climbing

Matterhorn, Dent d'Herens, Obergabelhorn, Zinalrothorn, Mountaineering course, Alpine Energy Guiding, mountaineering & ski adventures, Andrew Lanham Mountain Guide, Chamonix, Aosta Valley, Swiss

How to Choose a Mountaineering Objective

So many Mountains!

But which ones to choose?

Alpine panoramas with clouds far below and an aesthetic route stretching out ahead of you with only wind and gravity holding you back. But how to find one’s self in the perfect adventure balancing risk and reward, challenge and preparation, ambition and experience…

 

What do I enjoy?

Be honest with yourself in planning your mountaineering objectives. So often I’ve seen and experienced rope teams with different visions of what is enjoyable. Do you climb for getting things done or to share time with a good friend? These are two important distinctions that can cause a lot of misunderstandings and conflict in rope teams. Some alpinists are very driven and result focused while others are totally happy just getting into the mountains, so long as a good time is had along the way.

Communicate with your partner or guide about your goals. Too often things are assumed and no one ends up happy. Implementing the idea of “win win or no deal” is a good policy here! If it’s going to end in tears don’t get involved regardless of how much you want to get out there.

Obergabelhorn, Mountaineering course, Alpine Energy Guiding, mountaineering & ski adventures, Andrew Lanham Mountain Guide, Chamonix, Aosta Valley, Swiss Alps
Obergabelhorn with a motivated client, we had to track the ridge and then climbed Zinalrothorn the next morning…. Not everyone’s idea of a good time.

The ascent of any route begins in dreams at least the autumn before…

Gaston Rebuffat

Adaptation & Awareness

Are you able to be open to your environment and absorb the signals that the mountains and partners are sending you? It’s often not difficult to interpret problems like when you or your partner are not well, timings have been affected for whatever collection of possible reasons, for example: weather, conditions, warming, crowding or hundreds of other possible signs. What is difficult is being aware enough to observe the signs and communicate your possibly unpopular observations.

Noticing the signs and understanding that plans need to be adapted relate to not not being stressed out, over excited, overly focused, fiddling with gear, overly chilled out or overly attached to your objectives.

Try to be aware of your ability to adapt and build your human weaknesses into you plans. For example: you know you have a tendency to be over excited and focused when taking on alpine objectives. You’ve made your Mountaineering plans for the weekend, checked the weather, gained info on conditions and heard that there could be rockfall at a certain point if you arrive there too late in the day. Communicate a plan to your partner with very specific decision points where you absolutely must stop and discuss timing, whether to continue, do an alternative route, make a new decision point or turn around. Set an alarm on your phone as a reminder if you know you’ll forget.

High on the Dent Blanche with fresh snow and average weather, fun adventure or risky business….

Skills

Fitness

Fitness in mountaineering is generally long endurance mixed with short bursts of high steps or climbing. Acclimatisation is just as important, if you’re fit, altitude will hit you just as hard as an unfit person. Leave enough time to acclimatise. Three or four nights above 2700m will generally acclimatise people enough for most alpine peaks. More is always better and the more you do the better you’ll feel. You can read more about training for mountaineering in the city here.

The fitter you are, the easier everything else becomes.

Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing is a great skill base for alpine climbing but there are problems with being a rock climber in an alpine environment; over confidence being the primary one. Alpine cliffs may not appear to be very difficult to the eyes of a good rock climber. The only issue is that they are often loose, unprotected and bigger than expected. On classic climbs, climbing straight over hard cliffs is generally an error in route finding and will cause you to loose time. Also an indoor or sport climbing style relies on the holds not breaking off, when mountaineering, falling off may be catastrophic so trusting holds too much must be avoided.

The 700m South ridge of the Stockhorn. Being a good, efficient rock climber is essential.

Hiking & Skiing

Hiking and Skiing is also a great base for Mountaineering as you’ll have a good idea of how to keep going all day, look after yourself in tough environments and navigate in the mountains. The limitations would be the lack of technical ability in climbing, scrambling and route finding. I often find that people with a hiking background will carry too much stuff when they start Mountaineering. You need to strip your kit down to the minimum necessary items and they must all be as light as possible! No more enamel cups and thermometres hanging off you backpack!

Being a good hiker translates pretty well to trips like this, the long slog down the Stockji Glacier to Zermatt.

Experience

Experience is the biggest factor in keeping you safe in the mountains. From understanding and being aware of dangers to looking after yourself and managing your energy to route finding to understanding weather and conditions; experience is everything. However experience can also trick one into a false sense of security. The brain can think that it’s seen something similar before and because nothing bad happened in previous experiences, the current experience must be safe… Unfortunately a single human’s experience cannot be great enough to have seen all possible dangers and compute them rationally. Therefore we need to also rely on the experiences of others and data that has been collected, this is especially true with avalanches.

