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 five areas: physical fitness, mental preparation, spirituality, technique and genes.

Physical Preparation

I train pretty much year-around. I am in the gym every other day, except weekends, for a 1-1/2 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 double the routine for a 3-hour workout. I try to climb in the local mountains on weekends (a group of us just climbed Mt. Baldy); and, on Sunday, Ollie and I bike ride for 40-50 miles in the mountains and along the coast. I pull him in a trailer behind my bike. He now weighs 80 pounds, so he gives me quite a workout. On Sunday, April 1, Ollie, his Aunt Lori, Uncle Jeff and I are going to bicycle down the coast to Carlsbad–a 65-mile trip. We will then take the train home.

Mental Commitment

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.

Spiritual Readiness

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 break 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.



16 thoughts on “Fit to Climb?

  1. I am going to print your comments about readiness and give them to my 17 years old grandson who is doing very well at track and football – however every bit of knowledge about readiness helps to make you more competitive – thank you

  2. Thanks for providing excellent advice, in living, as well as climbing. I am 55 and want to start climbing so your words are extra special to me.

    wayne marr

  3. Bill
    Thanks for the insight. You are impressive. Next week I turn 70 and will take your principles to heart. I think it really comes down to discipline, mind, body and spirit, something you obviously have in abundance. Good luck and keep us posted. John

  4. Bill,

    Amazed and Respect your commitment to mountaineering even at this age. You are a true inspiration for any one in climbing as well as leading a great life.

    Best of luck for all your endeavors and as our friend alan says climb on!

  5. Bill, Most of us deep down in or hearts, body and soul ***”know”***what you have just described! Your life,character, great family is an inspiration to all of us. Our best wishes are with all of you and GREAT success on your ventures.

  6. Great advice to living life and it’s everyday troubles as well as to planning for our nearby adventures.

    Good Luck and Many Thanks for all your posts!! We’ll be praying for your success and safe return.

  7. Bill, your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual thoughts have become training bulletin #21 for the group doing rim-to-rim-to-rim of Grand Canyon in September. I’ll close with a thought from Horace: “In adversity, remember to keep an even mind.” Blessings,


  8. Coach George Allen said the following when he was president of the Physical Fitness Foundation which your post reminded me of today:


    by George Allen

    A workout is 25 percent perspiration and 75 percent determination. Stated another way, it is one part physical exertion and three parts self-discipline. Doing it is easy once you get started.

    A workout makes you better today than you were yesterday. It strengthens the body, relaxes the mind, and toughens the spirit. When you work out regularly, your problems diminish and your confidence grows.

    A workout is a personal triumph over laziness and procrastination. It is the badge of a winner– the mark of an organized, goal-oriented person who has taken charge of his, or her, destiny.

    A workout is a wise use of time and an investment in excellence. It is a way of preparing for life’s challenges and proving to yourself that you have what it takes to do what is necessary.

    A workout is a key that helps unlock the door to opportunity and success. Hidden within each of us is an extraordinary force. Physical and mental fitness are the triggers that can release it.

    A workout is form of rebirth. When you finish a good workout, you don’t simply feel better, YOU FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOURSELF.

    1. George Allen was an inspiring coach and I think he would have agreed with another coach (Bill Sharman) who said, “The coach can offer advice, but individuals must motivate themselves.”

  9. May the challenge, adventure and inspiration you provide to others keep us all able to compensate the effect of age. God bless you.

  10. Thank you for your wise philosophy, Bill. Your attitude has always been one I admire. It is so inspiring! I believe it is why you will be a success in living life on life’s terms, whatever you persue as your goal. May God bless you & keep you in His ever loving care in all of your endeavors. Love & Hugs, Betty

    1. Betty and her family lived next to my family when I was growing up in Burbank. She was the beloved babysitter for my brother, sister and me. Her brother, Jerry, was an occasional babysitter when Betty was unavailable (or needed a break from the ordeal of dealing with us). Betty & Jerry and their Mom & Dad, Ron and Dorothy, will always live in my heart with great warmth and fondness.

      Bill Burke

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