“Every alpinist who climbs 8000-meter peaks searches for ways to prepare the body so that it will adjust to the variables. The environment at extreme altitude is as alien as outer space; the dynamics play out in ways we cannot fully understand. A mountaineer can only hope that a commitment to constant training will prop up his or her ambitions to explore the Earth’s highest reaches.” -Anatoli Boukreev
I have a confession to make: most of the climbing I’ve done in the past has been off the couch. It’s not that I don’t believe in training…far from it. But I think due to a combination of being lazy and rarely encountering my fitness to be a limiting factor, I simply chose to go climbing. But after last year, I knew I’d lost a lot of my overall athleticism, not to mention the mental fitness required to tackle big objectives in the alpine. Here, I’ll outline my approach to getting ready for the mountains, heavily influenced by my background in distance running and by works such as Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism and Steve House and Scott Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism. These are outstanding resources.
First, I follow a progressive, periodized approach to training. This means that my preparation and climbing cycle consists of distinct phases, starting with a transition into training. When running was my full time gig, our coaches often referred to this period euphemistically as “active rest.” In college, I usually pounced on the week or two of freedom to go climbing. So starting this past late December, I started to very slowly build back. I could feel connective tissue straining, but I adhered to the main rule of this period: don’t get injured.
Most important, certainly for alpine climbing, is the base phase. This is where the vast majority of work gets done, and for something as aerobically demanding as my objectives this summer (I’m targeting summit days to be 18-24 hours of brutal aerobic effort, but I’d like to be able to climb for 40+ hours without food, water or rest in a survival situation). In short, I need to be resilient. The base period is where this capacity to endure comes from, and it’s all about relatively easy aerobic exercise. Since ankylosing spondylitis ended my running career in 2009, I opted to use biking and hiking as my primary modes of aerobic work. Of all the aspects of training, this is the one you can’t cut short. As Coach Weisend would say in high school, “You can’t pay someone to run your miles for you.”
Additional components of my base phase were mostly designed for me to gain some functional strength. I focused on core strength as well as coordinated body weight exercises like pull ups, push ups, dips, lunges, squats as well as some truly goofy looking balancey sequences. Once I’d gained a solid foundation there, I started focused on developing max strength in a few key areas that I find useful on really big mountains like quads, triceps and a few other areas. I added in maximum-intensity, 8-second hill sprints to develop maximum power in my quads. I quickly felt the gains on climbs on the bike and when carrying a pack.
Next up, things start to get fun…converting these general gains into more specific fitness required for the mountains. One of these was improving the efficiency of my fat burning metabolism. In the high mountains, it simply isn’t possible to eat enough to fuel your climbing. So training in a way that makes you highly dependent on carbohydrates really can backfire, leading to the classic “bonk.” To address this, I started taking morning bike rides of 3-5 hours with 3-5000 ft of climbing without breakfast or any food along the way. The other improvements I wanted to make were in muscular endurance and improved efficiency in high altitude climbing movements (kicking steps in steep snow and ice, plunging through deep snow with a heavy pack, etc). I did this in the best way possible, a quick alpine climbing trip in Peru!