Checkout our edit of the Breithorn East Traverse from last week!
The Valais in French or Wallis in Swiss German is the heart of the high Alps. The Valais is the deep valley of the Rhone river, fed by many big glaciers, including the biggest in Europe, the Aletsch Glacier. The Valais, meaning “valley” is actually made up of many valleys that feed into the main Rhone valley which in turn, feeds into Lac Leman next to Geneva before continuing its course through France.
Mountaineering in the Valais is varied in it’s difficulty and type of experience. The lower Valais is French speaking and has many hidden valleys with remote, beautiful Alpine climbs. The Valais shares the eastern parts of the Mont Blanc range with the Cabane d’Orny and Trient being the starting points for many good alpine rock and mixed climbs in a quieter setting than the French side of the range. The golden granite peaks above the Orny hut are some of the best alpine rock climbs for intermediate difficulty technical climbs of high quality. Relatively non-technical alpine routes like the Aiguille du Tour and Petit Fourche are perfect for learning skills and acclimatising. The Aiguilles Dorées, the Purtscheller or Pitit Clocher du Portalet are great challenging objectives on very good quality rock.
The valleys of the Entremont, Val de Bagnes, Val d’Hérens and Anniviers hold some of the the most beautiful, remote routes for classic mountaineering. Mountains like Mont Velan, Mont Blanc de Cheilon, Dent Blanche, Aiguille de la Tsa, Dents des Rosses, Petit Dents de Veisivi or Pigne d’Arolla to name just a few, provide great alpine mountaineering adventures from PD to D in difficulty in quiet, spectacular locations.
The upper Valais is German speaking and home to the very famous Matterhorn which is the Toblerone mountain that everyone has heard of and many are keen to climb. Zermatt also is the starting point for many other AD climbs such as Zinalrothorn, Obergabelhorn, Weisshorn or the highest peak in Switzerland at 3634m. There are also easier climbs very accessible from the Kleine Matterhorn lift which takes you up to 3900m. The Breithorn is the easiest and most accessible 4000m peak. Pollux and Castor are nice PD climbs. The Riffelhorn has really good alpine multi-pitch rock climbing with some very accessible grades.
Saas Fee and Saas Grund is the valley just over from Zermatt and has as many Alpine climbing options with great PD summits like the Weissmies, Strahlhorn, Allalinhorn, nadelhorn and Lagginhorn. There are many AD routes or harder mountaineering routes for the experienced alpinist like Taschhorn, Portschengrat traverse, Lenszspitze – Nadelhorn traverse.
The Northern side of the Valais is actually the southern slopes of the Berneses Oberland. The huge glacier of the Aletch can be accesses from the upper Valais to access peaks like the Aletschhorn or the Finsteraarhorn.
Also on the Northern side of the Valais are some smaller valleys with mountaineering gems like the Stockhorn, Bietschhorn, Wiwannihorn or Grand Muveran to name a few.
How to prepare for this?
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 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 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
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 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.
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 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.
Its been a summer with much precipitation but also many days alone on nice summits in short weather windows and good snow conditions with little rock-fall danger. Here are a few photos from the sometimes sunny and warm season.
The summer started for me with two trips up Mont Blanc, both of which were cold but with great snow conditions and summit success.
In July and August I spent some time in the Swiss Valais, these shots are from the Dufourspitze, Nadelhorn, Mont Blanc de Cheillon, l’Eveque and the Wiessmies:
Some trips to the quieter areas of the Mont Blanc range, finished off the summer guiding for me. Here climbing on some of the granite in the Orny area.
We then started on some mountain ice and mixed, in great condition after the snowy summer:
Thanks to everyone I climbed with for a good, safe season, hope to see you again next year!
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.
With shadows lengthening and becoming more defined on the alpine landscape, fresh snow dusts the summits and the leaves change colour as the mornings come with a crisp freshness and the shy sun takes early refuge behind the horizon, leaving the natural world to dance on its last touches of warmth before the darkness lays down its cold, calm blanket.
The autumn can be one of the most pleasant times to climb in the Alps. With decent weather one can climb the classic summer routes and with the new snow and colder temperatures it is often an ideal time to climb some of the steeper ice gullies or north faces in the Mont Blanc range.
The end of the summer and early autumn have included the following ascents:
This is an aesthetic and varied traverse of moderate difficulty on one of the 4000m summits surrounding the Saas valley.
Mt. Blanc de Cheillon is one of the less famous summits of the Valais mountain range due to the fact that it doesn’t quite reach 4000m but is a very worthwhile objective with an imposing pyramid form above its plunging north face, bordered by seracs on both ridge lines. The traverse is an excellent journey up the expansive glacier below the Serpentine and along the airy east ridge to the summit, the descent by the west ridge is easier than the ascent. It’s an AD rated climb taking between 6 and 8 hours from hut to hut.
Gran Paradiso is the highest summit entirely in Italy, not sharing its summit with France or Switzerland, more importantly it’s an ideal climb for beginner mountaineers, requiring more fitness than technique even though the scramble to the summit virgin Mary is exposed. The view is exceptional and the challenge not negligible.
The climbing in the Burnese Oberland is slightly different to the other areas of the Alps. The summits are high, with steep limestone on their northern flank, to the south of the watershed its a maze of peaks divided by expansive glaciers really giving the feeling of being in a big, slightly wild place. It is a long range of mountains extending from the Col du Sanetsch in the west to Grimsel Pass in the east with a lifetime of mountaineering and rock climbing possibilities if we start to look at the sub-four thousand metre peaks.
A few weeks ago the Rosenlauistock and traverse of the Kleine and Grosse Simelistock were the objectives with Laurie from Australia. Here are some photos from these two days of alpine rock climbing in the Engelhorner:
The Oberland is most famous for its high alpine summits and the biggest glaciers in Europe, here are some photos from the Finsteraarhorn, Hinterfiescherhorn traverse, the Grunegghorn and the Monch in late July.