That's Not Alpine Climbing

I've done a lot of rock climbing in the mountains, but I've done very little of the much more specific and serious style that I think should be called "alpine climbing". It's a term that is typically meaningless because no 2 people define it the same way, so we often end up talking past one another and implying different definitions with the same words.

The fancy chart (not to scale on the continuum) lists most of the possible variables people use to decide if a climb is an "alpine" one or not. Many of the variables, such as distance from road/rescue, operate along a continuum, not a yes or no answer. In my opinion a climb needs to be skewed toward the right side of the chart in order to be "alpine", and the exact same route can reasonably be considered an "alpine climb" during some times of year, but a "backcountry rock climb" in mid summer.

A climb of the N. side of Latok I (none have succeeded) would deal with every single one of the "alpine" metrics/challenges listed above, as well as others I probably forgot about.

A climb of Hallett Peak in Rocky Mtn National Park or Crescent Spire in the Bugaboos won't involve  nearly any of the challenges/metrics above

Just because you are on a rock route at or above treeline, you aren't necessarily alpine climbing and what you are doing isn't likely much different from climb a 600' route in Eldo, or a 1000' route in Red Rock. Most US and Canadian climbers who aspire to succeed on testpiece routes in the Wind Rivers, at the Incredible Hulk, on the Elephant Perch, or on Snowpatch Spire, will benefit from improved rock climbing skills, and shouldn't waste their time focusing on the fairly minor additional challenges presented by alpine elements on these routes. ( an exception for folks with very little backpacking experience at all)

 Phrases like "weather windows" and "speed is safety" are used to describe summertime conditions in places like the Sierra, or the Stuart Range, which don't require one to climb quickly in order to succeed or to be safe, where there aren't summer avalanche or snowstorm worries, daily serac falls, and which generally have warm, calm, and dry weather in the summer, minimal mixed climbing or mandatory steep snow, and solid, popular rock climbs from 4-14 pitches with walk-off or equipped rappel descents. These places (as well as basically everything summer in the lower 48, SW BC, much of the Bugaboos near Applebee/Kain, etc) are more accurately backcountry rock destinations, with some of the peaks and walls in these areas nearly roadside. Colin Haley briefly touches on his alpine definition here, which he specifically provides in order to contextualize his assertions regarding such a vague term - year round snow and ice on route with potential summer new snowfall is a key factor.

We all love to be able to slap labels and categories onto parts of life which are very nuanced. The label allows us to let our guards down and quit spending mental energy on the details. This is especially true when stepping outside our comfort zones where we want to be able to call something simply "safe" or "unsafe", "sketchy" or "bomber", etc and then be done thinking about it. I notice this with climbers asking about the best "trad" shoe, or the best "multipitch" shoe -- both being additional distinct definitions that don't define anything about the climbing or one's footwears. And as summer rolls around in the northwest, it's easy to see and hear folks talking in distinct divides between their "normal" climbing and their "alpine" climbing.

For the vast majority of climbs in the US and Canada referred to as "alpine routes", there are few or no "alpine" challenges. These are usually multipitch rock climbs with nice views and potentially long walks to get to. One doesn't need to put these routes and ranges on a separate pedestal apart from the multipitch rock in places like desert towers, Black Canyon, The Needles, Red Rock, Zion, etc.

If you want to succeed on these routes, I suggest ignoring cardio-first expeditionary style training program like those described in Training For the New Alpinism. (Which is probably an amazing training guide for a separate activity like high altitude mountaineering or ultramarathons or long ski-mo races). Simply be a good rock climber, be good at climbing granite trad pitches specifically, and be good at climbing these trad pitches onsight and quickly, without stressing yourself. Then be in decent enough overall fitness and understand the activity/hobby of backpacking so that you can handle the approach and hike back to the car without getting destroyed or too tired to rappel and descend safely. Don't focus on what you are already good enough at (the hiking, the glacier walk approach, making coffee at 4AM) if it's the difficulty of the movement on rock that will shut you down.

In my time climbing, I'd say that the only "alpine" climbing I've done has been on Fitz Roy and Cerro Pollone in Patagonia, in the Waddington Range and the Stikine of British Columbia, and in the Ruth Gorge of Alaska. I'd actually say that some of the climbing and attempts I've made in Patagonia during good weather have not even been "alpine climbing", as I've tended toward rock-only routes on some of the smaller peaks there, and the area has good rock, published info, no altitude challenges, many fixed anchors, no lightning, much well-protected climbing, and some short routes with easy descents. I've done a couple long Cascades water ice routes but I've never climbed a difficult or committing mixed/mountain route in the Cascades in winter, which I think does including some real alpine climbing, and nothing I've done in the lower 48 or Bugaboos in the summer has had very many of the alpine climbing challenges shown above.

My point is not to have folks simply ignore potential challenges or dangers in their way, and not in any way to attack mountaineering, or backcountry summer multpitch rock climbing, but instead I'm trying to encourage everyone to examine the meaning behind the labels which get thrown around, in order to see what we are all trying to actually communicate. Do these categories make sense to use and hold separate in your mind? You might find that the big, scary, boogey-man term of "alpine climbing" is actually a sheep (or mountain goat) in wolf's clothing.


  1. but what's the best trad shoe?

  2. Alpine climb.. should be only referred to climb in the Alps. Alpine Style.. should be climb out of the Alps, but in the style of Alpine Climb.. ouch, I should go out and..simply climb something!

  3. Disagree on multiple levels. Some food for thought:
    1) there is a differentiating skill-set that is required for high likely-hood of success when climbing away from road in alpine terrain (see definition: biogeographic zones including elevated slopes above timberline) even at the most basic level: cramponing (or not) on steep snow, use of an ice axe, glacial travel, route-finding, loose rock, bivvying, etc. Though standards continue to change, technology gets better (lighter->faster), these elements still add complexity beyond that typically found at the crag.
    2) The labels we use to describe things are never perfect, as language is not context , but we still need vocabulary that can be used in context to refer to an abstract set of details (above).
    3) "alpine" or not, on training, there are many aspects that can be improved to increase success rate on the types of routes that involve longer approaches, being self-supportive for many days out. Some of those things are being a better rock climber definitely, but general fitness level is also right up there. I've seen people bonk after approaching moderate routes at WA pass. Don't forget you are a great athlete with years of experience and fitness building under your belt, Blake!

    Thanks for the article.