YATSUGATAKE: IS THE ICE CANDY WALL OPEN?

conditions at Yatsugatake have finally stabilized and the Ice Candy ice wall is fully functional. as usual the shape has been altered a bit for the season, and its still thin – but as the ice is less picked out and still forming our opinion is its at its best. now is the time to head out and get your couple of hundred meters of top-roped volume in to get in fighting form for the mid-season hard climbing. dont let this season slip by.

fat enough to be fun, lean enough to be interesting. Akadake-kosen’s Ice Candy wall on Dec 20th.

EXPED EATING: DIFFERENT TRIPS, DIFFERENT MENUS

the recent trips in China/Tibet were at opposite ends of the expedition spectrum: minimalist & aerobic, and grinding & loaded. both trips had almost identical timelines, altitudes and temperatures, but engaged in different ways that had different effects on the metabolism. and just as each trip required very specific equipment, methods and timelines they also required very different eating.

when not climbing eat!

Trip 1: Mt Asura North Face, Alpine mixed

this trip was always about having minimal footprint, and as a team of 3 we had very efficient carrying-capacity. we also knew we would cover a lot of ground and need to consume a high-carbohydrate diet for constant fueling.

breakfast / 1000 kcals

consumed whilst gearing up: 1 cup of quality muesli loaded with seeds, coconut flakes, coconut oil and weight gain powder + instant coffee with butter

day food / 750 kcals

eaten as snacks at belays or brief rests, this was an equation set against time – longer climbing days pushed the envelope: salami, muesli bars, nuts + 1L water mixed with weight gain powder

night / 1200 kcals

eaten as leisurely as possible, usually in 2 installments: instant rice with coconut oil & Chinese meat sauce + soup with dried vegetables + weight gain powder + muesli bar + salami

at just under 3000 kcals a day i was consuming about 2/3 of what i was spending and in the end i came back with only 2 nights food remaining – the 2 nights i could barely eat from the effects of altitude. i was hungry but not crazily so, and probably could have extended the diet another 2 or 3 days before feeling it. i get the feeling beyond about 10 days the need for the enzymes, beta carotene and folate from fresh food gets critical (as also evidenced in the second trip).

eating properly is time well spent: simple food like a tub of cream cheese and a loaf of good bread goes a long way to keeping you moving forward

Trip 2: Se’erdengpu West Face, Alpine Big Wall

Big Wall style is slow. add +5000m of altitude, temperatures consistently below -5c, almost zero direct sun and only 2 climbers to carry the loads and it gets really slow. unlike Mt Asura where kcals were being burned moving fast, on Se’erdengpu the kcals were being burned shuffling slowly in the cold and moving big loads. for this we needed much more fat and ‘real’ food to make it digestible and we knew that with colder days we would make the time to cook properly rather than just boil water.

breakfast / 1000 kcals

1 cup muesli loaded with seeds and nuts OR wholegrain bread with cream cheese and bruschetta paste + weight powder + real coffee with butter + peanut butter

day food / 1200 kcals

muesli bars & protein bars + 1L water with weight powder

night / 1600 kcals

eaten leisurely: spaghetti with pesto, olive oil, salami, cheese OR laksa with noodles, coconut cream, coconut oil + freeze dried chinese soup + 1 square of chocolate + almonds + peanut butter

at nearly 4000 kcals a day we felt we were near the capacity of what we could consume compared to what we could carry and had time for, which was probably about also about 2/3 of what we were spending. being a slow style of climbing we werent burning at a higher heart rate like at Mt Asura. after coming down from the wall after 9 days we were hungry but again, not ravenously so. neither of us had lost our appetites, but we were wanting variation.

what made the big difference was 2 things:

1) the weight gain powder – the same stuff body builders use. drunk from a valve-topped squeeze bottle also like body builders use it keeps a good dose of carbohydrate, protein, fat and sugar trickling into the system. in nearly 20 days cold climbing at altitude i never once felt the sharp pang of being too depleted. what seemed to also help was a nightly dose of multivitamins, dietary fiber, magnesium/calcium, vitamin E & BCAAs.

