Mountaineering Fitness: Climb Like Ed

Got summit fever? The sky's the limit with a fitness plan and climbing tips from world-class mountaineer Ed Viesturs.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

In May, mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs became the first American to summit all 14 of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks when he reached the top of Nepal’s fabled Annapurna. In the following pages, Ed tells us just how he does it–and how you can, too, whether you’re gunning for Rainier or the toughest peak in your neck of the woods. You’ll learn everything from how to pick a hiking partner to what to eat at 14,000 feet. You’ll also get an exclusive look at his training regimen (don’t worry, we modified it for mere mortals). Follow Ed’s five-step plan, and you’ll soon be racking up your own list of killer summits.


Pick The Right Mountain

As a teenager, Viesturs was itching to climb Rainier. But he knew enough to know that he didn’t know how to climb the 14,411-foot, glaciated peak. So he went to Mt. St. Helens (pre-eruption) to hone his skills. Five months later, he reached Rainier’s snowy summit. Viesturs’s advice for choosing a mountain is to start small. Research the skills you’ll need, like hiking in crampons or navigating off-trail. Then find a peak that lets you master them in a safe environment.


Choose A Good Partner

When Viesturs reached the top of Annapurna, Finnish mountaineer Veikka Gustafsson was at his side. The longtime partners depend on each other for everything-even body heat. At night, the men curl up under a custom down comforter, a system that saves them 6 pounds. Spooning may be too ultralight for you, but the point holds: A companion can make or break your trip. Having comparable skills is crucial, but Viesturs also says the following qualities really matter.

SIMILAR FITNESS LEVEL “It’s frustrating to be with someone who hasn’t trained and can’t keep up,” he warns.

EQUAL COMMITMENT A good partner won’t bail at the last minute. To test commitment, take several short trips with a prospective partner before signing on to something big.

COMMUNICATION SKILLS “Before a trip, talk about how you’ll handle contigencies,” advises Viesturs. If one climber decides conditions are too dicey, will both of you turn around? Establish the rules before your trip.

SENSE OF HUMOR Picture this: Two men stuck in a tent, one with, er, digestive troubles. Find a partner who can laugh at challenges (preferably one with a strong stomach).



Last year, Viesturs noticed a chiseled bodybuilder staring at him in the gym. The stranger approached him. “Ed, you are wasting your time,” he declared in a thick Scandinavian accent. “Let me help you.”

The blunt weightlifter turned out to be Ubbe Liljeblad, an elite 39-year-old bodybuilder-turned-personal trainer. Impressed by Liljeblad’s nerve, physique, and training philosophy, Viesturs let the 5’11” Swede replace his generic free-weight program with a regimen that emphasizes core and trail-specific exercises. In one, for example, Viesturs moves a medicine ball down and across his body. It’s no coincidence that’s the same motion he uses to pull his pack on and off hundreds of times during a climb. Liljeblad also added four 60-minute stair-climber sessions per week (sometimes wearing an 80-pound pack) to Viesturs’s 7 miles of almost daily running. The result: more strength and stamina. “I was so solid on Annapurna,” says Viesturs. “I could move a lot of weight around without taxing myself.”

Liljeblad has modified the workout that helped Viesturs stand atop Annapurna to create a program for the rest of us. Start today, and in 2 months you’ll conquer the hills that once left you gasping. Stick with it for 4 months, and you’ll be ready to climb Rainier.


Your goal: five 30- to 75-minute aerobic workouts per week. Do any of the following activities.

Running or power-hiking

30 minutes, building to 60 to 75 minutes

Stair climber

Once a week for 30 to 75 minutes with a pack (start with 10 pounds and build to trip weight or 5 pounds more). Viesturs does this workout after strength training, but you can do it on a separate day.


Start each session with a 10-minute warmup on a rowing machine (Liljeblad’s favorite because it involves the whole body), stationary bike, or stair climber. Your goal: core exercises three times a week, upper body and legs twice a week. For all exercises, use a 4- to 15-pound medicine ball or 5- to 20-pound dumbbells, depending on your fitness level.



Start on your hands and knees. Lower down to your forearms as you straighten your legs, toes on the floor. Keep your body straight, stomach pulled in. Hold for 15 seconds; build to 60 to 90 seconds-unless you are a professional mountain climber. “Ed can hold it for 4 minutes,” Liljeblad says. Why a powerful core? “Stability, which on the mountain means injury prevention. When Ed’s on snow, ice, or rock with a loaded pack, his strong core counters the uneven and sometimes unstable surface by giving him a base of power.”

