Oct 3, 2004

mountaineering fitness

Many people ask us what they should do to prepare themselves for a summit climb. Although there is no single “best” method, the following information should help you create an effective preparation plan for your climb.

  • The key to general mountaineering is aerobic fitness. You should be a very strong walker. Weekend hikes, extended walks around town, increased use of the stairs, getting off the bus a few stops early - all of these things will help you get in shape for climbing. It is important, however, to begin these regimens as early as possible - one hike or one week of after-work walks will not appreciably increase your fitness level.

  • The actual climb days are long: usually 10 to 12 hours of nearly continuous movement. However, the pace is quite a bit slower than you might think, so your training should concentrate much more on continuous movement over many hours, rather than on sprints or speed. Its better conditioning to walk 4 miles without stopping, than 6 miles with several long breaks for lattes (seriously!).

  • To put these climbs in the perspective of speed, understand that most of our actual summit climbs do not exceed 6 miles round trip, and yet they may take us 10 hours or more to complete. On a trail, that would be an intolerably slow pace, but on snow, and at higher altitudes, you will not need to break this roughly one-mile-per-hour speed limit. You will just need to keep going.

  • If you use a gym, the most useful equipment will be the treadmill and the stair-stepper, and to a lesser degree the stationary bike. Consider walking the treadmill at a rapid pace rather than running, but going for a longer period of time. Likewise with the stair-stepper, keep the pace slow but go for longer intervals.

  • Doing any kind of training or hiking at higher elevations immediately prior to a climb will help your body acclimatize to the altitude. Walking or hiking is better than bicycling because you are using the same muscle groups you will need for the climb. Cycling is great exercise, but not as effective for mountaineering preparation as being on your feet.

  • Hikes in the Columbia Gorge are perhaps the single best conditioning for mountain climbing because they tend to be quite steep. These hikes are superior to working out in a gym for several reasons: they keep you going for longer intervals, they help to train your sense of balance and they take place at greater altitude. Since most of us can’t get to the Gorge more than once a week, remember to supplement your hikes with the gym or with walks near home.

  • What you eat and drink just prior to a climb also matters. Carbohydrate-rich foods are generally good. Greasy, overly spicy or dairy-rich foods are not so good. Hydration in advance of the trip is very important. Drink more water than you normally do and less of coffee, tea or cocoa, as these are diuretics and contribute to fluid loss. It is also important to restrict or eliminate alcohol consumption prior to your climb.

  • Do not discount the effects of a positive attitude! Don’t let fatigue on a longer hike cause you to lose confidence in your ability to climb a peak. It’s almost physically impossible to hike as slowly as you will be climbing on the mountain. Many people of only average fitness have climbed Mt. Hood at the pace we set. Most of those who have not made the summit were actually feeling ill or had adverse reactions to the altitude, both of which are statistically quite rare. We have climbed recently to 10,000 feet with a ninety year-old, and to the summit with a blind climber. In these cases attitude mattered much more than altitude!

  • If you have significantly improved your fitness level, are well rested, well hydrated, have eaten responsibly just prior to your climb, and can maintain your positive attitude, you will be in a great position to make the summit, and to enjoy the process of climbing the mountain.