen, when they do....you recognize it and go slow. Like a yellow light at traffic lights...proceed...but with caution.

Clothing and gear

I always seem to wear too much initially and get roasting hot! Do I really need those icebreaker thermals? Icebreaker hat was awesome though as it really fits under helmet well and goes nicely inside jacket. Make sure you wear gaiters as you’ll put a hole in your nice touring trousers otherwise!!!!

Unless you are happy to have your watch trashed, don’t wear it, or wear a cheap thin one. Hand jamming and watches are a poor combo.

I still have no idea which are the right pair of trousers for a day out involving glacier travel and rock climbing. My ski touring trousers are actually alright though, stretchy, quick drying although rolling them up to rock climb did not seem very slick :)

Also without gaiters they are massive over your boots and catch on your crampons. Side zips are very nice and surprisingly effective.

Ice screws, even if you don’t use them.....take the orange protective covers off at night because the moisture from crashing about will rust them. You don’t need them on your rack on a rock route, leave them in the bag.

On a route where you are leaving packs at the base then get the lightest bag you can. £10 cheap jobby should do it. Pop some water in that (not easy when you have a camel back!) Use your ice axe to secure your bag and make sure your boots are clipped to either your bag/axe or something. Use your ice axe as an anchor and hang your bag on it. Try and keep everything clipped in as you faff.

Rock shoes.

You can’t wear your bouldering or sports climbing shoes for 10 pitches and abseils, not when you are a beginner at least.

Yeah so I tried this strategy of buying less aggressive shoes that I knew I could wear all day. But they are shit when compared to my bouldering shoes and inspired quite low confidence on the slabs! Get the same nice shoes you have for sports/bouldering, just buy a bigger pair and make sure you can wear socks with them. Icebreaker multisport socks are the business!

Buying Rock Boots

Pain is Insane! - Do Not Fit your shoes too tight! Some Simple Advice on selecting a well fitting pair of rock climbing shoes....

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Weather

Obviously check the forecast and choose routes accordingly. I am terrible at this topic so need to improve.

Eating + drinking

Little and often, I drank around 3ltr of water in a day, Having a camel back is actually bloody handy, its unlikely to be too cold to freeze it, and you can probably manage that anyway. That was excellent. Had a great breakfast of eggs, lentils and if you can stomach it some meat. Tuna. Eat big at breaky in the valley though, key! Get up early and force it in. You won’t have time on the hill.

Rob thought my 3ltrs + 1ltr of tea was a massive overkill, in fact maybe some sort of record...so maybe that’s too much, it is bloody heavy to carry up hill that is for sure. Ditch the tea, save that for ski touring. Make do with 2ltrs

Don’t eat a full meal at lunchtime,you can’t. Keep some nuts (Macadema nuts are tasty and super energy and protein packed!) in your jacket so you can snack on those at the belays. Maybe a powerbar, need to experiment there. Need to find a good bar though, a lot of them are all sugar! Prob need more research here. “Extreme Alpinism” is good for general advice but not every day is a GU fueled 36 hour spectacular so there must be a middle ground. Rob had a sandwich, it was fine. It doesn’t have to be a science experiment, but a little knowledge of nutrution will help. Try not to get dehydrated!

Recovery

Eat something with protein as soon as you get off the hill. If you can handle it take a cold shower or go for a nice swim in the cold lake, very good for recovery. No more than two glasses of red wine really on the booze front. 2 is good though, need to celebrate a good day on the hill!!!

Ego and Enjoyment

“The best climber is the one having the most fun” - Alex Lowe. Everyones attitude is different of course, but don’t let your ego get in the way of a nice day out and don’t let it fight with a weather forecast. The mountain does not care about your training plan or dream of telling someone you did a certain route, do not fight it. It all gets a bit zen but watch the weather and listen to your body then make a decision. Have a lovely time on the hill and take plenty of pictures!!!

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