training for a climbing expedition

BIG EXPEDITIONS INVOLVE JETLAG, dirty bus rides, long treks, and a grueling schedule played out over many weeks. The air will be thin and you’ll be lugging packs, post-holing, and sleeping in cramped spaces. You’ll be too hot and too cold, dehydrated and hypoxic. Arriving at the mountain, just starting actual climbing demands a six-hour approach through steep talus and deep snow, lugging a monstrous load. How to prepare?

Climbing mountains is unique in the world of outdoor activities. It combines the athleticism of a triathlete and the dedication of a warrior in the most dangerous terrain on the planet. It’s an uphill pursuit demanding strong legs, cardiovascular fitness, and the technical ability to climb fast and safe over rock, ice, and snow. Mountaineering is more than a sport, transcending mere athletics into an unpredictable competition where “losing” might prove fatal. It’s a tall order to train for all the above, especially when you have to work full-time and have family and life responsibilities. However, dedicated, consisted training can get you where you want to be, no matter what else you have on your plate. Inclement weather, avalanches, collapsing seracs, and thin air can’t be controlled, but you can control how much preparation you do in the form of hard work and smart training.

Any successful expedition climber stands on a bedrock of endurance. Endurance is more than being able to run a marathon (though that wouldn’t hurt). It requires durable, all-around fitness. Mental and physical attributes intertwine with technical skills in what can unfold into a life-and-death drama. Expedition travel, approach, and time on the mountain play out over weeks or months and demand completion of critical tasks under duress. Start any big expedition training program by building cardiovascular fitness. This is the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen-rich blood to the working muscle tissues, and the ability of the muscles to use oxygen to produce energy for movement. In other words, it's the ability to keep going up for longer periods of time. Cardio training taps aerobic and anaerobic systems.
Part 1 - Build A Base
Start out by creating a base of fitness. You need to train in order to train, if that makes sense. Depending on your level of fitness, spend 4 to 6 weeks doing cardio at least three days per week. The following exercises are the perfect place to start.
  • RUN – Running is an efficient training tool. Do at least 30 minutes per session, several times per week. Added length and frequency will be based on your training plan.
  • HIKE – Hike long distances or uphill with a pack. Once again, the intensity and duration are up to you, or your trainer. If also honing skills by rock climbing, use long approaches to double up.
  • CYCLING AND BACKCOUNTRY SKIING – Good activities to build into your program if you have access to the tools and the terrain. Indoor Options – Many standard fitness gyms offer Stairmasters, treadmills, and floor space to do intervals.
Part 2 – Increase Resistance and Duration and Add Relevant Movement
If satisfied with your base fitness, lengthen the duration of exercise, do resistance exercises, and add interval training.
  • Complete brief (30-second) sprints throughout a longer run.
  • Do 30-minute high intensity rides on your bike.
  • 20-minute treadmill sessions, alternating 30-second sprints with 30-second jogging intervals.
  • Hike uphill with 30-second runs between 30-second slow-hike intervals. You can add a pack with weight to increase resistance.
  • Weightlifting, like bench-press, military press, and bicep curls.
  • Bodyweight exercise like push-ups, chin-ups, and one-leg pistol squats.
  • Core training like crunches, sit-ups, roll-outs, and planks.
Motor fitness allows you to do your training in the context of real life movement, which translates directly to carrying a heavy pack on uneven terrain, for hours at a time, day after day. These exercises can be integrated after building your base.
  • Trail run on uneven terrain.
  • Yoga—a good idea to do consistently.
  • Balance exercises, can do weightlifting and core exercises on a balance ball, or attempt standing exercises on a single leg.
  • Tai chi—as with yoga, a good thing to do consistently if preferred.
  • Slacklining.
Part 3 - Add Technical Skills
Training up your technical skills should be the fun part of your program. This phase might last a month or more. Mountains are composed of rock, ice, and snow, and before planning any expedition, you should have minimal proficiency in climbing all three. Keep maintaining your base aerobic and anaerobic fitness, but make sure you’re adding in technical climbing as well.

Gym – Work on basic strength for the genre of climbing you anticipate. Indoors is also a good place to practice rope skills, find clinics, and seek professional guidance.

