Choosing a climb in the Alps

On this page:

ratings & gradings
how hard are they?
where to go
when to go

See also:

advice for climbing
booking info
training for the Alps

There are literally thousands of great climbs in the European Alps, and hundreds of guide books. The "100 Finest..." series started by Gaston Rébuffat with his Mont Blanc Massif selection now has dozens of titles. It can be difficult in choosing among the several thousand finest. This difficulty is compounded by ever changing weather, snow and ice conditions. Great objectives such as the Matterhorn can go out of condition with a light snowfall, or quickly come back into condition with a spell of warm, dry weather.

These factors, the tremendous selection in combination with changing conditions can make selecting a climb as challenging as the route itself. Over the years we have found that a flexible approach and a philosophical attitude gives the best overall climbing experience. Climbing is adventure and adventure includes a certain amount of uncertainty of outcome.

"The ascent of any route begins, in dreams at least, the autumn before. Our minds ring, involuntarily, with the alluring names of mountains, aiguilles, faces and ridges, Is it the name itself which is so tempting, or the picture we have of the mountain itself, or does the appeal come from our feeling of the actual process of climbing? All of us have our reasons, innumerable, personal and complex. From many points of view a climb is a challenge we must meet."

Gaston Rébuffat

Each climb presents unique challenges, high altitude, length, technical difficulty on rock, snow or ice. As climbers we seek to expand our horizons, and meet these personal challenges well. We need to be prepared, to know we can succeed, but we also need to challenge ourselves. Finding the correct balance requires self-knowledge and a corresponding knowledge of what to expect on any particular route.

Ratings and gradings

Mark & Kathy's rating system

There are a number of different grading systems used throughout the world and even in the Alps alone. So to add to the confusion we have developed our own! Actually it is quite simple (don't they all say that!). The reason we did this is that we felt we needed to factor in how difficult it was to guide the various routes, and with what sort of client profile we would do one climb, but not another.

We assign a rating of one, two, three or four mountains to a climb. We also indicate whether it is technically very difficult (as in steep!) with a symbol. If it includes a lot of less difficult terrain it gets a symbol. These symbols can apply to rock or ice. If there is significant snow or ice climbing we also give it a ice ax symbol.

Overall Difficulty
The one-mountain symbol is used for easier climbs. These routes are good choices for folks with only limited previous climbing experience or for those who want a relaxing day. However, even these routes may involve some glacier travel, or sections of steep rock or snow and ice that require belaying but are not overly difficult. Most of the routes in this category are either short, half-day outings, or longer but technically easier climbs. In the Alps, even the easiest routes can have tremendous exposure, so be prepared to be impressed!
With the two-mountain symbol we are well into technical difficulty, belaying occasionally, and climbing on steep terrain. These routes can be quite long, requiring most of a day, or shorter and therefore generally harder. Climbs in this category comprise most of the guiding we do in the Alps. Most experienced climbers unfamiliar with the Alps will find these routes to be good choices to start.
Three-mountain routes are hard. These climbs require either high technical abilities, or are quite long with continuous exposure and challenge. These are not good choices for beginners, and even experienced climbers will be challenged.
Still harder, four-mountain routes are only for the very skilled climber. They involve difficult technical climbing and also are quite long. Climbers need to be in top form and able to move quickly and confidently on exposed and challenging ground. Retreat from these climbs is usually quite difficult.
Terrain Types
Less steep rock or snow. Though this terrain can occasionally involve 5th class (belayed) climbing, in general the angle is more moderate, though the climbing is often exposed for long sections. Despite the moderate technical difficulty, the continuous exposure and length typical of these climbs demand good fitness and practiced movement skills on moderate rock.
Steep climbing on either rock or ice. Climbs with this symbol have technically difficult sections demanding good technical climbing skills.
The ice ax symbol designates snow and/or ice climbing. Many routes, even those primarily on rock, may have significant snow or ice sections, and we use this symbol to designate both these routes and those which are primarily on snow or ice.

Local rating system

There are 2 commonly used parts to the system for grading climbs in Europe, the overall grade and the rock climbing grade. Most of the mountain centers of the Alps have adopted the French system for the gradings mountain routes. The grading system for rock climbing difficulty varies from location to location. Sport climbs in all locations and all rock climbs in the French speaking areas use the French system for rock ratings. The UIAA system (Roman numerals) is still commonly used for mountain rock routes in German and Italian speaking areas.

The overall grading system takes into consideration length, technical difficulty, commitment, hazards, and remoteness. Generally, the classic long mountaineering routes graded AD are harder than one might think. They are often as long and involved as D routes (sometimes longer!) but perhaps lack equal technical difficulty (often made easier through improved equipment and techniques).







  • Allalinhorn, West Ridge
  • Bishorn, North West Face
  • Aiguille du Tour, east side
  • Grosshorn
  • Aiguille du Toule


Peu Difficile

A little difficult

  • Mont Blanc, Goûter Route (PD-)
  • Mont Blanc, Traverse
  • Jungfrau, via Rottalsattel (PD+)
  • Weissmies, SE Ridge
  • Mönch, SE Ridge
  • Tour Ronde, SE Ridge
  • Gran Paradiso (PD-)
  • Midi - Plan Traverse


Assez Difficile

Fairly difficult

  • Dent du Géant
  • Weisshorn, East Ridge
  • Matterhorn,Hornligrat (AD-)
  • Schreckhorn (AD+)
  • Aiguille Verte, Whymper Couloir (AD+)
  • Aiguille du Chardonnet, Forbes Arête
  • Eiger, South Ridge
  • Mönch, Nollen Route
  • Aiguille du Peigne, Normal Route




