7 Common Alpine Climbing Hazards And How To Overcome Them

Rilor Staff
Update: April 28, 2023
Table of Contents

Alpine climbing is a fun and exciting adventure. But we all know that it is not an easy pursuit. And in most cases, hazards could arise without you knowing. Learn what these hazards are so that you can prepare and overcome them. 

A Quick Overview

Many outdoor enthusiasts have long dreamed of traversing different alpines in the world. The most popular ones, such as the Gran Paradiso in Italy and Traverse of Weissmies in Switzerland, are commonly sought by the most avid climbers. But of course, even the amateur one's desire to conquer these peaks as a form of overcoming their final frontiers. 

Still, the alpines are a challenge because they throw unpredictability in your way. For instance, the weather there can change in a matter of minutes. Furthermore, the terrains are usually technical and unbearable for inexperienced climbers. Of course, don't underestimate the temperature or snow. Someone can get buried by avalanches, and that's pretty lethal. 

So when you think about these dangers, canceling your trip would really cross your mind. But that's not how you should approach these ordeals. After all, the highest summits can only be reached if you are prepared to overcome the treacherous paths. 

Being aware of what possible dangers you could encounter is one way of being prepared for them. Moreover, it is also important that you don't focus too much on the negative aspects of your adventure; there are a lot of good things that you can encounter while ascending different peaks. Just be prepared for the worst-case scenario. 

What Are The Common Alpine Climbing Hazards

One should know that the mountains can expose people to different types of ordeals. Everything there could become the root cause of accidents and SHTF situations. Even slippery terrain could cause irreversible injuries. At the same time, not wearing the proper gear could also spell disaster. That's why the proper hiking pants, windbreakers, and hardshell jackets are important in these endeavors. 

With these things in mind, being over prepared isn't a wrong thing. In this way, you can compensate for the unpredictable and inevitable risk factors that you could encounter. 

For starters, these are the typical hazards that you can encounter while climbing alpines and mountain peaks. 

A Drop On The Oxygen Level 

Let's start with the most important one.  

You see, ascending in high altitudes exposes your body to different elements and atmospheric conditions. The higher you go, the more you can notice the unusual (and often uncomfortable) changes to your setting. 

Depending on how fast you climb, the intensity and suddenness of these changes could be really unpleasant. For example, ascending an altitude of 1,500 meters above sea level could cause quick exhaustion and a series of bodily discomforts such as dizziness and headaches. This is because the oxygen level on the top is lower than when you are at sea level. And as humans, our bodies are used to oxygen-rich environments. 

Technically speaking, summits and mountain peaks aren't the playgrounds designed for us. They can be reached, but necessary caution is required. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard:

  • Every time you ascend fast, you are more susceptible to altitude sickness--and this one becomes deleterious. After all, quickly exposing yourself to low-oxygen environments can take a toll on your body. 
  • Hence, avoiding altitude sickness can be as easy as gradually conditioning your body to get used to this setup. Your body can actually do this; give it some time, and it can produce a sufficient amount of red blood cells to compensate for the lack of oxygen molecules. But how long will this process take? Well, it could be half a day, two days, or a span of a week! 
  • While your body is adjusting, it requires more nourishment to sustain the changes. Therefore, drinking lots of water and eating healthy meals could help solve this matter for you.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how to acclimatize on high altitudes.

The Terrain

As mentioned and implied earlier, the alpines don't have friendly terrain. They aren't for the faint-hearted, or people don't have enough training. Tight, narrow paths and steep cliffs are among the things you could encounter along the way. In some cases, there's a need to traverse rocky walls by climbing them. 

Of course, the fear of falling isn't unwarranted. After all, we often hear stories of climbers that fell to their death while climbing. But even if you don't fall, there are still risks of tripping or stumbling over, especially if the ridge is slippery. And simple slips could cause injuries. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard:

  • Well, prevention is better than cure, right? So before the trip takes place, you need to plan for it already. Study the terrain you are heading and assess if it is something that you can take on. If you think that it is too difficult for you, there's no shame in changing your destination. That's how things should be. 
  • And while you are on the terrain already, you should keep your focus on the path. Have an awareness of your surroundings so that you can spot potential hazards (i.e., sharp objects and fragile, slippery paths). If there's a climb required, make sure that you complete the essential climbing gear. 
  • Don't forget to wear the best hiking boots or shoes. They can keep your feet steady on the ground thanks to their exceptional traction.

Ice And More Ice

Let's keep things clear: ice and snow are different. And this means that they pose different types of risks, which I'm going to discuss all here. 

Specifically, alpine climbers and mountaineers are prone to being injured by falling ice. On the flip side, hikers don't usually encounter this danger. 

When alpine climbing, you have to pass terrains where there are hanging glaciers. If the temperature remains low, the hanging ice will just stay intact. They also remain stable when there isn't too much movement around. Here's a rule that you might need to know: if the ice freezes fast, the risk of it breaking or falling is minimal. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard 

  • So when dealing with icy terrains, it is important that you exercise an optimal degree of caution. The more attentive you are to your surroundings, the faster you can react to these dangers.  
  • If the ice overheard starts to break and fall off, it is important that you move fast. Veer off from the trajectory while trying to cover your head using your arms or backpack. Of course, climbing helmets, trekking poles, and ice axes could also serve a crucial role in protecting your head from potentially lethal injuries. 
  • Planning is an integral part of preventing accidents caused by ice. Assess the time of the year and the existing conditions at the summit. If there's a risk of the ice melting off due to ice, you might want to cancel the trip or do it earlier. 

