Where hiking stops and Climbing starts

People who know me, know I love hiking and climbing. But it might not always be clear where hiking ends, and where climbing starts. So, I thought I share my experiences with the matter.

Hiking vs walking

Maybe it is best to start with the distinction between hiking and walking because understanding that makes it much more natural to see the extension from hiking to climbing in a similar, continuous, spectrum.

Walking

Walking is an activity we are all relatively familiar with, and shouldn’t be interpreted as always requiring legs and feet. Walking, and ‘going for a walk’, is usually accessible as well for people with walking aids and wheel chairs. Walks can be short and long, easy or demanding, completely level of involving inclines or stairs. It are usually obstacles in the latter category that really disrupt the accessibility of “walks”. I would say what distinguishes a “walk” from a “hike” is the obviousness of the route and the preparation and maintenance of the surface on which you walk.

Walking can be pretty exhausting and lengthy walks over many miles can require serious preparation and fitness. But typically walks involve routes with easy access and a multitude of ‘escapes‘ in case you need to abandon the route or stop the walk. Walks never take you far from the possibly necessary assistance of others and usually occur in moderately or densely populated areas. Route-finding on walks is usually not an issue although this doesn’t mean that you cannot get lost. When walking to a urban area it is usually very easy to find a route, i.e. see where you are supposed to walk, but it might be hard to find your way.

Hiking

Many levels of hiking are similar to walks. The basic level of hiking in the SAC classification (T1) considers hiking to be walking on well-cleared trails in terrain that is flat or slightly sloping, with no danger of falling. The word trail indicates that hiking typically happens on routes where the degree of preparation of surface on which you walk is far less than for usual walks. Typically at the basic hiking level you walk on natural surfaces that have been cleared and evened-out and sign-posted. The sign-posting system may involve sign-posts or more primitive markers, but the route is usually clear from the degree of preparation of the trail. No route-finding is necessary, trails are easily accessible and basic hikes can usually be abandoned at many points with unproblematic return options. That last point is often phrased as that they require no commitment.

A T2 trail near Chamonix with a great view of the Aiguille de Drus.

The T2 trails are typically known as mountain hikes. The unevenness of the trail now exposes one to a danger of falling. This is a so-called objective risk. Every walker and hiker can fall because of their own clumsiness, no matter how smooth the path is. But for T2 trails the unevenness of the trail becomes a source of risk that can be partially mitigated by a few simple measures: (1) the use of trekking shoes, (2) a degree of sure-footedness (i.e. some minimal experience) and (3) orientation skills. The path is usually easily recognisable, but frequently the signs or markings can be few and there can be more that sight-distance between them.

I hope the above nicely illustrates that the three main forms of mitigating risk are:

  • Equipment,
  • Physical skill/ experience, and
  • Mental skill and preparation.

Objective risks should always be considered in terms of these three mitigation responses. When hikers and climbers are thought to be taking risks, what they actually do is mitigating risk.

Demanding Mountain hikes

When we get into T3 trails the objective risks increase and hence your mitigation methods should be amended as well. T3 trails are typically such that trekking shoes are a must. The trail’s surface may on sections no longer be fully reliable, i.e. sections crossing mild scree or wet rock due to small torrents, streams or recently melted ice and snow. And there may be sections where the hiker is exposed to steep inclines or slopes that can turn an unfortunate stumble into a multi-meter drop or tumble across rough ground.

A T3 hike up to the Brevent summit above Chamonix, taking you from 1080m up to 2500m. Gorgeous views on the way up, but the path is occasionally narrow on cliff-sides with occasional patches of thin snow or ice, depending on the season. The trail occasionally disappears for sections of 10m-50m in length but is always easily recovered.

T3 mountain hikes are demanding because they usually cover steeper ground and simply require more situational awareness. Usually they still offer plenty of opportunity to turn around and/or take alternative routes and so there is usually not a lot of commitment needed. Although doing these hikes without sturdy hiking boots is usually possible it is never advisable. These routes easily wreck trainers, and ordinary shoes can turn an brief drizzle into a slippery nightmare, or a few inch deep snowfield into a hazardous affair. I would definitely recommend bringing with you on a T3 route

  • a decent first-aid kit as well as some sweets or cereal bars,
  • a map,
  • a fully charged cell phone with the search & rescue helicopter number on it.

The latter precaution may sound scary, but it is not just for your own good in the highly unlikely case that you would need urgent medical assistance. You will encounter plenty of ill-equipped hikers on T3 routes and you might want to be able to call assistance for them if they need it.

Alpine hiking: T4 and T5

The key differences to take note of when progressing to the Alpine hiking (T4) and demanding Alpine Hiking (T5) is that route-finding skills become important, as does have a better environmental awareness in terms of the nature of the surfaces you are hiking on and the weather. Although T4 routes are mostly still doable within a few hours, they often contain passages that are steep, or require the use of hands and/or hiking poles for balancing. Short fields of compressed “old” snow become more frequent and the risk of falling now includes falling on possible moderately steep snow slopes or through snow covering holes or streams.

