TRAINING FOR THE NEW ALPINISM – 5 MONTHS IN REVIEW

when Training for the New Alpinism  first came out it saw a spate of reviews from people who had bought  it and people who had read  it, with many people stating it was the grandest thing ever. that was well over a year ago (lets say minimum of one full yearly climbing cycle), and interestingly reviews of how the content of the book works  are few. this review aims to counter that.

it needs to be said that intelligent training models for alpine climbing have existed for decades. Soviet climbers applied state science to it to produce national heroes, Japanese climbers did long apprentiships, the Poles followed a solid methodology, European climbers followed basic models for increasing performance that obviously worked and American climber Mark Twight put out a proto-model in the 90’s that was a big step along the way – but like most things climbing that dont relate to shiny gear, it was mostly ignored in favour for the quick fix. Training bridges the Men’s Magazine style of popular climbing information with the hard data presentation of sport science, being more towards the data end of the spectrum. if you dont like reading this book will feel like work, even to eek out the most accessible of informations – and thats a good thing. quick fixes will not be found here. House & Johnston are not asking you to find your inner climber, they are Rxing a way to construct it. unlike ultra running and sport climbing, alpine climbing has perhaps never been analysed enough and had the tennets of ‘sport’ applied to a degree that made it presentable. House & Johnston’s makes a good effort to remedy that.

in the real world

after years of incorporating House’s ideas for training, along with bits drawn from his lineage of climbers like Twight, Lowe and Yaniro, I allowed for the hype to cool before jumping in. After this a realistic dedication has been applied to see where the model goes. Ive chosen not to ‘adapt’ the methodology presented, and to do it in full, as prescribed as much as possible. I figured the writers have a good handle on the way things work so emptied my cup in order to see where it all was at. winter was spent applying the ‘full time climbing model’ presented in the latter part of the book, and spring onwards has used the ‘regular model’ the bulk of the book details. the concessions ive made are minimal, revolve around scheduling – i’m not a 25 year old with nothing to do besides train – so the methods and scheduling have been made to fit with a working, family life, albeit one that accommodates climbing.

the key to the House-Johnston model is smart planning. after getting a handle on the books awkward format, time and thought needs to be taken to put together a training plan and record it. House & Johnston dont churn out a step-by-step, one-size-fits-all, 10-minutes-a-day panacea for alpine success, instead you get the nuts and bolts to build your own plan according to your objectives and resources. the onus is on you taking control of your process.

after detailing the metabolic elements being trained, methods and indicators for training them are presented and then it’s up to the accolyte to make it real. this begins with a self assessment and is then dependant on the availablity of resources like mountain terrain, weight / resistance equipment and vertical environment. with these tools you structure a series of cycles that stimulate several metabolic zones in ways that increase their capacity. you are expected to re-test regularly and reassess continuously, adjusting when things need to be tweaked.

its more sophisticated than you think, and its also more subtle.

House-Johnston are not concerned with quickly turning out an army of one-peak wonders. the methods detailed recompose a climber to a metabolic type self-designed to take on serious alpine objectives, and they are aware this takes years over multiple cycles. they are also very good at detailing the shortcomings and pitfalls. these guys know what it takes to get good at climbing and more importantly they know what is a waste of time. there’s a degree of fantasy about many people having the time and resources to apply the models exactly, but House & Johnston accept that at a fundamental level its about using the resource of time as effectively as possible. and this is where the eye-opening stuff is. despite being a poster boy for hard alpinism, House pierces his own heroic image to present that the vast majority of training is done at and for the lower heart rate end of the scale. even at the exclusion of whiz bang technical prowess. anyone looking for vein popping, chick impressing, cover gracing, hard man stuff will be dissappointed. instead you get endless lonely hours of sustainable footslogging, old school gymnasium work, bulk time on unheroic routes and slow-burn recomposition of the metabolism. a common complaint for those starting what’s prescribed is ‘it doesnt seem hard enough’, and the presenters are adament that this – initially – feels so. the sophisticated, vanguard stuff isnt in the individual sessions – its in the scheduling. it doesnt feel too easy for long.

as 5 months of application (on top of a decade of dedicated endurance training) has shown, scheduling a cycle of sessions to stimulate the demands of alpine climbing isnt too hard – but scheduling to sustain it meaningfully is. keeping the capacity to train at the demanded levels becomes the horse that needs to be ridden; two max strength sessions a cycle sounds easy – until you schedule it as only about 10% of your overall training time with all the endurance and conditioning elements around it. after 3 or 4 cycles any holes in your schedule start to show. complaints that it doesnt feel hard enough suggest to me a) that no realistic self-assessment was done to start, b) sessions are being compromised somehow and/or c) both.

it doesnt take long to find that max strength is pretty intense stuff that takes solid recovery, and the majority thats endurance training affects this – especially when its done at the prescribed metabolic levels. it fast becomes apparent that the ‘easy’ sessions the early reviews harked on about are about condition for general volume, not specific heroics. its interesting to note that a year or so on, these complaints about things being easy have cessated, and that House-Johnston were explicit in predicting this.

now in the depths of the schedule – having juggled the ‘climb only’ schedule over winter then switched to the ‘normal’ schedule once winter conditions ended – it’s easy to see the development. House & Johnston put a huge emphasis on serious endurance – the sort of deep cellular endurance defined in days, not the pop endurance counted in minutes – and that’s stuff that has a deep impact. every element is tweaked in this direction and the time-resources are focused this way, and by about a month in obvious development is apparent. i like to think i have a base of endurance, and yet House & Johnston’s methodology shows the holes in that. simply put; without the numbers and indicators provided by the collective science you’ve probably overlooked true base endurance training, looking instead to higher heart rate training (not necessarily Crossfit, but simply a higher level of metabolic exertion). and it’s remarkable the difference made when a true base is worked on. even a short period developing what House-Johnston call ‘Zone 1’ goes a long way, and in the doctrine of training weaknesses addresses a fundamental hole in many peoples ability.

