RMI Expeditions Blog
Before the big mountain bug bit me, I viewed snow as a blanket that came in the winter and lay quietly in place ‘til spring’s thaw. All that changed when I decided it wise to educate myself about avalanches. Taking part in the introductory Level 1 avalanche education course, I quickly learned how the snowpack, terrain, and triggers (like climbers or cornice falls) can transform that quiet blanket into a raging white dragon. Interested in learning more about this beast, I enrolled in a Level 2 avalanche course a few years later, and came to understand that each layer of snow that falls forms something of geologic record in that season’s snowpack: if the snow falls warm, that layer will stay warm for a long time; if hail falls, it can be evident in the snowpack months later. Even more incredibly—similar to plates of geologic sedimentary matter—that seemingly silent white winter blanket is often actively undergoing radical metamorphosis due to vapor and temperature differences in the layers.
This February—with the support of the RMI Guide Grant—I participated in a Level 3 course. It’s something of a graduate level course in the University of Avalanches: A rigorous curriculum that explores the intricacies of snowpack dynamics and the techniques used to assess how stable the snowpack is. Our course took place in the Wasatch Mountains and it began a few days after one of that area’s avalanche forecasters had declared it one of the weirdest snowpacks ever. An excellent classroom had been arranged!
A key focus of the course was learning to quickly identify weak layers in the snowpack and then to assess the structure of that instability. One aspect of instability has to do with the kinds of snow crystals in between the layers. A Cliff Notes summary would be: square ones are bad, round ones are good. But how can you tell with something so small? Were they the good guys or the bad guys? First, I had to identify which layer to look at, a process of first poking the snow with my finger to determine layer interfaces, and then prodding it with a fist, four fingers, one finger, a pencil, or a knife to get some grip on the specific hardnesses. Once all that was established, it was time to sort out the good from the bad. Somewhat ironically, amidst all of the grandeur of the Wasatch, I was often peering into the little lens of a snow microscope looking at the edges of myriad little bits of snow to determine their personalities.
Ultimately, beyond peering down a microscope, knowing the snow is a very sensory experience, incorporating sight, sound, and touch in order to determine its stability: windslabs are often squeaky like styrofoam, while faceted grains bounce off a gloved hand and make for a poor snowball. Of course, once stability is determined, the sensory experience is the pure enjoyment—how well does it ski? Through careful tracking of the Wasatch area over our week of study, we knew that north aspects were retaining the best snow. So, after our final exam, involving each person doing a complete analysis of the season’s snowpack and weaknesses, we gathered together for a final run back into the front-country. We ripped our skins and then laid tracks down a beautiful bowl, each up us kicking up huge roostertails of powder joy—a reward for all of our diligent study.
The pleasures of backcountry skiing and the benefits of big mountain climbing with skis are becoming increasingly known in the outdoor world and RMI is right out in front of the trend. Safely partaking of those pleasures and benefits involves really coming to know the snow. While in its essence knowledge of the snow is like knowledge itself, where “The more one knows the more one knows they don’t completely understand,” coming away from the Level 3 avalanche course, I feel good in knowing that I’m keeping the learning edge sharp. That sharp edge will aid me whether cramponing up alpine routes on Rainier or schussing down couloirs in the North Cascades.
March 1, 2016
Categories: Mountaineering Fitness & Training
As athletes, we tend to preference the training activities that we enjoy doing and are also best at. It’s entirely natural for these tendencies to crop up, but often they do so at the expense of those workouts that we don’t enjoy as much or struggle with. This can affect both the quality and quantity of those less enticing activities. For instance, as people that enjoy spending time in the mountains, your weekend five-hour hike with a pack may be the highlight of your whole week and you may find yourself pushing those five hours to six or seven, seeking out new destinations. The mid-week weight room or interval workout that you dread however may be the first item on your calendar that is expendable, pushed out by the sudden schedule conflict that arises.