Some short sections on a T4 trail may require the use of hands. Firn (‘old snow’) fields may cover large sections of the trail and with it also the markings indicating the route. This is a section of the path leading to the Refuge des Conscrits next to the Tre La Tete glacier.

When I go on T4 or T5 hikes I always bring, in addition to the stuff I bring for T3 hikes,

  • a rope (typically 30m-40m, 7mm, static) and
  • an ice-axe.

For many T4 routes an ice axe is not strictly necessary, but in early summer crossing larger firn sections in sliding distance of water and/or cliff edges I simply feel better having it around. The rope is not intended for roping up, as this is usually not needed on T4 trails, but instead I use it as a safety measure if I needed to descend a steep slope to reach someone with injuries after a fall.

For T5 sections or trails, in my view, it becomes really necessary to prepare well in advance, check maps not just on the day of the hike but in the days and weeks before. Such routes frequently have limited access routes and regularly require you to commit to a route. There may be sections that you can only pass one way confidently and changing weather conditions may make certain alternative routes more or less dangerous than the route you intended to take.

I hope in the discussion of these hiking grades gave some insight into the slow progression of trails from basic trails that are much like walks on uneven ground, to trails where the hiker needs to take into consideration a variety of environmental aspects that can present potential hazards, and respond by proper preparation and equipment. This is also what happens when making the transition from Alpine hiking to Alpine climbing.

Alpine Climbing vs Hiking

Just like hiking essentially is walking with additional equipment and preparation, similarly alpine climbing is the analogous continuation. Here I only want to say something about the first two levels of so-called “mixed routes” as those are the ones I have experience with.

F/L (Facile / Leicht / Easy)

When you make the transition from Alpine hiking to climbing mixed routes, i.e. ‘routes on ice & rock’, then many of the things that were optional to bring along on hikes now really become quite essential. A key difference is that now you typically go into territory where there are very few, if any, markings of sign-postings and they may be miles apart. So, you need a solid sense of orientation, you need to have studied the maps and some of the geography and geology of the area you are visiting, you need some intuition for the properties of the different forms of ice and snow you might encounter, and last but definitely not least you need a good sense of the prevailing weather, the likely weather changes, etc.

Exploring the Vallee Blanche just under the Aiguille du Midi is a pleasure to do. It is solidly F/L but offers a variety of environments to practice your skills and grow more confident of travelling in this environment. The ridge from the Aiguille du Midi cable car station to the valley floor is a

These are not things you read up on once and then you know it. A lot of the hiking I did in and around the Mont Blanc massif was also a good opportunity to see these mountains, even from a distance, under different weather conditions and with different degrees of snow and ice on them, in different parts of the summer and at different times of the day. It is useful to experience how within 30 minutes a nasty storm can bubble up, or how the hail at altitude can become rain when you have descended as little as 100m-200m. It is better to experience that while hiking with plenty of options to turn around and find a nice and cosy warm place with good food within an hour or so. It is bad if your first time to experience this is on an exposed ridge, out of cell phone service, and miles from the nearest source of help.

Although the routes labelled F or L are have minimal additional objective risks compared to alpine hiking routes of T5 or T4 in early summer. There are a few to consider carefully:

  • Rock fall: even F/L routes are quite likely to take you through sections where there are fairly steep rock slopes along your path. You will want to have a helmet with you for such sections. Even when a slope looks benign, a climber 100m above you might just unsettle something that comes your way. Climate change has also turned many more slopes into, with slight exaggeration, shooting ranges where you’re the target.
  • Firn at exposed sections: typically the Alpine climbing routes will be taking you through significantly higher routes with more snow and ice everywhere, especially in early summer.
  • Oxygen: These alpine routes will start taking you well above 3000m and for most people this means that they will almost certainly start to experience the reduced levels of oxygen and will need some degree of acclimatisation before they exert themselves.
  • Avalanches: although the risk is very low on most F/L routes, it is never 0. It is always good to look out for debris fields of avalanches that tell you something about how far away, from the slopes where they start, they can reach.

So, when starting on an F/L route you need to bring the required preparation, the necessary equipment, you should know how to use it, and most of all: you should be willing to turn around whenever the conditions do send you signals that things might not be safe. This will require that you follow the weather on a daily basis, or perhaps even every few hours, also on non-climbing days. If you go onto large glacial areas, bring gps and trace your track.

PD/WS (Peu difficile / Wenig Schwierig / little difficulty)

Routes that have little difficulty are often rather similar to F/L routes, but with steeper slopes, sometimes involving rock-climbing a little beyond scrambling, or more commitment. The most famous PD route in the Mont Blanc area around Chamonix is of course the summit climb to Mont Blanc itself. But I wouldn’t be surprised if those routes will be upgraded in the future due to the increasing environmental change causing serious rock-fall or serac-fall risks.

