By: Brian Mulvihill
On a recent trip to Alaska, while volunteering as a Denali Rescue Volunteer with the National Park Service, I was able to get away from job duties and climb a 1200ft alpine ice route during a “free day.”
This climb would not have been possible if I had not been training before hand. Leading up to the 12 day volunteer patrol, I trained 4 days a week for 6 weeks sport specifically as well as multiple long to moderate days ski mountaineering in the Tetons. These cumulative hours of training made it possible to complete the climb with a smile and little suffering.
During this 12 day trip I had brought along a book called Training For the New Alpinism by Steve House and Scott Johnston. A must read for any current or aspiring alpine climber, though it has many applications for any outdoor athlete. One of the main points of this large training book is the focus on your actual training volume. Although I had not previously read this before my trip, I had actually been following some of their suggestions.
In short, I used my long days in the mountains as training as well as my sport specific gym sessions to maximize my ability to climb during my time on the patrol. Given the fact that Alaska weather is very fickle, I was training knowing that I may not be able to climb at all.
When I landed at Kahiltna Base Camp, the starting point for most Denali aspirant climbers and where I would spend the next 12 days, the weather was perfect! We spent the next few days doing daily glacier camp chores and helping out climbing teams unloading from their air taxis and enjoying the massive views of the Alaska Range. A few days later it starting snowing and did not stop until 5 days later. During this time no flights were coming or going and it took serious motivation for me to get outside and exercise via flat skiing in whiteout conditions. These low impact sessions of cardio exercise helped keep me sane as well as kept my body refreshed for what may come.
Once the storm broke my friend, an NPS climbing ranger, asked if I was ready to try to climb the following day. I was ready and the weather looked perfect. We set out at 5am the next morning and skied up a glacier to the base of the route in 2.5 hours. The climb started out first by climbing up past a difficult bergschrund and then up 400ft of 50 degree hard glacial ice. Next came 800ft of phenomenal climbing up a narrow ice hose through golden granite rock. After descending the route amidst spindrift avalanches and returning to our skis we enjoyed a slow but moderate descent back to base camp. Total time was 12 hours.
During the climb I felt strong and less fatigued than I have felt on other long climbs. I believe this is due to the fact of more training volume at lower heart rates and strength training such as recommended by House and Johnston. My own training sessions did not follow their specific recommendations but the principals were similar.
If you have goals that require long days of physical exertion and currently train in the gym consider reading Training for the New Alpinism for a new look on supplementing your current gym training plan. I am looking forward to seeing where I can take my fitness level once I follow their program religiously instead of by chance!