Alpine Start in Mountaineering

Why some climbers start before dawn

A climber straps on crampons in the early morning hours to get an alpine start in the Himalayas.

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An alpine start is when climbers begin a mountain ascent in the early hours of the morning or even before midnight. Common alpine start times would be 2 or 3 in the morning or just before sunrise for fast parties or on short routes. Alpine starts, however, begin in darkness with the climbers wearing headlamps.

Alpine Start Advantages

Alpine start allows climbers to avoid rockfall. One of the most common reasons for doing an alpine start is to avoid falling ice and rocks, which tend to catapult down mountain slopes as the sun heats the face or cliff in the daylight hours. Climbers, especially in the high mountains of Asia and South America, will also get an alpine start to maximize climbing time, particularly during spells of good weather, allowing them to reach the mountain summit and still have sufficient daylight to return to camp before nightfall.

Avoid lightning storms with an early start. In many high mountain ranges in the United States like the Colorado Rockies, which has a lot of lightning strikes, climbers get an alpine start to avoid thunderstorms accompanied by dangerous lightning. These storms typically build up in the morning and then begin their thunderbolt action in the early afternoon.

Start early on Mt. Everest to avoid nightfall. Climbers usually get alpine starts on routes in the European Alps on peaks like the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc as well as the Himalayas and the Karakoram ranges in Asia. Climbers on Mount Everest usually leave their high camp at the South Col in the early morning hours so that they can reach the summit and return before night and it's dangerously frigid temperatures.