2) having a cooking system capable of real cooking in the cold, ie a pot that could be cooked in and a stove that allowed gas canisters to liquid feed. this meant we could adapt our food as we needed to, adding and tweaking what we wanted rather than being slaves to the packet. it meant we could eat fresher, tastier food than what dehydrated allows.

a ‘real’ stove is the key to ‘real’food: being at the mercy of dehydrated food has its outcomes

what didnt differ between the 2 trips was minimizing the refined sugar – aside from a single square of chocolate each night on Se’erdengpu and what came in the weight powder, peanut butter and on the muesli bars (the latter we would have avoided if feasible) we carried no candy, no sugar to add to anything, no sugary drinks, no junk food – and we never missed it. if anything we avoided the hormonal slumps and peaks that seem to come with it and also seem to carry a sharper edge to the feeling of hunger.

we also took care to eat decent amounts of fiber to keep our systems moving (another reason to avoid refined sugar) and shat well the entire time – much more important than some people realize.

to do it again i will change these things:

1) scrape more refined sugar out of the daily intake, possibly making custom bars. keep a small amount of complex sugar snacks for when needed

2) more fat in the forms of mozzarella, cream cheese and salami

3) less coconut oil and whats carried take in a better container for the cold – it freezes too hard

4) more bread – it survives better than we expected and combined with cream cheese and salami is a better breakfast than muesli alone

5) more insulated water bottles and a larger pot to melt more snow more efficiently

WHEREWITHAL

expeditions and serious climbing objectives require a wide range of assets. planning, obviously, and being in condition, of course. it goes without saying you need the right weather, and the appropriate equipment. and then you need the time, and the vision and the people and the money as well. trips to exotic places need visas and permits and translators, and holidays and excuses and credit cards and reasons.

each piece has its niche and a time when it falls in place, but beyond it all is the one constant, the unifying element that strings it all together: wherewithal.

wherewithal is what makes going somewhere totally new happen: Dan & Gerald somewhere deep in the maze of gullies at about 5250m on Gangga VII

wherewithal = motivation + ability x integrity. a lot can be achieved with just one or two of those factors, but its combined and multiplied as wherewithal that sets things apart from the norm. its the element of wherewithal that makes some trips shine with unexpected originality whilst others are just repeated ideas.

unlike ability, condition, integrity etc, wherewithal is not a faculty – its a relationship. it exists as a force between faculties that cannot be obtained, yet it can be exercised and so strengthened. fortifying your wherewithal is a process of overriding your unknowns to turn them into an attitude that makes big things happen. those who have a large degree of wherewithal achieve more than just motivation or ability can produce – they get things done where others failed to see there was even an opportunity, by exercising the integrity to give momentum to seemingly unbaked ideas. wherewithal is what sets visionaries apart from dreamers.

wherewithal is the connecting fiber that puts the grimmest times into perspective and makes them valuable, turning problems and unknowns into the gristle of achievement. motivation and attitude may get you over the rough patches, but its wherewithal that connects them all to make unique things happen. wherewithal is the perspective that comes from knowing what degree of risk can be harnessed, and that the risk of simply taking on originality is reward enough. in a world where the illusion of everything being in order is accepted, its wherewithal that allows the few who confront the blanks on the map to be the ones who see things first.

applied to expedition climbing, its wherewithal that connects the fantasy of trips into truly unknown places with the actuality of being there. of the thousand things that need to happen to really climb new ground and peer into places unrecorded, wherewithal is what gives them spin in the right direction so they happen. without wherewithal, expeditions become just climb by numbers, exotic holidays, fantasy camps. or they simply dont happen at all.

simply put; most people who want it dont have it. the wherewithal needed to turn the fantasy of expedition climbing into the reality of it is absent. in its place is a string of pale reasons, masking the basic fact that the process of turning ideas into reality just wasnt enough. without wherewithal the boots stay in the closet, the hardware keeps its shine, the sleeping bags limit remain untested and the idea goes to someone else.

CLIMBING IN THE HEAT

climbing in serious cold is one thing, and climbing in serious heat is another. ‘serious’ here means the process of climbing is changed due to the direct effects of heat, and like serious cold can damage tissue and compromise ability.

