Fit To Climb?
At every Everest presentation, I am asked to describe my physical training regime. I always answer that question by stating that physical fitness is only a small part of the formula for success in high altitude mountaineering. I believe success is linked to readiness in six areas: physical fitness, mental preparation, pure motives, spirituality, technique and genes.
My Mt. Everest training regime includes workouts in a gym, climbing in the local mountains and bicycling with my grandson before I leave for Nepal in early April. I am in the gym every other day, except weekends, for a 2-hour workout that includes running on a treadmill and upper and lower body weight exercises. In January, I move that up to every day, except weekends. And, in March, I increase the workout to 3 hours. I am blessed to have an abundance of challenging mountains within driving distance, including Mt. Whitney (one of my favorite mountains in the world, which I have scaled 14 times (10 via the Mountaineer’s Route)), San Gorgonio, San Antonio (Mt. Baldy) and San Jacinto. Bicycling is my favorite training exercise because I am joined by Oliver, my 12-year old year old disabled grandson, who rides with me in a trailer which I pull behind the bike. See Training Partner on this website.
Just before the battle of Agincourt in 1415, King Henry V declared to his troops: “all things are ready if the mind be so.” William Shakespeare, King Henry V, act 4, Scene 3. Mental preparation is far more important than physical preparation in molding fitness to climb. For sure, the mountain takes its physical toll on the body. But, the mind is what keeps you moving in the difficult times. The extreme vertical terrain, the relentless weather, those long and lonely nights in the tent, the sameness of the food, longing for family and friends and fear all conspire to create doubt and temptation to quit and go home. There is no antidote for this malaise in pills or medicine. Mental toughness, fierce determination and iron resolve are the only hope.
A Sherpa friend, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, famous for his rescue of another Sherpa on K2, once said: “A mountain is a living Goddess. Climb with a pure heart.” This is great advice. Those who climb for fame, fortune, recognition, or to set or break records, are not climbing with a pure heart. Mountains should be climbed with respect, humility and concern for those who share these sacred realms, be they fellow mountaineers or support personnel. Selfish motives lead to selfish decisions, putting the lives and well being of others at risk. My own belief is that journey to the finish line is where all the learning takes place and where happiness and growth are achieved. In six trips to Everest, I have never had a bad year.
Spirituality is an important ingredient to success in mountaineering. Always trust in the Lord to protect you and guide you through the difficult times. Have faith in your ability to overcome the physical and mental obstacles that stand in your way. It is also important to respect the mountain and the people who have graciously allowed you to visit their country. One of the great joys I have experienced in climbing mountains around the world is the opportunity it has given me to meet people and learn about their culture, religion and political systems. I always remind myself of the need to act and speak in a manner that will reflect well on America.
Alpine climbing is not just about putting one foot in front of the other and hoping for the best. Technique is critical. Here’s 10 suggestions:
1) move slow–never allow anyone to push you out of your comfort zone,
2) drink lots of fluid,
3) eat well, even when your body is telling you that you are not hungry,
4) get lots of sleep,
5) rest step the steep sections,
6) pressure breathe,
7) set small goals as you move up, e.g., just reach that next rock 50 yards up the mountain,
8) always stay positive,
9) visualize success, and
10) pray constantly, for yourself and everyone else on the mountain.
It helps to have good climbing genes. Some people acclimatize to altitude faster and better than others. Many climbers suffer from extreme bouts of headache, nausea, loss of appetite, insomnia, dizziness, lethargy and coughing so severe it has been known to crack ribs. Fortunately, I acclimatize well to altitude. I don’t get even small headaches and I always maintain a healthy appetite. In some respects, I sleep better on Everest than I do at home because what else is there to do when you return to your tent in the freezing cold as soon as it gets dark? My biggest issue is age, and I compensate for that by practicing the ideas discussed above.
These principles apply, more or less, to all aspects of life and learning. But, I have found them particularly helpful in mountaineering.