It should probably not surprise me that Leigh Ann and I both decided to write posts about conditioning in the same week – since that’s what life is focused on, right now.
In addition to our perpetual need to “Get the Gear,” the main thing we have to work on as a team right now is getting strong – massively strong. As we climb Denali we’ll have huge packs – approximately 60+ lbs on our backs, and we’ll be towing long sleds behind us that carry even more of our gear, food, and gas for the stoves, to distribute it, so that we can actually lift our backpacks.
By comparison, a weekend-long climbing trip in our native Pacific Northwest often merits a backpack that weighs about 40-50 lbs (depending on how light your gear is and how much, to borrow from Leigh Ann’s language, you’re ‘willing to suffer’ to go lighter and therefore have less stuff). And when climbing in the PNW, we’re not dragging additional gear on sleds – so this requires a big uptick in our normal training, for all of us.
All that means that in terms of fitness, we’re focused closely on two things: Strength training, and cardio. “Conditioning” (short for physical conditioning or training) is the term we use for all of this work – we’re getting “into condition” for our climb. A third element, movement specific training, I lump in with strength training, here – movement-specific training is practicing the actual movements we will use in the mountain, which in our case is predominantly the act of walking slowly upstairs while wearing a heavy backpack…for four weeks!
So how do we “condition all the things?”
We do cardio. We get cardio fitness (which down the line provides us with the ability to breath and stay in motion while working hard to walk up hill) from our conditioning hikes, which each of us is doing once or twice a week, together with the other Girls and a few like-minded (read: similarly masochistic) friends.
We meet up after work, in the dark, at a local trailhead, and pop our headlamps on, plus a layer (fleece, puffy coat, etc or two) that we can take off once we get moving and warm up. We carry trekking poles so we don’t slip in the dark, and in our backpacks right now we each carry 35 lbs of equipment – some of it is just large bottles of water (a new take on the term “water weight”) which we’re carrying as a stand in for all of our usual equipment (I don’t carry my ice axe on conditioning hikes, for example – although Leigh Ann does, because – she’s Leigh Ann). Some of what we carry is actual gear – we each carry first aid kits and the rest of our “10 Essentials,” both because doing so has been drilled into us by the Mountaineers over the years and because we want to make sure that if someone slips and falls or cuts herself, we can patch her right up and keep going, or descend.
We’ll steadily up the weight in our backpacks in the weeks to come, increasing it by 5lbs every few weeks or so, until we’re more closely approximating what it means to truly “climb with weight,” and can move easily and steadily with about 60lbs on our backs. And when we get to that point, we’ll descend our training hill, then turn right back around and do it again – to be sure we have that kind of stamina.
These night hikes are a form of cardio, and also provide some of the movement-specific training I mentioned earlier – walking slowly uphill (it’s muddy this time of year!) while carrying heavy weight. Doing so makes our legs stronger, most obviously, but it also makes our core stronger – it tones our ab muscles and lower backs, which are the muscles that you use when you start to slip and catch yourself, or rotate to the side to pick something heavy up, or scoop up a wiggly little kid. This kind of training isn’t the kind that will give you a six pack, but will make you strong in a way that I’d argue is way sexier than a six pack. A strong core is critical for climbing (and life!), and all this conditioning just builds it up, day by day, climb by climb, step by step.
For strength training, we’re all doing something a little bit different, and I’ll leave it to each of my teammates to explain what they’re doing in depth – but generally speaking: in Leigh Ann’s case, she’s doing Crossfit, and is a Crossfit trainer herself; Jenn is working with free weights at home and doing extra trips up our local conditioning peaks, plus running; and Carolyn is doing extra longer conditioning outings and other forms of contextual fitness training (I might have just made that term up – what I mean to say is she is doing the sport to get good at doing the sport – climbing makes you better at climbing, for example, and running better at running).
