The highest summit in the world has become a scene, but that doesn’t mean people will stop climbing it. When Fort Collins climber Jim Davidson got the call to climb Everest, he said yes right away. Then, he realized he would have to figure out how to prepare for the trip of a lifetime.
Hustling down Horsetooth Mountain just outside of Fort Collins, I catch up to an descending hiker. I toss a quick hand wave toward him as I pass by. Just another day in the local hills, right?
At the bottom of the dirt road, I turn around and start back up. I brush away the sweat clinging to the tip of my nose and check my watch. This second lap to the summit needs to be faster than the first. I cinch the 40-pound pack tighter against my back, and focus on keeping my pace.
Recognizing me from just a few moments before, the hiker looks confused as I puff my way back uphill toward him.
“Doing another lap up?” he asks
“Are you training for something?”
He arches his eyebrows, smiles wide and says, “Ahh!”
Indeed, just another day here in Colorado.
A climber for 33 years, I have drifted into and out of peak condition as my life vacillated between work, family and climbing. I have whipped myself back into expedition shape many times. But now, at age 52 with a bad knee and an expanded waistline, the challenges are bigger. And, since I’m attempting to reach Mount Everest’s deadly 29,035-foot summit, the stakes are far higher.
Previous trips above 20,000 feet have shown me how long expeditions wear high-altitude climbers down. Extreme exertion, low oxygen levels and poor appetite combine to strip 15 to 25 pounds of muscle off already lean frames. Summit day on Everest will amount to very little sleep, 18 hours of climbing, and abundant ways to get myself killed.
When people find out that I am going to climb Everest this spring, they often ask “So, how do you train for that?” Well, here you go. Here’s how I have been training for Everest for the past year.
FUNCTION AND FOUNDATION
Mountaineering at extremely high altitudes requires strength and aerobic endurance. I have successfully built up these capacities before, but I knew that my previous experience would just be the starting place. I needed to create the strongest base possible, and then to build from there up to my highest fitness level ever.
For the first time, I began working with a professional trainer. Since I was already in decent shape, I thought that I’d be pushing around heavy steel plates in no time. Wrong. After a careful assessment of my movement, flexibility and injury limitations, a skilled trainer from Fort Collins’ Raintree Athletic Club advised a three-month period of foundational and functional training. Under his direction, I found myself pulling on giant rubber bands and lifting 10-pound medicine balls. I initially thought: This guy doesn’t get it. I’m climbing to 29,000 feet! But, Kelly did get it. He knew that to move on to a higher level of fitness, I needed to resolve physical dysfunctions that might limit my movement, efficiency or strength improvements.
While no trainer can magically turn back the clock on thirty years of athletic wear and tear, over 12 weeks my numerous tweaks and injuries faded. My core strength increased and I was moving better, with less effort. With improved eating habits, my weight began a slow, steady decrease. The functional foundation efforts were working.
TAKING IT TO THE MOUNTAINS
Increased strength is great, but a gym sure isn’t like the mountains. Climbing demands that you deal with equipment, nutrition, hydration and ever changing conditions. No two-hour gym session can simulate an all-day climb. On big mountains, I will often ascend for three to six hours before the sun comes up. So, I started taking my improved fitness to the mountains. My weekly training shifted to:
• Outdoor aerobic sessions (example: uphill pack carries with some interval work)
• Endurance days of hiking and climbing for six to 12 hours
• Continued strength and function work back in the gym.
As I progressed, the mountaineering days got longer and the summits higher. Colorado’s many mountains provide endless possibilities, and our 54 peaks higher than 14,000 feet provide lung-strengthening altitude training as well. During a 30-day stretch of gorgeous fall weather, I summited 10 high peaks.
At this point, hiking a fourteener no longer made me tired or sore. I was in good mountain climbing shape. Now, I had to get into Everest shape.
PHYSICAL TRAINING FOR mount EVEREST
Like many climbers, I used to take the day off before a peak climb to save my energy, and I usually take a rest day afterwards to recover. That’s not possible on an expedition. On a big mountain in the Himalayas, we typically climb for three or four days in a row before we can rest.
For Everest, I needed to teach my body to move day after day, even though it might already be tired. I began scheduling gym days right before mountain days. That wore me down for a while, but I got used to it. Then I added uphill hikes with 40-pound packs on the days after big hikes. By “stacking” my training in these three-day clusters, I was getting closer to Everest conditions. After a few months, I no longer tired easily on mountain days and my recovery times decreased. Excess body weight continued to come off, and stay off.
