I overheard a group of climbers chatting the other day about alpine climbing and mountaineering. And there seemed to be quite a bit of confusion on what each of those terms means. And that got me thinking.
So what is the difference between mountaineering and alpine climbing? In a nutshell, alpine climbing is a subset of mountaineering. Mountaineering encompasses a range of activities that involve the ascending of mountains, including technical and non-technical climbing, rock climbing, bouldering, and hiking. Alpine climbing refers to climbing in an alpine climate and involves a significant technical component.
But the lines between them are fuzzy and there are no exact definitions. And there are other terms such as alpine style and alpinism which certainly adds to the confusion. Let’s break them down in this article.
But First, What Is Technical Climbing?
What exactly are we talking about when we mention the term technical?
A climb is considered technical when it involves the use of both your hand and feet to climb up steep surfaces on a mountain. It also often includes the use of ropes and other tools such as hooks, nuts, cams, bolts, and pitons for ascending or protection.
A non-technical climb typically refers to a hike or a scramble over gentler terrains.
|Read more about non-technical climbing and some examples of non-technical climbs.|
Clarifying The Differences Between Mountaineering And Alpine Climbing
First off, let’s look at the definition of an alpine climate.
An alpine climate refers to weather conditions where the average temperature is between 34.7 and 37.4 °F (1.5 and 3 °C).
So it is natural to associate alpine climbing with climbing mountains in cold, icy conditions at high altitude.
However, alpine climbing does not simply refer to all climbs done in the alpine climate or conditions.
Instead, the technical difficulty of the climb is what differentiates alpine climbing from other forms of mountaineering.
You could be taking a non-technical route up a mountain (i.e. hiking) in an alpine climate and it would be considered mountaineering rather than alpine climbing.
One reply in a climbing forum said it best:
“The line between the two can be blurred at times, but it’s reasonably accurate to say that mountaineering becomes alpine climbing when the technical difficulty of ascent becomes the crux of the route, as opposed to negotiating alpine elements.”
And this got me really confused at first.
To break it down, there are two common obstacles in climbing a mountain — (1) overcoming the conditions at high altitudes and (2) overcoming the technical difficulties and challenges.
And the difference between alpine climbing and mountaineering depends on which obstacle is the bigger problem.
Mountaineering is when a climber’s primary concern is on overcoming the conditions at high altitudes.
Alpine climbing is when a climber’s primary concern is on overcoming the technical challenges faced when climbing. Alpine climbing will involve rock climbing and/ or ice climbing.
|Thinking of taking up mountain climbing? Check out these helpful guides:|
– How To Start Mountain Climbing Today: 10 Simple Steps
– When Do You Need To Take Mountain Climbing Courses?
– What Are The Dangers Of Mountain Climbing: 15 Potential Hazards
– Why Go Mountain Climbing: 25 Things To Do At The Summit
Examples of Mountaineering And Alpine Climbing
Mount Everest (Mountaineering)
Let’s take a look at Mount Everest as an example.
The climbing routes on Mount Everest are in an alpine climate.
But if you are following a guided expedition, a significant portion of the climb is not really technically challenging. Sherpas will prepare safety lines and carry heavy loads for climbers.
Climbers are mainly focused on enduring the cold, harsh conditions at these high altitudes.
In such cases, climbing Mount Everest will be seen as a mountaineering activity rather than alpine climbing.
Grand Teton (Mountaineering And Alpine Climbing)
Let’s look at another example using Grand Teton in Wyoming, USA.
The Grand Teton has a popular rock climbing route on the Upper Exum Ridge. The route is technically challenging and cannot be completed without knowledge of rock climbing basics such as knots, rope management, belaying, and rappelling.
In warmer seasons, a climber’s primary concern is on overcoming these technical difficulties. This makes the Upper Exum Ridge an alpine climb.
However, in winter, the temperatures drop drastically and a climber’s primary concern is on overcoming the alpine conditions. This is typically more challenging than the technical aspects of the climb.
So in the colder seasons, climbing the Upper Exum Ridge will be considered mountaineering.
Yes, you read that right.
Climbing the Exum Ridge is alpine climbing when it’s warmer and mountaineering when it’s cold (i.e. in alpine conditions).
Extended Definitions For Alpine Climbing
For some climbers, alpine climbing will also mean:
- Free climbing (i.e. without using any fixed rope or fixed line which are bolted in place to assist climbing)
- Climbing without the use of any supplemental oxygen
Alpine climbing is also sometimes thought of as a “tougher form” of mountaineering and something that only elite climbers can do.
Sub-categories of Alpine Climbing
Based On Types Of Terrains
Depending on the terrains, alpine climbing can be further divided into several forms:
- Alpine rock climbing: routes with at least 500 feet (150m) of vertical climbing. These routes may have permanent bolts or pitons fixed in place at frequent anchor points. Climbers are expected to put in their own additional protection. Climbs are done with friction shoes.
- Alpine ice climbing: vertical routes with a mixture of ice and snow. ice screws and pitons are needed for climbing and protection. Climbs have to be done with crampons and ice axes.
- Alpine mixed climbing: these are routes with a combination of rocky and ice sections. Both rock climbing and ice climbing will need to be done.
Based On Method Of Climbing
Alpine climbing can also be done in various fashions:
- Free climbing: climbs where equipment such as pitons, belay devices, slings are only used for safety protection and not to aid in the climb.
- Aid climbing: climbs where equipment aids are used to assist the climb.
- Clean climbing: climbs where all protective equipment and devices are placed during the climb (i.e. no pre-existing devices in place) and then removed after the climb
- Free solo: climbs where no protection or aid are used. Ropes are also not used.
What Is Alpine Style Of Climbing?
To confuse things further, alpine climbing is different from the alpine style of climbing.
The alpine style of climbing has nothing to do with the technical challenges of a climb.
The alpine style of climbing refers to climbing in a self-sufficient way. This means climbers themselves carry all of their own food, shelter and equipment.
This is in contrast to the siege style or expedition style of climbing.
The siege style is probably more common these days, especially among beginner or casual climbers. It involves having a larger group of guides and porters who would assist the climbers in carrying up food, shelter, and equipment. This would also include having permanent, well-stocked camps set up in the mountains.
The alpine style of climbing focuses on climbing as fast and efficiently as possible, making fast ascents to the top of the mountain with a minimum amount of gear.
Fitness, speed, and technical skills are critical for climbers planning on doing this style of climbing.
What Is Alpinism?
The use of the term alpinism may vary between countries and eras.
In the 1800s, the word “alpinism” came about to describe the sport of recreational climbing. This is in contrast to the more common reasons for climbing back then, which are for hunting or religious purposes (like a religious pilgrimage).
In modern days, especially in Europe, alpinism refers to climbing The Alps or other high mountains. Mountain climbers are sometimes called alpinists.
Do you need to take a course to start mountaineering? It is useful to first know your own objective in taking up mountaineering — are you interested in conquering peaks, doing technical climbing or developing independence and survival skills? There are numerous guided expeditions out there which allow beginners to conquer many mountains, including Mount Everest, without a need for any certifications. Courses are recommended if you are interested in technical climbing or alpine climbing. You can acquire climbing skills such as knots tying, performing self-arrest with an ice-axe, glacier travel, and crevasse rescue etc.
What is a popular alpine climb for beginners? The Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, USA, has a popular route called the Upper Exum Ridge. Depending on the season, rock and ice climbing can be done on the ridge. There are schools such as
Exum Guide Service and School of Mountaineering offering climbing lessons prior to the guiding expeditions.