For me myself, it’s a mix. Each climber has to know her own body, limits, strengths and weaknesses – mine include a generally weak body, as compared to most of my climbing partners – I start over from a baseline of zero, in terms of strength, every winter, if I don’t make sure to maintain by staying deliberately active in what are usually our “off-season” months, from November through February (when we “only” cross-country ski and snowshoe and backcountry ski and scramble and and and…)
My strong bits are my legs and butt and my back/core, generally speaking – I’m very proud of those muscle groups (and, hell, they way they look in my jeans!) The gaps in my fitness are definitely my arms – you don’t necessarily use your arms as much as your legs in alpine mountaineering (although don’t get me wrong – climbing around boulders or pulling oneself up onto a ledge does work the arms), but if we were to fall and be sliding while climbing on Denali, we’d use a move called “self-arrest” – and that is heavily arm reliant – so I want to ensure those are strong as well.
(I tried to find a video of ice axe self-arrest to share with you all here, but – LORDY- they are SO BAD. Google it but don’t consider what you see the “correct” way to do it. Yeesh.)
This year I sought to mitigate these known weaknesses and gaps starting in September, by training for and running my first half marathon, to keep my cardio conditioning up and keep moving during the beginning of our rainy months. I also do a lot of informal yoga around the house and before and after workouts – yoga, at its heart, is about stretching – this helps me heal and stay resilient, to avoid injury.
In terms of strength training, then, my goal is to focus on the arms and building overall strength – so I surprised myself, and turned to Crossfit. Leigh Ann and I have climbed together extremely consistently over the last few years, and I’ve had the opportunity to watch her get stronger (and stronger…and stronger) as she’s been deliberate and dedicated about her training. It got to a point where even without having recently gone climbing she could more or less “just show up” and go out to climb, because her overall fitness was at a level that she was, more or less, “ready for everything.” And I thought … I want that!
So in addition to those one or two nights a week of hiking with weight, and some yoga, I’m doing Crossfit at 6am two to three times per week at my local gym. Getting myself to a Cross-fit gym has been something of an exercise in mind over matter: I’ve always sworn I would never get into weight-lifting, because I found the concept repellant (as I’ve said since high school, the simple concept of amassing weight for the sole purpose of repeatedly picking it up and putting it back down is nonsensical), so to find oneself hoisting a metal bar (with admittedly the most embarrassingly tiny weights ever) over my head, repeatedly, exhaustively – it’s really a big mental transition. But it is getting me to weight train, it is getting me stronger, and I like the community at my local gym, which is co-owned by a man and a woman (cool) and has a lead trainer who is also a woman, and who, despite almost certainly being younger than me, can probably bench-press my body weight (although that’s probably the wrong term for it. So many new words, in weight-training!)
So there’s the strength training component. Other aspects of training that I’d like to build in over the coming months include getting back to running once or twice a week – I dropped it like a bad habit shortly after finishing my half marathon – whoops. And in a perfect world I’ll pick up a class or two of hot yoga each week, to help with recovery – the time after a work out when you let your muscles heal, and also build themselves back up. My doctor is a marathoner and yogi, and has prescribed “more yoga” (in writing!) every time I’ve seen her for the last two years, so that’s on the list, as well.
It’s hard to know when you’re doing enough, though, when you have never done something at this scale before. What does “Denali Fit” look like? Will all our weight training, night hikes, movement-specific training, stretching and extra cardio add up to being ready in just shy of what is now three and a half months? How strong is strong enough?
The answer to these questions will become clearer as we get closer to Denali, and when we begin a planned series of weekend overnights at Mount Rainier National Park, to be spent reviewing our technical skills, getting our winter camping habits and camp setup nailed down as a team, and testing out our fitness by, hopefully, climbing Rainier itself. It helps you get a sense of where your fitness is for a 20,000 ft mountain when you have a 14,000 footer eye-balling you as you cross over the West Seattle Bridge on your commute each day!
Those outings begin for our team on January 31st, a wee 11 days away (and I kinda can’t wait). In the meantime, we’re headed out on yet another night hike tonight – to ensure we condition all the things.
Think of us enjoying the “summit” and the stars tonight, if you crawl into bed early. We’ll be out there, getting strong.