utside of the immense technical and logistical demands, success on alpine climbs often comes down to physical and mental stamina. Whether the goal is a one-day, base-camp-to-base-camp ascent of an alpine wall or a multiday summit push up a major peak, you can never possess too much stamina and confidence in your physical capabilities. Like an ultramarathoner running a 50- or 100-mile race, knowing that you’ve done it before and that you are in condition to do it again is a powerful realization that will carry you through to completion. Consequently, possessing a high level of conditioning as you set off on your expedition is as important as possessing the right equipment and climbing partners.
Although all-around fitness is a necessity, excelling on long climbs at elevation comes down to the master skill of economic movement combined with a massive reservoir of stamina. Frequent practice at the types of climbing you will be faced with in the mountains—crack, face, mixed, and such—is critical for developing the movement and tactical skills needed for fast, efficient climbing. Physically, your capacity to perform at a high level will be a function of total stamina and your ability to persevere through brief periods of hard climbing that require muscular endurance. While the big-wall climbing program described previously is certainly useful for the alpine climber, you also have a great need to grow stamina with some ultradistance conditioning.
Ultradistance conditioning—whether it be climbing, biking, or running—is all about pushing beyond what you are accustomed to in terms of total volume and rigor. This step-by-step one-upmanship of yourself results in a “callusing effect.” The benefit of this mind-body callusing is that upon defining a new limit—running your first marathon, climbing you first big wall in a day, or whatever—repeating this feat in the future will not seem as difficult as the first time. In doing it the first time, you develop a “callus” that enables you to perform to this same level more easily in the future.
How much of this adaptation is mental and physical is hard to say, but it’s an effect that every ultradistance athlete knows well. You, too, can experience and leverage this callusing effect by engaging in stamina workouts and days of climbing that exceed your previous limit. You might do this by adding a 0.5-mile to your long-distance run each week or by climbing one more pitch or a 100 feet more vertical distance during a day at the crags. The best marathon runners and ultraclimbers typically dedicate one day per week to performing a super-volume of physical activity that approaches or exceeds their performance goal or previous limit. Make this your target, too.
As your workout volume increases, it’s fundamental that your volume of rest between workouts also increase. Extreme stamina training coupled with too little rest will quickly lead to illness or injury. A high-volume training day may require three or more days of rest before you are ready for a repeat workout. In ultra-stamina-performance situations, such as climbing several grueling back-to-back days on a big wall or a high-elevation ascent, the deep level of fatigue that develops often requires one to four weeks for complete recovery.
In the case of a major climb or expedition upcoming in a few months, you could begin with six weeks of the big-wall program (detailed previously) followed by six weeks of targeted ultradistance conditioning (above). Taper back the training volume at least three weeks before the trip, and do no strenuous training for the final seven to fourteen days before you are to begin the actual ascent. For example, schedule a three- to four-month pre-expedition training program ending with a one- to two-week period of rest leading up to your first climbing day. Then after the expedition, schedule a rest period of a length equal to the duration of your expedition. While this may seem like an excessively long break from training, it’s a demonstrable fact that high-altitude and ultramarathon expeditions take a tremendous toll on the body that requires weeks, not days, to recover from.
Copyright 2008 Eric J. Hörst. All rights reserved.