Seasonal Alpine Mountaineering Conditions

Chamonix Mountaineering Guide

Alpine Mountaineering Outside Of The Summer Season – A Tough But Rewarding Experience

We run lots of Chamonix based mountaineering & expedition training programs outside the main summer season.  There can be many advantages to this as the mountains are often quiet, pleasantly cool with long periods of high pressure stable weather.  They are also often stunningly beautiful with a more magical & pristine feel than in high summer.  This combined with the tougher and more remote feel to the mountains can give a very rewarding mountaineering experience but is not without significant extra challenge as we discuss with regards to various different elements below.
The early autumn dawn arrives on the approach to the S Ridge of the Weissmeis. With the Saas skyline beyond. Monte Rosa on the left, Tasch on the right….

Weather & Conditions

The classic summer alpine season really only lasts for about 3 months of the year running from around mid June to around mid September and this is reflected by the opening periods of many mountain huts.  Outside of this high summer period the weather is often more harsh with colder temperatures and higher winds and this combined with the greater volumes of fresh snow can give both a higher avalanche risk and more physical difficulty progressing via breaking trail through the snow, which can be very hard work and slow going!  Additionally any routes involving rock climbing or scrambling may be covered in snow thus adding a harder technical element to the route.
The early autumn descent to Trift and Zermatt from Rothorn &, for Paul, the last climb of the summer alpine season…
So whilst there are many advantages to being in the mountains outside the summer period, including the pristine & remote feel created by these conditions, teams do need to be even fitter and better prepared to cope with these extra physical & technical challenges.

Equipment

In response to the harsher weather and tougher conditions experienced outside of the summer alpine season, more substantial clothing, boots and mountaineering equipment are required.   To what extent you need to upgrade from classic summer alpine boots will depend on whether you are aiming to climb in the fringes of the summer season.  For example in late spring or early autumn, boots at the warmer end of the summer alpine range like the Scarpa Mont Blanc or La Sportiva Nepal Cube may be fine for those with good circulation and without particularly cold or snowy conditions.   However in the colder months for the rest of the year many folk will want warmer expedition boots designed to cope with the cold & snowy conditions found on high altitude peaks or polar expeditions such as the Scarpa Phantom 6000Phantom 8000 or La Sportiva Spantiks, Olympus Mons etc
High altitude mountaineering requires good equipment as our 2018 team find out here at dawn near the Lisjoch, the Italian / Swiss border…
More attention will also be required for the whole layering system which will need to include good quality warm thermal layers, mid layer insulation as well as substantial soft & hard shell outer layers.   Also a big warm duvet style jacket, with a hood, big enough to go over it all as a final optional very warm last layer to add or remove to regulate temperature.   Warmer gloves, face masks, goggles, more substantial gaiters etc will all form part of required upgrades to your larger pack for alpine mountaineering outside the summer season.
Mid Winter Alpine Mountaineering – A Cold & Tough Business….And Great Expedition Training!

Huts & Lifts

A larger, heavier pack may also be required outside of the summer season as most mountain huts & lifts will be closed.  This often means a longer and more physical ascent to either the summit or the winter room of a hut.  When closed the mountain refuges will often have a ‘winter room‘ left open which often have basic dorm beds, blankets and cooking pots, pans, plates and cutlery.  Sometimes they will also have a gas or wood burning stove too but this needs to be checked in advance and generally it’s wise to take your own stove and gas.  In any case a larger pack is required as in these non guarded huts no food is provided and must be carried in from the valley.
Rothorn Hut Winter Room
Dusk at the Rothorn Hut winter room with the Monte Rosa Massif beyond

Staying in a small simple winter room instead of a busy summer hut can be a magical experience which nicely compliments the remote feel of being in the mountains outside the busier summer season although again there is also a more challenging element to these quieter mountains…

Winter Hut stay
Dinner at the Chabod Hut winter room on our autumn Gran Paradiso course…à la carte boil in the bag on the menu!

Popularity & Tracks

In high summer there are often well worn paths to the hut and beaten down trails in the snow to the summit.  This can be very different out of the season where there is often a physical trail breaking ascent just to make it to the hut!  There is a tough reality to the magical quiet mountains in the form of breaking your own trail through the snow.  When a group is trail breaking it can be brutally hard going for the leader and even several back in the team it is often much harder going than following well worn, re-frozen tracks that generally form on popular routes in high summer.
Breaking trail in superb spring powder snow en route to the Col Etret at the head of the Valsavarenche.
This more remote experience also gives a higher level of commitment and demands higher levels of judgement over route choice.  With fewer other teams around in the mountains there is rightly a more adventurous feel and also less chance of getting any immediate help if any problems arise.  The avalanche risk is also likely to be higher when breaking trail through pristine snow packs as opposed to following a well worn path in the snow or skier compacted snow.
Chamonix Mountaineering Guide
Austin enjoying very quiet and wintery conditions on the Cosmiques Arete in mid April.  A route that usually involves lots of queuing in summer!

Conclusion

Climbing in the alpine mountains out of the summer season can be a fantastic experience and we recommend trying it, but, as you will now be aware having read the article above, you need to arrive well prepared, very fit, well equipped, well organised and have a good plan….and have a bit of luck with the weather & conditions!
Enjoyable mountaineering in good conditions in a stunning location. The late spring ascent of the West Ridge of the Dufourspitze.
We have lots of ideas for climbing out of the summer season including making ascents of the classic 4000m peaks including Mont Blanc.  It can also be a great time for mountaineering and expedition training as well as rock climbing in the valleys or middle mountains.  Check out some of the relevant links below for more information.  Good luck, good training & good climbing….
Mike approaches the summit after a bivi on the upper Mittellegi Ridge of the Eiger having climbed the North Face the previous day in late October.

Chamonix Mountaineering in Spring / Autumn / Winter

Winter / Spring / Autumn Mountaineering in Chamonix

Expedition Training

Expedition Training

Mountaineering Training

Mountaineering Training

Chamonix Rock Climbing

Rock Climbing In Chamonix With The Mont Blanc Massif Across The Valley