Sharpening the Ax

Sunrise on the Avenue of the Volcanoes: (from left to right) Iliniza Sur, Ilinza Norte, and Corazon from the Northwest flank of Vulcan Cotopaxi (19,347’) Ecuador, December 25, 2012. Photo courtesy of Jason Kolaczkowski.
Sunrise on the Avenue of the Volcanoes: (from left to right) Iliniza Sur, Ilinza Norte, and Corazon from the Northwest flank of Vulcan Cotopaxi (19,347’) Ecuador, December 25, 2012. Photo courtesy of Jason Kolaczkowski.

Every big climb starts with fitness. I’m as big into logistics and planning as any climber, probably more so; but in the end, your body must be able to execute the plan. You cannot see sunrises like the one I was fortunate enough to have as my Christmas present while on Cotopaxi if you can’t propel yourself up the mountain to take in the view.

So how do I get my body ready for a big climb?

I take a fairly analytical approach to my climbing, and that includes my fitness plan. Growing up a soccer player, I’m used to following training plans that take a phased approach to improving fitness. You can’t be at peak fitness all of the time, as training actually makes you weaker. It’s the recovery periods after training that make you stronger.

So, I develop a training calendar that moves through the phases of establishing base fitness, to improving work efficiency, to training specific for my climb, and then finally to the all important recovery – or tapering – period, just prior to the expedition.

There is a relatively new book out there offers a very readable and practical guide to establishing just such a fitness plan, and I highly recommend it. If you can, pick up a copy of Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnson (Patagonia Books, 2014).

Of course, a book is no replacement for expert medical advice. Consult your physician before taking on new fitness activities. I always talk to my doctor as my climbing plans evolve.

I’m currently about 10 months out from the Denali climb. Right now, I’m simply establishing a fitness base that will make more robust training possible as I get closer to the climb. My keys for establishing base fitness for a high peak climb are:

  • Aerobic capacity – I need to be able to sustain work at an aerobic heart rate for many hours. I spend an hour every morning walking a treadmill at an incline, speed, and pack weight that keeps me at the top end of my aerobic heart rate. As I improve fitness, the incline, speed, and weight increase while my heart rate stays the same.
  • Carrying capacity – Denali requires a heavy pack; ideally, I want to be used to carrying a pack that is heavier than the one I will actually be using on the climb. My treadmill workouts add five pounds to the pack every 3-4 weeks. Right now, I’m at 75 pounds.
  • Leg endurance – My legs need to be used to multiple days in a row of significant effort. So, I do the heavy pack treadmill workouts every weekday with rest days or actual climbs (with standard packs) on the weekends.
  • Core strength – Climbing of any type requires significant core strength and endurance. Besides the treadmill work, the bulk of my resistance training is spent on core exercises.
  • Strength to weight ratio – I want to get stronger without getting bigger (which would force me to haul more body weight up the mountain). This is also important for improving efficiency. I want the maximum work I can do to be much greater than my “base effort.” For example, if I can do a step up carrying an extra 80 pounds, and that is my max step up weight, then a body weight (or base weight) step up uses that much less energy. The further away my max gets from my base, the less energy a base movement takes. I pick a few climbing movement exercises to work on max strength.
  • Knee rehabilitation – Of course given my ACL reconstructions, I also perform a rotating series of exercises that are designed to build strength around my knee joint.

Below is a short video of what my workout routine is, right now. Every morning, often times at 4am if I have an early appointment at work, I get up and perform the routine. It takes about two and a half hours. I can’t leave it for the end of the day because work can oftentimes interfere. The early morning workout ensures that, no matter how bad my day gets, I’ve done something that day to prepare.

As I get closer to the climb, the routine will move through the phases I described progressively spending less time on base fitness and more time on anaerobic and climbing specific work.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” A climb starts with fitness. Right now, 10 months out from Denali, I’m sharpening the ax.


Until next time, climb high and climb safe,


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