Winter alpine climbing: give it a try!

  • The history of alpinism is full of great adventures that have taken place during the harshest months of the year (and often in the worst conditions).

    So how about giving this extra-spicy version of alpinism a try?

    Take a minute to think about Walter Bonatti on the north face of the Matterhorn, Desmaison and Gousseault on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, and Jerzy Kukuczka in the Himalayas, to name just a few.


    Winter alpine climbing has all the necessary factors to maximize the level of adventure: increased climbing difficulties, cold conditions, and especially the element of solitude.

    Why not follow in the footsteps of those who have inspired you most in the history of alpine climbing?


    Winter alpinism is worth a try as long as you prepare correctly and you’re bold enough to give it a shot.

    First start with an objective of the right difficulty, meaning a notch below what you usually climb and preferably without a bivouac.

    Even Chamonix’s Cosmiques ridge, which you may have climbed numerous times with friends, will be enough to fill a day. This will give you the chance to iron out the various technical details and evaluate your winter climbing ability without facing too much commitment.


    Forget the notion of “good conditions.” You’ll most definitely find snow where you’d rather not, cold rock, excessively dry conditions, and difficult weather. On steep terrain your hands will be numb, and on easy terrain you’ll sink into the snow up to your waist. Or you might face both of these challenges at once!

    You just have to expect it, dress accordingly, and forget about trying to go fast.

    Dry tooling and endurance activities are a good training base for these kinds of challenges.


    Then get ready for the joys of being uncomfortable.


    - constant cold


    - spindrifts that find their way down your neck or back


    - frozen energy bars that are hard enough to break a tooth.



    If you decide to bivouac, you’ll also get to experience:


    - long nights and waking up in the dark under a layer of frost


    - days that are too short


    - endless evenings spend melting enough snow for two measly liters of water


    - the heavy pack: clothing, bivy gear, stove, gloves, shell gloves, boots, over-boots …


    Correct gear preparation is key:


    - lightweight equipment to make climbing and hiking less tiring: Yeti 50L pack, Choucas harness, Dyneema slings, twin ropes, lightweight carabiners and a carefully chosen selection of pitons, cams, and ice screws (depending of course on the route’s technical difficulties)


    - a top quality real goose down parka (my preferred brand is Triple Zéro) and multiple layers of clothing to manage body temperature. A balaclava is mandatory, and don’t forget to bring multiple pairs of gloves (including one pair that stays warm inside your jacket).


    - Gore-Tex (or similar high quality equivalent) jacket and pants, and a pair of goggles!


    - and of course all of the other mandatory gear: helmet, first aid kit, two-way radio or telephone, skis, etc

    Martin Elias

    Don’t be afraid of looking ridiculous, especially while equipped with approach skis and an enormous pack for the hike across the glacier. You’ll probably cross paths with dozens of freeriders equipped with tiny packs and giant fat skis. Remember that you’re not there for the same experience. While the freeriders are downing beers in a crowded valley bar, you and your climbing partner will be enjoying an unforgettable sunset far from the crowds.


    Know how to be humble and understanding. Every struggle leads to a single victory, your own!


    You’ll savor your experience for a long time, and you’ll have lasting memories. On the other hand, your spouse and your mother will never understand what you were doing up there in such difficult conditions, and your incredible enthusiasm and beautiful photos will do nothing to change their minds or trouble their existence.


    Strengthened by these basic principles, a good dose of training, and proper preparation, and you’ll discover that pure, remote alpine adventures can be had not far from home. The grade of the route you’ve climbed and the altitude of the mountains will be of little significance in your mind compared to the richness of your experience.

    So are you convinced? Welcome to the club!

    You’ll savor your experience for a long time, and you’ll have lasting memories. On the other hand, your spouse and your mother will never understand what you were doing up there in such difficult conditions, and your incredible enthusiasm and beautiful photos will do nothing to change their minds or trouble their existence.

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