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From the gym to the Alps | Introduction to alpine mountaineering | Ascent of Mont-Blanc | Climbing the Matterhorn | Climbing the Eiger | Equipment list

From the gym to the Alps

This program is designed for people who climb a lot on climbing walls and want to use their skills and strength to tackle the world of rock climbing in stunning alpine settings. In and around Chamonix there is a lifetime supply of incredible rock climbs, which can be climbed from mid-March until November.

The aim of the program is to provide you with all the additional skills necessary to progress rapidly to becoming an alpine rock climber.

A key element of this is summed up in the phrase “Speed equals safety”. Alpine rock climbs can be very long and the ability to move quickly and safely over relatively simple terrain using the skills of short-roping are an essential part of alpine rock climbing.

The overriding philosophy of the program is not to concentrate on the actual gradings of the climbs but rather the “big picture” of what alpine rock climbing is all about. Namely, being in stunning, atmospheric settings.



For example, at the climbing wall often the aim is to push the grade as far as you can, yet there are two main points to consider when transferring to the mountains: often the grade at the climbing wall does not translate well. This is to say a grade of 6a in the gym can seem very scary and much harder a thousand meters above the ground. Plus, it is definitely worth climbing a few grades below your maximum so that there is something in reserve.

At the end of the program you will have a good understanding of the following skills.

  • Multi-pitch climbing in an alpine context.
  • The use of double ropes.
  • Technical abseil (rappel) descents
  • Problem solving, route selection

The very nature of alpine rock climbs and what makes them even more exciting is that the rock climbs often have glacier approaches or steep snow slopes, especially early in the summer. With this in mind, one day of the days in the program could be spent on the Mer de Glace covering the basics of crampon and ice axe technique in the context of alpine rock climbing.

Appropriate equipment: for the majority of routes it will be necessary to carry a rucksack with at least water, food and a spare windproof. Choosing the right kit is critical because of the weight issue.

Length of the program: there is no specific length of the program.  However if your goal is to climb at high altitude (above 2000 meters),  then it is necessary to be well acclimatized; otherwise there is a real chance of being ill: bad headaches, fainting, nausea.

To avoid this then, 4 or 5 days is sensible.

An introduction to alpine mountaineering.

For someone who has never climbed in the Alps the following programme works well. There is an assumption that you are a reasonably fit, keen hill and mountain walker, but with no or very little experience of ropes or rock climbing.

The aim of our time together is to provide you with the necessary skills to ascend a variety of alpine peaks in safety.

Practicing glacier skills | Aiguille Crochue | Heading to hut |  Climbing Mt. Velan
Below is a suggested programme.

  • Day 1
    Introduction to the use of ice axe & crampons within the context of the Alps. These are fundamental skills that will allow you to move with confidence over a variety of terrain. This day will take place on the Mer de Glace glacier.
  • Day2
    An ascent of the Aiguille du Crochue. This is a marvellous rocky scramble so typical of the Alps. During the climb we will examine the use of the rope to safeguard our progress. This type of scrambling is the border with simple rock climbing.
  • Day 3
    We will take the Aiguille du Midi cable-car to its summit which is one of the highest in the world. From there we will climb the Cosmiques Spur. In order to climb this route we will be using the skills we have gained in the previous two days.
  • Day 4
    Walk up to a mountain hut. In the afternoon we will look at the various skills required for crevasse rescue. You will extract someone from a real crevasse.
  • Day 5
    The hut guardian will wake us at 4 am. After breakfast we will cross the glacier and climb the Aiguille du Tour. This is a major alpine peak, which involves some scrambling near its summit. The views are fantastic and given clear weather you will clearly see the Matterhorn.

Climbers on Petite Aiguille Verte | On the summit of Mont Velan | View of Matterhorn | Back at road head

The ascent of Mont-Blanc.

Over the last 20 years the conditions on Mont Blanc have deteriorated considerably due to two specific reasons:

  1. Global warming means that often the snow that glues everything in place disappears, resulting in significant rock fall danger which frequently makes the route of ascent unjustifiably dangerous. Freak weather can cause massive avalanches and there is an increased risk of serac collapse (falling ice cliffs).
  2. The sheer number of people wanting to climb Mont Blanc. This causes problems of increased stone fall. Plus, congestion with climbers becoming entangled with each other, and generally from idiots who just should not be there.
There were 73 fatalities and 180 significant injuries in the Gouter Couloir from 1990-2015.

Nevertheless it is possible for any fit, determined person to climb Mont Blanc with little previous alpine experience providing they undergo adequate training and are accompanied by a High Mountain Guide. In addition they need to have good, safe conditions and not least, they need to be mentally prepared for what often is the hardest thing they will do in their lives. So often people say “I didn’t think it would be that hard.” Well it is. It is not Disneyland.

Anyone contemplating Mont Blanc should read the official advice from the French Goverment.

The majority of guiding operations which cater for Mont Blanc gloss over these specific facts in an attempt to entice clients to sign up for something that is often way beyond what they expected or wanted.

If you sign up to a packaged Mont Blanc ascent this is what you could be getting into, which is deeply unpleasant. Even “worse” you could go home having to explain to all your friends why you didn’t climb Mont Blanc.