50c / 122f at the rock’s surface: hot enough to limit the amount of time contact can be made with the rock

today’s session was expected to be hot, so it was planned to be over by midday. a degree of discomfort was factored in, but antidotes like water, sun cream & shade were included.

but, by 11:00am the heat coming off the rock was hitting 50c, making it too hot to touch, and we called it early. consider that to be radiating at 50c the actual surface will be hotter. consider too that to a tenderloin steak is cooked at 55c, for less than an hour. its not enough to kill bacteria but it is enough to break down the fats, collagen and protein to make them digestible and be released as juices.

heres what climbing in 50c entails:

  • reflected heat onto the front of the body feels like an open oven. unlike direct sunlight, its not from a single direction, so hits all surfaces

  • above about 45c the heat is felt straight thru the rubber of climbing shoes, even thicker stuff like the rand of TC Pros

  • around 50c the heat on the toes can only be tolerated for about 10mins

  • temperatures like this massively soften the rubber, nice for sensitivity, painful otherwise

  • finger contact, especially open handed, is limited to about 1 min. that most holds face sun-wards compounds the problem

  • any metal device getting friction (belay / rappel devices etc) get hotter than normal and take longer to cool. they certainly get hot enough to burn skin, and sizzle when water or sweat is dropped on them when rappelling.

  • any hard dark surface gets really hot, including helmets, shoe rubber, the insoles of shoes left at the base of the route, buckles, pitons etc

  • any water carried gets hot fast unless frozen first

essentially, the combination of radiated and reflected heat from the rock creates a zone maybe 1m deep over the rocks surface that is habitable for only short periods. the rock itself is possibly significantly hotter. like intense cold, a degree of adaption with the right actions can be achieved, which would include:

  • wear full coverage, reflective coloured clothes. especially for any jamming arete route where large areas of the body contact the rock

  • cover every skin surface with sun cream, including downwards facing areas like inside the nose, under the chin, backs of legs

  • consider easier route options that minimize prolonged static positions

  • consider the rock type: lighter rock stays relatively cooler but reflects more. darker rock is obviously hotter.

  • on harder routes plan around areas of shade and consider aiding, even just for rests, to reduce contact with the rock surface

  • wear larger sized rock shoes to give extra buffer from pushing against hot rock

  • carry water on route – delaying hydration even slightly when inside a zone of 50c gets dangerous fast. supplement with electrolytes. stuck on a rock wall is not a good place to be when the effects of dehydration or hypernatremia hit.

  • consider a gri gri for belaying – the part-plastic construction reduces the chance of burns over an ATC or all-metal device like a cinch

  • use gloves for belaying and rappelling. anything that normally gets hot will get hotter and remain hot longer

  • factor for much longer times…

…this session was meant to be 14 x 25m pitches at 5.8 to 5.10, expected to take 2 hrs. instead it took 1.5hrs to do 5 pitches, then we called it. rather than 5 or 6 pitches back to back, each pitch required a prolonged rest between to hydrate, allow metal gear to cool from the rappel off and boots to be cooled. really.

consider too: daytime peak temperatures were expected at between 1:00 and 2:00pm. if it was hitting 50c at 11:00am….

seriously, climbing in intense heat involves limited fun. on big routes, entering conditions like this for more than an hour or so could get nasty fast. unlike intense cold where options can exist for retreat into sleeping bags, shared body heat etc, retreat from serious heat is at the mercy of what the route offers. when the hottest zone extends several feet off the rocks surface, the shade of a portaledge may help, but the radiated heat will still be huge.

its funny how the suffering from intense heat makes one long for the suffering of intense cold that seems so far away…

TRAINING FOR THE NEW ALPINISM: IN THE DEPTHS

THIS IS A REVIEW NOT OF THE BOOK (THERES DOZENS OF THOSE ABOUT), BUT OF THE PROCESS OF APPLYING IT (MUCH, MUCH LESS OUT THERE), FROM DEEP IN THE GUTS OF IT.

starting at the end of winter i decided what the hell, drank the kool aid, and dived head first into the House / Johnston method of alpine training. as said in the earlier post – lots of people buying it, reading it and reviewing it, but as yet not much being said about actually doing it – so i chose to be an experiment of one and report what i find. now in the depths of the main base phases enough has surfaced to get a look at what starts to take shape.

straight up: it gets hard.

when you hit the cycles that are close to the peak amount of time per week things really crunch. without serious recomposing of your lifestyle its hard to do much else beyond the sessions, recover and rest. good luck having a full time job, family and thoughts outside climbing. the sessions themselves are not the killer element; by the time you arrive here you are well adapted over the months of modulated adaption – thats the beauty of the method. but what catalyzes it all the secondary elements; the eating, the recovering, the driving and the preparation to pull it all off. yes, there may be nearly 20 hours of applied training going on, but unless you live next door to a gym, down the road from a crag and round the corner from a mountain range theres another big chunk of time going into it. Japan is over-supplied with all the elements: good food, crags, mountains, gyms and forested areas to train in – plus the futuristic transport to get to it all – and its still a planning effort to bring it together. not bad, just it doesnt happen without motivation.

