Training for Mountaineering

Most mountaineers are goal-oriented individuals.  They are in search of a physical and mental challenge that will push their limits, including everything from sleep-deprived alpine starts, carrying heavy loads, loss of appetite, rock and ice climbing in thick boots, extreme weather temperatures, and the ability to stay flexible and positive. 

As a guide, I have seen many folks show up to the trailhead without training at all for the planned trip. The only element of mountaineering that can be controlled is training and preparation. Hard work and dedication to training will add depth to your mountaineering success.

This article outlines the approach to completing a training program for a standard 3-day mountaineering climb, with approximately 7000 feet of elevation gain, carrying a 40 lb pack (comparable to climbing Mount Rainier or Mount Shasta).  The training program will consist of strength training, cardiovascular endurance training, and the requisite mental training it takes to complete the program.

This type of 3-day climb requires an average of 10 hours of training per week for approximately 16 weeks.  The time is divided for 2-3 strength workouts, cardiovascular training, and long hikes on the weekends with a pack. If you have a restricted schedule due to work commitments, it will require extra logistics planning to ensure that you can complete workouts, taking into account considering drive time to and from your workplace.

Ascending a mountain uses different muscle groups than descending. Your strength training should incorporate a balance of upper body, lower body, core and balance.  My training programs for the inexperienced mountaineer typically target all the major muscle groups first and then proceed to focus on any muscular imbalances that may arise. A certified personal trainer who can advise you in-person can be a powerful tool in  helping an aspiring mountaineer define these specific areas and focus their training to strengthen them.

In addition to boosting overall fitness, strength training will prepare you for crossing streams, walking on snowy slopes, tackling low angle glacier terrain, and hiking on talus.  The strength training should focus on glute strength (including such exercises as lunges, squats, single leg deadlifts, bosu training, and step downs). Upper body exercises, such as standing rows, lat pull downs, shoulder internal & external rotations, and rear delt raises, will also strengthen the back and prepare it for carrying weight.  Further, strength training can incorporate a lot of balance, by practicing cable rows while standing on an unstable surface, doing pushups on half foam roller, and bicep curls while standing on one leg.

Cardiovascular training will be necessary throughout the training program. The majority of my training programs incorporate only the activities and equipment that are accessible to the client, for this reason I often prioritize cardiovascular training that can be completed outside.  In my own life, I find that cycling, swimming, trail running, and hiking with a pack on are all accessible cardiovascular activities that I can squeeze into my schedule without a ton of preparation or emphasis on equipment. 

On days when the weather is terrible or you experience unexpectedly difficult time management; you can be creative with what you can do in the gym. The Versaclimber (a standing climbing simulator that many gyms will have on their cardio floor), spin classes, group exercise and full body conditioning, and running on the treadmill are all great options for improved.

by Lynette Talbott
ACSM Certified Personal Trainer