Alpine climbing (German: Alpinklettern) is a type of mountaineering that involves using any of a broad range of advanced climbing skills, including rock climbing, ice climbing, and/or mixed climbing, to summit typically large routes (e.g. multi-pitch or big wall) in an alpine environment. While alpine climbing began in the European Alps, it is used to refer to climbing in any remote mountainous area, including in the Himalayas and in Patagonia. The derived term alpine style refers to the fashion of alpine climbing to be in small lightly-equipped teams who carry their own equipment (e.g. no porters), and do all of the climbing (e.g. no sherpas or reserve teams).

Alpinists face a wide range of serious risks in addition to the specific risks of rock, ice, and mixed climbing. This includes the risks of rockfalls (common with rock faces in alpine environments), avalanches (especially in couloirs), seracs and crevasses, violent storms hitting climbers on exposed mountain faces, altitude effects (dehydration, edema, frostbite), complex navigation and route finding, long abseils, and the difficulty of rescue and/or retreat due to the remote setting. Due to the scale of the routes, alpine climbers need to be able to move together for speed (e.g. simul climbing or as rope teams), which is another source of specific risk.

The first "golden age" of modern alpine climbing was the first free ascents–in summer, in winter, and as solo–of the great north faces of the Alps by pioneers such as Walter Bonatti, Riccardo Cassin and Gaston Rebuffat. The subsequent era, which is still ongoing, is focused on the equivalent ascents and enchainments, of the ice and snow-covered faces and ridges of major Himalayan peaks (e.g. the eight-thousanders, Latok, The Ogre) and Patagonian peaks (e.g. Cerro Torre Group, Fitz Roy Group) in "alpine style" by pioneers such as Hermann Buhl, Reinhold Messner and Doug Scott, and latterly by alpinists such as Ueli Steck, Mick Fowler, Paul Ramsden, and Marko Prezelj. The annual Piolets d'Or are awarded for the best achievements in alpine climbing.


Moving together on Kuffner Ridge (D, UIAA V, French 4c), Mont Maudit.

Alpine climbing involves small unsupported teams tackling large multi-pitch (or big wall) routes that can involve various combinations of rock climbing, ice climbing, and mixed climbing, in alpine-type mountain environments. Alpine routes are often long and require a full day of climbing or even several days. Because of the length of the routes, and the danger of alpine environments (e.g. rockfall, avalanche, altitude, weather, etc.), alpine climbers (or "alpinists") typically try routes that are well within their technical rock, ice, or mixed climbing capabilities.[2][3]

While parts of an alpine route will involve a lead climber tackling difficult rock, ice, or mixed sections while being belayed by a stationary second climber below, parts will involve both climbers moving simultaneously together, particularly on large snow slopes or easier rock sections.[4] Simultaneous climbing (or simul climbing) is riskier but is necessary to ensure that the climbers can move quickly through what is often a very dangerous and exposed environment (e.g. rockfall on open ice fields), and complete the routes in a reasonable time.[2][4][5]

Alpine climbing can involve aid climbing, particularly if high up on a route, aid is needed to make progress and avoid a dangerous retreat.[4] It can also involve multiple and complex abseils, either on the descent or in a retreat from a route. Classic alpine climbing routes often take at least a full day of climbing which necessitates the early "alpine start" (and helps to avoid the afternoon rockfalls), and may force a bivouac.[4] It often involves traveling on glaciers and bergschrunds to get to and from the route (and in the dark for "alpine starts").[2][3]

Due to the greater complexity and risks of alpine climbing, alpinists need to be much more familiar with and confident in each team member's abilities and skill level.[4] Alpine climbing involves exercising judgment and decision-making to adapt to the constantly changing alpine weather and route conditions, where good initial progress can quickly turn into a fight for the team's survival (e.g. the famous 1936 Eiger climbing disaster).[2]

Alpine style

Ueli Steck making a rapid 'alpine style' one-day ascent of North Couloir Direct (VI, Al 6+, M8) a major alpine climbing route on Les Drus[6]

The derived term "alpine style" alludes to the fashion of alpine climbing to be in small fast-moving teams – or even solo – who carry all of their own equipment (e.g. no porters), and do all of the climbing (e.g. no sherpas or reserve teams laying down fixed ropes).[7] "Alpine-style" is the opposite of expedition style (which is sometimes pejoratively called "siege style"), and is often considered a "purer" form of climbing.[8][9][10]

