I’ll confess my guilt. I was a fitness fanatic during my peak as a climber and ski alpinist. Ask anyone who knew me in those days. Sometimes I was unstoppable — that is until I crashed big and disappointingly often from over training, overuse injuries, poorly conceived workouts and bad nutrition — not to mention lame mistakes in judgment. Yes, I blundered. Looking back it was a miracle I got as strong as I did. I now know how bad that blundering was because I’ve been educated by authors Steve House and Scott Johnston as to how physical training is done RIGHT, specialized for alpinism.
At first glance, House and Johnston’s book, “Training for the New Alpinism,” appears to be a testimony to fanaticism. It’s big, obsessively detailed, and harkens to an ultimate goal of amazing human performance. Perhaps the book does support a sort of compulsive disorder (train! get stronger!), but it’s a calculated and effective fanaticism, girded by years of science and the high alpine experience of hundreds of climbers.
It is difficult to express how complete this book is. Huge, 464 pages, backstopped by complete bibliography, references and a thorough index. Front material is brief and excellent: an essay by pioneer “new alpinist” Marc Twight, “…make yourself as indestructible as possible,” along with a few pages of alpine history to presumably show we are in a new age of alpine climbing.
Then it’s into the core. Core fitness, core training philosophy — even core stories about epic success and failure in the great ranges. Fourteen chapters in all. I got a workout just paging through it.
Anyone who tracks alpine climbing knows who co-author Steve House is. In 2005 he and Vince Anderson did a stunningly fast ascent of the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat, for which they won the Piolet d’Or prize for exemplary climbing. Steve is also a skier. He’s worked as a heli guide, and ski tours out of his home in Colorado. Author Scott Johnston coaches World-Cup nordic ski racers. He climbs as well. No doubt he provides the scientific coaching wisdom that’s foundational to the scope of this book.
What’s amazing about this book is it’s so packed with wisdom you can read it randomly (if you want full benefit you should treat it like a textbook–one you like, anyway.) Rather than do a blow-by-blow of each chapter, here are some random snips to get you interested. Oh, and yes if you want to be a fit ski mountaineer nearly everything in this tome applies as well, perhaps with the exception of the “Specific Training by Climbing Trip” described on page 256. But then, even ski alpinists can use a break in routine.
“Scott’s Killer Core Routine” (pp195). Getting into the meat of modern training, Scott and House give you a core routine that appears as good as they come, then segue into a “General Strength Routine.” Don’t waste too much time on the 19 variations of pullups, but do get doing with that box step, mix in some specific quad strengtheners, and you’ve got a workout that’ll be plenty specific to ski alpinism.
The wall-facing squats are particularly apropos. They might look a bit weird in an airport lounge, but they’re perfect for that 5th night in your hotel room waiting for the storm to clear up. In my opinion, combine with the basic wall sit and you can prevent dreaded quad atrophy while also working on your core.
“Push your car around the laundromat parking lot” (pp232). Unclear if you do that with a full or empty gasoline tank, but it sounds like a good workout.
“Weighted Hill Climbs” (pp238). Use water, dump it out for the downhill so you don’t blow your knees. We’ve done that for dry land training. It works.
“A Conversation with Peter Habeler” (pp318). “….of course my private life was more or less shambles, I had ladies, but when they were asking, ‘Me or the mountains?’ I would say, ‘The mountains, I’m sorry.'”
“The Training Effect” (pp46). If you’re a mature, uncoached athlete you can’t get enough information about this. Gist being that if you want to get stronger and have more fun cruising around the mountains, you’re progression to fitness has to be done just right or you’re wasting your time. If there is any one key section in this bible of the bod, it’s this. Indeed, you could plan just about any exercise program specific to a sport, go by this chapter, and you’d see some success — perhaps even a personal best.
“Illness” (pp85). Attention mountain town athletes who snivel and cough all winter, this section will open your eyes and perhaps save your immune system. Basically, you can’t train (or otherwise heavily exercise) when you’re sick. Period. Doing so does you no good. It’s all lined out here with specifics.
On a somber note, while the “metaphor” of this book is indeed climbing, near the end (pp404) you’ll find an essay by the late extreme skier Andreas Fransson who died in an avalanche this past summer in South America. Fransson expounds on the “Necessity of Cycles,” and how one needs to beware of obsession, and familiarity that causes a loss of respect for the dangers you face. Perhaps this was something Andreas struggled with to the end. After all, his pace was amazing. Who knows? He’s gone now but his mentorship lives on.
I had a hard time finding any flaws in this book. Thinking about all my friends, young and old, made me wish House and Scott had done more with age issues, perhaps by dividing up some of the workouts or even de-recommending exercises that are hard on the knees and back. Likewise, so many alpine climbers train with ski touring, and with co-author Johnston actually being a ski coach, I would have thought they’d have more specific advice on how to incorporate skiing into an alpine mountaineering fitness plan. But perhaps that’s the next book, as House does do his share of skiing and obviously so does Johnston.
Another minor crit is with their coverage of injuries. Reality is any mountain sports athlete will eventually have to heal and perhaps even work around chronic health problems that don’t go away. How to do that could be a whole other book, but more about dealing with this would have been appropriate here, perhaps just some warnings about exercises that are hard on the knees and such, with work-arounds. Likewise, while perhaps the concept of “cross training” is inherent to the methods House and Johnston cover here, I would have liked more details about how useful cross training can be to prevent injuries or coddle chronic problems.
That’s enough excerpting and pontificating. Honestly, I believe any mountain sports athlete who does _any_ “training” to get stronger should own and study “Training for the New Alpinism.” Not only will you get the latest science, but you’ll also find it’s a good read. Also, lest we forget, ski mountaineering is alpinism just as much as are ice and rock climbing.
You can find more training resources at Uphill Athlete.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.