eventually staying on top of the training becomes the big thing, and the divisions between rest, recovery, eating and training blur into a single, seamless process – with every element demanding to be done well.

following the recommended scheduling (and allowing for tweaking around weather, over training and the odd other factor), the gradual increase in metrics like weekly distance, time, altitude, weight and reps / sets gets intense – as its meant to. time and again the authors state its about intentional overloading at manageable levels, balanced with recovery, to stress multiple metabolic systems in various ways. but what becomes apparent is just how solid an overloading this can be and how adaptable you really are.

in hindsight – and what i will work better with next year when it all starts again – it matters hugely where you start at. like everyone i wanted to begin at a beefier level, thinking also like everyone that i was up to it. luckily i swallowed the kool aid with a good slice of humble pie…. now in the midst of the higher volume cycles its hard to imagine even an extra 2 or 3 hours (recall that national level athletes often train at 20hrs a week…), in part knowing that extra effort entails an added increment of recovery too. so whilst i started at a volume that felt embarrassingly easy, after the increases recommended and followed almost to the dot, the current volume is a-plenty.

ive fiddled the schedule minimally – neither cutting corners nor drawing quarter significantly. im yet to not do a session tho occasionally ive delayed it due to the realities of life. all up my consistency has been good, tho it doesnt take long before the kilter of the same workout on the same day blows out of orbit. i doubt many have lives so well ordered it wouldnt. and i dont know how this pans out to affect the result – does strict ‘X workout always on tuesday’ prepare the organism better than a mildly random ‘X workout whenever it fits in’ format? i can see an argument for both.

what is perhaps the most interesting element ive found is just how much you can embed each week when you get it right. topping about 15hrs a week of training is a fair bit, and the ‘tricks’ to making it happen are what sets this apart from methods too simple or random in their scheduling. basically put; understanding the physiology chapters pays off. a fault i felt with the book is lack of dedication to developing recovery. yes, recovery is dabbled in, but if you truly expect to stay on track it needs to be developed as smartly as the stressing factors itself, and thats where you need to absorb the physiology stuff and understand how to stress different systems independently – because if you dont you simply wont have the time to get all the sessions into a week in form good enough to optimize on.

a good thing with this method is the element of ranking your sessions to see traits in how you feel. its important to realize how a string of B’s, C’s and D’s comes about and how to avoid a downward spiral. the key comes in realizing how you can train individual systems at meaningful levels (ie levels that cause an adaptive response) day after day, playing off the different recovery processes of each metabolic system to avoid crashing the lot. its like hitting a wall when you get it wrong but its a beautiful thing when you get it right and and lets you train smoothly while it lasts. on paper the grading column becomes a stack of B’s that consistently spike to A’s and descend to C’s forseeably.

much of the intelligence in all this is the way climbing is reverse-engineered into its raw components to be trained at fundamental levels, then recombined (with some smart mixing) to make a whole where the parts can be seen for their weaknesses and strengths. you get a really good look at the assembly process along the way. always there has been resistance to this idea in climbing – the silly hippy concept of ‘holistic’, train-it-all-in-unison idea, has long held sway to a lazy audience that doesnt really have solid objectives to ever judge things by – but for serious climbers, who have always trained like athletes as far as i recall back to the 80’s and no doubt earlier, this reductionist (another dirty word) idea is nothing new. nor is it to anybody who trains for anything else.

all those bits broken down; the raw strength, the strength fostered into power and endurance output of climbing-specific elements, the big base of efficient endurance and the spikes of all-in action, when independently developed both work better alone and fit together better too. and the added efficiency in training is profound as theres simply no way you can get near those thresholds training them all at once, and more so (going back to the different recovery processes of each system) youd never recovery efficiently enough to optimally adapt.

so then, over halfway thru the timeline, where do i find myself?

the short answer is; the best strength to endurance ratio ive ever had. theres times ive covered many more kms per week at lower body weight, but at way less altitude gain and far less climbing ability and raw strength. likewise ive been stronger by 15% but climbing less well, a bit heavier and not covering the distance either vertical or horizontal. climbing-wise im down on my absolute best, but can role out hundreds of meters vertical gain in a session not too many grades lower – and most importantly see the grades catching up to it.

