Expedition Training

Well, it’s been a while since I posted anything and a lot has changed concerning my climb of Mt. Hood in early May.  First off, Princess Peach and I have since switched to Mt. Shasta, an active volcano in Northern California.  The main reason for this is that neither of us will have the technical experience necessary to climb Hood in time – something I learned in my first Ice Climbing class in upstate New York.  Shasta via the Avalanche Gulch route, however, is still quite a challenge – about 12 miles round trip containing 7200 feet of elevation gain with a summit above 14,000 feet.  This is a true alpine endeavor and one that should not be taken lightly.

Unfortunately, I live at sea level and, frankly, the altitude scares me because I don’t just want to survive the trip – I want to enjoy it.  This means I need to be in pretty phenomenal physical shape to successfully complete the climb in the 2 day window. So, I’ve been training harder than I’ve ever trained for anything in my life since late January. While some might scoff at the thought of spending an entire 3 months preparing for one 6 mile climb, a small part of me is worried that I should have started earlier. Climbing nearly 7,200 feet of vertical in 6 miles is a tall order in and of itself. Throw in a full pack, the lower availability of oxygen at that altitude and the fact that I’ll be wearing crampons means that Mt. Shasta is a serious endeavor.

Avalanche Gulch
A view of the Avalanche Gulch Route up the south face of Shasta

My main concern stems from the fact that I live on the east coast and will have zero time to adjust to the altitude on Mt. Shasta. While my buddy, Princess Peach, has easy access to a myriad of mountains exceeding 14,000 feet, the highest I’m going to get anywhere within a weekend’s driving distance is just over 5,000 feet. The only time in my life I’ve experienced altitude above 11,000 feet was 2 summers ago in Great Basin National Park. Even at 8,000 feet, my muscles just felt like they were filled with lead. I wasn’t necessarily tired, but I kept thinking to myself that the gentle incline I was hiking shouldn’t be as difficult as it felt. When my friends and I reached 11,000 feet, we had to stop to rest about every 100 steps. We actually counted 100 steps and deliberately took breaks to ensure we maintained a consistent pace. Others may feel the effects less than I did at that altitude, but, in the end, I have to prepare for the way I know my body will feel.

I also need to be physically prepared in case something goes wrong, whether it be an injury (to myself or a member of the climbing team), inclement weather, or any number of other disaster scenarios. For example, on my recent descent from the summit of Katahdin, my friends and I took a wrong turn and descended nearly a half mile down a very steep, precarious trail with loose dirt and boulders the size of our heads. The sun was beating down on us, we were low on water and were already exhausted from a Katahdin summit and an out and back to Pamola peak on the Knife’s Edge (easily the coolest trail or thing, for that matter, that I have ever done). With a thunderstorm expected to hit later in the afternoon, we were forced to turn around and walk straight up for half a mile until we found the proper trail. About 2 hours later, we stumbled into the parking lot at the base of the mountain. My point is that a simple mistake such as a wrong turn at 11,000 feet could end much worse if I don’t have the physical stamina to recover.  This may seem like a dramatic “what if?” scenario, but situations like this happen much more often than you might think.

My training regimen started with a vague outline of activities that I could accomplish at my leisure throughout the week. If I am too specific at the beginning, it doesn’t allow flexibility when unexpected life events force you to miss a day or alter your exercise schedule. With that in mind, here is the loose training regimen I’ve put together to prepare for Mt. Hood:

  • Every Day – Light warm-up exercises with full body stretches
  • Every Week
    • Cardio
      • Sprints / Intervals x 1 session
        • I focus on full intensity sprinting over distances between 50 and 100 yards. I also will throw in jumps, high knees, and shuffles.
      • Jogging / Running x 1 session
        • I hate jogging with a passion, but once a week won’t kill me. Ultimately, I want to build up to a 45 minute run.
      • Stairs / Incline x 1 session
        • I found a beautiful set of concrete bleachers near my apartment. Whether I am running or jumping up the stairs, the goal is to walk away exhausted each time.
    • Strength
      • Endurance strength exercises x 2 20-30 minute sessions
        • Exercises include variations on planks, push ups, squats, pull ups, and other full body exercises. I try to keep this as creative as possible and record my personal records so that I can try to improve on them.
    • Climbing / Rock Rings
      • Rock Climbing at the gym x 2-5 sessions per week
        • This is just a fun way to work on strength, balance and dexterity. It will help with ice climbing immensely.
The bleachers that I have been training on for close to 3 months

As you can see, this is a pretty loose workout structure and it worked for a while. However, I realized that I wasn’t really getting that much out of it when I went on a camping trip in early March. Frankly, I was winded walking up a moderately sloped mountain in New York. I also had to freeze my membership at the rock climbing gym due to increasingly worse tendinitis. When I got home, I researched ways to improve my fitness and I discovered the FitClimb 12 week intermediate mountaineering fitness plan (http://www.fitclimb.com/page/12-week-mountaineering-fitness). I picked up on Week 5 and it’s been great at straddling the line between feeling rejuvenated or exhausted after a workout.  My next test will be Devil’s Path in the Catskills – 25 miles and 9,000 feet of elevation gain across 2 days.  We shall see.

Tracking my training regimen leading up to the Mt. Shasta expedition

Developing physical strength and stamina isn’t the only way to prepare for an alpine expedition. It’s just as important (perhaps more important) to prepare mentally and logistically.  This includes mapping the route extensively and prerecording mileages, compass bearings, reference altitudes, slopes, and elevation gains. It means establishing a rough itinerary and a turnaround time that the party has to stick to. It means establishing baselines and handrails to prevent getting lost. It means studying weather patterns for the region, monitoring avalanche reports, learning to recognize alpine routefinding markers (bergschrunds, moraines, cornices, etc.). It means getting trained in safety procedures, self arrest and crampon techniques.  Finally, it means ensuring I have all the proper equipment and that I know how to use it.

Mt. Shasta will be my first true alpine excursion. Princess Peach and I have elected to climb unguided due to the straight forward nature of the route.  I’ve made this trip my primary focus for nearly 3 months now. I spent my days training, my nights studying and my weekends hiking.  I’m incredibly excited, but even more nervous – maybe downright afraid.  I just can’t wait for that first breath of crisp, cool mountain air when I step out of the car on the slopes of Mt. Shasta. Four weeks left…

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