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Mountain Athlete: Weight Training for Climbing
Rob Hess performs back extensions at Mountain Athlete. Jackson Hole Mountain Guides part owner, 2007 AMGA Guide of the Year, and third American to summit Everest without oxygen, Hess knows how to suffer.
We began training guides in the early spring of 2007, and at the end of the summer I solicited feedback. Several of the guides pointed to feeling "stronger" and because of that strength, feeling "more confident" on the mountain.
Exum's George Gardner is a good example. He hit the training hard early in the summer, grew stronger and reported an increase in confidence. Even though George is in his mid-50s he logged more guided Grand Teton trips last season than any other Exum Guide.
"I feel more confident in my abilities as a guide, and understand better my limits," reported Christian Santilices. "I know how strong I am now. I can calculate more effectively what I think I can hold, for example, short roping two people based on what I have done in the gym. When climbing hard, I feel like I can hold on longer figuring out a move. There is no desperation. My improved muscle strength and endurance means that I can take my time to work out a move, and I also have the ability to move through difficult sections more fluidly and with more confidence. This allows me to demonstrate tough moves to clients with greater effectiveness. I do my job better because of the work I have put in."
Angela Hawse provided similar feedback. "I definitely feel more confident than before. Feeling stronger and knowing that I am stronger definitely adds that confidence. Also the mental intensity of the workouts and pushing through the pain was definitely a benefit that I feel in the mountains. Often times the crux sections are short, and having that confidence to push through seems enhanced since I have done the training with you."
Stephen Koch added that Mountain Athlete training makes him stronger, "which means I am able to climb faster and harder, which translates to more options for climbs and descents and to a safer mountain experience."
Not all the feedback was positive. A few of the guides and climbers simply never bought into the training program, became comfortable with the heavy lifting and intensity of workouts or sustained injuries and stopped training in the gym. It's become clear that this stuff isn't for everybody. Nagging lower back pain and cramping was one source of the stoppage. Forearm and wrist pain, and shoulder issues also caused some guides not to train. On a couple of occasions, the minor injuries lifting in the gym, or deep soreness from the workouts simply scared athletes off.
Limitations and Lessons Learned
One hole in our program climbers identified was the lack of grip/forearm strength and endurance training. Angela Hawse and especially Stephen Koch identified this missing link. In response this winter we began intensive strength, power and endurance grip training sessions at a local rock gym.
We provide an elite-level overall fitness program, but it is still general, something pointed out by guide and competitive ski-mountaineer Brian Harder. After training in the gym all summer and fall Brian's performance on the first group of ski-mountaineering races was behind his performance in 2007. He subsequently cut way back on his gym training, and began an intensive sport-specific training program including long days skinning and skiing, and skinning intervals. By the end of the season, he was back in top form.
Mark Newcomb carrying kettle bells at Mountain Athlete. Newcomb is an Exum Guide with a resume that boasts big first ascents including Sepu Kangri (22,800’) in Western China.
Concerns about getting injured were definitely an issue with several of the guides, and it made me realize that these were "industrial athletes" in the sense that they used their bodies to earn a living. Injury meant money out of their pocket. This realization also caused me to think not only in terms of performance, but also durability. Of all the guides I trained last summer, just one, Bean Bowers, was training for a major climb and expedition. The remainder of the senior guides just wanted to survive the busy guiding season and have enough juice left to have fun climbing in the desert that fall.
Durability translates into injury prevention. Studies have shown that in industrial athletes like firefighters, muscle imbalances, overall weakness, core weakness, hip mobility, and overuse issues all lead to higher injury rates. As a result, we have begun adding mobility drills, and joint/muscle activation exercises to our programs while also taking a more patient approach to building strength.
Because we don't use weight-lifting machines, our exercises are performed standing up, in free space. This type of lifting really works and builds the core and midsection, the source of overall body strength and durability.