GOAL: 3 sets, 30-second rests

Ball Chop

Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a medicine ball as far over your right shoulder and behind your head as possible. Move the ball quickly, but with control, across your body to the outside of your left leg, keeping your arms straight but elbows soft. Return to the original position and repeat for 60 seconds. Perform on the other side. “Ed repeats this motion whenever he takes his pack on or off,” says Liljeblad. “Strengthening the core (lower back, lats, abs) and shoulder muscles helps him do it more efficiently, which saves energy.”

GOAL: 1 set

90° Flexion With Twist

From a standing position, hold a medicine ball out in front of you and bend forward from your hips until your back is parallel to the floor. Do not let the ball touch the floor. Keeping your back straight, your abs in, and your arms extended, raise the ball as far as you can to one side; hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side. “This exercise works the traverse abdominis, a difficult core muscle to get to because it’s deep inside the body,” says Liljeblad. “It also exercises the erector spinae (lower back) and oblique muscles.” All come into play during the awkward motions involved in steep scrambling and pack-hauling.

GOAL: 4 sets

Ball Twist

Stand tall with your abs tight, holding a ball out in front of you at chest height. Slowly twist side to side from the waist for 60 seconds; do not swing the ball. Works the back, shoulder, and oblique muscles.

GOAL: 2 sets


One-Legged Squat

Stand on one leg, with your other leg extended out in front of you, toes pointed. Squat back as low as you can, but don’t let the knee of your standing leg extend beyond your toes. Eventually, the toes of your extended leg will touch the ground in front of you. Rise and repeat, touching the ground to the side and then in back of you. “Almost every step with a heavy pack on is an exercise in balance,” says Liljeblad. “This trains balance in various position, plus builds leg strength.”

GOAL: 2 sets for each leg


Climb Smarter

In the weeks before an expedition, Viesturs is preoccupied with making final arrangements, packing, and taking care of things around the house to make his weeks away easier on his wife and three young children. Once on the mountain, Viesturs relies on the following proven strategies.

RISE EARLY On Annapurna, Viesturs and Gustafsson hit the trail before dawn, finishing by early afternoon. “That gave us the rest of the day to melt snow, rehydrate, and plan. And to look around and enjoy how cool it was to be in the mountains,” says Viesturs. Finishing early also helped them avoid the weather and avalanche dangers that often crop up in the afternoons–concerns that apply to mountain ranges abroad and in the United States.

FIX IT YOURSELF Despite carrying the latest and greatest gear, Viesturs says something always breaks, so hike prepared. His repair kit includes duct tape (wrapped around one of his climbing poles), electrical tape, wire, a sewing kit with floss, ripstop tape for down clothing, and a small length of cord.

EAT WHAT YOU LIKE At altitude, a climber’s appetite quickly disappears. Viesturs and Gustafsson eat foods they know work for them, which helps them get the calories they need. For breakfast, they have granola with powdered milk and coffee in tea-bag form with sweetened condensed milk in tubes. “Sometimes we add a chocolate energy gel to the coffee,” Viesturs says. While climbing, the two men suck down gels and eat energy or semisweet chocolate bars. They also fill their insulated water bottles with warm tea and sugar and drink it throughout the day.

Once the day’s climbing is complete, they munch on sandwiches–“Ed McMuffins,” as Gustafsson calls them–of rye crisps, salami, cheese, and mustard. For snacks, they eat beef jerky, nuts, dried mangoes, bananas, and papayas along with dried soup. A few hours later they might split a freeze-dried dinner, more dried soup, and cookies for dessert.

PACE YOURSELF In 2003, Viesturs visited Nanga Parbat in Pakistan with a group of elite young climbers. Despite nailing 11 of the highest mountains in the world without oxygen, he was nervous. At 43, he was the old climber on the mountain. “I was afraid I’d get smoked,” he admits. He got even more restless during the ascent as, one by one, the young guns passed him. “But I just plodded along. I know my pace pretty well and I just kept it.” By summit time, most of the others had flamed out, leaving the seasoned veteran king of the mountain–again.

Hike at a pace that feels like a comfortable push: You’re breathing, but not so hard that you have to catch your breath in order to speak. Hike for an hour, then rest for 15 minutes (if conditions allow); take your pack off and eat plenty of food and water.


Come Home

“I’ve always said it’s not worth dying to climb a mountain,” says Viesturs. “If there’s something eating at you, whether it’s your boots, your partner, the weather, or where your head is at, it’s time to go down.” Case in point: In 2000, Viesturs and Gustafsson turned their backs on Annapurna’s summit when the weather refused to let up. Two years later, they were back again, but avalanche danger stopped them. “We were completely happy with our decision,” Viesturs says. “Play it safe. The most important part of your climb is making sure it’s a round-trip.”

Freelance writer and triathlete Rob Lamme trains like hell from his home in North Carolina.

Return to the Backpacking 101 home page.

Trending on Backpacker