Physical Preparation for Mountaineering

This is the second installment in our series about tackling technical ascents and the basics of mountaineering. Read the first one here:

Physical Preparation for Mountaineering

As the great Robert Baden-Powell said, “Be prepared… Be prepared for any old thing.” To be a mountaineer you should be prepared both physically and mentally. The safety of the whole party may hinge on the strength—or weakness—of one member. Mountain climbing is a serious undertaking and just because you exercise regularly doesn’t mean you can climb a mountain of 10,000 feet or higher, nor does the fact that you can run a marathon mean that you will make it to the summit with ease.  Pure cardiovascular fitness is not going to cut it at altitude. Your personal limits will be pushed both physically and mentally.

Remember, these are general guidelines and will not be the same for everyone. What works for me may not necessarily work for you. Be sure to consult with guides and mentors before taking on any technical ascent. The training I have summarized in this article allowed me to summit both Mount Rainier and Mount Baker. I will tailor this plan as I attempt the first of my seven summits in December.

The best way to physically prepare for a 14,000 foot or higher mountain climb is to just get outside and climb. I am a firm believer in participating in the activity you are training for as being the best way to completely prepare for it.  Just get out there and do it. This is sometimes easier said than done with all of our adult responsibilities these days, but if you have summit fever you will make it work.  

The Five Types of Physical Preparation

Start prioritizing your training efforts with your particular mountain in mind. You will most likely be training specifically for your mountain climb for at least four to six months.  Mountaineering training fits easily into five manageable chunks:

1) Functional. Mimicking what you’ll do on the mountain.
2) Cardiovascular, including aerobic and anaerobic.
3)  Strength, including upper body.
4) Flexibility such as yoga, stretching, or meditating
5) Cross training. Pick your favorite.

You will also need some sort of training timeline and schedule to stay on track.  I recommend working with programs that can customize physical conditioning programs for folks with alpine objectives from hiking the Grand Canyon to climbing Everest. 

1)  Functional Training

This is the training  with the most bang for your buck. Functional training means you are actually doing what you will be executing day-to-day on an expedition, minus the frigid temperatures and wild weather swings. Hit the trails as often as you can, including loading your pack and walking uphill, hiking that peak you’ve been wanting to bag, stair climbing in a gym, or doing laps on the stairs at a stadium.  

Ramp up your pack weight, starting with a 20-pound pack, increasing one to three pounds each week. Increasing time, distance, and elevation gain (anywhere from five to 15 percent per week) will also help safely and effectively build your mountain endurance.  A reasonable goal would be to ascend 3,200 to 3,500 feet carrying your appropriate pack weight in a two- to three-hour period, or roughly 1,200 to 1,500 vertical feet per hour. Rushing this process will increase your risk of injury.  

This functional training may be hard to fit in your schedule, but I recommend blocking off a minimum of  two weekends per month to hit the trails. On the weekends I loaded up my backpack and headed to the Appalachian Trail, Pisgah National Forest, or the Great Smoky Mountains to tackle the most brutal uphills I could find.  As my final test hike before Mount Rainier, I made sure I could easily hike the 2.7 miles and 1,200-foot elevation gain from Johns Spring Shelter to McAfee Knob with my 50-pound pack on in close to one hour. (Fellow AT hikers, you know just as well as I do, the AT can and will prepare you for anything.)  

If you know your mountain climb is going to be technical, it would also be great to brush up on your rock and/or ice climbing skills beforehand.  I took a trip to North Conway, NH, to test out ice climbing and get used to my crampons and ice axes.

2)  Cardiovascular Training

Aerobic conditioning is vitally important. This is the conditioning that stimulates and strengthens your heart and lungs, thereby improving your body’s utilization of oxygen. I was already a runner, so this came easily.  I used the following mountaineering baseline goal to gauge my aerobic starting point: “You should be able to complete a five-mile round trip hike with roughly a 13-pound pack, ascending and descending 2,000 feet, in less than two-and-a-half hours.” (Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, Ronald C. Eng and Julie Van Pelt)

I was running three miles, four days a week and I decided to increase my cardio to four to six days a week, but not necessarily running. I added HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), aerobics, mountain biking, and stair climbing. When I did run, I increased my mileage to five to six  miles three days a week, and tried to make most of those runs on a trail with an uphill emphasis.  I participated in multiple half-marathon trail races, and made sure any other races I signed up for were on trails, to get my ankles and body used to the uneven terrain to improve my balance.

