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Define Alpine Climbing

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F r i t z · · The Western Slope · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 470

What is the definition of alpine climbing? My buddy and I are embroiled in a petty feud over what constitutes alpinism. Good craft beer is on the line.

He contends that there is no proper alpine climbing in Colorado, and that the Diamond is mere "high altitude rock climbing." Last time I was up there, I spent a day backpacking in, camped above treeline, chopped steps on the approach, climbed a finger crack at 13,000 feet, summited a 14er and barely got back to camp in the same day. Seems alpine to me.

Another example: just got back from the North Face of Storm King. Backpacked thirteen miles in, chopped steps above a scree field, summitted with snow coming down, and glissaded part of the descent. Smells like alpine spirit, no?

Perhaps an apophatic definition is easier to arrive at. What is not-alpine? Anything below treeline? Anything grade III or less? Anything 100% sport (looking at you, Hard Rock Miner)? Anything that doesn't require ice tools? Anything that doesn't guarantee yer gonna die? Your mom? 


Benjamin Pontecorvo · · Seattle, WA · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 145
Buff Johnson · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2005 · Points: 1,145

Answered in one word: Alaska

yes, yer gonna die

caesar.salad · · earth · Joined Dec 2012 · Points: 75

Anything that makes you feel superior to boulderers.

Peter Lewis · · Bridgton, ME · Joined Oct 2009 · Points: 165

The Bastille Crack in Eldo pretty much sums it up: (although that is the road down there...)

slim · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Dec 2004 · Points: 1,107

i have always just lumped it into climbing above tree line.  it seems like if trees don't want to grow up there, there must be something about to go wrong.  blake's article is pretty good.  i would probably lump stuff into sub-alpine (long approaches, thinning trees, etc), alpine (long approaches, fully above treeline, sucking wind), and super-alpine (shit that takes more logistical time than you have in your vacation bank).

CThornton · · Boise · Joined Sep 2015 · Points: 66

If you're climbing a long and committing route on the diamond or above tree line in general, I would call that alpine rock climbing. Seems like your partner is thinking of snow climbs like Mt Hood and Rainier, which (excluding more technical routes) I generally think of a really damn strenuous hike. Methinks your partner owes you some beer. 

Dallin Carey · · Missoula · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 192

In my opinion, the term alpine, in regards to the climbing world, can refer to a location as well as a style of climbing. The Diamond is definitely an alpine location. I don't think anyone would deny that. The majority of climbs on the Diamond are rock climbs. Therefore you are rock climbing in an alpine environment. In my opinion a true alpine climb is one that involves rock, snow/ice, requires crampons and tools, and is on a route that at least requires a decent amount of time. Single mixed pitches in Hyalite would not constitute alpine climbing. I guess a counter argument could be made that alpine climbing is just mixed climbing in an alpine environment. 

So that is my take on it. Alpine can refer to the environment as well as the style. 

brian burke · · ventura, ca · Joined Nov 2013 · Points: 140

i really liked colin haley's definition on the now extinct basecamp podcast.  it sort of matches what dcarey's saying. 

"i kinda specifically mean terrain where its cold enough to be glaciated and you'll occasionally get snowfal in midsummer.  for example i personally don't consider the sierra nevada mountains in california to be alpine.  they're high elevation rock climbing in the backcountry."

seems legit to me.  and he would know....

F r i t z · · The Western Slope · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 470
s.price wrote:

Bring that beer over to Pagosa and let's climb.

Sounds good! We're parking our Promaster in Bayfield for the next while, so I'll be that much closer to ya.

jg fox · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2015 · Points: 5
brian burke wrote:

i really liked colin haley's definition on the now extinct basecamp podcast.  it sort of matches what dcarey's saying. 

seems legit to me.  and he would know....

Has Colin Haley ever been to the Palisades?  

That's the problem when you climb at the elite level, quite a bit can look insignificant just because the challenge isn't readily known for someone like him.

Nick Sweeney · · Spokane, WA · Joined Jun 2013 · Points: 822

Alpinism is a distinct concept from Alpine climbing.  Alpine climbing, to me, is any climbing done in an alpine environment.  Alpinism is an ethos.

Shepido · · CO · Joined Aug 2014 · Points: 50

Since he contends that there is no proper alpine climbing in CO - I would wonder if he might give you a route that is indeed alpine climbing, and his criteria.

I would contend that there is indeed 'alpine climbing' in Colorado. 

For a definition of what is 'alpine climbing', I have always enjoyed this one from MP user Kris Holub: 

Kris Holub wrote: 

Alpine climbing is climbing in an alpine environment. Take your particular brand of climbing: ice, mixed, rock, aid, etc and execute in the mountains. In addition to the technical skills of each discipline, you also add in factors unique to an alpine environment: weather, ice/snow, remoteness, long/strenuous approaches, altitude. 

