With a feeling of pride, I told whoever was listening ‘Well, there is so much variety to climb in Chamonix, my aim is not to climb the same route twice’. Prior to getting into Chamonix, people mostly reacted in the same way: ‘Oh, yes, well that makes sense’. When I said this to someone here, I got a very different reaction: ‘Oh, really? Why would you limit yourself like that?’.

I was a little taken aback. Maybe I had more to learn about alpine climbing than I thought. It reminded me of wanting to always do new things with my career and an older, more experienced entrepreneur smiling and advising me to not rush on too quickly.

Why did I always want to climb something new?

The classic Cosmiques Arête

The classic Cosmiques Arête

Mont Blanc and the surrounding Massif have some of the most inspiring and incredible mountains in the world. In such a small area there is everything you could ask for. Well, almost everything, there is a distinct lack of easy routes but once you start breaking into more technical ground it is an amazing arena.

The lack of easy routes means that you can find yourself repeating climbs you’ve done before and I felt that was a waste of time. Why, when there is so much to do here would you do something so boring as climb the same routes again? I wanted to climb new lines that would challenge me, that would give me the mileage to really build up my experience, and help me to become a more rounded alpinist.

Surely it is only through doing something new that we grow and learn? Maybe not.

Rethinking my approach to gaining experience

After getting this contrary reaction from my friend, I started to think my whole approach over. What did he mean? Surely by repeating routes I would be limiting myself, not by searching out new and different climbs?

What prompted my declaration was a classic climb here called the Cosmiques Arête; a wonderful mixed climb that is very accessible, fairly short, and finishes at a lift for a very easy descent. Over last summer I climbed it twice as well as having climbed it once before and, afterwards, I felt like I had had enough of the route.

I didn’t see the value in doing the route again.

I started to review the times I had climbed the arête and if I had felt they were different at all. Had I learned anything new each time? God, yes I had. Each time I had climbed it the experience had been completely different.

1) There is always more than one way to the top.

The Cosmiques with Robin

The Cosmiques with Robin

The first time I climbed the route I had been with a guide, Robin Beadle. Sophie and I had a brilliant time on the route. Following Robin up, we were able to relax into just enjoying the climbing and relishing the atmosphere. The route is normally very busy and this time was no different. With several bottleneck sections that regularly lead to long queues, Robin took us on a few cunning variant thats meant we rarely waited.

By going a little off route, we found some amazing climbing, avoided some of the crowds and got to the top in good time, showing us that there is always more than one way to the top, you might just have to get a little creative.

2) Don’t let anyone rush you.

The Cosmiques with Sophie and Graham

The Cosmiques with Sophie and Graham

Last year, with the Chamonix Mountain Festival, Sophie and I set of on the route again, this time with another friend, with me on the sharp end. To say I learned  lot this time is an injustice. The route was incredibly busy with the local guides just screaming through, dragging their poor clients over the top of you and barging you out the way.

It was intimidating. I felt out of my depth and that I wasn’t strong enough a climber to be there. What made it worse was, on the final climbing pitch I rushed and didn’t take into account the length of the pitch. This left my partners in a difficult position where they had to started climbing without a belay. I risked their safety because I had rushed and panicked by the other people on the route.

3) Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

The Cosmiques with Will

The Cosmiques with Will

The second time that summer, I was taking a visiting friend up the route. I had learnt a lot that summer already and felt confident, strong, and fully in control. For once the route was nearly empty and, as we climbed, I focused really hard on not making mistakes. I protected my second the whole route, moved carefully but confidently and, when we topped out, I felt incredible.

I had taken everything very slowly but, by taking each step slowly and carefully I made far fewer mistakes and moved faster for it. Taking my time had sped me up!

While reviewing my three forays out onto the arête, I realised I really had learnt so much each time. I also realised that I had only scratched the surface with the route. What about in different conditions? To attempt it deliberately in bad weather? To solo it? Why not even just for the sheer joy of climbing?

Lessons from Alpine Climbing

If you are willing and open to learning, you will always find new skills acquire and ideas to develop. Three weeks in and, of the 5 alpine routes I’ve climbed, 2 I’ve climbed before – and yes, one of them was the Cosmiques Arête. I am willing to do whatever it takes to get the maximum results from my alpine apprenticeship and, with a little more humility, have realised that it is not always about blazing a new trail up something you’ve not climbed before.

There are huge learnings to be had from climbing new objectives, and my recent climb on the Chèré Couloir taught me a huge amount, but we shouldn’t dismiss what we can still learn from experiences we might now take for granted or not give full attention to.

Whether it is out in the hills or sat at my laptop, these are valuable lessons. The most valuable of which is,

You are always able to learn, if you are open to the lesson.

In fact, it is often the times we think we know it all that we have the greatest opportunity to learn. It was Sophocles who famously said ‘I know that I know nothing’. Accepting this and having a desire to learn seems to be the smartest way to improve.

by Charley Radcliffe

10 Responses to “Lessons from Alpine Climbing”

    • Charley Radcliffe

      Thanks Amanda. I think we sometimes settle into knowing what we know and forget how to learn. How often do you hear adults say ‘Oh, it’s so much easier to learn when you’re a child’. I reckon it should be easier when you’re older as you’re more practiced..!

  1. Ross Can

    Alpine climbing is not my forte – probably similar to how you feel about cycling!

    Did you do any training for ice climbing? Or do you just apply the principles from rock climbing and hillwalking?

    • Charley Radcliffe

      Hi Ross,

      We initially climbed with a guide who showed us the basics and, since then, have tried to get out with more experienced climbers. There are a lot of parallels between the skills in rock climbing and ice climbing, I am trying to improve my rock grade so that my ice climbing can improve too…

  2. Sam

    Cool article… But it was Socrates who said “I know is that I know nothing” 😉

  3. Sofia

    Hey Charley! i just stumbbled upon your blog and I must say that the energy, enthusiasm and determination you transmit are so inspiring! thanks for sharing! Keep it up!!


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