Jeff Ward
Submitted by Jeff Ward on
Alpine Climbing in the North Cascades

The following is not meant as a training manual for you personally, but more as introduction to some general training ideas that will hopefully spur you into developing a plan that works well for you. Keep in mind that there are many ways to increase your endurance through training. Entire books have been written on the various methods; we are proposing here a couple of simple basic ideas.

While they are both forms of climbing, the physical demands of mountaineering are much different than cranking 5.12 at the local sport crag. In fact, the optimal type of training for each will be, at least to some extent, mutually exclusive of the other. Top athletes in any sport have known for years the value of specificity of training. Specificity in a physiological sense refers to the many specific adaptations that our bodies make to accommodate new demands being placed on it when it is exposed to training. The human body is amazingly adaptable to a very wide range of physical demands provided it is given the correct training impetus. This adaptation is known as the training effect. Just as you won't see top runners spending a lot of time swimming, nor top gymnasts cycling over mountains for their training, we climbers also need to train in sport specific ways if we want to maximize our return for the time spent. Not that cross training is wrong or bad. In the cases of athletes who are doing a very large volume of training, a bit of cross training can help avoid overuse injuries and staleness. For the non-professional athlete who must juggle work, school, family, etc., with the desire of fitness, cross training can provide an opportunity to train that might otherwise be missed. Just keep in mind that you will become adapted to what you train to do. Riding a stationary bike for 20 minutes three times per week is not going to help you very much when you are scrambling up rough 3rd class terrain with a 20lb pack.

General demands:

Let's look at the demands of alpine climbing and mountaineering. These activities require the endurance to move all day long, covering a lot of vertical distance over rough terrain, wearing a pack weighing a minimum of 10lb. These activities also demand some fairly refined motor skills and balance, both of which degrade badly when you become fatigued. Your ability to do one arm pull ups or to bench press 200lbs is not going to do you much good in a mountaineering setting. While general aerobic fitness acquired through running, swimming, biking or a Stairmaster will help lay a foundation for alpine climbing, it will not give the same benefits as if you went for a 6 hour hike off trails on the weekend.

So mountaineers need good aerobic fitness of the legs to keep going all day. They need moderately strong shoulders and backs for carrying a pack, moderately strong legs for lifting you and your pack up some steps that will be larger than you like. Last but not least they need balance and the kinesthetic ability to move efficiently over very rough terrain. A lack of efficiency in these movement skills will quickly tire out an otherwise well trained person.

It has been our experience that most clients lack the leg strength and specific muscular endurance along with the kinesthetic skills to move efficiently all day in mountain terrain. Later we will offer some ideas for training this often overlooked aspect of climbing training.

Rock climbing

You'll notice a distinct lack of talk about rock climbing in the above discussion. That is because on most guided alpine climbing and mountaineering trips technical skill at rock climbing comes a distant third to fitness and movement efficiency. Most of your energy will be spent on the approach, descent and low technical difficulty sections of the climb (class 3 and 4).

Training for rock climbing also relies heavily on the old specificity idea. The more you practice the correct movement skills, the better you will become at them. This is best done climbing on rock, which few of us have the luxury of doing often enough. If you are at a beginner to intermediate level (say you can follow up to 5.8) and you can get into a climbing gym or boulder outside 2 times per week, you can gain both strength and efficiency of movement very quickly without even getting too serious about it. Just climb and have fun. While climbing on plastic in a gym is a far cry from real rock, it does provide valuable strength and movement skills in a very controlled environment. It is the fastest way to train for climbing due to the sheer number of moves you can make during any given time. Just don't expect a direct and immediate transfer of the skills to rock; there is some adaptation to the uniqueness of rock that takes time. Sounds pretty easy, doesn't it? Well, it is, actually, and that is one of the reasons that climbing gyms are so popular. This also accounts for the huge popularity of sport climbing. Time well spent in the gym during the week will pay off big on the rock outdoors on the weekend.

How do you make a plan to train for alpine climbing that can fit into your life?

