Training for Alpine Objectives

Hey Steph, I have aspirations to head into the greater ranges to test my mettle and achieve some alpine goals. I don’t have many alpine routes on my resume and I struggle to keep up in deep snow or on steep slopes, particularly with male partners. That said, I move confidently on loose and exposed terrain, operate well at altitude, and can shoulder a heavy pack for long distances (I’m small but have always made a habit of taking half the weight!). I think I have some of the attributes necessary for alpine climbing, but know that my fitness is not where it needs to be.

My question for you is how you have prepared for alpine objectives like in Patagonia or the Karakoram? Do you follow a training regimen and how do you balance climbing fitness with cardio fitness? I have over a year to prepare for my next objective and want to be judicious about how I spend my free time, especially since I live in the city M-F and work full-time at a desk. I have read Training for the New Alpinism but would love to hear about your approach!

P.S. since I’m writing…I should say that you are an incredible inspiration to me not only in terms of climbing, but how to live meaningfully. Thank you for being a role model to so many and so openly sharing your life.

Hi Alissa,
Most of the activities I do seem to be 90% hiking uphill with a pack on and 10% the alleged activity itself. At my bodyweight (120 pounds), I feel pretty good with a 10-15 pound pack, but as soon as it gets over 15 pounds, it makes it a lot harder for me to carry up for long periods at a fast pace. So I have to focus hard on two things: first, getting the pack weight down as low as possible (more on that later). And second, training specifically for carrying things uphill. Trail running, peak bagging and nordic skiing are fun, but they really don’t give me the fitness I need for hiking up with weight so I don’t consider them training–those things are in the category of recreation/base fitness.

If I know I’m going on a trip where pack carrying is pretty much the main activity (alpine climbing, wingsuit BASE jumping), I change ALL my training focus to pack carrying 4-8 weeks before the trip. This is not completely fun (though it gets more fun as you get more fit) and it also represents a sacrifice because you’re going to lose rock climbing fitness both before and during your trip and have a hard re-entry for that after the trip–the curse of multi-sporting. But I have learned that if I don’t do this, I will suffer a lot on the trip, only getting in shape at the end when it’s time to leave which is REALLY annoying, and I’m also a lot less likely to succeed at my objectives, so I have to do it. The climbing is never the problem, it’s just the carrying things uphill.

In my Patagonia years, with the trip planned for January, I would stop desert climbing completely at the exact perfect climbing season (November and December…heartbreaker!) and drive up to the Lasal mountains every day to break trail uphill in showshoes (with poles) with a backpack of full water bottles and some good techno music in my earbuds. On the way down I would empty out the water bottles.

Unfortunately I can’t seem to reduce the weight of my wingsuit BASE pack to less than 20 pounds (which is well above my comfortable weight of 10-15 pounds)–and I have to be really sparing with the amount of food, water and clothing I add. This gets very hard on a wingsuit BASE trip to Europe, where we are there to jump and we are doing big hikes day after day after day and not wanting to take rest days. To get ready for those summer trips, I’ll do summer Lasals training in May and June: most of the summits are between 11,000 and 12,000 feet with long shifting talus slopes. I use my same method, of doing these hikes with 22 pounds of water in my pack and trekking poles, so it’s just a little heavier than my real pack, and empty the water out before the hike down. The hikes themselves are very fun, but carrying that much weight is not–but the training has to be done. Depending on what you have access to, this can be done up beautiful mountains, stairs in a building or a stadium, or a stairmaster (sorry!!!).

Aside from season specific focus, I hike uphill daily all the time at least an hour, whether for BASE jumping or climbing where I have a pack on, or else just to take the dog for a walk without a pack on. I also do lunges, squats and deadlifts in the gym 2-3 times a week, along with my more complete upper body and climbing specific workouts. Because carrying packs up is unfortunately always 90% of everything I do 🙂

Back to the weight issue: if you and your partner think of yourselves as a team rather than individuals you need to be analytical about how much weight each person is carrying from that perspective. This isn’t just about carrying backpacks, by the way. If you’re going into the mountains with someone, you are trusting each other with your lives, and you MUST think of yourselves as a team rather than individuals as soon as you leave the frontcountry. But it is also about carrying backpacks.

If one of you weighs 200 pounds and one of you weighs 110 pounds, splitting the actual weight 50/50 doesn’t make sense. If you do that, one of you will be carrying a much higher percentage of their body weight, and this will slow down the team significantly. For optimum efficiency and the best chance of success, you want to make sure each individual is proportionately carrying the same load as a percentage of body weight. You’ll need to do some math and figure out what percentage of your body weight you should be carrying to be equal, and then what that weighs out to be with the actual gear. This is where people’s egos can make it weird: usually the lighter person wants to prove they “can carry their weight” and doesn’t want to take less actual weight, even though by doing so the team will be evenly loaded proportionate to bodyweight. You’ll be much better served as a team to let go of thinking of yourself as an individual, and you’ll have a much higher chance of success.

I also really recommend getting hyper analytical about weight with every last shred of your gear, from boots and crampons to helmet and clothing, stove, fuel and food. Find out how much each thing weighs and make real decisions about each thing. The difference of a pound is a significant difference, and every single thing you’re wearing or carrying adds up. This is where is an amazing resource: you can call up and get connected with one specific Gearhead who will do all this research for you. And, they will not be annoyed, they actually love it 🙂

I strongly recommend replacing all of your gear with the absolute lightest everything and ruthlessly cutting excess items, and even physically cutting off any buckles, straps, clothing labels, handles, etc that are not truly necessary. If you take a militant approach to your gear weight, you will most likely save yourself enough total weight to be worth it.

Hope that helps, and good luck on your trip!

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