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Mountaineering Training | Reorienting Training in 2020

From RMI Guide Pete Van Deventer

This season brought about a different approach to training for me, as for so many of our guides and climbers. In a typical year, the summer guiding season counts for the vast majority of my “training” time. Multiple 12+ hour days a week in the mountains is a great way to build a deep aerobic base, and that leaves me free to fill in around workdays with activities that I enjoy (trail running, mountain biking, and ski touring top that list). While many of our climbers are training for a specific climb and many of our guides are counting those same climbs as training, the training principles between groups aren’t actually that different. Our climbers are trying to be at peak fitness for their climb to give themselves the best chance of reaching the summit, for guides the same training gives us the durability to do 10, 20, even 30 climbs a season without our bodies falling apart.

The cancellation of the climbing season this year necessitated a different approach for me. I count myself extremely lucky to live amongst Colorado’s Elk Mountains, with miles of trail running, mountain biking, ski touring, and peaks immediately accessible. With local trails one of the few outlets left to us this spring, I happily was putting in miles, finding new trails, and generally filling the aerobic base hole that the loss of the season brought. Just like everyone, I have my preferred activities, things that I count as training, but bring me personal joy as well. Ripping through swoopy single track on a mountain bike makes me grin, even if my heart is jumping out of my chest. Other activities aren’t so enjoyable, and they feel like training. I do them out of a sense of duty to the training plan, but I’m not smiling. Weight rooms top this list. I found as spring bled into summer, that I was putting a lot of time into the training activities that I liked, while totally dropping the ones I didn’t, and that was leaving a big hole in my fitness. I needed some structure.

Exercise is doing activities that stress the body and make our body work, while training is the programmed and strategic arrangement of patterns of exercise to increase performance and achieve a predetermined goal. It is difficult to put together a training plan if you do not have a goal. My goal became to build a base of specific strength and endurance to give me durability through the ski season, and I turned to our partners at Uphill Athlete for a 12-week Ski Mountaineering plan. Much of the plan involves activities that I enjoy: lots of trail running and some mountain biking for recovery workouts. There are also some twists that I usually don’t incorporate, but are fun: level 3 long interval workouts, and very short, all out hill sprints. There is also a strong focus on strength work, and though I struggle to be engaged by gyms, a different take on strength has actually been pretty fun and interesting. I’ve been doing a mixture of max strength, very low rep lifting work, as well as very high rep, very low weight muscular endurance work. Both are interesting in how the workout doesn’t necessarily feel taxing during, but for days after I find myself feeling the aftereffects. A bit sore, a bit depleted, but also seeing pretty quick improvements and results.

In Colorado, we got our first snow early, the last week of October. This kicks off the few weeks every year that feel awkward as an athlete. There is too much snow and mud on the trails to ride a mountain bike, but there isn’t enough snow to skin yet (my bar for this is pretty low, as skiing on grass still feels like skiing, but there isn’t enough even for me!). I went for a run up one of my favorite local mountain bike trails, and though the details of getting out the door were complicated (do I wear shorts because it’s in the 60s, or pants because I’ll be running through 4 or 5 inches of snow) I found a simple joy in picking my way through snow and mud and moving fast on foot on a trail that no one else seemed to be interested in taking.

I came back with renewed energy to train, running my local snowy, muddy trails until enough snow lands to allow me to ski. It has been a strange year to train, with gyms alternately open, closed, then open again, restrictions on our ability to get out and travel to our favorite places. I’d encourage everyone to set a training goal (or multiple), lean into what you can do, and blend the activities that leave you smiling with the others that are necessary to reach your goal.

Comments (5)

New to this climbing world, Started out with trail hiking the Grand canyon. Trying my first Mountain at the Grand Tetons in June of 2024. I have a friend that introduced me to kettle-bell work outs. An E.M.O.M. routine 6 days a week with one day of just step ups.
This has been a game changer for my fitness levels, Would highly recommend his program {Adventure fit by Derek Toshner} I adapted the workouts to fit my age and fitness one day kettlebell next day body weight routines. My age is 59, yesterday’s workout was a mile walk with a 44lb bell over head swing to switch arms every 100 steps, Seems easy right, not so much; back, forearms, legs, core, all engaged, an exercise that would help in pulling that 60 pound sled and increase cardio.

Posted by: Richard Hulbert on

I too followed Uphill Athlete’s 12-week program and then some.  Never trained harder in my life.  Still unable to summit Rainier after a second attempt.  The fitness requirements to summit that mountain truly elude me.  I had a great time being up there, but when you put in the months of hard work and dedication and still come up short, it is monumentally frustrating.  Bottom line mountaineering is no joke, and it demands a level of fitness that despite targeted training and motivated commitment, I still have not achieved.  I have immense respect for those who seem to have cracked the code and have made their goals a reality.  I only wish I knew where I am going wrong.

Posted by: Jordan Cook on

Thank you for the insight and your schedule for training is inspiring. For me training begins with not only the physical endurance aspect, but really the mental. Learning that the best physical in shape climber doesn’t summit in many cases just because of their mental training isn’t in the right place.

I just love Ed Viesturs quote “Reaching the summit is optional - getting back down is mandatory.” That is mental conditioning and smart climbing at it’s finest! He is my role model.

Posted by: J Osborn on

Thanks, Pete!

Posted by: Kendra Madrid on

Thank you for posting this! It’s encouraging and inspiring to know others are experiencing the same shift in plans and how they are going about staying active.

I don’t know about you, but I love to train and I agree when you said it is hard to train without a goal. Especially if goals have changed (or have been cancelled).

I have been training for my first summit climb and I live in Florida, so… training has been a bit less traditional but more focused on what I can do. (Lots of max incline treadmill exercises.) It’s been difficult with not being able to travel as easily to the mountains. However, I’ve been strength/endurance training and started climbing and bouldering for the first time. I’ve gained a ton of confidence and it has kept me mentally healthy. This is also something that I can keep track of my progress as well - which has been keeping me motivated and training better.

I hope everyone is staying safe and healthy and look forward to hearing more stories of the positive things we have accomplished during this unique time.

Posted by: Kathleen on

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