Cross training is a great way to find new ways to accomplish the workouts that you don’t enjoy, and to focus on an underserved portion of your training. In general, while we want to keep the bulk of our training focused towards mountaineering (walking up and downhill with heavy weight), some training outside of that goal will still bring benefits. If you have been training a lot of cardiovascular, working on leg strength is going to help you carry your pack. Flexibility will help to prevent injuries, and keep your muscles working optimally. Thus, seek out opportunities for interesting new ways to accomplish your training goals.
Anaerobic: Nearly all ball sports have a heavy anaerobic interval component to them. Think about the last time you watched or played a soccer game: players spend a good portion of the time walking or jogging up and down the field without the ball, interspersed with flurries of dead out sprints to or with the ball. Pick your favorite and try to find a pickup game or league nearby. Similarly, tennis, racquetball, and squash all will get you to that anaerobic zone. Mountain biking is another great natural interval sport, as it boosts your heart rate on nearly every climb, with a recovery roll afterwards.
Strength: Rock climbing gyms and yoga studios are a great place to seek out alternative core strength options. Both activities engage a large part of the core and upper body, and have a great community component to them. While it has a strong cardiovascular focus, swimming also trains the core and upper body in a low impact way.
Flexibility and balance: Yoga is probably the most common flexibility activity that most people do today. There are lots of different classes with different focuses. If a class you tried wasn’t working, check out a different type. Often, studios offer a “yoga for athletes” class, where the focus on flexibility in the key problem areas for most athletes is increased. You can also jump outside of the box and join a gymnastics class.
Endurance: If you dread the long workouts, there isn’t a great substitute for them, but you can vary your activities. Start a rotation of running, cycling, hiking, swimming, and rowing. Give yourself another goal and boost by periodically signing up for races so that you have immediate goals that you are working towards. Ultimately though, there is no substitute for long endurance training.
Cross training won’t fully prepare you for your next mountaineering adventure, and it shouldn’t make up the bulk of your preparation, but it can add some spice and give a boost to a neglected portion of your overall training. Seek out the fun opportunities and figure out how they fit into your plan.
Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!
The vast majority of climbers that come climb Mt. Rainier with us live in decidedly unmountainous places. As a former fellow flatlander, I can sympathize. There is actually a surprising amount of training literature out there targeted at folks living in mountain towns (think gaining 3,000 feet twice a week), and recently, folks training for high end alpinism (think Steve House). But when it comes to “Joe Climber” living in Kansas hoping to be strong on Denali or Mt. Rainier, in my experience there is a real gap in available resources. I don’t claim to be an expert on the subject, but I certainly have strong opinions as to how best to go about this type of training, based on my own personal experience. And so, without further ado, I present to you the 4 principles of the flatlander’s guide to mountaineering training:
Diversify your training. Face it. You live in the Midwest. The terrain that directly simulates your mountaineering objective does not exist in your backyard. Therefore no single exercise or activity can adequately prepare you for that objective, which means that you must pursue a wide variety of training activities. If all “Joe Climber” does to train for his Rainier climb is run, he will be in great shape for running. But he will not be in great shape for Rainier. Which leads me to the second principle…
Emphasize strength training. When we say you need to be strong for the mountains, we mean that quite literally. Carrying big loads uphill and downhill day after day requires a significant amount of muscle recruitment, and you can’t recruit it if it’s not there. The majority of my time training in the flatlands is actually spent in the gym, performing exercises that emphasize muscular and core strength. I’ll save my personal lifting program for another article, but I’m a big believer in free weights and olympic lifting, rather than machines. Performing a squat using perfect technique not only builds strength in your butt, quads, and calves, but also strengthens your core/low back and improves your balance. No single machine can do all this, and machines can even lead to injury by over-strengthening certain muscle groups at the expense of others.
When it comes to cardio, think long duration/low intensity. As a mountaineer, we work best in our aerobic zone. This is why we pressure breathe, rest step, and do everything we can to conserve energy in the mountains. So when we train, it makes sense to maximize our output in what Steve House and Scott Johnston refer to as “Zone 1.” To quote their book, Training for the New Alpinism, “Improving [Zone 1 fitness] will pay bigger dividends in alpine climbing than time spent improving any other quality because it allows you to sustain higher submaximal climbing speeds for longer times” (58). And to reiterate my first principle, mix it up! I’ll run, I’ll swim, I’ll bike, I’ll run up stadium stairs if available. But when I do, I’ll shoot to be moving for at least 90 minutes.
