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Summer Alpine Climbing: Speed = Safety

Featured SJMG Guide: Bill Grasse
June 17, 2013
Solitude East of the Vallecito
June 24, 2013

Moving Fast in the Alpine

by Nate Disser – AMGA Rock & Alpine Guide

Alpine Rock Climbing

Managing risk and objective hazard in alpine environments is clearly a top priority for all comers – guided or not.  Surely this is always the case for all outdoor activities, but doing so in alpine environments in the summer requires heightened awareness and skill development in some key areas which can limit your overall exposure to hazards such as afternoon lightning/thunderstorms or rockfall and soft snow conditions on glaciers.

Below are a few tips and considerations for increasing your speed in the mountains. Though not an exhaustive or comprehensive list of suggested practices, the correct application of these practices will help you to move faster and manage your risk in the mountains progressively and proactively rather than reactively.

Be In Shape

It seems obvious, but in order to move quickly on approaches, climbs, and descents you need to be in good cardiovascular fitness and then have the ability to apply that fitness and energy level over the course of a long (sometimes 10 – 12 hour) day, moving consistently with limited rests.  Unfortunately, there is no real substitute for getting out and developing your fitness in the mountains.  However, running, biking, stair master etc. can help with your cardio foundation, and aid in your ability to transition that fitness in the mountains with some style.

The increased work load in the mountains is largely due to the more varied muscle groups required for hiking and climbing with a heavy pack, and when combined with the mental fatigue/stress of being in new or unfamiliar terrain even the most prepared athlete will have some challenge adjusting to the athletic demands of the sport.  Take solace though, if it were easy then everyone would do it.  You’ve got to start somewhere and there’s no better way to gauge your level of fitness than a true mountain day.

Vestal Peak's Wham Ridge

For those who don’t live near the mountains, then you have to work with what you’ve got and do as much cross-training as you can.  These days, any training regimen should include a focus in core intensive workouts such as those taught by Steve Ilg and Wholistic Fitness.  

Remember though, there is no training for climbing/hiking/backpacking etc. like actually doing it for real.  So plan a lot of trips and don’t be afraid to shut the phone off and dial yourself in for some hard work in the mountains.  You’ll build perceptible strength, stamina, and fitness with each endeavor.

Get Up Early

Take a great deal of care thinking about what time you want to be up and off the summit of your climb or peak, and then work backwards to determine what time you should leave that night/early morning.  Typically in area’s such as the San Juans or the Tetons, one of the most prevalent objective hazards to contend with are afternoon thunderstorms. In such case it is a good practice to be off the summit of the peaks no later than 11am – 12pm, and perhaps earlier if you expect a complicated or time consuming descent.  In mountain areas where snow and/or glacier conditions are more important (such as the Cascades/N.Cascades) then the goal is to summit early in the morning around 6 or 7 am, taking advantage of optimal snow conditions for both the ascent and descent and avoid rockfall or icefall hazard which generally is expected during the warmer hours of the day (though to be fair these can happen at any hour).

Knowing how long a particular route is going to take to climb can be challenging and requires a good deal of experience to develop accurate predictions that you can then reliably use to plan your day with.  

Alpine Rock Climbing

A very general rule of thumb is to plan for about 1000′ – 1500′ per hour walking up hill, and then halve that time for the down.  Of course, this does not take into account any technical pitches or transitions that may occur along the way, so you’ll want to factor the time spent on those challenges as well since they will eat your time faster than you expect.  The only way to get better at this is to do it consistently, and reflect each time on how close you were to your original prediction and then adjust accordingly for subsequent trips or climbs.

Over time you will learn how to quickly develop a time plan in your head and utilize an intuitive process for predicting how long it will take you to climb a given route, which in turn frees up your mental energy levels to focus on other aspects of risk management and hazard recognition – or just more time to stop and smell the roses as they say…….

Don’t Take Long Breaks

Nothing eats up your time like a long break in the mountains.  I recommend planning your day so that you are consistently moving for 1 – 1.5 hours at a time, and then stop/break for no longer than 10 – 15 minutes.  During that break you should hydrate, eat, and generally take care of yourself (different layers, sunscreen etc.) in anticipation of the weather or conditions on the next stretch.  If you have a 6 – 8 hour climb ahead of you, and you take 20 minute breaks every hour then you will arrive back to camp almost 1.5 hours later than someone who moves at the same pace but only takes a 10 minute break.

In the mountains, 1.5 hours is a great deal of time so you can clearly see that taking the extra 10 minutes during a break may feel great but it puts you up against the clock should a storm move in earlier than expected.  Make sure to factor your breaks into your time plan as well.

Buy Lightweight Gear

The improvement in gear technology and weight in the last 10 years has been impressive.  It may cost a little bit more to go with the generally nicer, lighter weight gear when outfitting your adventures, but in my experience you will always thank yourself for it later.  Do you need the big gore-tex jacket or will something like the OR Helium II Jacket suffice?  Do you need a full length down sleeping pad, or will the Therm-A-Rest 3/4 length Neo Air do the trick?  These are questions only you can answer as they apply to your trip and the type of terrain you are venturing into, but almost always there is a lightweight option for gear these days.

Consider the implication of carrying a 35 lb pack instead of a 40lb pack over the course of a 6 – 8 hour approach or successive camp establishment.  Each step you take is 5 less pounds of weight you are carrying on your body/frame, translating into thousands of pounds over the course of a long day.  

Dino Design

Extrapolate that over the course of many trips in the mountains and we are talking about some serious reduction in wear-and-tear.  I don’t care how fit you are.  Show me the person who has figured out how to carry the lightest pack possible and they will almost always be able to move faster in the mountains.  Unless you are built like a dinosaur (which some people certainly are), shave the weight and you will shave time off your climb.

Learn from Someone that Knows

You can shorten your learning curve on moving fast in the mountains (as well as a number of other topics) by taking a course from an AMGA Certified Guide or Accredited Guide Service.  That’s not to say you can’t also develop these skills and knowledge base on your own or with friends.

Obligatory shamless self-promotion part of this post:

However, climbing with a mountain professional can be a worthwhile investment and you will be guaranteed to learn time-tested, peer-reviewed information that will contribute to you building a solid foundation of skills that can then be applied on your own trips.  For more information about hiring an AMGA Certified Guide or AMGA Accredited Guide Service in your area, visit

Respectfully submitted,

Nate Disser
AMGA Certified Rock & Alpine Guide