Backpacking Fitness

Are You Fit to Climb?

Any serious mountaineer will appreciate this updated Bible of climbing-specific training

Last month, the 2nd Edition of Climbing: Training for Peak Performance (The Mountaineers Books) by Boulder, Colorado resident, climber, photographer, writer, and all-around good guy, Clyde Soles, went on sale. A copy arrived on my desk, and I decided to see what, exactly, warranted an update from Soles’ first edition which came out, geez, a little over five years ago. I mean, it’s climbing–whether it’s up rock or an ice field, the sport’s physiological requirements haven’t changed much in decades, right?

One quick glance through its pages though, and I realized I was wrong. Among the more intriguing additions to this update is a thorough chapter on “Improving Altitude Performance.” In it Soles goes into detail about what happens to the body at higher altitudes (starting at 8,000 to 10,000 feet) and doles out some interesting recommendations:

  • Stay hydrated as “(s)evere dehydration can shut down your summit bid faster than any snowstorm.”
  • Stick to a high carb diet since “one study has shown that a diet of more than 70 percent carbohydrates decreased altitude mountain sickness by 30 percent after a fast ascent to 14,000 feet.”
  • And my favorite: “Young, healthy men are most likely to experience difficulties at altitude due to testosterone-induced stupidity; because they are very fit and think they’re invincible, they push too hard too fast. Best advice: start slow and taper.”
  • At the end of the chapter Soles delves into the efficacy of various supplements and drugs such as acetazolamide (Diamox) for altitude induced sickness and even modafinil (Provigil) a new, supposedly safe alternative to amphetamines for 20-hour summit pushes.

When it came to the exercises I also noticed a big change. There were noticeably more core and functional strength exercises and fewer classic weight-training ones. He’s now included kettlebells, resistance tubing, even gymnastics rings into the mix. But Soles’ fundamental message has remained unchanged: you can’t become a stronger climber by simply climbing. You have to push your body in the gym beyond its ability to handle your bodyweight, and even the weight of your body plus a heavy pack. It’s a fundamental approach that every athlete takes to train for their sport, and Soles does a smart job showing us that climbers and mountaineers should consider themselves true athletes, not just recreational enthusiasts.

Whether you’ve got Rainier or Whitney on your life list, or a thru-hike planned for next spring, you’d do well to check out Soles’ book and take a crack at his program.