Wednesday, June 13, 2012

High Sierra Training

Temple Crag

The current literature on training for climbing centers on bouldering and sport climbing. Information on training for multi-pitch, alpine and big wall climbing is usually thrown in late with the chapter on kids, vegetarians and climbers over sixty. My extensive research into fitness and training for climbing has revealed very little useful information on the subject of training for big endurance days in the mountains. Although somewhat dated, Mark Twight’s book “Extreme Alpine Climbing” does successfully address the training needs of the serious alpinist. I have also heard rumors about an upcoming alpine training book by Steve House. The climbers training at garage gym don’t have time to climb all day at the crags three to four days a week as one author suggest.  Ruthlessly wired top rope laps are the most common practice to build endurance for long routes. While this isn’t a horrible idea if you’re training for the Rostrum-Astroman link-up, it’s not the type of endurance I’m talking about. 
Let’s say for example, your goal is to climb the Sun Ribbon ArĂȘte IV (5.9) on Temple Crag in the High Sierra, car to car in a day. This adventure requires roughly fourteen miles of round trip hiking, 10,000 feet of up and down elevation change and eighteen pitches of mostly sub-5.7 rock climbing to the 12,999-foot summit. This type of climbing is closer to ultra running than, say, doing The Regular route on Half Dome in a day. We’ll assume you have the technical expertise and experience to handle it. We’ll also assume that maybe your tough enough to survive it right now, but you might have a lot more fun if you were fit enough to style it. I chose to use the Sun Ribbon ArĂȘte car to car as an example because I’ve done a ton of this type of climbing and it typifies the High Sierra backcountry experience. Here are some training ideas that have worked for me.

Tim Best tags the summit of South Guard      
Power Hiking-This is not strolling along, checking out the view and identifying wild flowers. In fact, on the approach it should be too dark to see anything for about the first hour anyway. Power hiking is hiking with an elevated heart rate and a sense of urgency. The best way to training for power hiking is power hiking or trail running. Ultra runners typically use a combination of running on the flats and power hiking and puking on the hills. I used to run quite a bit until foot problems forced me on to a mountain bike. But I soon realized that while mountain biking is fun, and pretty good for building an aerobic base, it does little to prepare your body for the pounding of backcountry hiking and climbing with even a light pack. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way last summer when I tried to squeeze in a summers worth of backcountry climbing (see Simmons Peak blog entry) into a few weeks, and ended up with a stress fracture in my foot-again. So get out and hike….a lot! I would even suggest giving up part of some cragging days to get in some steep miles.
I’ve also started experimenting with kettlebell hikes. This involves power hiking with a kettlebell in a farmer’s carry (at your side) and switching hands as needed. I stop every five minutes or so to do step-ups on longs and rocks. On flat sections I do Kettlebell swings, Goblet squats and snatches. I also hike short sections with the Kettlebell held in a waiters carry (overhead). I’ll post more on kettlebell hiking in the future.

Alpine Rock Climbing-To be really good and fit for alpine rock climbing you need to be fast and solid with a minimal rack and sloppy boots on easy (sub 5.6) to moderate (sub 5.10) terrain. Easy? Not really. I’ve seen some pretty strong free climbers slowed to a crawl on loose and exposed Sierra ridges. British training guru Neil Gresham suggests that you need to practice your easy climbing, but he may have been talking about 5.11? So instead of trying to build endurance by doing top rope laps on 5.11 and 5.12, I found the best way to get strong and fast for alpine rock climbing is by climbing easier (preferably obscure multi-pitch) routes all day. Can your ego handle it?
Ultra runners rarely do any sprinting or speed work- it’s all about the miles. If you can’t get to the crags that often, it is possible to do some quality training for backcountry climbing in a gym, but it’s probably harder mentally (boring) than physically challenging. I’ve never trained specifically for backcountry climbing in a gym, but I have done some foundation work that looks something like this.

-Stairmaster x 60min. @ 60-70% max heart rate.
-Climbing wall x 500’ < 5.9
-Dumbbell, Barbell or Kettlebell complex x 6 rounds
-Climbing wall x 250’ < 5.9
-Burpees x 50
-Stairmaster x 30min cool down.

3x per week for 6 weeks.

         In the example above you should increase the intensity by adding weight to the load every week, or preferably, wearing a weighted vest for the entire workout. You could start with 2-3 pounds in the vest and increase it by 2-3 pounds a week. At first it may not seem like much, but by starting light and slowly increasing the weight, you will insure that your making progress while minimizing your risk of injury.

         Two a day. Ultra runners have been using this method with great results for years. A lot of fun hogs I know employ this method unwittingly by running or biking in the morning, then climbing in the afternoon. You could also workout in the morning then go for a power hike at lunch. The variations are endless, but you get the point.

Hardy Bullock ultra running 
         Core stability. Hiking on trials and loose talus with a pack requires a lot of core stability to keep you in balance, moving forward, and staying on your feet. Fortunately, you can train for this in a gym. Choose exercises that focus on rotational stability like barbell anti-rotation, kettlebell lunges w/ rotation, and my personal favorite-kettlebell collateral step-ups. To do this just hold a kettlebell over head in your right hand and step up onto a bench with you left leg 10 times, then switch sides. These are good for kettlebell hikes as well.

         Getting fit enough to do a route like Sun Ribbon car to car in a day is really about low intensity, high volume training. You will need to hike and climb a lot, not only for fitness, but to have the confidence to move quickly over a variety of terrain. Any indoor training, like the examples above, should be considered as a supplement to actual climbing and hiking. If time is tight, you’ll need to get creative. Power hiking can be done anywhere day or night. Actually, nighttime power hiking is a good idea. For inspiration and creative tips on training with a tight schedule checkout Dean Karnazes “Ultra Marathon Man.” And guess what? You just ran out of excuses!


  1. Hi- found your blog through a Supertopo post. I recently moved to the relative "flatlands" of Billings, MT for nursing school. Still able to get into the alpine on skis and for climbing every weekend but my midweek is now limited to gym time. Thus I found this post especially poignant. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the comment. Excellent choice going to nursing school. Check out my post titled "tips for the time crunched athlete" in the older post. I went to nursing school in Reno Nv while living in Truckee in a house full of semi-employed skiing and climbing bums. I had to stay home a lot of powder days to study. It's really a short period of sacrfice for a life time worth of reward. Good luck, Mike D.