The first time I set eyes on the Mont Blanc Massif I was speechless. The towering spires of red granite, the ice gullies slashing between them, and the hulking white mass of Mont Blanc herself took my breath away. I couldn’t even comprehend how anyone would begin getting close to these mountains, let alone that just a few years later I would call them my playground. I dreamed that, one day, I would stand closer to these giants, I just had to work out how. With a little trial and quite a lot of error over the last few years, I have found these four steps have made it possible to realize my dreams to become an alpine climber.
1. Take baby steps
Nowhere is the importance of baby steps more important than in climbing, neither is the progress more obvious. You inch up a rock wall, tiny step followed by a smaller shuffle and, before you know it, you look down to realize how dizzyingly far below you the ground has become.
Likewise, in transitioning from the modest hills of the UK to the giants of the Alps, it was small steps and steady progression that in hindsight made the greatest leaps in my development as an alpinist. Everything is so much bigger here, the mistakes you make have more serious consequences, and the commitment you feel is so much greater—making it is crucial to bide your time and move forward only when you are ready for the next step.
Slowly progress up through different terrain, up to different altitudes, and onto new mountains always remembering what you have done before and how those experiences can come to your aid if the circumstances around you change.
That ability to know that you can get yourself out of a tricky situation while alpine climbing gives you the confidence to progress further, to know that you are in control—or as much control as you can have up there. It also allows you to trust yourself, truly savoring the incredible environments you find yourself in.
The little decisions you make on single pitch sport routes, or half-day hill walks are still there on the larger and longer routes. They still help you keep moving forward, but now they are a part of a much bigger picture. Saving energy at a good rest point has far more serious benefits when you know you’ve still got 100m of climbing to go. Likewise, that security at the back of your mind that, when you need it, you’ve got some serious power in reserve, built up from bouldering, can make the difference between success or having to turn around.
2. Just try, there is no such thing as failure
The only way to improve is to try, and the only way to keep trying is to accept that you might not get it right this time. In fact, you are more likely to get it wrong than right. Failure, in the traditional sense is everywhere in mountaineering, but you must not think about days in the hill in such black and white terms, such as success or failure. We are there; outdoors, climbing, because we love to be outdoors, in the wilderness, and self-reliant in extreme situations. That is true whether we make it to the top or not.
It is often through our near-misses and retreats in alpine climbing that we learn the most. I’ve backed off of moderately steep snow slopes, uncomfortable with the avalanche risk. I’ve bailed half way up a 300 meter rock route due to some threatening clouds on the horizon. And I’ve called it a day because, sometimes, you’re just not feeling right.
All of these experiences have helped me know myself better, to know the mountains better, and to listen to that little voice in the pit of my stomach that is tuned into a frequency my conscious can’t hear. All of these decisions were the right decision for me, on that day, and no one can say otherwise. These failures are what give me the confidence to say yes when everything is aligned, and feel confident that I am making the right decisions at difficult times.
3. Learn from those around you
There are no better teachers than those around you, and I mean everyone around you. As I have progressed, it felt easy to dismiss someone with less experience than me as not knowing the right way to do something; however climbing, and especially alpinism, is not a linear progression.
You don’t need to know three different ways to tie onto a rope so that you can build a solid anchor; nor do you need to know the intricacies of a regional weather pattern to efficiently climb ice. Rather you need to learn all of these skills to be fully competent in the mountains—and you are able to learn them from anyone and everyone around you.
I always set up my rappels in the same way but, after climbing with a new partner one day, I saw him using a different system. At the next belay we discussed the pros and cons of each of our choices and ever since I’ve used his system. Mine wasn’t unsafe it was just that his system allowed for more flexibility. By always asking and observing those around you, questioning their logic when you don’t understand, and listening when they explain—you will learn valuable lessons every day you set out onto the mountain.
4. Explore. Explore. Explore.
Explore both internally and in the outdoors, as well as your relationships with other people and your place on the planet. With an open mind and an acceptance of where you are right now, every day will teach you something new, you’ve just got to be open to it, willing to ask, and not be afraid to get it wrong.