The best defense against altitude is hyper-attentive self care before and during the trip. Altitude weighs heavily on most climbers’ minds pre-trip (particularly those climbers living in the flatlands), and for good reason: more than any other aspect of a mountaineering trip, how your body responds to altitude is the one factor you can’t fully control. But you can stack the odds heavily in your favor. Before the trip leaves, be sure you are on a consistent and complete sleep schedule. Be sure you are eating well. I’ve talked to guides who swear by airborne, or probiotics. Everyone’s a little different, but if you find a supplement that consistently keeps you healthy, go with it. On the trip itself, dealing with altitude becomes even more straightforward. Never let yourself get too cold. Force yourself to eat. Force yourself to drink. Force yourself to breathe. The climbers that take these four concepts to heart, nine times out of ten, are the climbers who summit.
So what do you do with these principles? Well, you construct a training schedule. My schedule, as a college student in Massachusetts training for Denali, looked something like this:
PM-water jug hill repeats
PM-long run (90 min+)
There are a lot of ways to construct a solid training schedule. I was limited that year by classes, other obligations, and going rock and ice climbing whenever I got the chance. But keeping in mind the four principles, I was able to train my way into comfort on Denali, all while living in a flat location.
I’ll continue another week with my specific lifting regimen, so keep you eyes open. For now train hard, rest hard, and I’ll see you in the mountains!
Pepper Dee grew up in Missouri, but found his love for the mountains at an early age. Based out of Bozeman, he guides trips on Mt. Rainier, Denali, and abroad to Aconcagua. A long time flatlander, Pepper knows what it takes to prepare for a big climb without the luxury of mountains in his backyard.
Questions? Comments? Share your thoughts here on the RMI Blog!
Yesterday was a big day for all of us up on Chimborazo and thankfully the near perfect weather allowed us to stand on top! All in all our summit day took 13 some hours round trip including a deceptively difficult two-hour walk across the summit plateau from the Veintimilla summit to the barely higher Whymper summit. Riddled with deep trenches and fantastic snow mushrooms, what should have taken no more than an hour was a brutal two hour jaunt back and forth. We were fortunate enough to enjoy perfectly calm winds and clear skies on top, which made it not so bad. We even got to peep some views of Cotopaxi smoking in the distance before gearing up for our descent. We were greeted warmly back at the Estrella de Chimborazo where we ate a celebratory dinner and promptly crashed in their cozy beds. Right now we are on the bus headed back for Quito where we hope to have one last celebratory dinner as a team before at least half of us head for the airport to catch a red-eye flight home. All in all it was a quite an adventure and I’d like to thank the team for rolling with the punches the whole trip and hanging in there til the end. And I’d also like to thank the other guides, Chase, David, and Diego along with Victor, our driver, for all the help along the way.
Until next time…
February 13, 2016
Hey it’s Billy checking in. We are all back safe and sound at our camp on Chimborazo. We’re about to actually hike on down to the bus. We had a safe and successful climb to the summit today. Just about perfect weather most of the day. That’s all I have to report. Long, long day- everyone is super tired but definitely big smiles on our faces. As we were just talking about this, it totally rethinks our whole trip down here. That’s all I have for now. Signing off and we’ll check in again tomorrow evening at the end of the trip.
RMI Guide Billy Nugent checks in post Chimborazo summit.
Congratulations to the team on successfully summiting!!! Go…..Jason!!! How exciting!!!
Posted by: Esther & Dean Chapman on 2/13/2016 at 4:57 pm
February 12, 2016
It’s Billy calling from high Camp on Chimborazo at around 17,500 feet. I’m up here with all the team everyone is doing extremely well, and we’re even enjoying the semi-decent weather. We are in the clouds but the wind is calm and it’s not raining, so compared to what we’ve been dealing with so far this trip we will take it! The team is just resting after our hike up here and pretty soon we’ll be eating some tasty Mountain House freeze dried dinners and getting to bed early so we are in a good position to get up in the middle of the night tonight and take a crack at the summit. Hopefully I’ll be giving you a call next from the top of the mountain, but if not we’ll check in or if you know how it went.