Whatever your chosen form of aerobic exercise, do it four to six  times per week for an hour or more each time. Get your heart pumping, and push hard. Seriously, when you think you might be going overboard on your training, turn it up a notch. Go harder! The dividends will pay off on your summit attempt. The slopes of the mountain are a very bad place to discover that you are not in adequate physical condition.  

For the anaerobic aspect, I did hill wind sprints as well as sprints around a local track.  Anaerobic training promotes strength, speed, and power, and helps build muscle mass.  Sometimes during your climb you will have to dig deep into your energy stores to push through to the next break, and this anaerobic training helps with that.  You really are stronger than you think.

I live in the Southeast, and most of the year the weather is oppressively hot. Most people do not enjoy training in this heat, but it’s something I’m used to, and I believe that any workout I do outside in the elements of nature is 100 percent better than any workout I could ever do in a climate-controlled gym.  Apparently training in this heat, or “heat adaptation,” as it is more technically called, has its benefits for being able to perform better at high altitudes. This heat adaptation training has been studied in endurance science for the past few years. Training in hot weather, according to some (but not all) recent studies is like a more accessible version of altitude training. To add to this I also trained two times a week for 30 minutes with an altitude mask to simulate high altitudes.  There is some debate as to whether these masks even help with altitude training or simply decrease the volume of air you are breathing by capturing expended air, making you re-breathe air that’s richer in carbon dioxide, therefore making exercise harder.

As long as you are in good physical condition you should be able to function well at high altitudes, but it’s always good to take all the proper precautions because you never know what you could be faced with on the mountain.

3)  Strength Training

Proper muscle training prior to your big climb will be useful in many aspects.  This will help prevent injuries, your muscles will have endurance, and you will feel better overall with well-conditioned muscles prepared for anything that could happen on the mountain.  It will help most to strengthen your upper back, core, and leg muscles. Participating in a full-body strength program year-round is helpful, and when your big climb is near, you can focus more on what’s most important.  

When you are training specifically for your climb, think about how you will move on the mountain and the muscles you utilize when climbing. When ascending you are basically climbing a huge set of stairs with a lot of weight on your back. This directly translates to performing step-ups with dumbbells and/or a weight vest. Lunges are also great: forward, backward, and side lunges will all come in useful. Squats, step-downs, reverse step-ups, and deadlifts will also help prepare your quadriceps, hips, and hamstrings.   

Don’t forget about upper body training. You may need to perform self-arrests with your ice axe, and you need that full range of motion in your shoulders as well as solid upper-body strength.  Barbell curls and bench presses work well. Push-ups and core work will train the muscles that you need to stop yourself from sliding down an icy slope. I also incorporated pull-ups into my training—or should I say, attempted pull-ups—but working my latissimus dorsi with the shoulder adduction motion is the main action I was looking to train as this assisted in ice climbing.  

4) Flexibility Training

This training can mean two things:  1) stretching after a long run/weight session to prevent muscle soreness, and 2) to help achieve that full range of motion around particular joints, for which yoga plays an important role. I really enjoy the practice of yoga for mountaineering because it not only helps maintain flexibility, but it teaches you how to breathe and stay mindful in all situations.  Every step you take on the mountain coincides with a breath, and the better you are at efficiently taking slow, deep, full breaths, the better you are going to feel at the end of the day at camp. Your body needs all the oxygen it can get. After a long day of climbing, you should always do some light stretches to prevent soreness and stiffness the next morning.  

5) Cross Training

By cross training in the midst of your mountain-specific training, you are providing a switch-up to both your body and brain. The last thing you want to do is burn yourself out on all the training for your mountain climb and forget why you started all this in the first place.  Get out there and participate in another sport or activity that you enjoy that may not load the spine as much as all the other mountaineering training does. You could go to a spinning class, row, kayak, or try out slacklining. Just stay active and you’ll be on the right track.  

By following a program that incorporates these five aspects of training, you should be able to comfortably perform on the mountain and still have a reserve for any unforeseen circumstances.  Do everything you can to be physically prepared for the challenge of mountain climbing. Any climb you choose is going to be incredibly demanding, and lack of physical conditioning may be the largest factor in not reaching the summit.  

In the next installment of this mountaineering series, I will be discussing the mental preparation you must go through to be prepared for a big mountain climb. Your attitude most definitely determines your altitude.

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