When people hear that I summited Mt. Everest, the first question they ask me almost always involves the dead bodies of climbers that remain on the mountain. (Yes, I did see them; no, that wasn’t the most startling part of the journey.) The second question, more often than not, has to do with training. How do successful climbers train for the world’s highest peak? And what can hikers and backpackers learn from them?
As a mountain guide with roughly a decade of experience, I came into my pre-Everest training reasonably comfortable in the alpine. But I knew that Everest was a different beast, as all peaks above 8,000 meters are. It commanded my respect in a different way: loosely speaking, climbers with my experience level have somewhere between a 1 and 2 percent fatality rate on the world’s tallest mountain. That may not sound like a lot on paper, but it feels very real when it’s your own life on the line. Even if I had the world’s best luck, I knew I might not come home if I didn’t train correctly.
To maximize my chances of success (and survival), I assembled a team of experts. While I had a solid base of training, alpine skills, and gym experience, I knew I needed the best coaches I could find, so I invested in the guidance of a personal trainer, a nutritionist, a chiropractor, and a therapist.
For my gym work, I partnered with Matt Holland, trainer and co-owner of Northwest Fitness Project in Seattle, Washington. We’d trained together for almost a year before I requested his help for Everest, so I had a robust foundation, but we ramped it up significantly as soon as I mentioned the big E.
Together we identified training goals: as much lower-body strength, endurance, and power as possible, because I’d be climbing over steep and uneven terrain for very long stretches; comfort and stamina in high heart rate zones (3 and 4), in case I needed to move quickly to get out of danger; and the upper body strength—specifically in my lats, triceps, and core—to efficiently ascend a rope.
For the three months leading up to my departure, we trained 2 to 5 times each week, focusing on lunges, squats, lat pull-downs, and balance. I also logged between 6 and 10 hours of cardio each week, and at least an hour of mobility, stretching, and foam rolling every night before bed. Training was my full-time job.
My nutritionist, who specializes in working with endurance athletes, was every bit as valuable. She identified a daily caloric goal for me during training (for me, that was between 1,700 and 1,800 calories per day), and broke those calories into suggested ratios of protein, carbs, and healthy fats.
I felt well nourished, but the program did take significant self control. I gave up alcohol for the year. I ate almost no sugar. I drank every imaginable iteration of bone broth. There was an ungodly number of leafy greens, and it felt like I cooked constantly. My partner began to hate grilled chicken. I took a daily multivitamin, and drank whey protein, supplemental glutamine, organic beet powder, and (sometimes) a pre-workout supplement. The hardest thing? While I love coffee, I cut out caffeine completely, because I wanted a secret weapon in my tool kit during the climb.
The Mental Game
The work my chiropractor and therapist did was more subtle, but every bit as important. My chiropractor taught me exercises and stretches to increase blood flow to my brain and spinal column. My therapist asked me why I was going, and helped me work through my fears. It wasn’t easy, but when my flight landed in Kathmandu, I felt unshakable. Bulletproof.
In addition to the strength and stamina required to climb, I needed to teach myself how to activate my parasympathetic nervous system. No matter how strong I was—and don’t get me wrong; that mattered deeply—I absolutely needed to learn to regulate my breathing and heart rate.
I was so used to wearing my heart rate monitor during the day that I started to keep it on at night. I’d stretch, foam roll, and practice my breathing—all while wearing a heart rate monitor and pulse oximeter. After three months of monitoring those vital signs, I could lower my heart rate to 45 within three or four deep breaths. My blood oxygen can go from the mid-90s (which is normal for a resting healthy adult) to 99 (the highest reading those machines can measure) in the same. In short, I learned how to deescalate: Look at my heart rate monitor, four deep breaths, shoulders down, look at the monitor again. That self-regulation practice was a tool I used every day on Everest. Now, more than two years later, I still do.
I still train using many of the other techniques, too — but full-time training isn’t practical all the time, so my schedule is very adapted. And today, when friends and family ask how to maximize their own training, here’s what I suggest:
Research your objective:I can’t stress this one enough. In ten years of guiding, it’s the most common training mistake I’ve seen. The better you know your objective, the better you can prepare. What kind of terrain will you be moving through, what kind of weight will you need to carry, and what kind of endurance will you need? Look at photos, read trip reports, and talk to people who have done it.
Ask for help. Get friends and family to hold you accountable, accompany you on training hikes, and cheer you on. If you can afford one, a trainer can help you identify weaknesses and write a program for you. If seeing a trainer routinely isn’t in your budget, you can still make gains by seeing one intermittently or working with a coach online.
Remember: it all matters. From how much you sleep to how you manage your fears, every decision you make brings you closer to or pushes you further from achieving your goal. Training isn’t just a single hour of slinging weights at the gym, it’s the framework behind how you live.