Training for alpine climbing

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advice for climbing
booking info
choosing a climb

The following piece was originally written by Kathy for an online store and information center for women and climbing.


I'm a little embarrassed to tell the truth about my position on training: I don't! I'm not recommending this approach; I acknowledge I'm in a fortunate position of having to constantly hike, ski and climb. The resulting constant overall level of fitness is probably the main perk among the many, of my way of making a living.

But, how does the average person, with a normal schedule, work and family obligations and varied interests in life, train for climbing? The answer to this depends on the type of climbing or outdoor activity you are training for. For each activity, try to break down the component skills or conditions necessary to do it safely and successfully, and take a training approach that builds those skills or strengths you are least proficient in.

Above all, accept the truth that what you primarily need to address in training is not so much brute strength or technical expertise, as plain old fundamental movement skills. All mountain activities, even backpacking, build essentially upon learned (learn-able) movement skills. In learning and practicing these skills, strength and fitness follow naturally as an inevitable consequence and bonus prize.

For example, for hiking and backpacking, aerobic fitness and leg strength are obviously of great importance, as well as strengthening the joints in your back and legs in order to prevent injury. Nevertheless, your ability to hike further and faster and have more left over when you get there, depends on the same kind of kinesthetic skill, efficiency of movement, and unconscious decision making as scrambling and mountaineering. Even though you may stick to the trails most of the time, ease, efficiency and comfort moving over rough terrain is the fundamental skill that many people underestimate the importance of when hiking and backpacking. The ability to move fluidly, easily and comfortably over rough terrain is overlooked or under appreciated by a surprising number of people when they get into outdoor sports such as hiking and backpacking.

While we're on the topic of hiking, some people point out the benefits of hill or stair climbing with weight in a backpack, and this works reasonably well AS LONG AS you are VERY, VERY CAREFUL about the added weight! Take it easy here! It is all too easy to cause the very overuse injuries you are trying to avoid, by piling on weight during your training hikes. In my opinion carrying weight to build muscle over emphasizes the strength aspects of training and undervalues the movement learning aspects.

Personally, I would prefer to see people strive to hike faster, to cover more ground, or tackle longer, steeper, rougher hills, maybe find an off-trail route, rather than carry more weight. This way of challenging yourself trains your agility and reflexes, is more fun, and gets you seeing more of the world. If you insist on taking more in your pack than you strictly need, keep it to a total of 20 to 30 pounds, max, and be very much on the lookout for pain or injury to your back, knees, and ankles. When you're actually backpacking or climbing, strive for less than a 45-pound load! 55 to 60 pounds is for emergencies only, or for guides, who are notoriously too stupid to know any better! You're a highly educated professional, and don't need to kill yourself for a little fun.

Another example is found in snow climbing. Have you ever watched a good climber walk up a snow slope? They expend only a minimal amount of energy. There are discreet and very important movement skills being employed. It may look like they are only walking, but consider these; the use the weight of the boot, foot and leg to create a platform, the angle of the kick, the ratio of slice to stomp, the change of the angle of the foot as it slices into the snow, the force behind the kick, the amount of forward and upward movement with each step, how much and what part of the boot ends up in the step, the timing of the steps to the movement of the ice ax, the upright body stance, the pace, where they rest, and the list goes on. And remember, as the snow steepness, security and consistency change, all of the above factors also change.

All the simple movements of climbing - from snow climbing and easy French technique cramponing, to walking over boulders or rough trails - have specific movement skills needed to perform them with efficiency and fluidity. These skills must be learned. But fortunately they are easy to learn. The big problem many folks have is that they don't recognize these skills as skills. It just looks too much like simple walking. Don't be fooled, it looks like walking but its really climbing. Climbing is easy to learn, you just have to put in the time and accept that there are skills to learn on steep hills.

Spend your valuable exercise time doing things that will help you learn balance and movement skills on rough terrain. Clamber up and down the hills, go the steep way. Ski. Play tennis or racquet ball instead of riding a stationary bicycle. The best activities are those that require some sort of balance development along with long periods of time (multiple hours) with a heart rate in your target zone - 80% of your maximum rate. By far the best is to climb mountains, snow and scree, second is to hike steep rough trails or go cross country. Put on a super light pack, take your Camel Back, a light sweater and an energy bar and go for it.

For technical rock climbing, weight training will help a little, and may be all you have readily accessible to you where you live, but climbing in a rock climbing gym, or bouldering, will take you much farther much faster. Climbing, even on plastic holds, develops balance and agility, flexibility and strength. Perhaps even more importantly, it builds the repertoire of body positions, movements, and decision-making abilities that make rock climbing so fascinating and so challenging. There is no substitute for this kind of knowledge and experience which climbing itself gives you. Gyms are proliferating so fast that it's probably just a matter of time before there will be one in range of your home that you can join, if there isn't already one near you. Join, go 2-3 times a week, make friends, have a blast. If you have somewhere you can go bouldering, that's even better. Go with a buddy, get a crash pad, build some calluses, get a pump, be careful how you land!

