Alpine style is often mentioned and talked about in mountain climbing literature and guidebooks but it’s not always defined or understood by everyone except by alpinists and well-read armchair mountaineers. Let me try to explain it.
First off, it’s not about fashion. What you wear visiting Switzerland or Austria doesn’t get at the mountaineering matters that this blog discusses and certainly isn’t part of a mountaineer’s approach to alpine climbing.
Second, it’s important to recognize that there are a lot of different kinds of mountain climbing from various types of rock climbing to numerous types on routes covered in wintry conditions. Then there are subcategories for each based on the mountaineer’s style and approach to climbing the route. For example, with rock climbing some prefer sport climbing with pre-placed anchors while others prefer traditional or “trad” climbing where self-placed protection is set.
For big mountains and long routes, some climbers use a siege approach where camps are established and supplies are ferried and stashed along the way in caches. The route is connected by fixed ropes where climbing teams can ascend and descend as necessary to move a strong team on the summit. This method is often considered to be a conservative approach but is resource and time intensive. It can be applied to rock, wintry and mixed routes.
Alpine style climbing is contrasted to siege style ascents. The term originates from Europe’s Alps where the mountaineers of the 1800s ascended classic routes with the pack on their back, used one tent and moved camp as they went up and down the mountain. Today, some climbs are still considered alpine style in limited exceptions where alpinists use caches, fixed ropes in limited situations — such as around a bergschrund (where a glacier is separated from a mountain, often leaving a gap) — or acclimatizing high on another route on the same mountain. Climber and mountaineering historian Jonathan Waterman makes some of these limited exceptions in his reviews.
In it’s purest form, alpine style climbing is full of no-going-back commitments. This means climbing to the top, often with minimal gear, food and fuel, crossing thresholds, like severe overhangs where abseils are impossible, and sometimes sacrificing comfort, warmth, sleep and nourishment to obtain the objective. Walter Bonatti, Reinhold Messner and Steve House have all made such commitments on some of their most notable climbs. Climbers like House have even taken it to another level that some observers refer to as “fast and light” climbing.