Top five alpine mistakes

Posted: March 27, 2014 by kirisyko in Winter Alpinism
Tags: ,
Spooning in the Salvay hut, the secret to a warm nights bivi. Photo: Rob Greenwood.
We asked our alpine expert, Rob Greenwood, to spill the beans and give us his top five alpine mistakes. Rob started climbing in 2003 whilst studying at Bangor University. His alpine highlight is climbing the 1938 Route on the North Face of the Eiger.  After serving an apprenticeship Scottish winter climbing, he decided that the Alps seemed like the obvious progression in terms of size and scale. In Rob’s words “Alpine climbing provides a truly unforgettable experience in a remarkable landscape, often more fun in retrospect – but all the better for it!”

Mistake 1 : Poor suncream application
On my first alpine route I forgot to apply suncream thoroughly. In the Alps, particularly whilst on snow/glaciers, the UV is coming at you from all angles and at a very high level. We had applied it generously to our face and neck, but hadn’t really thought of the effect of the sun bouncing off the snow beneath us. By the end of the day the underside of our noses were red, raw and blistered – it was horrible. Alongside this don’t forget your ears, the top of your eyes and the back of your hands.

Mistake 2: Inadequate acclimatisation
Everyone gets a bit carried away when they first arrive in the Alps, it’s all so impressive and the desire to get up high often overrides a sensible acclimatisation program. When Alex Haslehurst and I arrived in the Chamonix Valley in 2011 I had set an unachievable schedule of high/hard routes for us to climb which started with the Frendo Spur on the Aiguille du Midi (which in retrospect may not have been the wisest of decisions) then moved on to the American Direct on the Petit Dru – I don’t even think there was a rest day in between. Around 700m up the Dru we were both feeling pretty strung out, but Alex could barely focus – his eyes were spinning and he was starting to feel dizzy. That was my fault really, it shouldn’t have come to that level of exhaustion if we had acclimatised and rested properly. Sorry Alex!

Fatigue starts to kick-in, the posture says it all. Photo: Rob Greenwood

Mistake 3: Not using the lifts
Back when I was a student going out to the Alps seemed expensive: all of the additional equipment, travel costs, insurance, camping, food and finally lift passes. The price of a lift seemed completely unjustifiable, but they are there for a reason – to make life easy. Consider the fitness you will require not just to do your route, but to do a full day of walking with an even bigger pack the day before (and then spent a night sleeping at altitude). If there is a particular route you really want to do and know that it is going to be a real challenge, stack the odds further into your favour and buy yourself a lift pass.

Mistake 4: Driving the wrong way
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance (but still expect the unexpected). I would plan each big route meticulously, drawing up lists – even spreadsheets – of the clothing and equipment I was going use, reading and re-reading the route description to commit it to memory, then reading other peoples accounts so to get an impression of what the route was like. That said, when Jack Geldard and I set off from Chamonix to Grindlewald to climb the North Face of the Eiger we chose to drive the completely wrong way, going via the Grimselpass which had been closed since the start of winter. We therefore arrived at our destination far later than expected, only to see the last train to Kleine Scheidigg departing the station. Despite this glaring and unforgivable error we were still prepared, so modified our plans/timelines accordingly. The best laid plans should always contain contingencies for the unexpected.

Mistake 5: Not spooning
This isn’t so much my mistake, as it was a mistake by Guy Robertson and Andy Houseman who climbed the North Face of the Matterhorn just two days before Jack Geldard and I did. They got up the route, summited, then descended the Hornli Ridge to their overnight stop in the unmanned Salvay Hut at 4000m. Having gone fast/light they had opted not to carry sleeping bags, so huddled down underneath the blankets supplied and shivered their way through the night. It was absolutely freezing and I remember Andy describing it as his “worst ever nights sleep” – quite an accolade. Two days on and Jack and I arrive at the same hut, with the same equipment, but a slightly different idea – if we were to stay warm we were going to have to spoon like we had never spooned each other before. We woke up at 8am the following day having had a warm nights sleep, a world apart from what Andy and Guy experienced.

Are you new to alpine climbing, or are you in need of a refresher? The BMC Alpine Skills Lectures will bring you up to speed.  Delivered by Rob Greenwood and Tim Neil (British Mountain Guide) they will cover: best areas to visit; glacier travel; weather; huts & bivis; avalanche awareness; route selection; and the dark art of moving together.

Sponsored by Berghaus there will be a  free prize draw each evening for audience members with prizes from Berghuas.

All lectures start at 19:30 and finish at approximately 21:45. There will be a half-time interval.

Ellesmere Port Tuesday 6 May
The Whitby High School, Sycamore Drive, Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, CH66 2NU.

Buxton Wednesday 7 May
Oaklands Manor, University of Derby Buxton, Manchester Road, Buxton, Derbyshire, SK17, 6ST.

Leeds Thursday 8 May
Leeds Metropolitan University, James Graham Building, Headingley Campus, Leeds, LS6 3QS.

London Tuesday 13 May
University College London Union, Harrie Massey Lecture Theatre, 25 Gordon Street, London, WC1H 0AY.

Cardiff Wednesday 14 May
Cardiff University, Faculty Lecture Theatre (2.09), Cardiff School of Engineering, Trevithick Building, 14-17 The Parade, Cardiff, CF24 3AA.

Birmingham Thursday 15 May
University of Birmingham, Arts Building Main Lecture Theatre, Edgbaston, Birmingham, B15 2TT.

Tickets cost £5 BMC members and £7 non-members. Group discount: £3.50 each if you buy 10 or more tickets in advance.

Tickets can be purchased from the BMC online shop or by telephoning 0161 445 6111. Tickets will also be available to buy on the door on the night for each lecture.

If it’s practical training you’re after, then book onto a subsidised Jonathan Conville Memorial Trust alpine course.

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