For climbers, the Alps are one big playground of peaks, walls, and couloirs, all with an infrastructure to support access while allowing climbers to travel light.
While there are plenty of classic climbing areas with trail approaches to rock walls and walk off or rappel descents. There are also a seemingly infinite number of peaks to climb that require skills for a little of everything, from snow, to ice, to glacier, to rock to then reversing it all. The 4000-meter peaks alone offer 82 summits, many of which provide a route for all levels, from the “normal routes,” to technical climbing. The beauty of the Alps’ alpine peaks is that even the easy routes tend to be high quality.
In the Alps, the well rounded climber with solid technical skills is going to have a lengthy to-do list.
For the first time climber in the Alps, it’s important to understand the style in which things are done. The Alps are a busy place and the classic peaks get a lot of traffic. Many of these peaks include trade routes for mountain guides, many of these have been equipped for being climbed quickly and safely.
But even with all the other climbers and guides around, independent parties need to have a full skill set for all types of alpine situations from climbing technique to route finding to weather. Knowing when, and how, to retreat, is a must.
Similar to what we discussed on our Avalanche Page, there is an issue somewhat unique to the Alps. With all the people around, it’s possible to become a bit complacent, fall into line, and perhaps not take into consideration what is happening around you, or even where you are going.
Having the knowledge to remain independent and to choose the style appropriate to the conditions is critical. As an example, doing something in a just few hours (rather than over 2 days) may be possible for your skill level, but you need to know when conditions allow it to be possible for your level.
The higher you go in the Alps, the less forgiving the mountains are of poorly thought through decisions and mistakes.
I’m lucky to have many guide friends that teach me tricks. It’s a never ending process and I’m continually learning from all the many scenarios I find myself faced with.
The Alps are a great classroom. Some lessons are obvious, others less so. I once spent the night at a hut before climbing an alpine peak with a friend. We woke well before first light and charged outside with headlamps blazing, only to realize neither of us had checked exactly where to go the day before. Other climbers and trails went in all different directions.
While it’s a silly example and mistake, it does reveal a way of thinking that needs to be applied to decision making in the mountains. Be on your game, all the time!
I also have a list of stories, and harder learned lessons, ranging from wrong crampon choices, to being on the wrong route, being chased by storms, committing to descent routes, and of course just plain hard climbing that we needed to get through.
ALPINE GRADE SYSTEM
Understanding the Alps’ Alpine Grade System
Non-European climbers coming to the Alps for mountain routes will be greeted with the Alpine Grading system. Once climbers familiarize themselves with the system, it is a simple method of providing an overall grade, given ideal conditions for the entire route, taking into account the difficulty, duration, and physical effort required to do the route in “guidebook” times. If more technical climbing is also going to be a part of the route, then the Alpine Grade is coupled with a rock or ice technical grade, typically either French or UIAA.
The best way to understand your ability is to start working through the grades to see at what level you are proficient.
The Alpine Grades:
F : Facile = Easy
PD- / PD / PD+ : Peu Difficile = Somewhat difficult
AD- / AD / AD+ : Assez Difficile = Fairly difficult
D- / D / D+ : Difficile = Difficult
TD- / TD / TD+ : Tres Difficile = Very difficult
ED- / ED / ED+ : Extremement Difficile = Extremely difficult
EDx : Really extremely difficult!
The Alpine Grades Explained
F (facile = easy): For a climb graded F, the climber hikes a mountain route. There is no climbing beyond moving through rocks and the route is fairly obvious. Any glacier crossing is probably free of serious crevasse risk, although a rope may be necessary.
PD (peu difficile = somewhat difficult): A very common grade in the Alps, PD requires using the hands to climb up to French grade 3-4, basic route finding skills, more complex glacier terrain which will include navigation skills and crevasse knowledge. Snow or ice might encountered to a maximum of 45°. Rappels might be necessary in descent.
AD (assez difficile = fairly difficult): If climbers can comfortably climb up to AD, most of the Alps’ Classics and 4000 meter peaks normal routes are within reach. AD is where some climbers start to belay and pitch out sections of the route. The rock climbing is up to French 4 and route finding is becoming increasingly more complex compared to PD. Glacier travel will be more complex, with navigation and crevasses a real issue. Ice and snow might reach 55° for short sections with a maximum grade of WI3+. To climb these routes requires the ability to move fluidly and not stop to pitch the entire route out. Climbers should be proficient in all alpine skills to maintain progress.
D (difficile = difficult): Routes graded D are becoming more serious and sustained. Longer sections of the route will require belayed pitches and route finding is critical. The ability to protect the routes is important. French grade 5 might be encountered. Snow and ice can reach 50-70° and WI4+. Glacier travel is complex and serious.
TD (très difficile = very difficult): TD routes are very serious alpine climbs with difficult rock climbing up to French 6. Ice can reach 80° and WI5+. Objective dangers become more of a consideration and factor at this level of climbing.
ED / EDx (extremely difficult): ED climbs are considered extreme. With sustained French 6 climbing or long sections of steep or vertical ice. EDx just gets that much harder and is the realm for the elite climbers only.
KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
Alpine climbing skills require full knowledge and experience of the following:
- Climbing Skills
- Snow and ice
- Route finding
- Glacier Travel: See our page
- Efficiency: Well thought out and learned systems, movement and gear all add up to speed when speed is what is needed
- Altitude preparation & knowledge
- Fitness: Fatigue leads to poor decision making and decreased speed
- Human factors: Learn to think critically and independently