That’s all for now, bye!
RMI Guide Billy Nugent calling in from High Camp on Chimborazo
Go SPS!!! Go Daddy!!! We love you!! Have fun!! Roh?, lalalalalal
Posted by: Team Chapman on 2/13/2016 at 5:56 am
Have a great summit day, guys!
Posted by: Craig Falkenhagen on 2/12/2016 at 6:17 pm
February 11, 2016
Hi everyone! The RMI Aconcagua team is safely back at Base Camp. We are enjoying cokes and beers and just relaxing. I will be honest, most of us are exhausted, me included. It was a perfect summit day and it has taken its toll. We all deserve to relax and unwind. This is officially the last blog post for our team. We will walk out tomorrow and arrive in Mendoza on the 13th. Thanks for all of your support along the way. Ciao from Aconcagua.
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Congratulations on your summit mike. That was huge…. Eric
Posted by: Eric on 2/12/2016 at 2:45 am
February 11, 2016
The team enjoyed a nice night at the Chuquiragua Lodge where we were able to dry out, get a good night’s sleep, and even practice some anchor equalization and crevasse rescue in the courtyard. Victor, our driver, showed up around noon to join us for lunch and we’ll be heading out soon for a night at Estrella de Chimborazo before starting up on the mountain in earnest tomorrow…
All for now,
RMI Guide Billy Nugent
Billy and Company - Enjoy every minute of your experience down in Ecuador, ran or shine - it’s the journey as much as the destination. Would LOVE to be with you right now! Thanks again for an amazing two weeks up on Aconcagua. I had a fantastic time.
Special greetings to my good friend, Rob Yonaitis.
Best regards, Craig
Posted by: Craig Falkenhagen on 2/11/2016 at 11:09 am
The “improving trend” turned out to be a bunch of baloney and shortly after finishing my dispatch last night the starry sky clouded over and began to steadily pour almost without relent. We woke in the morning and the steady downpour had not begun to show signs of letting up. The team decided over breakfast that with the zero probability of climbing Antisana, that our best move was to pack up and hike out and hopefully dry out at a hacienda. So here we are, some time on the road later hanging up all of our gear to dry yet again at another hacienda this time at a scenic spot at the base of the Illinizas. Despite the tough weather the gang is doing our best to have fun and enjoy the Ecuadorian countryside. All this traveling has been fun but we’re hoping to get in a little more legit climbing before our trip winds down.
February 10, 2016
Original Post 6:34 a.m. PST
Hey everyone. This is JJ Justman and JM and Team Aconcagua. The team is on the summit of Aconcagua! Just below 23,000 feet! My voice is a little hoarse but I am going to hold the phone out and we’re going to give the team a chance to give a big hooray. [Team in the background.] It was a beautiful day climbing. We are the only ones up here on the summit right now. It’s a very quiet day. The weather is crystal clear, not a cloud in the sky, a light breeze. It’s supposed to be blowing a little bit more later today. We got an early start and it was a great effort by the team. We still have to get down, but it’s a safe route. We’ll get back to camp in several hours. You guys, it’s been a great adventure. Thanks for following along. We’ll touch base again here soon. From the summit of Aconcagua, this is the RMI team saying, “Arrivederci!”
Update 9:54 a.m PST
RMI Guide JJ Justman checked in with the RMI Office. The team is back and high camp safe and sound. Everyone is focusing on staying hydrated and resting. The team will spend the night at high camp and descend to base camp tomorrow morning.
RMI Guide JJ Justman calls from the Aconcagua summit!
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Congratulations JJ and team! Can’t believe the weather improved so much since our attempt just a few weeks ago. Enjoy your descent and asado at Pampa de las Lenas. Craig
Posted by: Craig Falkenhagen on 2/11/2016 at 10:23 am
congratulations to team lawler- ken and brad. what an effort! can’t wait to have you back at home.
Posted by: anne lawler on 2/10/2016 at 6:43 pm