However, I always find that the hardest thing to advise people about is training for mountaineering. Few of us have a back yard mountain to scramble up and down after work, or even on weekends. Mountains demand an awful lot of us physically, technically, mentally and psychologically. How can we build up to this, or even conceive accurately of what is needed? It's not so easy.

However, again, I think it can't be overstated that the most important component needed for success in mountain climbing is movement skills. Basic, fundamental, plain old scrambling skills, are the backbone of efficiency, safety, and success in the mountains.

When we were little kids, we found any excuse to scramble around like a monkey: a stump, a boulder, a tree, a couch, our Mom's legs: they all served to help us train our clumsy little baby-bodies to climb. Now that we're responsible adults, we seem to need to take a more cognitive approach. That's fine, as long as it serves to convince us to get out there and scramble around like a monkey.

Beyond saying this, there are several component skills or conditions needed to consider yourself fit and ready for mountain climbing, and I'll try to spell them out, using a guided ascent of the Matterhorn as a good example of a mountain that many people tend to underestimate, or have a hard time visualizing the requirements of, and that does require significant training and preparation, for most folks.

The Matterhorn is considered an easy peak, technically. The climb of the Hörnli Ridge (the normal route) involves about 4000 feet of climbing on what climbers call ''third class'' rock - that is, steep scrambling with the use of hands and feet, on continuously exposed ground where care is required and where the consequences of an un-roped, unsecured stumble could be very serious or even fatal. There are occasional belayed sections of 5th class rock, but the vast majority of the climbing is easier. The summit is high, almost 14,700 feet, so altitude is a factor. The typical summer weather pattern of afternoon thunderstorms dictates that it would be prudent to be back on terra firma by early afternoon at the latest.

On the Matterhorn, you have to have good movement skills; that is, you need to be a skilled scrambler. Without this skill, you will have to be at least twice as fit, inordinately, unusually, phenomenally fit, to compensate for the inefficiency and psychological stress that lacking good movement skills would entail.

Other components for success on the Matterhorn include acclimatization, which can be gained short term, in a few days before the climb. If your other skill areas are strong, you may be able to get by with less thorough acclimatization. If they are weak, then acclimatization will become more important, in compensation.

Some degree of savvy about equipment is important. In order to minimize your of burden of work, you need to use equipment that is light weight and maximizes technical performance, which offers an expanded comfort range and freedom of motion. This is an area you can "borrow" from an expert: a guide or experienced advisor will help a great deal here.

Assuming a guided ascent, a very small minimum of technical knowledge to deal with the gear may be helpful, but really shouldn't be a factor, and you can get by without the development of judgment skills such as route finding, gear placement, pacing, mountain sense, etc.

Some degree of rock climbing skill in normal sense of the word is needed, that is the ability to use hands and feet on small holds on steep rock. Clearly rock climbing is the best practice for rock climbing. But climbing in the rock gym is a close second. Don't bother weight training unless there is absolutely no way to climb. Spend your time climbing, either in the gym or on real rock.

Much more important than anything else however, is the ability to scramble efficiently on exposed terrain. Mountain climbing is typically 20% technical climbing, and 80% garden variety scrambling over rough and exposed terrain. There are very good technical climbers who don't move skillfully on rough terrain, and vice versa. You must become skilled at scrambling. There's a psychological component to this, helping you deal with heights and exposure over a long period of time. There are also specific movement skills for moving over rough terrain, whether walking or climbing, that must be learned, and many people don't adequately appreciate that. Skilled scramblers are much more efficient and faster in moving over the ground. Skilled scramblers can make quick decisions and have fluidity of movement. Skilled scramblers have the confidence to face out while descending, which is much faster and less energy consuming than facing in. Skilled scramblers are less afraid of falling and for very good reason: they are less likely to fall.

Plain old physical fitness is obviously important. 80% of the fitness need is aerobic on a climb like the Matterhorn, where the 4000 feet of altitude must be climbed up, and down, in about 10 hours. The ability to put out for long periods of time, is something that must be specifically trained for. You should train that way. Unfortunately, most people train for shorter duration, 30 minutes to an hour of running in the afternoon. In order to train for long days, you'll have to put in long days. Long weekend outings are a must. Leg strength clearly more important than upper body, for a climb like this.

In short, in order to be successful on a climb, you have to divide up your training efforts among a range of strategies. Decide where your areas of strength are with respect to the different skills or conditions demanded by the climb, and work on your areas of weakness. Recognize that it's easier to bring up areas of weakness than to improve already good skills. Above all, don't underestimate the importance of skill in scrambling up and downhill. What with time constraints we all face, it's tempting to work primarily on technical expertise and strength. Scrambling demands a more kinesthetic kind of knowledge, more time consuming and elusive to acquire. If you work on scrambling and long term endurance (8-10 hour days), other things at the same time come into line: strength, aerobic capacity, balance etc.

Fortunately, all this stuff is pretty fun to do! So go on out there and enjoy. "Have fun and be careful", is what my Mom always says. And she knows best!

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