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Mountaineering Training | RMI Guide Billy Haas’ Efficiency Techniques for the Mountains

As climbers we make every effort to be as lazy as possible.  We seek to accomplish our goals and objectives with as little effort as necessary, and will cringe at the idea of making something harder than it needs to be.  This may seem contrary to the image of climbing as an extreme activity during which many people find their physical and mental limit. However, a we often choose objectives that are at the peak of our abilities and thus we are required to maximize efficiency in our effort if we are to succeed.  What I refer to tongue-in-cheek as laziness is in reality efficiency: efficiency, which can be found in every aspect of mountain existence.  Whether it be the way a rock climber positions their body on a route or an alpine climber packs for an expedition, success in the mountains involves high levels of efficiency.  

There some methods of efficiency that don’t directly involve the physical act of climbing but rather things you can do prior to and while climbing that can give you a leg up. I refer to these as “putting money in the bank.”  I think that saying came from a high school teacher referring to gimme questions on an exam, but for me “money in the bank” means any techniques or tricks that can give you an efficiency advantage in the mountains.  I would like to share some of the things I’ve learned from my time in the mountains with a specific focus on climbing Mt. Rainier:

  • A great place to start improving your efficiency in the mountains begins with your equipment: what equipment are you using and does it work for you? Place a high priority on critical items such as boots and or packs, and worry less about items such as a fancy headlamp or spork.  For me, a well-fit boot that is designed for the type of climbing I am doing is imperative.  A good boot can mean the difference between a successful summit and a failed attempt; blisters and cold feet should never thwart a climber’s chance at the summit.  In addition, find a climbing pack that carries weight well and fits you properly.  Forget all the fancy features and pockets; a simple and minimalist pack that fits and carries weight well is what I look for.  You might be able to get by with an old pack or a warm weather climbing boot, but why chance it? Having the right gear for the task makes for one less thing that could slow you down.
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  • Maintaining your gear makes a big difference too.  I regularly spend a few hours taking care of small issues that have cropped up with my equipment to make sure that everything is going to work well when I need it to and not fail when it really counts.  I trust my life to my equipment and so do others.  For example, I frequently re-waterproof my gloves and Gore-Tex jackets.  A headlamp is no good if your batteries run out, and a boot will not work as well if the laces snap.  Not every piece of equipment needs to be new, but it does need to work properly.  Climbing is too much fun to be hampered by equipment issues!
  • With the right gear and everything dialed in, you need to pack it all up.  As guides, we seem to have a magical ability to pack 50 liters of gear into a 30 liter pack, but what may seem to be magic is really just some good common sense.  My favorite metaphor for packing is “brick and mortar.”  Some of your items are going to be bricks (eg: sleeping bag in stuff sack) and some are going to be mortar (eg: puffy jacket).  When packing, also consider multi-use items.  A 1/2 liter nalgene makes for a great coffee mug and can also carry an extra 1/2 liter of water when you need it.  You want to maximize space and value in your pack.  Crampons don’t need a crampon case, since quite often wrapping them in your gaiters works just fine and saves space and weight.  Putting some time and thought into a well-packed kit can often fit in a smaller pack.  Smaller packs equal lighter packs, giving you a little more money in the bank.
  • With packing complete, there are still a few more things you can do before a climb that will get you ahead.  For me this starts with my nutrition and hydration.  On Mt. Rainier, I’ve found that from the time I leave home in the morning to the time my team is hiking out of Paradise (approx. 1.5 hours), I can easily sip down a liter of water.  Don’t chug water, but slowly sip a liter in the morning and on the bus ride to Paradise. This will help make sure that you are hydrated for the beginning of your climb.  Pre-hydration, which can start as early as the night before, allows me to bring less water during a climb (less weight), and helps prevent dehydration.  I can recover more quickly, and can focus on other aspects of the climb instead of staving off dehydration.
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  • With regards to nutrition, my best suggestion is to learn your own body.  I know how much fuel my body needs at a high level of activity, which is less than some of my friends but definitely more than others.  For two-day trips such as Mt. Rainer, I try to be as precise as I can with the amount of food I bring.  Start by factoring around 200 calories per break and then adjust from there to your specific needs.  In addition to that, bring foods you enjoy eating and can eat while exercising.  I love pizza, but definitely wouldn’t want a slice in the middle of a climb.  Remember; when we climb at altitude the effort is roughly similar to how our bodies feel during a slow jog.  Focus on foods that hold a lot of caloric value.  By bringing the right food and bring only the food you’ll need, you’ll save space and carry less weight.
  • Lastly, be efficient with your time.  When taking a break, maximize your time resting and recovering. Get your self-care chores done early and quickly so that you get as much time off of your feet as possible.  This applies to getting to camp also.  Take care of business first so that you spend a maximum amount of time recovering later.  Use momentum to your advantage: we take short breaks so we do not lose our momentum, and when you roll into camp use that same momentum to set up and settle in before you are too tired to do the things you should have done.  This might be setting up camp or dealing with a pesky blister; the sooner you get it done the sooner you can rest.  Keep in mind that even if we feel great we still need to recover!

These are just a few theories on how to be more efficient while climbing.  Climbers are constantly in opposition with gravity and time, so a light pack will allow us to expend less energy, and quick recoveries will make us stronger for the next day.  Every bit of money in the bank you can save will give you a better chance of success on the mountain, and will be one less issue to worry about.  Learn from others, and learn what works best for you.  Take the time to find the right gear, pack well, eat and drink right, and maximize your rest because the climb is not getting any easier and the mountains are not getting any smaller!
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Billy Haas guides trips on Mt. Rainier, Mt. McKinley, and abroad for RMI Expeditions. When not traveling to mountains around the world to climb or ski, Billy guides backcountry skiing and teaches avalanche courses in Salt Lake City, UT.

Questions? Comments? What are your suggestions for staying efficient in the mountains? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog


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