First steps in the Alps – An introduction by Mountain Guide Nick Parks.

For most hillwalkers and climbers from the British Isles leaving our shores and tackling the mountains of our nearest neighbours for the first time, the barriers to success and enjoyment often seem overwhelming and a bigger challenge than they are wishing to tackle.

In this short series of articles we explore the differences between the UK mountain experience and the Alpine one and show you how these barriers can be surmounted safely to allow you to enjoy even more rewarding mountain adventures.

Its never been easier to access the Alps, with low cost flights and fast trains its as quick to get from London to Chamonix as it is to Capel Curig. They have beauty and wilderness in common but that’s where the differences between Tryfan and the Triolet end. First off is quite simply the huge difference in scale. Add altitude acclimatization difficulties to overcome and the glacial environment to safely negotiate and it’s easy to appreciate why tackling the Alps can be so daunting.

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Tryfan….impressive but not Triolet

Scale What are we talking about and how to adapt?

In the UK 300-400 metre long routes are rare, in contrast many Alpine routes can be 1500 or even 2000 metres long. Four times the size means that successful climbing in the Alps requires you to plan thoroughly, work to a timetable and use every part of your day productively, thereby avoiding epics like night-time descents. Gaining information, be it online, or from guidebooks is essential in helping you make correct route choices so that you don’t take on more than you can tackle. Seeking up to date information is critical too as the Alps are constantly changing, especially in these times of accelerating climate change. Glacial recession and rockfall can create drastic change even over the course of one season.

Top tip: Start off on alpine routes that are similar in length to those you are used to in Britain.

Preparation

Many of the skills necessary for safe success in the Alps are the same as those needed in the British hills; sound navigation; rock climbing; scrambling and in winter snow and ice techniques. All of these are directly transferable from our crags and mountains. Learning to move safely together on alpine ground is a key skill. Many alpine routes, like the Hornli ridge on the Matterhorn, although exposed are technically straightforward. However their length is such that climbing it in pitches aka British rock climbing style you would need a week to climb the route. Moving together using running belay techniques, gives a sufficient measure of protection whilst allowing you to get down in time to celebrate.

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The Matterhorn – an Alpine icon

Top tip: Practice moving together techniques like short ropeing, on long scrambling routes in the British hills e.g North ridge of Tryfan

Nick Parks is a leading British Ski and Mountain Guide who has been guiding parties for 25 years in mountain ranges across the globe. Particularly well known in the ski industry Nick is also a highly regarded safety expert to the adventure film industry. A keen photographer he contributes regularly to outdoor magazines and professional publications.

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Nick Parks – Ski and Mountain Guide

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