For any rock climber who was or is also a backpacker, the urge to bring the skills you’ve acquired on your local crags to the bigger mountains is no doubt a strong one.
The Rockies, the Tetons, the Sierras—many of the same ranges that hold the best hiking trails are also home to soaring rock climbs of surprisingly moderate grades and amazing quality. The transition to alpine rock climbing, very loosely defined as climbing in more remote, high-altitude areas on less-developed routes, can seem daunting. But with good gear and smart preparation, you’ll soon find yourself signing the summit register.
Before setting out after any alpine rock-climbing objective, do your homework. Guidebooks, online climbing forums and info sites are the best places to start your research. Read trip reports, and don’t be embarrassed to ask questions of those who have done the route before. Local gear shops near your climbing destination are usually a wealth of specific information as well.
Choose routes that are well below your limit to start—5.9 in the alpine is much different than 5.9 at the sport crag. Be sure you’re dialed on how to approach, where the route starts, how to get off the peak or formation, and where the cruxes of the route are. Print off a route topo and laminate it or stash it in a zip-top bag in the lid of your pack. Get an up-to-date weather forecast and be off of the summit as early in the day as possible to avoid afternoon thunderstorms.
Camming devices will always form the base of any modern free climbing rack, but passive protection, including hexes, nuts, and tri-cams, pays dividends in the alpine environment. Crack systems in alpine granite are often non-uniform and highly featured, allowing for easy placement of passive pro. Passive gear is also lighter to carry on big approaches and is cheaper to replace should you need to leave rappel anchors due to weather or injury.
“Fast and light” is often the name of the game in alpine rock climbing, so clothing for rock climbing in the mountains needs to lightweight, packable, and non-restrictive. However, it also needs to offer protection against sudden storms or dramatic changes in weather, which can and will happen. In addition to a pair of lightweight softshell pants and long underwear for colder temps, a versatile system consists of a baselayer T-shirt, a stretchy, insulating midlayer, a lightweight storm shell or packable windshirt, and a lightweight, highly packable puffy.
Your footwear choices will depend a lot on your objective, but you’ll likely need a sturdy, flat-soled trad climbing shoe that you can wear all day without discomfort. Laces or hook-and-loop closures are great for loosening your shoes at belays. Sticky rubber approach shoes are ideal for talus hopping or technical sections leading up to the route, while comfortable trail runners or hiking shoes are the way to go for long approaches on good trails. Also consider a shoe’s packability or bulk and whether or not you’ll need to carry them on the route with you.
Since you’ll probably be packing the day’s food with you along on the route, try to strike a balance between energy foods like gels, bars and chews, and natural foods that have a high calorie-to-weight ratio. If water is available along the approach or descent, only pack what you’ll need to get to that point and bring treatment tablets or a filter. If no water is available, be sure to budget enough for the mileage and temperatures you’ll experience. Use collapsible water bladders or bottles in place of plastic or metal ones to reduce dead space in your pack.