If having read and fully understood the above, you do not want to be part of a “sausage machine style ascent”, then read on. There is an alternative:

Engage a Guide who will tailor-make the program to your individual needs, provide you with training and prepare you mentally so that you are confident to tackle the climb and in addition give you skills which will underpin any mountaineering challenges you want to attempt in the future.

Furthermore, if after the training period you are not likely to make it, he will tell you and help you choose another significant objective. So, either way you should go home having achieved a major alpine climb.

Below is a suggested plan of action that offers the best possible chance of climbing Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe. The most suitable time to make an attempt is from the middle of June until the beginning of October.

The plan is designed not only to eventually get you to the top of Mont Blanc but to teach you as many mountaineering skills as possible. This is not a just “follow me" programme.

The Itinerary:

  • Day 1: We take the Montenvers train to the Mer de Glace, a dry glacier where we will begin to learn everything there is to know about ice axes, crampons, ice screws, rope management, steep ice climbing, rescue and route finding.  It gives you the chance to evaluate the latest gear and will give you much better idea of what you need.
  • If you have done something like this before then think of it as coaching as there are always different ways of doing things. In addition it gives the Guide the chance to evaluate your ability, because if you are not confident then the Guide is not safe because you are always tied to each other.

    Think of the day also as “money in the bank” for all future mountaineering escapades.

  • Day 2: Ridge traverse and an introduction to roped alpine climbing.

    One of the issues with standard courses is that too much emphasis is often placed solely on acclimatization. Their programmes are often plodding across monotonous glaciers being dragged along by a bored, badly paid Guide, staying in crowded huts with everybody doing the same thing. This does not prepare people adequately for the considerable amount of scrambling and exposure that is found on Mont Blanc.

  • Day 3: Ascend to a Mountain Hut. We will choose a mountain hut off the beaten track, it might not even be in the Mont Blanc massif but over in Switzerland or Italy.
  • Day 4: Up early before first light and away in the dark normally around 3:30 am (depending on the time of the year). We will climb a significant alpine peak or high mountain col where the views will be stunning.

    After which, we will descend all the way to the valley attempting to be there by early afternoon so that you can get a good rest prior to the exertions of the final two days. The key thing is to find a balance between gaining the skills and acclimatization whilst not getting too tired.

  • Day 5: The most popular route and the one that offers the best chance of success is the ascent via the Gouter Hut. This is because the hut is very high and therefore gives you a shorter distance to climb on the summit day. Again mental preparation is important because, for example, sometimes the train does not run, which can add an extra two hours to what is already a tough day. Be prepared for a brutal 6 hours of solid uphill.

  • Day 6: Breakfast is at two o'clock in the morning. In good conditions we will be on the top of Mont Blanc in 5 hours. From there it is always back down to the valley.

    This will be long and tough. You will be thankful that you did all the training on the steep scrambling earlier in the week.

Sunset on the shoulder of Mont Blanc.

Read Mark's mountaineering stories about Mont Blanc.

Watch Mark's video: "On Mont Blanc with Don Planner".

Climbing the Matterhorn.

The Matterhorn is one of the most famous mountains in the world. Climbers and non-climbers alike dream of reaching its summit. An ascent of the Matterhorn is possible for any reasonably fit person providing the following criteria are met:

The weather must be good and the mountain in a safe condition for the climb. The snow must have cleared from the ridge and the rocks must be free of ice and virglass. The most suitable time of the year to attempt an ascent is between the middle of July and the middle of September. Nevertheless during some seasons the correct conditions just do not materialise for a safe ascent. In this case you should be prepared to change your aspirations to another mountain. Do not contemplate the Matterhorn unless you are prepared to accept this possibility of disappointment. You must have a good head for heights. Parts of the climb especially in the top two-thirds are very exposed. It most definitely is not the place to find yourself if you suffer from vertigo.

The day we climb the Matterhorn will be a long one. The ascent will take around five hours. The feeling of elation on the summit may well be influenced by the realisation that we have to descend by exactly the same route. This always seems to take longer!

Outlined below is an example of a six day itinerary which would be good training for an attempt on the Matterhorn. However, in reality there is a considerable amount of discussion between the the guide and the client prior to meeting so that the training can match the client's exact needs and take into consideration the prevailing climbing conditions.

The Itinerary:
  • Day 1
    The most effective way of becoming acclimatised is to sleep in mountain huts. We will climb to the Rotehorn Hut, which is high above Zermatt.
  • Day 2
    Ascent of the Trifthorn. This is an ideal introduction to the type of climbing found on the Matterhorn.
  • Day 3
    Ascent of the Wellenkuppe. This is the traditional mountain that alpinists climb before they attempt the Matterhorn; consequently it is a good confidence builder.
  • Day 4
    After our final checks to our gear we will set off to the Hornli Hut ready for the next day.
  • Day 5
    Breakfast at 4am. The ascent of the Matterhorn via the Hornli Ridge.
  • Day 6
    Spare day. We will slot this into the programme in case of bad weather.


Read Mark's mountaineering stories about the Matterhorn.

Climbing the Eiger

There are many excellent routes on the Eiger. In September, 2007, Mark & Charles Sherwood climbed the infamous Nordwand. This climb capped a many-year adventure & was only the second ascent of this historic route by a British guide & his client, & the first without helicopter assistance which also traversed the peak.

More common is the ascent of the beautiful Mitteleggi Ridge.

photo of eiger:

Read Mark's
mountaineering stories
about the Eiger.

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