So what to do when you lack experience? Start really small and learn all the basic skills of equipment management, rope skills, movement, fitness, mountain weather and conditions. Then take on easy routes, gain as much information as you can. Consult the local mountain guides and look up all the information you can find, just don’t take all sources as fact. As you get better and more confident you can take on bigger objectives.

The closer peak in the centre is the Ludwigshohe, a good objective for an “easy” alpine climb. Don’t forget that it’s still high and cold with big crevasses!

Sure Thing or Adventure

A crowded classic like the famous Arete des Cosmiques can seem like a good place to start as it’s easy to find the way by following the polished, scratched rock. There are plenty of good topo’s and information but on a busy summer day you’ll have queues of disgruntled people climbing over and around you if you’re not quick. It can be pretty stressful when you’re already just trying to survive the route. Often the biggest danger on any mountain is the other people. Rockfall in the route is most often caused by other rope teams, getting stuck behind a slower team can expose you to storms and nightfall, the stress of others is sometimes very distracting and at worst a falling rope team can floss you off the mountain which does sometimes happen.

The obscure adventure can be a great time but with all the disadvantages that were advantages on the crowded classic. There may be little information, timings and dangers may be relatively unknown. Obscure adventures in the Alps often involve a big approach and often there is a reason routes are left to fall into obscurity. They must be approached with an open mind and multiple attempts may be needed to figure out what it’s all about and what tactics will be required.

Obergabelhorn, Zinalrothorn, Mountaineering course, Alpine Energy Guiding, mountaineering & ski adventures, Andrew Lanham Mountain Guide, Chamonix, Aosta Valley, Swiss
On high peak at sunrise with no one but your climbing partner in sight is real freedom.

 

Choosing your objectives in the mountains and with who you share your adventures is a personal choice and no one can really tell you how to do it. However, working full time as a guide in the Alps, every year I witness many rope teams split in their motivations and visions. Teams that take on routes they are not at all prepared for and really risk and sometimes lose their lives on what was supposed to be a fun experience is all too common. The mountains are as inspiring and beautiful as they are dangerous so choose your actions carefully, be humble and have fun!


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Chamonix, Ski touring, freeride, off-piste, backcountry, Alpine Energy Guiding, mountaineering & ski adventures, Andrew Lanham Mountain Guide, Chamonix, Aosta Valley, Swiss, lyngen alps

Training for the mountains in the city…

How to prepare for this?

Living here…


Living in the mountains, I’ve failed to appreciate the practical reality for people living busy lives in the city. Training for the mountain by actual skiing or climbing is obviously not an option.

Copenhagen is where I found myself this autumn for 6 weeks. It’s flat, cold, rainy and grey in November. Needing to train for my winter guiding season of skiing, touring and alpinism, I too experienced the challenges most city-dwellers face in preparing for the mountains.

Climbing is not a battle with the elements, nor against the law of gravity. It’s a battle against oneself. “Walter Bonatti”

Motivation

Motivation is probably the biggest stumbling block. The solution is to have a goal. Something that will get you out running in the rain, sucking wind on some dark stairs, embracing the suffering. Without anything to aim for its hard to get out and push yourself. Excuses are plentiful and valid; work was tough, you’re tired, the weather sucks, being social is important, and you did have a good training day last week so you can slack off a bit now, etc… The answer is to commit to something that scares you sufficiently to prioritise your preparations. It could be a Haute Route ski tour, a 4000m summit or a skiing trip with friends that love long, hard days on the slopes.

Activities

Activities that you enjoy or at least don’t hate are the best. Have fun! Find some friends to join you and or join a club / class. Choose maybe two things and be realistic about what you’ll actually do. The mountains involve a lot of uphill and require general cardiovascular fitness but also leg power and athleticism.

Guiding, I see people that are good athletes (eg. gymnasts) that don’t have good long cardio and can’t keep walking for 8 hours. I also see people that run multiple marathons that lack the leg power, balance and core strength for high steps, scrambling and changes of pace on the Matterhorn for example. That is why one needs both athleticism and cardiovascular fitness for mountaineering, ski touring and skiing.

When away from the mountains I choose the climbing gym combined with some weights and bodyweight exercises 2-3 days per week for strength and athleticism. For cardio, I do running and interval training on stairs 2-3 days per week. Sometimes both on the same day.

Activity options could include:

  • cross training (cross-fit) + running
  • gymnastics + cycling
  • squash + treadmill and stairmaster
Running laps on the power station / dry ski slope of Copenhill in Copenhagen on a November evening.

