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The Evolution of Light Alpinism

At some point, I just had to turn away and not watch. It was all too embarrassing.

We’d just run up to the Löbhorner, an easy, although chossy, rock traverse on a limestone ridge rising above rolling grassy hills dotted with cows in the Lauterbrunnen area of Switzerland. The approach is a classic trail run so we pulled up to the base of the ridge with 1000+ meters already in our legs, running shoes and shorts, a super light rope, a rack of alpine draws and climbing shoes, all in 15 liter running packs. We even had helmets.

Ahead of us were two parties, a team of guys who planned to paraglide down after climbing, and a guide with his client. And while it was the client that pained us to watch, it was the old school mentality of the Swiss guide that I found truly appalling.

From where I sat, tied in, ready to go, the client stood next to me kicking at the first meter of the route with his enormous alpine climbing boots. No matter how hard he huffed and puffed and beat his boots against the wall, he just couldn’t get on the smears and edges to get himself off the ground. After twenty minutes of this, we were still waiting for our turn to start. Finally, after learning all kinds of new Swiss phrases, he told us to just go ahead and pass.

When I reached the belay and a somewhat comatose mountain guide, I noticed he too was wearing alpine climbing boots of the way too big and completely inappropriate variety. Kim and I climbed on and later, from high on the ridge, we looked down and saw the pair walking down the trail from which we’d run up. They’d called it a day after a long walk to ascend less than a meter.

Why were these two in big mountain boots on a route so easily walked to, and climbed, in running or approach shoes? Why hadn’t the guide educated the client on footwear choices? If it was a training day for bigger things and the guide wanted the client to learn to climb in boots, why didn’t they at least have back up footwear? Something tells me that a fixed, and difficult to change mentality is to be credited here.

The Weissmies summit snow ridge in running shoes and microspikes on a dry fall day. Wait for the conditions to be right and different ways of doing things become a possibility.

This is just one example of this sort of thing. Here in the Alps, and especially in the Swiss Alps, footwear seems to be a big topic of conversation. When a report in Tages Anzeiger was published about our creation of the Via Valais, the comments flowed in about how the terrain wasn’t possible in running shoes and that rescue services would bank off of all the calls for assistance. Today, five years later, the Via Valais is arguably the most prestigious trail running tour in the Alps.

I don’t know how many times we’ve been on high peaks, or things like the Glacier Haute Route, in running shoes only to be reprimanded for our footwear choice. Recently, we passed a Swiss mountain hut in the afternoon while en route to a peak above. The hut keeper told us that the peak required a 5 a.m. start and that it is not possible to do after lunch. And, it certainly would not be possible in running shoes. Later that evening, as we once again passed the hut, we were reminded that what we did simply wasn’t possible. Never mind the fact that I told her that we’d done it, added some additional ridge traversing to the day, took a zillion photos, and even relaxed in the sun.

High alpine rock ridge traversing in bone dry summer weather on the Strahlegghorn

I come from California and spent many years exploring the range, climbing peaks, traversing ridges, and trail running as far back as the early 90’s – back when it was a nameless activity. In the Sierra Nevada (Sierra Trail Runs : A Guide to the Eastside), most everyone wears sticky rubber approach and running shoes for everything. It’s bone dry there.

4000 meters, in winter, in California’s Sierra Nevada looks much different than the Alps version

The Alps may well be on their way to the same reality. While I’m also a climber and wear boots on routes where they’re needed, I much prefer doing things as light and as comfortably as possible. I don’t choose running or approach shoes for everything, I just choose them for when the route and conditions allow. In recent years, I more often seek routes which can be done in this style. Decisions about gear should be based on what is most appropriate and not because anything is, “just what you do in the mountains”. That climber on the first move of the Löbhorner had 2250 grams of rigid, zero sensitivity boot on his feet. I had 250 grams of cushion and just the right amount of sensitivity and support.

Remco Graas nearing the summit of the Aletschhorn

Climbing the Aletschhorn

Perhaps no day out better exemplifies where things are going than our recent one day run of the 4195 meter Aletschhorn. Located in the middle of the Aletsch Arena and surrounded by the Alps largest glaciers sits this behemoth of a mountain.

When my friend, the late, great Remco Graas called to see if I’d do it in a day with him, I thought he was nuts. Turns out he wasn’t, he’d just learned that the regular route had almost entirely melted off for the first time. “Let’s run it!”