Snowy Disasters

Avalanches are a thing on mountain peaks. They occur more frequently than you expect them to be. So if you are going to ascend these summits, it is essential that you prepare for the possible instances of an avalanche. 

It is not easy to identify when an avalanche is coming. And when it comes, it is more difficult to outrun it. So preparedness and situational awareness are quite crucial in ensuring that you won't be buried in deep snow. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard 

  • Avalanches tend to occur suddenly. But there are signs that could let you know that they are going to happen. According to statistics, at least 90 percent of avalanche accidents are caused by snow slides. And these snow slides are usually created by the victims, or in this context, the climbers. 
  • There are different tools that could help you survive these avalanches. For example, locator beacons can help rescuers find your location--if you got buried deep. So it is worth considering bringing one. Survival equipment, such as shovels, can also aid in your survival. 
  • Before things go south, you can always notify yourself about these avalanche warnings. The National Weather Service and the NOAA Weather Radio have regular updates when it comes to avalanche advisories. Keep updated about these reports because they could just save your life!

Those Huge (And Small) Rocks

In your ordinary hiking and backpacking trips, these rocks are almost unremarkable. They virtually don't pose any danger, except if there are snakes hiding under them or a huge boulder suddenly rolls in your direction. Otherwise, these rocks and stones are almost decorative in nature. 

However, things are different when you are traversing mountain peaks and alpine terrains. Keep in mind that erosion and weathering are almost frequent in those areas. Whenever rock structures start to crumble, they could catapult small to large-size blocks that could seriously hurt you. They call these things either rock slides or rockfall. 

When the rockfall becomes massive, it is already a landslide. Regardless, these natural occurrences are dangerous. Even the best hiking helmet could not deter them from injuring you. 

Interestingly, many alpines all over the world have monitoring systems for these rockfalls and landslides. They are a reliable source of reports when it comes to predicting these land-based hazards. However, the presence of these monitoring systems should not make you too overconfident. Mother Nature could still get unpredictable. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard:

  • A protective hiking or climbing helmet is one of the best ways to protect yourself from serious injuries should you get overwhelmed by a stream of loose rocks. As a matter of fact, you should wear these helmets all the time since you don't have any means of determining when a rockfall could occur. 
  • Situational awareness matters here. You need to stay alert and attentive to your surroundings. In this way, you can react quickly when something is off. When you see that the rocks are starting to roll down, you need to move fast so that you can get away from them. While doing this, make sure that you are sticking close to the slope face. 
  • It is essential that you also cover your head using your backpack and arms. The more protection your head has, the more you can protect it from sustaining injuries. 
  • While you are climbing, there's also the risk of the surface or rock giving out. It could be in your foot, hand, or anchor. This could be dangerous, especially if you have already ascended a considerable height. To prevent this from happening, check the stability of the wall. Do this by tapping the rock. If the sound is almost quiet, it is stable. If it is loud and hollow, then you might consider looking for another spot to climb. 

The Heat Of The Sun

Just because the alpines are cold doesn't mean that you don't have to worry about the heat of the sun. In fact, the higher you go, the more you need to be worried about the harmful UV rays. 

You see, high altitudes are the regions where the UV rays don't get reflected that much because of the thin atmosphere. Hence, there's always a likelihood that it can directly penetrate your skin. And that itself is quite harmful. 

Furthermore, heat can quickly exhaust you in high altitudes. Combine it with thin air, and you will feel drained quickly. Also, keep in mind that snow reflects sun rays. The reflection intensifies, causing harmful glares to the eyes. That's the reason why "snow blindness" is a thing for mountaineers and alpine climbers. 

How To Avoid / Prevent This Hazard:

  • The best way to counteract the harmful heat is by simply wearing the right protective clothing. Have your entire body properly layered, ensuring that your extremities are covered by gloves and shoes. At the same time, it is not a bad idea to wear a pair of glacier glasses or protective goggles to protect your eyes from painful glares. 
  • And while at it, make sure that you apply a good sunblock lotion to your skin so that harmful rays won't penetrate easily. 
  • Drink water regularly. Take small sips so that you don't get thirsty while doing high-exertion activities. 

Unavailability Of Nourishment And Supplies

Climbers are required to have enough supply of food and water. Obviously, these things are essential for one's survival and nourishment. You can't just traverse the treacherous alpines by just sheer will alone. Instead, you need your body to be physically fit. It should have enough energy reserves to complete the trip. 

At the same time, food and water can add to your body's thermoregulation. For instance, coffee can make you feel extra toasty while dwelling in frigid regions. More calories could also help heat up your body. So if you don't do any basic meal planning for your expedition, there's a good chance that starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia could wreck you. 

But the story doesn't just end there. You also need to prepare for potential injuries and accidents. Basic first aid skills matter here, alongside the ideal first aid kit

Being prepared is important. And that means that you need to plan for the things that you need to bring. A successful mountaineering trip could depend on how thorough your preparation is. Go get a checklist and ask yourself what are the things you need to pack up. Are survival knives essential? Do you need a portable stove? How about a fire starter for making fires? Don’t forget a winter tent, too!

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