LogoSouth Tyrol - The other side of Italy
Klettern in Patagonien

Dangers in alpine climbing

When climbing walls over several pitches, in areas that are often far away from civilization, you are exposed to many dangers which can, however, be minimized or even in some cases eliminated. Alpine dangers can be divided into two main groups: objective hazards that ‘come from outside’, that is, they originate from the mountain and its surroundings, and subjective hazards that are caused by the climbers’ behavior. Objective hazards, over which the climber has primarily no direct influence, can, nevertheless, be influenced by subjective decisions. 


An example

If someone starts climbing despite a thunderstorm warning, they would have ‘intentionally’ exposed themselves to the danger of the thunderstorm through their decision-making. Good planning, which includes studying the weather report, could have eliminated the objective danger of the thunderstorm from the outset. Of course, there are factors that are beyond a person’s control. Chamois, for example, could unexpectedly trigger rockfall. In alpine climbing, there is usually always a certain residual risk. To a certain extent, this can also be compared to getting into a car, since driving a car also exposes you to the possible risk of an accident. But especially in alpine terrain, people are even more challenged to make the right decisions and take the right precautions. In the following guide, we first explain the objective hazards of the following groups according to their nature: weather, rockfall, icefall and avalanches. Then, we discuss the subjective hazards, such as overestimating one’s own abilities, in more detail. 


Objective hazards

Objective hazards come from external conditions, such as weather events (thunderstorms, fog, etc.) or rockfall, which can be triggered by chamois or other climbers. A climber may have no direct influence over these hazards, but can minimize them significantly through good planning, tactics and paying close attention. 

Weather

Mountain weather plays an extremely important role in alpine climbing. Thunderstorms and storms, in particular, can quickly put rope teams in danger. Lightning, rain, cold and wind are weather elements that become dangerous very quickly. Mountains form a barrier where clouds accumulate and pile up, eventually creating rainfall. Therefore, thunderstorms in the mountains are usually faster and more violent than in the lowlands. Below you will find a few tips on how to best prepare for an alpine climbing route with regard to the weather and how to react in the event of a thunderstorm.

Thunderstorm in the mountains
Thunderstorm in the mountains
Photo: CC0, www.pixabay.com

Tips:

  • Obtain and study accurate weather forecasts in advance (act rather defensively and reschedule the climb, if necessary, if the conditions are not favorable).
  • Observe the weather on site and compare it with the forecast to see if, for example, several cumulus clouds are being formed (be careful on east faces: approaching thunderclouds, which usually rise from the west, can be observed too late or not at all).
  • If cumulonimbus thunderclouds are already close and there is a possibility to rappel safely and quickly, it is better to rappel than to climb further up.
  • During a thunderstorm, you should leave exposed areas, such as peaks and ridges, quickly but safely.
  • The whirring of metal objects or hair standing up on the body indicate an electrostatic charge in the air. Increased caution is advised here: all metal objects, such as quickdraws, carabiners, etc. should be placed far away. Find a place in a hollow or large cave with sufficient distance from walls and the entrance and sit on the backpack and/or rope with legs closed in a crouching position, avoiding rock contact. Any contact with the ground should also be kept as low as possible in order to keep the risk of leakage currents at its lowest. Leakage current is the electrical voltage gradient between two points, at which one is closer to the point of impact. Laying down is therefore not a solution, because the tension increases due to the size of the contact area and the distance between the contact points. Small niches or overhangs on ledges should also be avoided because of possible leakage currents.
  • If you have to hold out there for some time, you should make sure that you are warm and do not cool down too much (insulating jacket and hardshell jacket, bivy sack if necessary). Even if the weather is warm, you should always have these items of clothing in your backpack, as the weather in the mountains can change abruptly.
  • You should wait until the thunderstorm has subsided and not descend beforehand.

There are two types of thunderstorms, the thermal thunderstorm and the frontal thunderstorm. The thermal thunderstorm occurs locally and arises in summer due to warming. Thunderstorm cells can form very quickly. Therefore, the weather forecast can usually only give a probability of when and where a thunderstorm will occur. Due to the often short duration, you can usually continue your route after the thunderstorm if you have found a sheltered place. When climbing, however, this becomes more difficult, since the wet rock or, in higher places, even snow and ice may make further progress more challenging.

Characteristics of thermal thunderstorms:

  • Usually short duration between 10 - 20 minutes (but can last between 1 - 2 hours)
  • No or little dew formation in the morning is considered an alarm sign.
  • Muggy air and little wind are also alarm signs.
  • Note: Warm thunderstorms can also develop during stable high pressure conditions.
  • Usually, in the morning, cumulus clouds form more frequently. Therefore, you should watch the clouds to see if they develop into a thundercloud (cumulonimbus), which resembles an anvil.
  • Lightning and heavy rain

The frontal thunderstorm is a year-round thunderstorm that develops when two opposing weather fronts meet and the air masses push each other. Usually, the cold air masses of the cold front push under the warmer air masses near the ground. These are then forced to rise, and in turn, create strong wind speeds. The name comes from the fact that with the cold front, the cold air often approaches on a broad “front”. Unlike the thermal thunderstorm, the frontal thunderstorm can usually even be predicted to the hour. Therefore, the human factor again plays a decisive role. You should therefore plan your route so that you are already back in the valley before the arrival of the cold front. Sitting out at high altitudes during a frontal thunderstorm does not make sense, because the frontal thunderstorm is usually accompanied by a longer deterioration of the weather.

