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Choosing a climb in the Alps.
How hard are they, really?
This is a difficult question to answer, as one climber’s “hard” is another climber’s “easy”. Climbing in the Alps is generally much more exposed than much of the climbing in the US. Things are steep and even very easy climbs can sport big drops below your feet. Expect a lot of air around you. Many routes involve a great deal of vertical gain and loss. Calculate this figure and determine on what kind of terrain is the change made; easy, hard, varied? The Matterhorn, for example, climbs and descends over 4000 feet of steep scrambly rock. You had better be comfortable at facing out or it will not be a reasonable objective. Monte Rosa by the normal route includes a 6000 foot climb from the hut to the summit, with the hardest part at the very end, and at a summit elevation of 15,200 feet. It is considered only a PD in the rating system above. Climbing Monte Rosa from the Margherita overall takes more days, and is technically more difficult, but physically is less demanding than the normal route. On the other hand, easy access through lifts and cog railways, have made many otherwise major routes an easy day. An ascent of the Petite Aiguille Verte is a good example of this. A cable car gets you high on the peak, leaving only the last, and best part of the climb above you. You can enjoy a great technical and very exposed alpine climb in only a few hours. The Cosmiques Arête on the Aiguille du Midi is another example – classic high mountain alpine mixed climbing readily accessible from the cable car to the summit of the peak! If you are not experienced with the climbing in the Alps the best approach is to come with an expectation to learn what it is like. Try to avoid setting your heart on any particular summit or route. Be flexible until you have a good feeling of what the climbing is like there. In our opinion, it is, in many ways, the best in the world. I’m sure you will come to agree once you have tasted its pleasures.
Where the good climbing is……
Really, there is good climbing of all types to be found throughout the Alps. But as a general guideline, consider the following…… For an introduction to what the Alps has to offer consider the Chamonix area. There are a greater variety of climbs here than perhaps anywhere else. There are lots of fantastic routes made easily accessible through lifts. For big 4000 meter peaks try the area around Zermatt and Saas. Big mountains, often with big approaches. More of the peaks here have more moderate routes up them than in the Chamonix area, where summits tend to be more pointed. But there certainly are a number of mountains with the classic sharp summit – Matterhorn, Weisshorn, and Zinal Rothorn, for example. There are a number of easy 4000 meter peaks in this area (Wallis), including the Breithorn, the Allalinhorn and the Alphubel. Also, by hut hopping on the on the Italian side, you can climb a host of big summits in one 4 or 5 day outing, including, Breithorn, Castor, Pollux, Liskamm, Parrotspitze, Ludwigshohe, Signalkuppe and Zumsteinspitze, 4000 meter summits all. The Berner Oberland offers the classic Trilogy of the Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger (though the Eiger is considerably harder than the other two). Also, the Oberland is a great place to wander endlessly from hut to hut, ticking off the bigger summits as you go.
When to go…….
Predicting the weather is bound to get you in trouble, but what the heck…. Generally the season for climbing in the Alps runs from about the beginning of July, through about mid-September. But every year is different and the weather is a fickle master. For easier routes and lower elevation rock climbing the season can be much longer. For better ice and snow climbing conditions lean toward the early side of the season, say the entire month of July. Mont Blanc is normally good by then as are the big peaks of the Zermatt area (with the notable exception of the Matterhorn). If you want to do technical rock routes on the higher summits you might want to wait until more snow has melted. Normally the very hard high elevation rock routes are done in August, as are many of the classic mixed ridge routes. The Matterhorn is normally climbable from about mid-July to early or mid-September, though some years poor weather and snow on the route can keep it out of condition longer, and shut it down for the season by the end of August. In the summer of 1999 the best weather and climbing conditions occured in July and September, with August being a bit of a wash-out. The mountains tend to be most crowded in August, especially in France, when everyone takes their holiday. But there are always places where few people can be found if you are willing to hike a little further or visit summits you have never heard of.