"Alpine style" also means being "lightly equipped" with for example no supplementary oxygen, no major tenting or overnight equipment, and limited food and fuel supplies. It also means having no fixed ropes on the route (an important safety feature of expedition-style mountaineering).[8][11][10]

While these attributes enable alpine climbers to move quickly and take advantage of good conditions and "weather windows", it also makes alpine climbing far more dangerous. In situations where the habitually unstable high-altitude weather turns, alpine climbers will not have the provisions to "sit out" the storm, and will not have the fixed ropes in place to retreat safely and quickly; such forced retreats in poor conditions are dangerous.[8][10]


Czech alpinists Marek Holeček and Tomáš Petreček [cs] in full gear about to start their unsuccessful 2015 alpine-style ascent of the southwest face of Gasherbrum I

While alpine climbers are "lightly equipped" due to the fact that they must carry all of their equipment while climbing, the range of climbing equipment needed can be considerable due to the diverse range of climbing techniques required on major alpine routes, and the harsh conditions encountered.[12]


Alpinist crossing a large snow field underneath a dangerous hanging serac, Grand Pilier d'Angle.

Alpinists face a number of additional risks to the risks of rock climbing, ice climbing, and mixed climbing, making it one of the most dangerous forms of climbing.[8] In 2019, Francis Sanzaro writing in the New York Times said of modern alpinism: "The routes are becoming more technically demanding, in more remote areas, and the method of "light and fast" — minimal gear, no fixed ropes, doing the route in a single push — is now regarded as the best style. These trends, and others, have made the sport of alpine climbing very, very dangerous".[14] In 2021, the New York Times called the Piolets d'Or, alpine climbing's most important award, "A Climbing Award That May Be a Winner’s Last", due to the number of fatalities of past winners.[15]

Additional risks faced by alpinists to the risks of rock climbing, ice climbing, and mixed climbing, are:[16][17]

The deadly White Spider ice field on the north face of the Eiger into which avalanches and rockfalls are funneled; alpine climbers move through it as quickly as possible.


Cosmiques Ridge (AD, French 4c UIAA V, 300-metre), Aiguille du Midi.
Chéré Couloir (D+, Ice WI4, Mix M3, 400-metre), Triangle du Tacul.

Due to the complexity of routes in alpine climbing, the "overall" grade denotes the general level of seriousness of the route to which is added additional specific grade(s) for any rock climbing (usually the French, American, or UIAA grades for free climbing, and the A-grade for aid climbing), ice climbing (the WI-grade), and mixed climbing (the M-grade) involved. In addition, alpine grades will quote the inclination of the main snow slopes encountered (e.g. 50–60 degrees), as these are often not graded ice climbs, but contribute significantly to the overall risk.[20]

The most widely used "overall" grades are the acronyms of the UIAA Scale of Overall Difficulty, also known as the International French Adjectival System (IFAS).[21] The UIAA warns against aligning their acronyms with equivalent rock and ice climbing grades, as the objective dangers can vary dramatically on routes with similar rock and ice climbing grades. For example, the famous 1,800-metre Eiger North Face 1938 Heckmair Route is graded ED2 even though the rock climbing is graded UIAA V− and the ice climbing is only at 60 degrees (i.e. both typically a D grade), due to the exceptional length and danger of the route.[21] In spite of this, attempts have been made to ascribe a "typical" range of rock and ice climbing grades for to each acronym:[20][22][23]

Note: A "+" (pronounced Sup for supérieur) or a "−" (pronounced Inf for inférieur) is placed after the acronym to indicate if a climb is at the lower or upper end of that grade (e.g., a climb slightly harder than "PD+" might be "AD−").[21] The term ABO for abominable is explicitly not recognized by the UIAA.[21]


The following are the most notable milestones in alpine climbing (and latterly, alpine-style climbing as applied worldwide):

European Alps

See also: Timeline of climbing the Eiger



In film

A number of notable climbing films have been made about alpine climbing (and alpine climbing routes), including:[30]