  • Mont Maudit, Frontier Ridge
  • Eiger, Mittellegi Ridge
  • Mont Blanc, Brenva Spur (AD/D)
  • Mont Blanc, Innominata Ridge (D/D+)
  • Charmoz/Grepon Traverse (D-)
  • Aiguille du Chardonnet, North Buttress,(D-)
  • Tour Ronde, North Face (AD+/D-)
  • Aiguille du Midi, Frendo Spur, (D+)


Tres Difficile

Very difficult

  • Mont Blanc du Tacul, Gervasutti Pillar
  • Les Drus, Bonatti Pillar
  • Chamonix Aiguilles Traverse
  • Grands Charmoz, Cordier Pillar
  • Les Droites, NE Spur (TD/TD+)
  • Petit Jorasses, West Face Original
  • Matterhorn, North Face


Extremement Difficile

Extremely difficult

  • Eiger, North Face 1938 Route (ED2)
  • Les Droites, North Face Classic (ED1)
  • Mont Blanc, Peuterey Ridge Integral (TD+/ED1)
  • Mont Blanc, Freney Central Pillar, (ED1)
  • Grandes Jorasses, Walker Spur (ED1)

Rock climbing ratings are easily translated from either UIAA or French to American norms. Technical ice rating numbers are about the same as in the US or Canada.











































How hard are they, really?

This is a difficult question to answer, as one climber's "hard" is another climber's "easy".

Climbing in the Alps is generally much more exposed than much of the climbing in the US. Things are steep and even very easy climbs can sport big drops below your feet. Expect a lot of air around you.

Many routes involve a great deal of vertical gain and loss. Calculate this figure and determine on what kind of terrain is the change made; easy, hard, varied? The Matterhorn, for example, climbs and descends over 4000 feet of steep scrambly rock. You had better be comfortable at facing out or it will not be a reasonable objective.

Monte Rosa by the normal route includes a 6000 foot climb from the hut to the summit, with the hardest part at the very end, and at a summit elevation of 15,200 feet. It is considered only a PD in the rating system above. Climbing Monte Rosa from the Margherita overall takes more days, and is technically more difficult, but physically is less demanding than the normal route.

On the other hand, easy access through lifts and cog railways, have made many otherwise major routes an easy day. An ascent of the Petite Aiguille Verte is a good example of this. A cable car gets you high on the peak, leaving only the last, and best part of the climb above you. You can enjoy a great technical and very exposed alpine climb in only a few hours. The Cosmiques Arête on the Aiguille du Midi is another example - classic high mountain alpine mixed climbing readily accessible from the cable car to the summit of the peak!

If you are not experienced with the climbing in the Alps the best approach is to come with an expectation to learn what it is like. Try to avoid setting your heart on any particular summit or route. Be flexible until you have a good feeling of what the climbing is like there. In our opinion, it is, in many ways, the best in the world. I'm sure you will come to agree once you have tasted its pleasures.

Where the good climbing is......

Really, there is good climbing of all types to be found throughout the Alps. But as a general guideline, consider the following......

For an introduction to what the Alps has to offer consider the Chamonix area. There are a greater variety of climbs here than perhaps anywhere else. There are lots of fantastic routes made easily accessible through lifts.

For big 4000 meter peaks try the area around Zermatt and Saas. Big mountains, often with big approaches. More of the peaks here have more moderate routes up them than in the Chamonix area, where summits tend to be more pointed. But there certainly are a number of mountains with the classic sharp summit - Matterhorn, Weisshorn, and Zinal Rothorn, for example. There are a number of easy 4000 meter peaks in this area (Wallis), including the Breithorn, the Allalinhorn and the Alphubel. Also, by hut hopping on the on the Italian side, you can climb a host of big summits in one 4 or 5 day outing, including, Breithorn, Castor, Pollux, Liskamm, Parrotspitze, Ludwigshohe, Signalkuppe and Zumsteinspitze, 4000 meter summits all.

The Berner Oberland offers the classic Trilogy of the Mönch, Jungfrau and Eiger (though the Eiger is considerably harder than the other two). Also, the Oberland is a great place to wander endlessly from hut to hut, ticking off the bigger summits as you go.

Piz Bernina and the surrounding peaks of Piz Palu, Morteratsch and Roseg, are a little gem of a massif, and some of the best cliimbing we have done in the Alps has been here, particualrly the Biancograt on the Bernina and the traverse of Piz Palu. The Engadine, with its most well-known town, St Moritz, is also a great place of hiking and families.

For alpine rock climbs, the Chamonix area again has a great selection, though the Val Bregaglia near Saint Moritz is also excellent with such classic climbs as the North Ridge of the Piz Badile. The Grimsel Pass area is great for rock climbing on long clean granite slabs. And the Dolomites are justly famous for steep and very long rock routes.

When to go.......

Predicting the weather is bound to get you in trouble, but what the heck....

Generally the season for climbing in the Alps runs from about the beginning of July, through about mid-September. But every year is different and the weather is a fickle master. For easier routes and lower elevation rock climbing the season can be much longer.

For better ice and snow climbing conditions lean toward the early side of the season, say the entire month of July. Mont Blanc is normally good by then as are the big peaks of the Zermatt area (with the notable exception of the Matterhorn).

If you want to do technical rock routes on the higher summits you might want to wait until more snow has melted. Normally the very hard high elevation rock routes are done in August, as are many of the classic mixed ridge routes.

The Matterhorn is normally climbable from about mid-July to early or mid-September, though some years poor weather and snow on the route can keep it out of condition longer, and shut it down for the season by the end of August. In the summer of 1999 the best weather and climbing conditions occured in July and September, with August being a bit of a wash-out.

The mountains tend to be most crowded in August, especially in France, when everyone takes their holiday. But there are always places where few people can be found if you are willing to hike a little further or visit summits you have never heard of.

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