Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all fourteen of the world’s eight-thousand foot mountains without using supplemental oxygen, once said, “The only extras you can afford at altitude are willpower and stamina.” He also famously said, “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
Often your success going up or trying to come back down depends on your conditioning before getting to the mountain. Prior to the start of the summer climbing season here I conducted a winter training climb of 8,366 ft. Mount Saint Helens to gauge my conditioning for the bigger mountains to come later in the season. While kick-stepping into snow and ice I realized I needed to be in better shape if I was going to summit Mount Rainier in a few months. My off-season endurance running workouts were not getting me to the top like I wanted.
After checking with the experts, I found the following exercises will help ensure I not only get to the top, but have the endurance to get back down again if things get tough.
1. Do hill workouts. The experts at the Alpine Institute say running and triathlons are great, but if you are going to climb you need to build the core leg strength and cardiovascular endurance for going uphill for hours. They say to start off walking a steep hill, then running, and then start adding weight to your pack. http://www.alpineinstitute.com
2. Do stairs for that high altitude endurance. The pros at Alpine Ascents, one of the leading alpine guide services in the world, recommend doing interval stair training. The workout consists of pushing as hard as you can going up and when you’ve reached maximum anaerobic threshold, turn and come back down, then repeat for 20-45 minutes. Gradually increase the length and speed of the ascent and increase the weight you are carrying. http://www.alpineascents.com
3. Weights to build strength. Endurance means building the strength to keep going, the experts at RMI Expeditions recommend a balanced weight lifting program that targets the whole body. Exercises such as lunges and squats for the lower body, abdominals for the midsection and lower back, and push-ups and pull-ups for the upper body will have your whole body ready for the climb. http://www.rmiguides.com
4. Intense metabolic conditioning circuits. If you want a more emotional reaction to your workout, one that leaves sweat, tears, and maybe your lunch on the gym floor, the fitness gurus at Mountain Athlete in Wyoming say that when training for an alpine climb, “Stronger, longer is the goal.” Their solution is intense cardio-respiratory circuits combined with muscular stress routines performed at slightly sub-maximum levels. These 20-30 minute power endurance sessions will keep you moving when the mountain gets steep. http://www.mtnathlete.com
5. Mental endurance. The high alpine guides at Peak Freaks remind us that it is not just enough to train the body; the mind must have the endurance and strength to summit and return as well. They recommend visualization exercises and replicating the demands of your climb during training. http://peakfreaks.com
Add these five exercises to your climbing preparation and you will be ready for your next alpine adventure. However, if your goal is to fly up the glacier Ueli Steck style you might consider hiring one of the professional masochists at Mountain Athlete in Wyoming or alpine speed superstar Mark Twight’s Gym Jones facility in Utah. Twight’s gym has online memberships for out of state climbers. http://www.gymjones.com/
Dutch Franz is a freelance journalist with 14 years of experience. He lives in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and is an avid adventure sport junkie. More of his work can be found at www.dutchfranz.com.
Photographs by Robert Kandiko