That's Not Alpine Climbing

I've climbed a lot in the mountains, but I've done very little of what I think should be called "alpine climbing". And it's a term that can be meaningless because no 2 people might define it the same way, so we often end up talking past one another, and implying different definitions while using the same words.

The following chart lists most of the possible variables that contribute to a climb being "alpine" or not. Many of the variables, such as distance from road/rescue, operate along a continuum, not a simple yes or no answer. In my opinion, a climb needs to be heavily 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 years, 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 which is at or above treeline, you aren't necessarily alpine climbing. 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 the rock climbs in these locations. Phrases like "weather windows" and "speed is safety" are now used to describe summertime conditions in places like the Sierra, or the Stuart Range, which simply don't require one to climb quickly in order to succeed or to be safe, 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 simple and equipped rappel descents. These places (as well as basically everything in the lower 48, SW BC, the Bugaboos, etc) are more accurately just backcountry rock destinations, with some of the peaks and walls in these areas actually far more roadside than backcountry. Colin Haley briefly touches on his alpine definition here, which he specifically provides in order to contextualize his assertions regarding such a vague term.

We all love to be able to slap labels and distinct definitions onto parts of life which are in reality very nuanced. This urge to label something allows us to let our guards down and quit spending mental energy on a subject. This is especially true when stepping outside our normal purviews and comfort zones, where we want to be able to call something "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 really define anything, especially one's footwear needs. And as summer rolls around in the northwest, it's easy to see and hear folks talking once again about creating distinct divides between their "normal" climbing and "alpine" climbing.

For the vast majority of climbers in the US and Canada who aim toward what they call "alpine routes", the desired tick list is a bunch of backcountry rock climbs with few or no "alpine" challenges. One doesn't need to put these routes and ranges on a separate pedestal apart from the multipitch rock in places like Eldorado State Park, the desert towers, Black Canyon, The Needles, Red Rock, Zion, etc.

If you want to succeed on these routes, I suggest rather than focusing on a cardio-first expeditionary style training program like those described in Training For the New Alpinism, simply be a good rock climber first, be good at climbing granite trad pitches specifically, and be good at climbing these trad pitches onsight and fast, without stressing yourself. Then be in decent enough overall fitness 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, well-protected climbing, and some short routes with easy descents. I've never climbed a difficult or committing mountain route in the Cascades in winter, 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, but instead I'm trying to encourage everyone to examine the meaning behind the labels which get thrown around, in order to see what's truly behind them. Do they 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.

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  5. The bugaboos have glacial approaches (real glaciers, not the puny stuff still lingering in the tetons or winds) and lousy weather. I'd say that puts them in a somewhat different category than rock climbs in the lower 48, and not all that different from something like the grand capucin or the grand pilier d'angle, widely regarded classic climbs in the 'high Alpine' as the Euros would call it (and they should know). Let's not forget that before the ice/mixed revolution rock climbs set the standard for hard alpine climbs (see Rebufat's 100 classics). Not that I disagree with your overall sentiment, just saying that the bugaboos perhaps deserve different treatment, and some thought needs to be given to history and to the fact that there are rock routes that are also undoubtedly alpine climbs (e.g. Central Pillar of Freney).

    I bet if you were to do the Becky Chouinard in a day you'd run into some cardiovascular limitations at some point and find yourself thinking about pacing to avoid running out of breadth, all while climbing with a pack and ice axe strapped to your back, enjoying a climb with "atmosphere" above sprawling glaciers. If you're solid at 5.10, I imagine some cardio first training might help. Likewise, I bet bugaboo spire or snowpatch would benefit from good fitness if you intended to do it in good style. How many crushers from the local crag would succeed on these routes if we measured success according to "guidebook times" like Rebuffat suggests for rock routes in the alps?