Mountaineering primarily focuses on the latter challenges with climbing itself as [usually] a smaller obstacle and more of a means to an end of finishing a route. 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.

Marcelo F · · Sacramento, CA · Joined Jul 2015 · Points: 0

It's alpine if it's only fun when you tell your friends about it later

DavisMeschke Guillotine · · Pinedale, WY · Joined Oct 2013 · Points: 225

Read a good quote somewhere along the lines of "If you have to ask, you're not doing it." Like the guy above said, two distinctly separate things, like comparing apples to claw hammers. The mindset you have going into a route, the level of commitment, the type of climbing (not necessarily the difficulty) and the conditions are but a few things that constitute alpinism in my mind. I've climbed and skied many things in the Wind River Range in the winter but would daresay I'm an alpinist. The routes I've done may have had two, maybe three of those requirements (but like I said, there's more).

But then again, I think it becomes less about the definition and more about what is was to you. jgfox nailed it directly on the head. If what you climbed felt like alpinism to you, then fuck it, who's to say it wasn't. The fact that we're here debating the definition goes to show how loose the concept is in the first place. 

But I'll throw in: technical, committing climbing in winter conditions using a mix of rock, snow and ice climbing techniques.

Martin le Roux · · Superior, CO · Joined Jul 2003 · Points: 375

Back in 1967 (50 years ago!) the climber Lito Tejada-Flores tried to answer this question in an essay titled "Games Climbers Play". At the time it was widely read and later anthologized in a book of the same name, but maybe it's no longer as well-known as it used to be. BTW Lito Tejada-Flores is still alive and apparently still active, although his interests shifted from climbing to backcountry skiing some decades ago.

The essay's somewhat dated, but still worth reading. Here are a couple of extracts:

"I propose to consider climbing in general as a hierarchy of climbing-games, each defined by a set of rules and an appropriate field of play. The word game seems to imply a sort of artificiality which is foreign to what we actually feel on a climb... But this does not mean that climbing is any less a game... the decision to start playing is just as gratuitous and unnecessary as the decision to start a game of chess. In fact, it is precisely because there is no necessity to climb that we can describe climbing as a game activity..."

"It is important to realize at the outset that these rules are negatively expressed although their aim is positive. They are nothing more than a series of 'don'ts': don't use fixed ropes, belays, pitons, a series of camps, etc... they are designed to conserve the climber's feeling of personal (moral) accomplishment against the meaninglessness of a success which represents merely technological victory..."

"The Alpine Climbing Game: In alpine climbing the player encounters for the first time the full range of hostile forces present in the mountain environment. In addition to problems of length and logistics he meets increased objective dangers in the form of falling rock, bad weather and extreme cold, and bad conditions such as verglas. All this leads to a further relaxation of formal rules since success in the game may often include merely surviving..."

"It should be noted that the above ordering of climbing-games is not an attempt to say that some games are better, harder, or more worthwhile in themselves than others..."

Full transcript here (some typos):

F r i t z · · The Western Slope · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 470
Martin le Roux wrote:

Games climbers play

Excellent compilation of essays. I got an ancient copy from a mentor. 

Jonny d · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jan 2011 · Points: 40
Fritz N. wrote:

Perhaps an apophatic definition is easier to arrive at. 


My thought:  Impressed to see the term "apophatic" used (and used properly) in an thread, even if points were lost for the prepositional ending.

F r i t z · · The Western Slope · Joined Mar 2012 · Points: 470
Marcelo F wrote:

It's alpine if it's only fun when you tell your friends about it later

Type 2 Fun! As opposed to Type 3 Fun, which is not fun before, during or after. 

D F · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2007 · Points: 355

Is it still called "ice climbing" if you are basically walking up a low-angle slab of water ice with crampons on? I say yes—very easy ice climbing, but ice climbing all the same.

Benn Koljonen · · Unknown Hometown · Joined Jun 2016 · Points: 0

Looking at rock climbers...

Tommy Caldwell = rock climber, Alex Honnold = rock climber, Will Gadd = ice climber

Looking at alpinist...

Conrad Anker = alpinist, Mark Twight = alpinist, the Smiley's = alpinists 

What constitutes alpine climbing is subjective (I contend it's winter climnbing on the north faces of the Alps; everything esle is alpine style climbing). Do what you love whether it's bouldering or big walling or suffering in the mountains. Looking at the list of climbers vs alpinists, I would say I'm not an alpinist yet, just a climber of rock and ice. 

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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