How to Train for an Expedition

Mikepowers Small

by Michael Powers, IFMGA
AAI Senior Guide & Director for Staff Development


From the February 2011 edition of AAI's E-newsletter

I'm planning on a climbing trip to Alaska this spring, and I'm worried about slowing my partners down, either because I'm not as fit as they are or because I take too long dealing with my gear each morning and while climbing. I have some time for training, but with my busy schedule - family, work, and other obligations - I want to be sure that the training I do makes me the best prepared I can be. Any recommendations for me to make the most of my training time and also on how to be efficient during climbs?

- Larry Stephenson, Chicago


Dear Larry,

Everyone's situation is different with regard to how best to prepare, and of course, each climb and expedition has its own requirements. But I can share a few ideas that help me, whether it's getting ready for a three-day rock trip to Red Rock, a month-long trip to the Alps, or a three-week alpine guides test.

Most alpine climbs (including Alaska where you are heading, but this applies to alpine rock too) are more endurance-based and less characterized by difficult technical moves. So it's most important in your training to get some long endurance days in. There's no doubt in my mind that it's more important to hike uphill for 4-6 hours, with boots and a pack, than it is to top-rope technical moves that are only 100 feet or work on climbs that take 10-20 minutes per pitch.

On climbs like Denali (West Buttress) or the Matterhorn (Hornli Ridge) the hardest individual moves are limited to a maximum technical challenge of 45-degree ice (Denali) or 5.6 rock (Hornli) but those moves must be made over and over again. They don't have to be made fast, but they must be made non-stop without searching or slowing down to look for the best foot or hand placement.

For me, going out at least once a week for big days of training (at least 5 hours or more) is more helpful than doing shorter, more intense intervals (of course, mixing some power intervals in with those long days is a great idea). On my shorter days of training (say, 1-2 hours in a indoor rock gym), I'll still achieve an endurance aspect by going up and down a route fairly rapidly (usually one that's easy for me) then - without stopping on the ground - traverse to a nearby route and climb that. I keep doing climbs in quick succession until I reach the point of failure (falling).

Keeping in mind your comment about not wanting to slow other members of your party down, another specific skill I work on is transitions - say from snow to ice, or rock to snow, or trail to talus slope, or skinning up to skiing down. Getting started with an activity (like in the morning) and making transitions from one aspect of climbing to another are times in which a lot of people waste a lot of time. One way I practice being efficient in these circumstances when I have a little outing planned is to pack quickly at home, drive to a trailhead, start the activity as soon as I arrive there, and make it a point to minimize the time spent on each of those transitions as well as those on the climb itself.

I do take longer breaks whenever I feel I need them, but I only take them when "I want to," and never because I need to "manage the transition." In other words, I try to get really quick and efficient at going from one activity to another and learn to make adjustments on the fly - like changing a clothing layer or getting a drink or putting crampons on. I want to avoid having to spend 5 or 10 minutes whenever I am making a transition.

When rock climbing on a training day, I might make it a point to drive to the crag, head quickly to the base of my climb, unload the pack, rack up, and get on a lead as quickly as possible. I'll try not to spend much time looking through the guide book or having a drink or doing any of a million other things that I could do but which can wait or be skipped. I will try to get on the route as soon as possible just to improve my transition times. Certainly I don't always do this, but it's an excellent exercise for me to use when I am in "training mode" for the day.

These are just two training ideas, and they won't necessarily be the most important ones for everyone. Certainly there are hundreds of good training tips, but thinking about your concerns, these two come to mind as possibly being the most effective. The first one (having long training days) seems to be most helpful to me, but it requires time and significant physical effort. The second tip (improving transition times) doesn't require much physical effort and is more about thinking ahead and committing to efficiencies during your daily activities so that on the actual climb, those skills and the mental set that goes with them will already be in place. If you can make high efficiency your personal standard, you'll probably never hold up your partners again.

- Mike Powers

Click the link to return to "Ask A Guide" Letters.

Program Finder