Know what you don’t know: How to Improve your Mountain Skills


Surprise! You need to rappel… day 1 of the Glacier Haute Route run.

As a runner, rappelling down a wall of glacial ice isn’t a skill I even knew I needed. Until I did. We stopped on the Col Blanc, looking down a wall of rotting glacier and snow to the Plateau du Trient below. We should have gone over the Col Supérieur du Tour, but thanks to the depleting glaciers, it was nothing but a dry gulley of noisy rock fall. Impassible.

A fixed rope hung from the col down to the glacier below. Only four hours into a three day run of the Glacier Haute Route, my journey should have ended here. I didn’t have the skills to continue.

Fortunately, I was with two strong partners. Both Dan and Pascal are not only fit and fast runners, they’re also experienced climbers, understand glacier travel, and have a broader knowledge of mountain skills. I had to be lowered. They knew what to do and how to do it. I would have been limited by what I hadn’t yet learned. I would have had to turn back. (Read the full story of our Glacier Haute Route run.)

I’ve had the privilege to share big days in the mountains with people I am constantly learning from, who are willing to teach me skills along the way. I have endurance and enthusiasm and am accumulating experience, but can be a better partner.

Many of the tours on ALPSinsight require a special set of skills to safely complete, even with a mountain guide, but certainly without. That can mean anything from physical ability to navigation skills, to using specific tools or even using your head for good judgement. Sometimes what we need to learn can be as simple as tying a knot, other goals mean learning risk analysis or glacier rescue. These aren’t necessarily things we all just know how to do or change depending on the conditions. We need to learn, and to continue learning, so that we aren’t limited in what we can do by the skills we might lack.

What do you want to do this summer? Are you prepared for your goals? What skills do you need to learn?

Do you know what to do with all that gear?

Learning mountain skills seems best to be done while in the mountains. How about a fun trip where you climb three 4000 meter peaks while learning or refreshing the skills you need to do just that? Have you considered mountain skill training? Bergpunkt, the Swiss Alpine School offers hands-on courses, trips, and coaching for all levels. Their 3-level education system: Basic, Aufbau 1, Aufbau 2 (Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced) covers the range from beginner to expert, building to the ability to undertake independent tours at the AD level. To understand grades, visit our alpine grading system page.

I’ll be signing up for one of Bergpunkt’s 4000er training courses to continue learning, extending my limits, and to become a more responsible partner to the people I go to the mountains with. And to have fun while actually do things I want to do in the Alps while learning.

Mountain Skill Courses

4000er Training in Zermatt/Saas-Fee

  • Training on ice
  • Includes climbing three 4000 meter peaks

Grundkurs Fels & Eis  

  • Broad training for beginners on rock & ice
  • Basic mountaineering course

The difference between the two courses: 4000er Training is only a training on ice and with the ascent of three 4000m peaks while the Grundkurs is a very broad training for beginners in both rock and ice (without a 4000m peak).

See even more of their 2019 course offerings or full agenda in German.

For independent study, Bergpunkt has written three books (in German).

*Most of Bergpunkt’s guests are Swiss so their website is only available in German. Most of the guides are English speaking and are happy to also share their knowledge in English during the courses. Please contact Bergpunkt directly for information about all their courses.


Bergpunkt is 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.

By Kim Strom

Night time navigation while approaching the Obergabelhorn’s Arbengrat.
Obvious hazards while walking on glaciers aren’t always so obvious.

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