Rock/Ice Climbing – If you live near crags, make climbing a regular part of your week. Do long approaches (or run/bike to the crag) to mimic longer days. Enchain routes for more technical climbing. Practice relevant rope systems.

Travel – Visit best-in-class venues to stay motivated and keep your skills fresh. A nice trip is a reward for your hard work, but keep on the program by interspersing the climbing with a few runs.

Mimic what you intend to climb. If your objective involves technical ice, then by all means put your time in winter climbing. If you plan to climb Trango Tower, then a trip up El Cap is a good idea. If you are looking at Everest, then become proficient in the snow and ascending fixed ropes.

Consistency is key. There are many ways to train, but what that looks like is dependent on time, necessity, and preference.
Structure Your Program
Even if you are climbing four days a week, you’ll need to add an aerobic component. If completely deskbound, a very focused weekly schedule is efficient. Use weekends to your advantage. Personal trainers will provide a program, schedule, and feedback tailored to your needs. They also provide a big motivator—accountability through consultation and guidance. Most of us fall in between these extremes of completely deskbound and active all day, so tailor your training program to the realities of daily life. You can take the self-starter approach or go all-in for a trainer. Regardless, seeking expert advice (like this article!) is vital.
For some, the DIY approach works. Do your research on the web, get a mountaineering training book, and ask the experts. If you have the lifestyle, you can take an unstructured approach—long days, mixed with high frequency and high volume activities—usually climbing, backcountry skiing, and climbing local peaks. One famous alpinist prior to a big climb spent the summer building log fences—alone and by hand—between the odd day of rock climbing.
Most of us are too busy to self-prescribe a regimen and fewer yet can maintain a self-imposed schedule. We all need help. For those of us who need a lot of help and have the resources, a personal trainer is a perfect way to get the most out of your limited time. Any trainer will stress rest, solid sleep, and a nutritious diet to supports your training efforts. To locate training resources, Google “Mountaineering Training” and you’ll see numerous options.
Mental Training
Chances are if you’ve stuck with your training program over a couple months, you’ll have had to find some internal strength and mental reserves you might not have known were there. Every time you get up and go train your body, you’re training your mind as well, so whatever training you do is pulling double duty. However, there’s an extra step you can take to train your brain, and that’s visualization. Top athletes in all sports use this process to succeed in their respective endeavors, and expedition climbers can do the same thing. Take time every day to sit and think about what the trip will be like. Do it over your morning coffee or before you go to sleep at night, but picture yourself on the mountain. Picture yourself in the midst of a long day, still a few hundred feet from the summit, tired, hungry, scared, and unsure. How will you react? See yourself forging ahead, still moving toward the top, really going after your goal even when you feel like quitting. Imagine the 40mph winds, the blowing snow, and the frustration of postholing to your waist yet again. The more you can face these realities beforehand, the better you’ll deal when you’re in them.
pro tips for training for a climbing expedition
  • Luke Smithwick—Find an Online Training Program. “We live in an age where there are coaches that specialize in training people for mountaineering and uphill pursuits. Some offer pre-packaged plans where you work things through on the phone or in emails. It’s a great start for most people.”
  • Garrett Madison—Hire a Trainer. “I work with trainers who help my climbers prepare for big peaks, and they do a great job of helping individuals get where they need to be to succeed and enjoy the experience. I think everyone will agree, it just feels awesome to be in great shape!”
  • Luke Smithwick—Build Base Fitness. “If you don’t have it, get it. Your body, in order to make advances, needs to be prepared to handle a training load. For six to eight weeks or longer, depending on how active you are, create a base so your body can handle training.“
  • Garrett Madison—Mirror the Activity. “I think the best training for mountaineering is to replicate the activity as closely as possible. If you can get outside on hills, hike stairs, or even get on the stair-mill at the gym with a weighted pack, I think that is good training for the mountains.”
  • Luke Smithwick—Rest. “Resting is really important for recovery and staying healthy. Go into your expedition travel with plenty of rest, because you’ll be exposed to bacteria and pollution the minute you land in a place like Kathmandu.”
  • Garrett Madison—Hike in the Urban World. “If you live in a city and can’t get outdoors, you can haul a book-filled pack up and down multiple flights of stairs. Also, do exercises that use several muscle groups and require coordinated movements, like squats, kettlebell swings, snatch-and-cleans, and Olympic barbells.”