Is Aiguille de Toula a PD or F? Well, it probably depends on your route. But with a nice glacier crossing to the Hellbronner station and a summit just over 3500m it is a lovely pairing with the Petit Flambeaux doable together within a day.

On the PD routes the sections crossing glaciers can also expose on to a higher risk of crevasse fall, where mitigation again implies exposing yourself to what equipment to bring along and to be knowledgeable about how to use it. On these routes I typically always bring the following (in addition to what I already listed):

  • 40m or 60m of 9mm dynamic rope,
  • harness & crampons,
  • 2 ice screws,
  • a few slings, locking carabiners and 2 prussik loops,
  • crevasse rescue kit, and
  • Abelov device.

Depending the details of the route I might add a belay device, some large slings and some utility cord. I usually spend hours thinking about this before I pack my bags … I didn’t take that much care when writing my list down here, so I might have forgotten something obvious.

Conclusion

What I mainly wanted to describe here, which I hope has worked for you, is how the transition from walking to alpine climbing is a gradual one. Along the way you will find out which level, which environments and which routes are most to your liking. There is useful knowledge to be gained at all levels and there are wonderful experiences to be had at all levels.

We all have our personal reasons to go into the mountains the way we choose to do. For me, I love being in those places and as a result I am happy to take the easiest route to a summit of a beautiful saddle. If I can have a great view at the price of an L route, I will always prefer that over a PD or D route. For me, what made me move beyond alpine hiking at T4 were the places I would get access to if I was happy to move to T5 or L/PD.

Originally I was hoping to climb Mont Blanc in the summer of 2020 but covid19 basically prevented me from doing so. For the summer of 2021 I am hoping to get my feet back into the mountains … and instead of setting my aims to where I left off I will stick to hiking and perhaps a nice L. I first need to experience what damage the last 18 months have done to my stamina and lung capacity. Hopefully Mont Blanc in the summer of 2022.

Maps

Here are some maps of the trails and routes mentioned above.

T2 Chamonix: Plan de l’Aiguille – Montenvers

The T2 hike from the Plan de l’ Aiguille cable car station to the Montenvers train station is an excellent 2h-3h hike in an awesome alpine panorama at typically 2100m with an altitude gain/loss of perhaps 200m.
I think taking my daughters on the T2 Plan de l’ Aiguille – Montenvers for the first time when they were 15 and 11 definitely sold them on the beauty of the mountains. The cheese-fondue afterwards might also have helped.

T3 Chamonix: Des Bossons – Brevent

The T3 hike from Des Bossons to Brevent is a sometimes steep 1400m ascent initially through forested slopes and then bare, rocky Alpine grassland. With the Refuge de Bellachat about 3/4ths of the way up, there is hardly a more pleasurable thing than to sit on their terrace with a cold beer and enjoy the views of Mont Blanc before the last straightforward but painful 300m ascent.
While on a T2 trail to Brevent you come across delightful views of the Auguille de Gouter and Mont Blanc.

T4 Chamonix: Lac Blanc

The hike from the La Flegere cable car station up to Lac Blanc is a little dreary for the first 30 minutes but then turns into a wonderful Alpine hike. Though I would gladly classify this hike as T3 in August and September I am more than happy to support a T4 classification in June and July. When my daughter and I did this hike from the L’Index cable car station in very early July 2018, taking an alternative route, it was or came close to T5.
But the Lac Blanc routes, whether the regular route in late summer (T3), the regular route in early summer (T4) or alternative early summer routes in the area (T5), never disappoint in terms of views and atmosphere. I guess it is one of the closest Himalayan experiences a T4 can get you.

F/L Chamonix: Aiguille du Midi & Vallee Blanche

The Vallee Blanche is a starting point for interesting trips such as a traverse from Chamonix across to the Italian side at Courmayeur’s Point Hellbronner, as well as for one of the most popular routes to Mont Blanc, the Trois Monts route. It offers plenty of enjoyable opportunities including a F/L tour visiting the foot of the Mont Blanc du Tacul, the Refuge des Cosmiques, and an exploration of the Col du Plan.
Walking down the Aiguille du Midi ridge and then out onwards towards Col du Plan is an enjoyable and rather thrilling F/L adventure. The ridges can be steep on either side and test the solidness of your crampon footing and your confidence in your ability to stop a slide with your ice axe. But mostly the ridge towards Col du Plan is broad enough to ensure those skills won’t get tested at the wrong place. If the weather turns bad, then the safety of the Aiguille du Midi station is typically within an hour’s hike.

PD/F Chamonix: Aiguille de Toula

The Aiguille de Toula (3528m) can be easilly combined with the Petit Flambeaux (3407m) for a lovely PD/F outing on a single day without any need to hurry or get stressed. The more challenging Grand Flambeaux (3569m) is also available for those who want to. The views are just stunning on all these summits.

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