all this is just as House / Johnston predicted it.

in equal measure have been the changes less obvious; to keep up with the endurance part ive eaten a lot more carbohydrate (+25% maybe). it would be impossible without it. ive also upped my protein intake during the peak phases with those evil shake formulas – again, recovery wouldnt happen without it. indeed, during the peak weeks, eating everything becomes a priority simply just to be fuelled for the next session. theres no way you could run the gauntlet of this schedule even close to strictly on a diet compromised by more than about 10%. and partying? some days ive power-napped mid-afternoons to see it thru…..the effect of a late night even without added chemical lubrication would have a big impact.

so no, theres no magic to House and Johnstons methods. lots of unseen planning, smart scheduling and a few tricks of metabolics for sure, but no silver bullet. BUT the hard work and big hours does bring results in a proportion that can be surprising, and thats vital in keeping the motivation high to see it through. this stuff seriously turns you into a climbing machine if you let it, and thats a working family guy talking – it would be amazing what a motivated 20 year old could achieve.

OFF THE TEET

climbing is an industry, with all the  elements of a commodified recreation and a big part of that is the indoctrination of course-junkies. born of ideas usually taken from the huge spectrum of climbing print – whether it be Alpinist magazine or the endless hardcovers ruminating on Everest – a growing number of people seek to become climbers by doing courses. many of climbing’s processes can be fast-tracked by doing carefully laid out programs delivered by enthusiastic guides, in highly synthesized environments that remove most of the objective hazards. schedules ares compressed, elements are cherry picked, theres a minimum of repetition and a lot of theory. course content is carefully streamlined to fit the abilities of the seeking climber, days are designed to be comfortable and ‘customer driven’.

inch by inch climbing is turned into golf.

the blueprint of indoor climbing extends little towards real winter climbing and alpinism. the removal of as much discomfort as possible is like scuba diving in a swimming pool – at the shallow end. what makes the sagas of serious climbing worth reading is all the bits left on the cutting room floor after editing and dumbing down. the simple fact of alpine climbing is its not for everyone – it exists only for those who choose to rise to it.

if iceclimbingjapan has a mission its to be the antidote to overly synthesized alpinism. we aim to bring the romance of suffering back to comfortable climbing and de-bone the indoor mentality from a pursuit where it simply doesnt fit. if things are comfortable thats just by chance. our process is to take the fledglings, the dreamers, the brainwashed and the shortcut-seeking and baptize them into the cult of real climbing. we do this by immersion in the actualities of winter climbing, by pulling back the curtain on a pursuit where reliance on the illusion of control can – and does – kill people. we think the possible outcomes justify the means.

progress in climbing tends to happen out at the grim edge where the niceties of comfort are absent

winter after winter, expedition after expedition, trip after trip we provide the conditions for genuine improvement to climbers. some take the opportunity, accept it will be uncomfortable at times and shed old skins. others use the discontent to further dupe themselves into the illusion of control and get caught up in the distractions whilst the core reality passes by. only by immersion in the 24hr process of climbing, uninfected by elements like heated toilet seats, kitchen staff, tv and quick drives to the camp site, lets the full process of alpinism sink in and the stressor elements rise to the surface to be dealt with. afterall, if you cant shit in the woods, carry a big pack and melt snow the rest is pretty much useless.

drawing out the capacities to climb seriously is a process of catalyzing existing abilities so they can be acted on and see what the limits are – then seeing if the limits are good enough. some abilities are just basic ones that need reworking for a more committed environment, others are new and esoteric and need complete development. its rare to ever see an ability thats come into place unintentionally. we dont expect it.

we catalyze abilities not with gung-ho machoism, but with the process of carefully controlled failure. climbers are allowed to find the gaps in their abilities and play out ways of resolving them. the reality there are some things you are not fit enough to pull off, not informed enough to pull off, not smart enough to pull off and not brave enough to pull off – yet. that is the process that never ends and thankfully there is methodology for dealing with it. but dumbed down, ego-appeasing weekend courses that hide the nasty bits are not it. honing accumulated experience into functional ability doesnt happen in your comfort zone, all evolution needs agitating factors, all processes need a set of guiding principles to give direction. at iceclimbingjapan we use a tried and tested set:

  • dont rely on superficial gear
  • dont consider sleeping in a lodge a valid part of alpinism
  • dont call backing off failure – but dont sugar-coat it as success either
  • dont assume what you havent practiced will work for you
  • analyse our choices within the perspective of a goal
  • develop the bulk abilities that form the base for occasional stunts
  • value perception and decision making as equals to physical ability and technique
  • regard one-off heroics as anomalies, not abilities
  • understand your current perspective may not match the situation
  • understand that hard work appears as magic to those who choose not to see it

most of whats in all that wont be found in pre-packaged courses or general curriculum – turning out self-directing climbers tends not be good for business if you cant offer what comes next.

and when you get it right you get to come home again, not because you took the easy options but because you were prepared to make the hard ones – the difference there is profound. they are NOT two sides to the same coin. thats two different processes. transformation from a spoon-fed climber to an independent, self-perceiving one is a process of questioning and willingness to deal with the outcomes. not every climber is aware of this and many dont have the opportunity to find out. thats where we come in.

 

TRAINING FOR WINTER IN SUMMER

before worrying about 20 pitches of 5.12, get good at 20 pitches of 5.10

theres plenty of suffering to be had in summer: long days on baking rock, drenched in sweat, fingers raw, soaked by the approach, dehydrated and sunburned. all winter you fantasize about things being lighter once all the gear is gone, but in the end it just becomes water instead. still, some things are easier in a t-shirt and daylight, so summer is the time to reduce complex systems to robotic reflex and develop the body that can withstand mile upon mile of vertical gain. neither comes fast nor by accident.

after endless winters of long alpine routes its easy to devolve by dedicating too much effort to short but hard rock routes in the belief that harder makes you better. and whilst theres no doubt that some upper threshold training is important, letting it take over and losing your hard-earned endurance edge is a serious training mistake – as seen in the many climbers who complain at the start of each winter how theyve lost their capacity for long hard days.

you get better at what you do by doing it and what you dont do atrophies. analyse any alpine objective and you see that above all other factors its the time on-route that is the baseline. pulling a single pitch of m11 or 5.13 is irrelevant if you cant stay up there and cover the other dozens of 5.9 pitches to get to it. in real time this means sucking it up and hammering out infinite pitches efficiently and well within your zone – something that comes no other way. by pitch 20 – climbed consistently and well – 5.10 will start to feel more and more like 5.12, and that 5.12 pitch it was all about starts to look much harder than the 5.12 you just squeezed out at the wall. the weak link is failed endurance.

so summers need not feel like a diversion from cold alpine – all those hours on rock pay off in many more ways than just endurance – but if youre going to keep the edge sharp between winters it needs consistent and intentional effort and that in turns means suffering, just in a different way. at the height of summer you will long for the simple agonies of winter.

PREPARATION: PRE-EXPEDITION TRIPS – WHY BOTHER?

somewhere up a huge granite face, a long way from home, with no topo to point the way, in the cold, is NOT the place to find out how your stove works. or your bivy bag. or your aiders. or your tent. or your partner. likewise, a day at a crag or a night in your backyard isnt realistic either.

unexplored objectives, unique mix of gear, early efforts up high, lots of factors unknown: with enough to focus on already, it pays to hammer out any details you can well before

when youre spending good money and energy and have pinned your expectations on a result, its unrealistic to not fortify your ability with functional practice. climbing trips to serious objectives are not the place for cutting corners, and worse than cutting corners on gear is cutting them on capability. especially things easily rectified once dragged thru the mill of experience. its amazing to see what climbers let slip thru with no preparation, even obvious stuff. common bug-ridden elements include:

  • cooking, melting and eating: these things need to become automated second nature as 9 times out of 10 they happen in cramped, stressful, time-dependant conditions. you need the right tools and to know how to make it all work. there’s a reason manfacturers say not to cook in a tent and circumventing this warning is skill, not luck.
  • packing to climb: messing about in the dark with a hundred stuff sacks is dangerous, annoying and time-wasting. you need to know what you have, where it is and how to get to it. beyond minimizing rummaging when youd rather be sleeping, access to important gear can save your life.
  • setting up bivvys: alpine tents, tarps, chopping ledges, securing gear, being safe and maybe even comfortable are important skills that need trailling to understand.
  • sorting racks: the less known the route the more unique and complex the gear. weekends cragging – especially sport or in the gym – negate the frontline skills of forseeing, racking and using the array of gear a leader needs
  • exped-belays: unaccustomed climbers dont realize how different an expedition-belay is. the time, the jobs to do, the conditions, the environment, the safety are lightyears away from guidebook stuff
  • seconding: along with the belays, seconding is a real job as part of a real team. you have shit to do. as the leader is busy at the sharp end the second has the tail-end responsibilities
  • descent: you usually dont just walk off an expedition objective. getting off unknown mountains with your gear, on ‘exped’ anchors, as a team, is a VITAL skill.