First, you have to be realistic. Take a hard look at your goals and reconcile them with your available time, your age, your current fitness and your experience level. A good mountain guide can often help you reach beyond what you thought possible while maintaining a safe and fun experience. This can speed up the learning process and help you build the confidence to tackle climbs on your own. Most of us have limited time and energy for training and we need to make the most of it. This is where evaluating your current strengths and weaknesses comes in.

If you have a strong background, say, in trail running but have never rock climbed, it may not take much specific training to set you up to do very well carrying a pack over rough terrain, but you should focus on specific rock climbing skills. With the increased popularity of climbing gyms and sport climbing we see many clients who are pretty adept at 5th class rock climbing but are often taxed by the approach and moderate technical terrain. If this is a category you see yourself fitting into, a simple and effective training regime is..

Beginner Training: GET VERTICAL

If you have never done any serious training, you can make pretty big gains by simply engaging in long weekend hikes that include as much vertical as you can find. You will get the best results if your hike/run is at least 2 hours long and you maintain a steady pace (meaning no stops) at which you are be able to talk comfortably. If you are a runner, by all means run, but run hilly terrain. Doing exercises like biking (either stationary or outside), swimming, rowing or any other where your body is supported will not yield the same results. Hiking, climbing and running all require you to be vertical and self supporting and this very fact places a significant added stress on the heart and big muscle groups. Remember the specificity principle. In between these long hikes try to get one or two shorter vertical workouts during the week. These can even be done on a Stairmaster if the weather or darkness is a problem. If you belong to a fitness gym, add some specific hip and leg strengthening exercises like squats (the king of exercises) to your regular weight lifting routine. Get used to carrying a pack; even one that weighs only 10lbs can tax untrained shoulders after an hour. Try spending some of your time off trail in rough terrain so that you can develop better balance and coordination.

Advanced training: GET VERTICAL

You can make great strides by including one training session per week where you cover a bunch (this is purposely vague) of vertical on steep terrain with a weighted pack. Before you recoil in horror that I might be setting you up for injury, hear me out. You'll carry water jugs in your pack and dump them out at the top of the climb/hike so that your downhill trip is unloaded. The gains made in specific muscular endurance with this type of training are amazing. I have used this method to good success while preparing for several specific hard alpine routes. A friend who was living and working in Kansas once used this method to train for a one day ascent of the Nose on El Capitan. He had only a 4 story stairwell and a very small bouldering gym to train in for months before his successful climb.

The nuts and bolts:

1) Find a hill (bigger is better but even a 4 story stairwell will work) that takes you preferably at least 4 minutes to get up. It needs to be STEEP so that you must really lift your knees to step up the hill. Most hiking trails are not steep enough. If you are desperately flat land bound I have even seen the side of a highway overpass berm used effectively for this type of training.

2) Collect a few empty 1 gallon milk jugs. Depending on your fitness and how big your hill is you'll carry 1-2-3 or 4 of these babies filled with good old H2O (at 8lb per gal you do the math). If you are doing repeats on a smaller/shorter hill you'll need some way of refilling the containers when you come back to the start or have a stash of them at the base of the hill to swap into the pack. If you are using a long hill, obviously one set of water jugs will suffice as you dump them out at the top. I like to use hiking poles for the downhill to help take the shock off the knees.

How hard: Try to hold a steady pace at around 85% of your maximum heart rate for the uphill sections. Don't worry that you HR drops on the downhill. That is not what you are training for.

How many repetitions: Do four times four minutes, with a three minute rest in between each hard uphill.

Remember that this is for an aspiring alpine climber who already has a decent running background (preferably on trails). This program is designed to push you to a new level of specific endurance and will need to be supplemented with your normal training. This is not for someone who has never ever trained.

REST and the Training Effect:

The adaptation to training comes during the resting period after the training stimulus is applied. Too much stimulus with not enough rest can lead to a failed training effect; that is, you do not fully recover before the next load is applied to the body. In extreme cases, one can see significant declines in fitness due to overtraining. This is to be avoided as you will be setting yourself back not forward through training. Rest when you feel tired! Never force yourself to train when you are really tired. You'll be setting yourself up for injury or illness.

We hope that these simple ideas help you increase the pleasure of you time spent in the mountains.