Consistency

Consistency is much more important than intensity! The body adapts slowly and if you make training a fun habit rather than a chore then it will pay off. If you set your goals too high for each training session, you simply won’t do them because it seems too much at the end of a long day. Also if you break down your body too much, your recovery will be slow and you’ll quickly loose motivation. Go for a 30 mins run rather than doing nothing at all even if it seems trivial, the consistency will keep you motivated and remind your body to adapt.

Be realistic

Be realistic about the size of the mountains you will be climbing or skiing and the length of time you’ll need to be active. Often ski tours or alpine climbing days can involve 1500m of up-hill and down on rough terrain with a backpack at altitude for multiple days. Running a half marathon on the flat ground at sea level doesn’t necessarily translate to climbing the Dufourspitze or ski touring the Haute Route for example. In training search out rough terrain, sand, hills, stairs etc.

Test yourself

Often days in the mountains will be 6 to 12 hours so from time to time it can be good to do some long endurance sessions to see if your body is prepared for extended efforts. Some endurance test ideas could be:

  • A long hike or run
  • A long cycling trip
  • A gym marathon, just go to the gym and spend 5-6 hours doing easy cardio, some light weights, swimming, it doesn’t matter, just keep going for a long time.

Test yourself uphill because the mountains are brutally steep when you’re not used to it. Possibly try the following:

  • Find stairs that are, say 50m high in altitude gain. Hike / jog 30 laps at a good speed to make 1500m of height gain. See how long it takes you. 500m an hour is decent. Fit alpinists can generally do about 1000m in an hour and top trail runners about 1500m in an hour.
  • Most gyms have a “stairmaster” stepping machine where you can test yourself.
  • Few things are as relevant for mountain fitness as just how good your legs are at stepping you upwards and downwards.

Skills

Skills take time to learn and nothing beats doing the actual thing for skills development. That said; being athletic, strong and having good balance goes a long way in most mountain activities. If you plan on doing alpine climbing then indoor rock climbing is great. For skiing and alpinism some dynamic leg and balance training is helpful.

Consult a professional

These are my opinions from many years of mountain climbing, skiing and guiding. I am not however a personal trainer or sports scientist. It would be advisable to consult a professional before starting any training program.

The greatest danger in life is not to take the adventure “George Leigh Mallory”

Check out the general Fitness, Ski and Climbing level pages on the website. Each trip has the relevant level required.

Mont Blanc range, Mountaineering course, Chamonix ski guide, haute route, chamonix climbing, Chamonix freeride, Chamonix mountain guides, Swiss mountaineering

autumn sunrise

There is something special about the moments when the sun rises and sets, the change from light to darkness or from the chilling early hours of the morning to the first glowing rays of warmth cast from the distant horizon promising clarity and comfort. As people who enjoy being outside in the mountains we often have the pleasure of witnessing these moments when the rotation of the earth combined with the light of a star passing through the earth’s atmosphere paints some of the most beautiful pictures.

morning light on the Chamonix granite from the Noire de Peuterey to the Mont Blanc du Tacul

morning light on the Chamonix granite from the Noire de Peuterey to the Mont Blanc du Tacul

 

The sun wakes up Italy from the Dent du Geant

The sun wakes up Italy from the Dent du Geant

Sunset over from the cliffs of Kalymnos

Sunset over from the cliffs of Kalymnos

 

The sun goes down in a blaze in Chamonix

The sun goes down in a blaze in Chamonix

The same sunset a few minutes later

The same sunset a few minutes later

 

Courmayeur, Ski touring, freeride, off-piste, backcountry, Alpine Energy Guiding, mountaineering & ski adventures, Andrew Lanham Mountain Guide, Chamonix, Aosta Valley, Swiss, lyngen alps

Powder days are here again!

Hearing about dry mountains and thin snow cover from my sweaty bungalow in south-east Asia, I wasn’t too optimistic about the skiing this January. Arriving home to an unpredictable snowpack thanks to the constructive metamorphism of December’s meagre snowfall lurking beneath the new layers in the two to three thousand metre range on northern aspects and a general lack of covering confirmed my doubts.

Skiing the trees in Italy last December, yesterdays conditions were similar..

Skiing the trees in Italy last December, yesterdays conditions were similar..

However, since new year the snow has been falling in the Alps and yesterday was a good powder day in Courmayeur, Italy. The snowpack is a bit thicker over there and we had a great day in the trees. With careful route choice and some local knowledge the skiing in the Alps is quite good now.

Here’s Erik’s new little edit from a fun day last April:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKJRJYFHvQs&w=560&h=315]