EVERY ONE of these things is fundamental to staying on mountains. NONE of these things are hypothetical. ALL of these things are trainable. not having these skills refined and functional wastes energy when you need it most and compromises your position as a team member – if you cant get it right someone else is affected.

pre-exped ‘debugging’ trips are as much about assessing your condition as they are about nailing down the general ‘house keeping’ skill set and test running the equipment you plan to use. a debugging trip needs to take place close enough to an expeds schedule to apply the foundations you have built for the trip, but also with enough time left to fix as much as possible. debugging trips are where you get to try things out and make (some) mistakes with a safety net. its also where you find out where you fit into a team, and get to self-assess whilst others observe you.

there’s right and wrong ways to setting up bivvys and exposed mountainsides is the worst place to find out

the best preparation trips mimic as many of the stressors of the real, planned trip as possible – minus the things that can kill you if your mistakes are too big, ie altitude, conditions, expense, travel factors and overall time. as much as you want to emulate the technical factors you also dont want to burn so deep as to compromise your condition for the real thing. Steve House & Scott Johnston recommend prepartory trips prior to focal expeditions, over-compensating some factors like height gain and loads carried in environments that allow it, and assumedly to refine their clothing, nutrition and technical systems as well. factors to prioritze debugging for include;

  • nights out: as many as possible, in a row. its usually the 3rd night that shows how good you are at it
  • load bearing: both approaches and on the vertical. can you actually move the stuff you need to?
  • nutrition: over several days. again – it takes a few days to realize the weaknesses in your intake
  • access skills: getting a months worth of supplies into BC is as much a team event as it is a necessary chore. not the best place to see a rope bridge, cable hoist or zip line for the first time
  • seconding: everyone needs ample time jugging, cleaning, belaying, organizing and suffering on the blunt end
  • systems: practice with your exped gear be it different ropes, chest racks, climbing in big boots, hauling, traversing, simu-climbing etc
  • organization: planning ahead and executing efficiency leads to better rest, time management and safety
  • communication: talking is the least useful form of communication. get as good as possible at reading signs so when you have to talk its only for important stuff.
  • descent: if nothing needs practise more its this, both as an individual and as a team. with gloves, by headtorch. even regular alpine descents are confusing.
  • being a team member: its easy to think its all about YOU. observe the ways your behaviour and abilities impact others so you can interact healthily.

spread over multiple weekends these elements can be accumulated, but combined in a short trip specific for the intention of up-skilling is far more effective. its not just the individual skills that matter, its the interplay and random throwing together that makes preparation realistic and not just simulated exercise.

ideally too, preparation trips should be fun. there will be enough genuine suffering on the real trip, preparation should be a time to immerse yourself in the enjoyable aspects of climbing, to whet your psyche as much as your skills. like avoiding burning out before you even start, dont crash your motivation or espirit de corps either. remember this is still a step on the up and up, not the final crux. realistically 100% of the final objective cannot be pre-empted, so the aim is to sharpen the bits that need it most.

when its cold, you’re tired, the ropes are frozen and theres a lot of rappels ahead, you wont be thinking about pointless details: its now when you need to be well prepared

dollar-for-dollar, preparation trips are the best money spend towards you goals as its here not that you get to play with your expensive toys, but that you get to refine what you dont need. gimmicky folding bowls, esoteric hardware, over-sized sleeping bags, silly clothes, flimsy electronics and bad food choices can get pin pointed and eliminated, freeing up cash for other things and simplifying what happens on the mountain.

in the end your capacity to acheive your objectives and return is at most 50% about you pulling 5.12 moves – the other 50% is how well you can sustain yourself in the place when its all occurring, including amongst your team mates. half that again is how well you perform, the remaining (25% in total) is how well you know yourself and your abilities so you can make the call.

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.