Characteristics of frontal thunderstorms:

  • A dark wall of clouds moves in from the direction of the weather.
  • Temperature drop and thus often snowfall even in summer below 2000 m
  • Strong wind
  • Continuous rain and often lightning
  • Mostly longer weather deterioration
  • Frontal thunderstorms, unlike thermal thunderstorms, do not occur locally, but extend over larger areas.
Thunderstorms in the mountains: Recognizing & correct behavior - Tutorial (2/43) | LABORATORY FIELD
Video: ORTOVOX

Thunderstorms are probably the most prominent objective hazard in alpine climbing. However, fog can also become a serious problem. If you are on well-developed and marked trails, fog is not a real danger for further orientation. However, if you are on the approach to the wall without markings, already on the wall or on the descent without markings, poor visibility can quickly become dangerous, as you can quite easily lose your orientation. On the other hand, fog is usually not so bad in very well protected routes, where there is a bolt every few meters, because you can orient yourself by the many bolts. However, if you are on a less well-protected alpine route where a piton comes only once in a while, good visibility plays a crucial role for wall orientation.

In addition to fog, temperature fluctuations can also get climbers into trouble. If a person climbs a sunlit wall, which is in the shade from midday, this can be very pleasant at first in high summer. In this case, it is important to drink enough and apply sunscreen appropriately, as the sun becomes more aggressive with increasing altitude. With the climbing helmet, the head is protected from the sun. In walls where it can get cold quickly due to the lack of sunlight, especially if the wind is also blowing strongly (so-called wind-chill effect), you should always have an insulating jacket with you to avoid getting cold. This may be necessary especially at belay stations, where you often have to wait for some time with little movement.

While rappelling, strong winds can also blow the ropes all over, so that they can get stuck somewhere and cannot be pulled. Depending on your individual condition, strong winds can also hit your psyche when the roaring wind hits your ears, and you are currently in an extremely exposed climb.

Another factor that can quickly make a route seem significantly more challenging or even impossible is wet rock. After prolonged rainfall, cracks, dihedrals and walls with many grass ledges or bushes dry very slowly. Thus, the drying time takes much longer than in slabs or on exposed pillars. Thus, wet rock can quickly turn a mandatory climbing section into an insurmountable spot.

Snow or ice can be far more dangerous, snowy or icy climbing sections are therefore usually more challenging and usually either require additional equipment (ice tools, crampons) or must be bypassed in dry and more difficult rock.


Rockfall

Rockfalls are triggered by strong winds, meltwater, rope teams climbing ahead, or animals such as chamois or ibex. Most frequently, rocks are triggered by the last two factors mentioned, i.e. external influences. The rock quality plays an important role, because it can increase or decrease the problem. You can often see in the wall or surrounding area if rockfall occurs in that area frequently. Bright impact or breakout marks, damaged trees, fresh boulders at the base of the wall are signs of recent rockfall and should call for increased caution. Often, climbing guides also make special reference to this. If you know that a route is particularly prone to rockfall and there is already a rope team on the wall, you should rather avoid the route and enter another, unoccupied route.

Tips:

  • Always wear a climbing helmet when alpine climbing.
  • If you hear the sound of falling rocks, do not look up, but immediately move close to the wall, preferably under a ledge or overhang, and stay there until the rockfall has stopped.
  • If you are alone on the wall as a rope team, the danger of falling rocks then exists primarily for the second climber. Therefore, the lead climber should, if possible, choose the belay station in such a way that the lead climber is not directly in the line of fire, especially when climbing in chimneys or gullies with a lot of loose rock.

The increase in the average annual temperature due to climate change will increase the risk of rockfall events in the Alps. Climbers need to be aware of this. The thawing of the permafrost causes the rock to lose its stability and such events will increase. Research teams often monitor endangered areas with seismometers to predict such events and find out the causes.

Gigantic landslide in Graubünden: an avalanche of stone, water and earth overran the village
Video: WELT Nachrichtensender

Icefall and avalanches

Icefall plays a major role especially in ice climbing, but can also play a role in alpine climbing after thunderstorms. Icefall is mainly triggered by the influence of heat and other climbers. Both can be avoided, like other objective dangers, through good planning. Therefore, belay stations should be chosen so that the second climber is not in the line of fire. In addition, you should only climb in when conditions are as safe and cold as possible.

Avalanches can be dangerous not only for ski tourers, but also for alpine climbers, especially when they are on the move in spring.

 

Wetterhorn Avalanche seen from First
Photo: Isabellamori1510, CC BY-SA, www.wikimediacommons.de

Subjective hazards


Recommended reading