A beautiful run to the hut was followed by a whole lot of slow going talus, a small glacier crossing, and then a final steep walk up the freshly dried off top southern flank. We’d roped up for the glacier, carried all the right gear, and had a stable weather forecast. The run out to finish this mountain marathon day was on dreamy singletrack. Our gear choice and style were perfectly suited for this easy mountain route.

A full trip report with the route and more images can be seen at Running the Aletschhorn.

Light Alpinism Gear

For many of these easy alpine peaks that do not require any true technical climbing, gear can be paired down to be as light as possible while still having the essentials to minimize risk. Our gear choice for running to peaks with glacier travel can be seen on our Way Up Alps Gear page.

The innovative footwear brands are introducing ultralight alpine boots that are far more comfortable while also performing in technical terrain. Look at what both Scarpa and Salomon have done with their respective Ribelle line and S/Lab XA Alpine. These designs serve as the ideal bridge between running shoe and alpine boot.

In a cold place on a very hot summer day. The Balfrin Traverse is a classic, easy high alpine tour connecting Saas Fee with Grächen. Typically done in two days, the tour makes for a great one day, light alpinism, mountain run.

Climate Change in the Alpine Landscape

Looking into the not so distant future, the Alps will not require as much time spent on snow or glaciers. Drier conditions and more rock might be the new normal, and as such, a different approach and strategy will be necessary to continue climbing. Already, numerous classic routes are becoming more difficult to access, or even not possible, due to shrinking glaciers, rockfall, etc… but there are still so many objectives to be tried with a new way of moving.

Alpine starts are the longtime norm, but in the right weather, you might also consider the alpine finish.

Light Alpinism

The Alps’ tradition of walking to a hut, spending the night, then climbing & descending the next day is the classic strategy. Many do this to split up the big days with all the extra gear necessary for many objectives. But as climbers evolve, perhaps more will start to do these routes, or similar routes, lighter and in one go, with the lightest possible gear. Some might argue that the beauty of the classic strategy is for more time in the mountains, a night out in a hut, camaraderie, and to watch the sunrise.

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I would argue that the strategy of doing things in a day lets you experience even more in the mountains. A strategy that I feel is also rewarding because we put all our skills to use. More and more, it’s being called “Light Alpinism”.

I’m not saying this is the way it should be, I’m saying that this is the way it can be. It just takes a shift in thinking and moving away from the mentality of, “It’s just the way things are done in the Alps”.

Also, this is nothing new. High end climbers have been doing this for a very long time. But now, thanks to changing conditions, the need to not linger on some routes prone to hazards, super light gear, more performance oriented approaches trickling into mountaineering from other sports, and readily available inspiration, “Light Alpinism” is coming to the masses.

Trail runners scrambling up the south ridge of the 4017 meter Weissmies, Switzerland.

Finally, Light Alpinism might actually have people adjusting goals, from the big ticks, to smaller, less technical or involved routes (Have you tried our Way Ups?). While you may not climb a 4000 meter peak, you may have a dream experience on smaller objectives.

You get to do so much more with so much less.

By Dan Patitucci

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  1. Hey, maybe you never heard of skyrunning? Back in 1992 there was NO GEAR yet the summit of Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa, races in Nepal to Everest Base Camp and later in Tibet, on Mount Kenya, the Rockies and Mexican volcanoes were locations where new records were set with the “fast and light” concept. See https://www.skyrunning.com/history/ . Today, thousands of skyrunning races exist (with a new, ongoing certification label) and today a huge international outdoor sector develops shoes and gear a gogo. See also https://www.skyrunning.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Best-wk-Performance-record-1-5-2019-copia-1.pdf. Great to underline the fast and light concept….but it’s not new, and of course , not for everybody 😉

  2. Great writeup of a topic that has been bothering me for almost 30 years. When I started venturing through the Alps in sneakers or back then still heavy approach shoes in the early nineties, I was told off more than once by hut owners, guides or ‘real alpinists’ in heavy boots.
    I however always enjoyed the speed gained by taking nothing than the bare minimum.
    One thing I added in recent years to my packing strategy is to pack whatever is needed to survive one night outside, at least on longer and more remote runs.
    Thanks to the evolution of our gear, especially shies and packs, many more people can now enjoy the mountains in a lighter and also more often than not safer way.

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