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Mountaineering Training | How I Train For The 8000m Arena

For the last 2 years, my focus in my personal climbing has been climbing 8000m Himalayan peaks solo, without the aid of supplemental oxygen.  My training program has to reflect the increased mental and physical strains that climbing in this style demands. My training must change significantly depending on the season of my next expedition - spring versus autumn. The difference lies in what I have been doing already leading up to a climb.  My summertime climbs working as a guide on Mt. Rainier are a fantastic aerobic base to train from since the terrain, techniques, and exertion mimic much of the climbing on 8000m peaks. Nothing beats the real thing for training.  Since I have not been climbing Mt. Rainier weekly leading up to a Spring climb, I have to dedicate more training time to endurance workouts around my winter-time home in the Sierras.  I find that my perceived fitness changes a lot between seasons; in the spring I am able to move faster but with less endurance, while in the autumn I feel a deep reservoir of endurance but a lack of speed. I break my training into blocks of 10 days, rather than weeks, with each 10 day block building on the last in terms of intensity, distance, and strength.  A sample 10 day block would look something like this (descriptions of each workout are below): Spring Training • 1 climb with a gain of 5,000’ or more (moving as fast as I can maintain for 2 hour stretches) • 3 trail runs with a gains of 2,500’ + • Multi-muscle lifting 2x • Enduro lifting 1x • Anaerobic Intervals: 8 intervals, 1x • Rest day 2x During the course of my total training program, I also include 2 single push 20+ hour ascents.   Autumn Training • 2x Mt. Rainier summit climbs (18,000 – 27,000ft vertical gain total) (4 days total) • Trail run 2x with 2500ft+ gain • Multi-muscle lifting 1x • Enduro lifting 1x • Anaerobic intervals: 8 intervals, 1x • Rest Day 1x Similar to my Spring training program, during the summer months leading up to an Autumn climb, I include 4-5 Muir Snowfield “sprints” (goal of sub 2hrs).  If I am not working on Mt. Rainier, I substitute another snow climb of a constant grade with gains of 4000 – 5000’.   Specific descriptions of each workout: Multi-muscle lifting: Clean and Jerk, Deadlifts, Power snatch (Olympic style lifting).  I frequently add a Bosu ball (a squishy rubber half circle) into some of my lifting exercises  for a balance component. Enduro lifting: I think of this as anything I can do 15 to 20 reps of, whether push-ups, sit ups, pull-ups, excercises on a weight machine, barbell lifting or Olympic style lifting, and core exercises. My goal for lifting is not to bulk up, but to ensure I have a solid strength base. Anaerobic Intervals: The goal is to get into my max heart rate zone for as long as I can handle (no more than 2 min, or the anaerobic component is lost). Techniques I “enjoy” are wind sprints, spinning machines, rowing machines or deadlifts. I find that I perform best coming off a solid 2 day rest. Single Push Ascents: Within my training window I’ll try for a few 20+ hour, single push ascents. These provide a great training benchmark for my physical fitness, and help me build the mental fortitude that long 8000m summit days require “Snowfield sprints”: I try to find easy to moderate snow climbs, so that the focus is on aerobic fitness and not technical proficiency. My goal is to either single push through the entire ascent or take quick 5 minute maintenance breaks every 2 hrs. I keep the stress high, near my aerobic threshold for the duration of the climb.  My go-to choices have been Mt. Baldy outside of Los Angeles and the Muir Snowfield.   Maximizing my training gains: First off, I have days that I don’t stick to the plan. It’s totally ok! There are days that I just curl up with a box of Cheez-its and watch Netflix. My mind and body need time to recover and its important that I listen to those signals. With a good day of rest, I head into my next workout ready to push until exhaustion! My plan also has to incorporate the terrain that I have at my disposal. This requires shifting my exercises from the plan somewhat, still with the intention to accomplish the given task: trail runs and body weight exercises to replace lifting can still accomplish my goals of strength and balance training, and give my body new stresses. I try not to sweat missing a particular workout if the terrain simply is not conducive, and focus instead on what I can accomplish. I change things up, and try to avoid too much of a routine. I know the ways I want to stress my body within this 10 day block but how I go about it changes regularly. For example, I keep a list of strength exercises I use on the wall as an easy way to - at a glance - select a new routine for the day. Good training partners are essential: their routine will likely take my body out of any established routine I have created, and the extra motivation is invaluable. I add exercises I find fun and effective so that I have a broader program to pull from. I pay special attention to my diet and nutrition during these intense training periods as well: what I eat can have a huge effect on my recovery and the gains I take away from training. My plan is a constant work in progress, and is always shifting with the new demands that each new climb might bring.  I try to take time after each climb to assess what worked and what didn’t so that my training is even more effective the next time around. _____ Alex Barber is an associate guide at RMI Expeditions and splits his time between the beaches of Southern California and mountains around the world. Last Autumn, Alex made the summit of Cho Oyu, solo and without bottled oxygen. This past Spring, he made it to 7600m on Shishpangma's Inaki Route. He summited 8156m Manaslu on October 1st, for his third Himalayan climb. Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!

Comments (1)

Thank you Alex for sharing insight on your training plan. This is a Top-5 training advice article for mountaineering. I have received the RMI training blog in the three years and in many regards this was the most helpful. I have saved this one to refer to often. Thanks again.

Posted by: TimR on

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