So, What Exactly is “Alpine Style”?

In recent years, Himalayan expeditions have felt compelled to justify their goals, both to the public and to potential sponsors. Typically, they do this either by adorning their projects with some fashionable cause –- charity, climate change –- or by adding some difficulty or record to position them above the mass of climbers queuing up every 20-something of May before Everest’s Hillary Step.

In that sense, two words have become a sort of magic charm to boost an expedition’s prestige: Alpine Style.

Going alpine style suggests higher risk, elegance and purity. Rarely does the obvious question arise: What, exactly, is alpine style? The answer is far from simple.

Nakajima and Hiraide climbing alpine style on Sisppare's NE face

The Piolet d’Or rewards excellence in alpine climbing. Above, 2018 winner Kenro Nakajima leading a new route on Sispare’s NE Face, Karakorum. Photo by Kazuya Hiraide

Going in style

By definition, the technique consists of climbing high-altitude mountains as one does in the Alps. It means no O2, fixed ropes or porters beyond Base Camp. For excellent climbers, that’s often possible at 6,000m but it becomes increasingly difficult and dangerous as the altitude increases.

Some climbers ratchet up the purity requirements still further, stating that true alpine stylers should not use ropes fixed by others or step in other expeditions’ footprints. Occasionally, it gets even stricter.

Back to the roots

It is sometimes said that alpine style at 8,000m began with Messner’s and Habeler’s ascent of Hidden Peak in 1975. Before this, conventional wisdom has it, siege tactics were the sole approach.

But lightweight expeditions to big peaks are actually much older. Mummery attempted Nanga Parbat’s Diamir Face in 1895! Shipton & Tillman summited Nanda Devi with only three Sherpas in the 1930s. In both cases, the term “alpine style” hadn’t even been invented yet.

Profit and béghin, alpine style on the South Face of Lhotse in 1009

A classic image: Christophe Profit on a two-men team attempt on the South Face of Lhotse, back in 1990. Climbing mate Pierre Béghin took the photo.

A great list of definitions and nuances about this type of climbing appears in Himalaya Alpine Style, a landmark book by Andy Fanshawe and Stephen Venables. For Venables, the ideal climb was the 1982 ascent of Shishapangma’s Southwest Face by Alex MacIntyre, Roger Baxter-Jones and Doug Scott. They went up in one push, with no previous exploration or partial climbs, and with all gear, food and bivouac equipment on their backs. They reached the summit in three days and made it back to Base Camp a day later. As MacIntyre himself put it, “The face was the ambition; the style became the obsession.”

Alpine requirements – the checklist

In our century, some have relaxed the standards, while other have further tightened them. In a recent article, alpine-style guru Mick Fowler declared that it is “all about mountaineering in a self-sufficient manner, carrying all one’s food, shelter and equipment and leaving no trace of one’s passing.” For him, this is the only way to climb mountains.

Mick Fowler, fully equipped for a bivouac. Photo: Mick Fowler

Some mountaineers consulted by ExplorersWeb suggested the following criteria for a proper alpine style climb, whatever the peak’s height:

– Small team of no more than two or three

– No bolts or gear left on the wall

– No temporary fixing on the route (on the hardest pitches, for instance)

– No previous trips up the wall to set camps or carry and cache supplies. Everything you need, you carry on your back.

– No acclimatization on the route itself. If you want to acclimatize, do so elsewhere, so that your first taste of the chosen route is the definitive one.

– Descend by your own means, not using fixed ropes, tracks, camps, etc. from any other source.

Sound too harsh? It could be worse. Some American climbers point out that the purest form of alpine style is something called Night-naked style, which requires completing a climb in one non-stop push, so cooking or sleeping gear are unnecessary, since you’re not going to stop for the night anyway. You’re allowed a few candy bars in your pocket, some water, a randonee rope (30m, 7mm), minimal climbing hardware but, of course, no bivouac gear. A remarkable example of this approach was the 1990s double-header expedition of Wojciech Kurtyka, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet, who opened new routes on the Southwest Face of Cho Oyu and on the South Face of Shishapangma.

However, should this become the norm, there would be few expeditions to report through the season, and most of it would be rather bad news.

The underlying question in this debate is whether these style standards should be a bonus or the only way to go. Is it really a question of go alpine or go home? Should the Himalaya be the private playground of a handful of superheroes dedicated to purity?

Ideals vs reality

Venables says that sometimes, fixed ropes are useful (as they were for him and his co-author on Melungtse), unavoidable or simply the best way to summit. “Alpine style is more an ideal than a set of rules,” he admits.

British climber Stephen Venables. Photo:

The final question might then lurk not so much in how we do things, but in how we say we do them. If you claim alpine style, be prepared to fulfill the requirements or face debate. Or at least, make sure to explain clearly what you understand by alpine style. That will be debatable too.