See also


  1. ^ "Eiger speed record by Dani Arnold". PlanetMountain. 24 April 2011. Retrieved 10 May 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d Buhay, Corey (19 September 2022). "Want to Get into Alpine Climbing? Here's How to Get Started". Climbing. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  3. ^ a b "Alpine skills". British Mountaineering Council. 28 March 2004. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ellison, Julie (4 July 2022). "Go From Crag to Alpine Climbing With These 8 Tips". Climbing. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
  5. ^ Cross, Rich (7 May 2003). "French style: moving quickly in the Alps". British Mountaineering Council. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  6. ^ "Ueli Steck, Mathieu Maynadier and Jérôme Para in Les Drus North Couloir Direct". PlanetMountain. 28 March 2016. Retrieved 12 April 2024.
  7. ^ "Alpine-style". Collins English Dictionary. Retrieved 5 May 2023. Definition of 'alpine style': In Mountaineering, of or in an ascent (esp in high mountains like the Himalayas) in which the climbers carry all their equipment with them in a single ascent from base to summit.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h Holsten, Jens (16 August 2016). "State of the Heart: The Evolution of Alpinism". Climbing. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  9. ^ Gogorza, Óscar (17 January 2023). "Two climbers attempt first winter ascent of an eight-thousander in pure alpine style". El Pais. Retrieved 5 May 2023.
  10. ^ a b c "The New Alpinists". Outside. 1 October 2000. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  11. ^ "Alpine style". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 5 May 2023.
  12. ^ Ryan, Tony (8 June 2016). "Essential alpine know-how". British Mountaineering Council. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
  13. ^ Middelton, Daniel (20 June 2014). "Tech skills: gear for alpine rock". British Mountaineering Council. Retrieved 25 April 2023.
  14. ^ Sanzaro, Francis (17 April 2019). "Are Mountain Climbers Selfish?". New York Times. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  15. ^ Levy, Michael (2021-11-29). "A Climbing Award That May Be a Winner's Last". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-11-30.
  16. ^ House, Steve (24 May 2019). "The Principles of Alpine Climbing / Mountain safety with Steve House". PlanetMountain. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  17. ^ a b c d e f g h i Cosley, Kathy; Houston, Mark (2004). "The Making of an Alpinist". Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher. Mountaineers Books. pp. 15–31. ISBN 978-0898867497.
  18. ^ O'Neill, Devon (5 February 2016). "How Climate Change Is Making Mountaineering and Alpinism More Dangerous". Outside. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  19. ^ "Opinion: Climbers Are Dying in Patagonia and It Seems Different Than Before". Gripped Magazine. 26 January 2023. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h "Grade Conversions: Alpine Grading System". Rockfax Publishing. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  21. ^ a b c d Mandelli, Gabriele; Angriman, A (2016). Scales of Difficulty in Mountaineering. Central School of Mountaineering, Italy. S2CID 53358088.
  22. ^ "International Grade Comparison Chart". American Alpine Journal. 2013. Retrieved 1 May 2023.
  23. ^ a b c d e f g "Alpine Grading". International School of Mountaineering. 1 February 2021. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  24. ^ Potts, Mary Ann (16 September 2011). "Remembering Italian Mountaineer Walter Bonatti, 1930-2011". National Geographic. Retrieved 6 May 2023.
  25. ^ Turnbull, Ronald (7 May 2022). "Mountain Literature Classics: The Shining Mountain". UKClimbing. Retrieved 5 May 2023.
  26. ^ Griffin, Lindsay (2014). "The 2014 Piolets d'Or" (PDF). Alpine Journal. 118. The Alpine Club: 397–399. ISBN 9780956930934. Retrieved 1 January 2014.
  27. ^ Douglas, Ed (17 May 2017). "Ueli Steck obituary". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 January 2023.
  28. ^ Franz, Derek (15 February 2021). "Interview with Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll about his solo traverse of Patagonia's Fitz Roy massif (the Moonwalk Traverse)". Alpinist. Retrieved 4 May 2023.
  29. ^ "The Greatest Alpine Climb Ever Done?". Gripped Magazine. 21 February 2021. Retrieved 12 April 2024.
  30. ^ Bisharat, Andrew (6 September 2022). "The 20 Best Climbing Films of All Time". Outside. Retrieved 28 September 2023.

Further reading