In one stretch, I worked out eight days in a row. While that might sound macho, it is unwise. Training without any rest or recovery days eventually leads to injury. The drive to workout must be balanced with the discipline to rest. A good coach or trainer can keep you in check. If you do not have that, then your body will warn you with tweaky injuries that force you to throttle back. Listen to your body. It needs time to adapt to higher workloads.
MENTAL TRAINING FOR mount EVEREST
When winter settles over the Rocky Mountains and the days shorten, you wind up starting climbs in the dark. Temperatures drop and the winds increase, so the clothing requirements and pack weights increase. This is good stuff.
One bitterly cold day my friends Rodney and Andy joined me for a rare snowy ascent of Mount Fairchild in Rocky Mountain National Park. Screaming winds above treeline and the threat of frostnip turned us around at 12,300 feet, but we completed 14 miles in the high country. Any long mountain day that tests your limits and wears you out is good mental training for Everest.
Besides physical challenges, climbing to high altitude creates the possibility of debilitating altitude sickness. Climbers at elevation can develop mild or acute mountain sickness, or potentially deadly forms of pulmonary edema and cerebral edema. It is difficult to train for high altitude without actually going up high and acclimatizing gradually. This slow acclimatization process requires repeated trips up and down the mountain’s lower slopes. This can be quite unpleasant. You must be willing to suffer and endure. That’s why mental fitness is so important.
My final weeks of preparation are designed to push my physical training to extreme levels, and to get me mentally ready for Everest. I start doing “super stacks,” where I climb winter 14ers for four days in a row. During shorter workouts, I add in some “deprivation days” with intentionally insufficient food and/or water. This builds fortitude and grit in case things go wrong up high.
Over the past year, I have tried to train hard and to become as resilient as I can. I have great respect for Mount Everest, for my fellow climbers, and for the resident Sherpa people that support the expeditions. Whatever happens high in the thin Himalayan air, I know that the mountain will send me home with more than I bring to it.
AND FINALLY, WHY CLIMB MOUNT EVEREST?
In recent media reports, Mount Everest often gets treated like a once revered public figure now yanked off the public pedestal due to imperfections and controversies. The mountain sometimes gets scorned with simplistic insults: “It‘s crowded; it’s easy; the Khumbu ice fall is too dangerous.”
Yes, just as Yosemite and Hawaii aren’t what they once were, Mount Everest is different than it used to be when the first people arrived. But, these beautiful places still draw us to their majesty, inspire us, and exhilarate our lives.
Scaling big mountains pushes you to your spiritual, mental and physical limits. Just like running, music or meditation does for other people, high-altitude climbing teaches me, humbles me and prompts me to become a better version of myself.
So, as a life-long climber, I will go to Everest and try my best. With my climbing partners (both western and Nepali) I will climb carefully and respectfully. At the end, we will thank the mountain for the experience, pick up our trash, and go home, hopefully better for having tried.
As the highest point on Earth, the icy summit of Mount Everest remains magical and mystical.
Ready? Try These Colorado Front Range Winter Training Climbs to Prepare You for Everest or at Least for Other Mountaineering Expeditions.
Grizzly Peak (13,427 feet), Loveland Pass Park right at the pass, start hiking uphill right from 11,990’. Go over numerous 12,000-foot and 13,000-foot peaks on the way to & from Grizzly. Provides a tiring high alpine day and the wind usually provides a good beat down. If the weather is good, consider going farther along the ridge to summit Torreys and Greys to make a really big day (10 miles above 12,000 feet and 5,500 feet of ascent).
Black Lake Slabs, Rocky Mtn. NP Snowshoe 6 miles into the backcountry with an alpine climbing pack. Arrive fresh so you can lead the 3 pitches of moderate water ice and snow. Wallow down to your pack and trek back out to Glacier Gorge parking lot to complete your well-rounded day.
Longs Peak (14,256 feet), Rocky Mtn. NP With 14 miles round trip and 4,900 feet of ascent, it’s a solid training day any time of year. Summiting in the winter earns bonus points, and so does taking a more technical route. If you want unroped snow climbing practice, take the full Trough from Black Lake area for a big winter day. Your quads will thank you for preparing them well once you are on your Big Mountain.
Colorado-based speaker and author Jim Davidson recently completed climbs of high peaks in Mexico (Orizaba at 18,490 feet) and Tanzania (Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet). Trip reports and photos can be seen at speakingofadventure.com/everest-resilience/training-for-everest-2015/. Follow Davidson’s climb of Everest this April and May on his blog (speakingofadventure.com/blog/), on his Facebook page (facebook.com/ResiliencewithJimDavidson) and via his Twitter feed (twitter.com/climberjim).