House & Johnston have sugar-coated this system minimally. there’s a few concessions where they recognize not everyone is a supported climber and they admit to remarkable achievments made without any structured training at all (no less Vince Anderson who climbed along side House for some of his peak achievments), but they never stray from the basic fact that there is no short cut or convenient way to get serious results; in the end, consistant, dedicated hours spent smartly training is what it takes. part of the beauty of House & Johnston’s book is the detailed analysis of when things havent worked, including a range of failures from multiple climbers. along with the analysis that produces raw data, it’s this that sets this manual apart from the pop-culture lads mags level of ‘training’.

at a users level, once the planning is settled the methods described are time-honoured and quite simple. most of what’s used is plain old hard work, with nowhere to obscure results or complex programming to hide behind. unsurprisingly most of what’s done happens in mountain or simulated mountain environments, with strength elements utilizing a gym or controlled environment for the sake of a) recording dependable and reviewable progress, and b) safety. this element is perhaps the most refreshing; the basic fact that endless climbing is not the best way to become a better alpinist – intelligent integration of on-mountain and off-mountain is. on-mountain stuff simply lacks the safety margin to push hard enough to develop some aspects.

a large part of real training is the ability to plot progress so to pin point problems – something random training schedules and ‘just-climb’ methods lack. the House-Johnston model, backed with quantified research and analysis, is big on using hard numbers to spot weaknesses. this perhaps is the main factor that distinguishes the climber athlete from the recreational climber. in short the athlete has expectations based on impirical progress, and the way to keep the curve correct is to manipulate its direction by training.

this translates in the actual doing in interesting ways, most profoundly with efficiency; having a clear idea of whats to be done (kms covered, loads lifted, time spent etc) lets very specific effort be applied and so results are clear. apply this to objectives (short and long term) and large pieces of the alpine puzzle fall into place. this element alone earns this books recognition as valuable – simply getting climbers to view their pursuit quantifiably. the included record sheets are clunky but useable and show real world processes in applicable ways, which when matched with objectives are a powerful tool for connecting to distant goals and analyzing weaknesses.

the downsides 

qualified climbers, athletes and analytic inquirers House & Johnston are, but qualified authors they are not. as a written work Training leaves a lot to be desired – manual or climbing porn its hard to decide sometimes. the data is certainly there, but the format and style lets it down. rather than a direct training manual as is stated on the cover, you get a patchy format of guru idlings and a format unclear on the use of side notes. add up all the tantalizing but pointless photos, disjointed text boxes and interjected sections and you get a lot of ill-used space. as a coffee table decoration this is nice but as a vehicle for functional data it doesnt help. a pared down ‘field manual’ thats stripped to training-only data would be a nice thing to see one day.

some parts of the book – the specific exercises, the nutrition, the psychology sections for example – lack the dimension of the physiology and planning sections. the beginnings of subjects are raised but not always followed thru with a methodology for developing. the psychology section especially is big on the impact it has but after some solid introduction little becomes of it. perhaps another book as certainly what is raised is far more interesting than the new age drivel many books address climbing psychology with.

in the physiology chapters there’s a lot of text describing the specifics of these things but the diagrams and illustrations are lagging far behind. knowing  the physiology of muscle fibre adaption is good stuff, but it would help to see it extending macro-muscle groups so exercises could be better planned. along with this, indicator stats would be helpful (as they are with running, lifting etc) for things like vertical gain and strength:weight ratios. the graphs and diagrams that do exist are quasi-scientific, more like visual renditions of ideas than true plotting of data. the idea is there, but the anomalies that make plotted data realistic are missing, nevertheless it’s enough to work with.

so then

Training for the New Alpinism comes at the right time. Twight’s previous efforts from Extreme Alpinism, gospel for the time, triggered a movement that eventually needed updating and refinement and this is it. it’s not as romantic and idealistic; revolutionary zeal has been replaced by cold data and isolating hours, but it’s based on enough years of collated numbers and research and that in itself is a turning point for the sport. along with becoming more athletic, climbing is also becoming more conceptual and it’s only delving into the quantic details that doors will be opened. what a generation of climbers who grow up on this stuff will acheive is exciting to consider.

where will i go with it? over a yearly expedition cycle i will observe how it goes. results are already impressive after what is essentially the entry phase. a series of sub-goals over summer will give momentum to the process and the omega point of a return to North Eastern Tibet will provide a test piece. so far it feels good and the process of readapting my body has a definite buzz to it. as yet i’m seeing nothing that stands out that needs to be questioned and im certainly feeling it is sustainable. the issues that have arisen have been reliably forseen by House & Johnston so im confident the broader indicators will likewise be reliable.