For many climbers in the Alps, and even for many visitors, the Alps’ 4000-meter peaks serve as one big to do list. 82 items long. Stretching from the Massif des Écrins in France to Switzerland’s Piz Bernina, the 4000ers are a mix of stand alone peaks and ridge lines. American climbers will relate to the idea - the 4000ers are the 14ers of the Alps.
Most of the 4000ers have numerous routes, from rock ridges to frozen north faces, but they almost all have a “normal route.” The normal routes are usually the line of first ascent, which for the vast majority of Alps’ summits happened in the 1800’s and occasionally involved motivated shepherds going big when looking for a lost sheep. For many of the more true alpine lines, they were first done by motivated clients hiring local Swiss guides to get things done. Today, for 4000er collectors, these are typically the routes of choice.
Every climber knows the famous 4000ers; Mont Blanc, Les Droites, Grandes Jorasses, Aiguille Verte, Monte Rosa and of course the most iconic of them all, the Matterhorn. But, tick these classics and you still have 78 to go. And there is a lot of high quality climbing yet to do.
Ready to start, or continue accumulating 4000ers? For proper, hands-on training, we refer people to specialized programs in mountain safety with our education partner, Bergpunkt.
Join Bergpunkt, the Swiss Alpine School, for basic mountaineering training courses for beginners, coaching for advanced climbers, avalanche courses and multi-day glacier crossings for skiers, ski mountaineering experiences and classic alpine climbs.
CLIMBING 4000ERS: WHAT TO EXPECT
Most of the popular 4000ers are stand alone objectives, but there are several opportunities for enchainments. During his human powered 82 Summits project, Ueli Steck climbed 18 4000ers in one day. And while most climbers aspire to a handful of 4000ers, Ueli did all 82 in 62 days, entirely under his own power.
The more traditional way to do many of the Classic 4000er routes is to use the Alps’ hut system (link) to access your mountain of choice. The overall experience is also a peek into the heart of the Alps mountain culture, it’s on these trips where you’re really going to see just about everything that goes on throughout the Alps every fair weather day from mid-June to mid-October.
The first day is spent walking to the hut, usually on well traveled trails with great views of your objective. Many of the huts that service the bigger peaks are situated well into alpine terrain and might be perched alongside glaciers, or at least what’s left of them. Pay attention, and there is evidence everywhere to indicate that the landscape has changed dramatically. A lot of alpine huts were built at a time when glaciers were much larger than they are today. These huts once sat alongside the ice, now they sit well above, and may even have serious access issues because of the drop in ice. One of the more serious situations is at the Konkordia Hut, where 150 meters of ladders have been installed to access the hut from the dropping glacier.
Nevertheless, the huts are a key component of the Alps culture and every effort is being made to keep them accessible and comfortable for visitors. You’ll be extra appreciative when you drop your pack on the balcony and order your first drink and fresh torte.
After you’ve had a relaxing afternoon, don’t forget to scope out the next morning’s departure route, and of course your line of ascent, if visible. Most big mountain routes require a pre-dawn start so you’ll be heading out with headlamps.
Next, get comfortable in the hut (read our hut tips), take a nap, whatever, just don’t be late for dinner! In the dining room there is typically a mix of nationalities, languages, and many guide-client teams. For Americans, it’s a pretty fascinating situation when you're more accustomed to tents, camp stoves, freeze dried food, and your aching back from carrying it all.
After a hit or miss night of sleep in the bunk room, a mad dash to get out of the hut awaits. As walking turns into climbing, you begin to feel in your element, but with all the people about, it can feel a little funky and some shocking tactics might be witnessed. The gear you've placed may well be clipped by others, you might find yourself little more than an obstacle to pass by a fast moving party, and you may be suddenly faced with a huge fat rope to ascend, as fast as humanly possible.
I highly recommend, “going with the flow.” It took me many mountains to be cool with being around so many people and all the shenanigans that go along with it.
After 20 years of climbing in the Alps, and having climbed all kinds of routes, I still really enjoy doing a Classic 4000er. They tend to be very good climbing and super entertaining around the main event. And yes, I have my own 4000er tick list (19 and counting)!
KNOWLEDGE & SKILLS
Climbing the Alps’ 4000ers requires sound alpine climbing skills and 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
- Weather Knowledge
- Fitness: Fatigue leads to poor decision making and decreased speed
- Human Factors: Learn to think critically and independently
Climbing the 4000ers requires solid mountain skills. Even the easiest peaks require glacier travel skills or basic rock climbing technique. Truth be told, there is a very long list of tragedies from these mountains, many of which were by people entirely unprepared and incapable for their objectives, but also from weather, poor decision making, accidents, and gear issues.