Vertical Year: 5 ways to train for Alpinism in Australia

Josh alpine KP Stairs

Josh Worley pushes through the crux on his fast and light ascent of the Kangaroo Point Stairs (circa 2017). The KPS route is considered to be Australia’s ultimate alpine testpiece.

It’s no secret – Australia is pretty flat.  Our highest point is Mt Kosciuszko at 2,228m and has a bitumen roadway leading tourists to its “summit”. Add to this a tropical climate, little to no ice, few climbing routes exceeding 200m in length and one is left with a bit of a predicament when preparing for a trip involving fast and light alpine-style climbs.

For the uninitiated – Alpinism is considered by some to be the cool modern word for mountaineering. From my perspective, however, the two are very distinctive styles of climbing. Mountaineering involves siege style tactics, slowly beating the mountain down into submission through endless assaults of fixing lines and moving camps – not exactly light and fast, which to me is the essence of Alpinism.

It basically means you and your partners head up the mountain carrying whatever you need on your back, heading for the summit in a single push. Aside from the logistical implications, the lack of safety systems (i.e. fixed lines and camps) in alpinism requires a very different type of fitness, mental attitude and technical ability to ensure your safety. Even moderate objectives often require 12-18 hours of constant movement.

So, back to my original point – If you live in Australia and alpine climbing is your jam, how do you best prepare for it? Below are some tips to help point you in the right direction:

1 – GET INTO TRAD AND SCARE THE SHIT OUT OF YOURSELF AS OFTEN AS YOU CAN

Fear is our constant companion in the mountains and therefore you have to learn to engage with it in a constructive manner. It’s one of the reasons climbing can be so empowering. The ability to take fear, use it focus your energy and engage with your environment is incredibly useful and will keep you alive.  So if you don’t have any scary alpine routes nearby, start plugging gear and climbing trad! Getting comfortable with that and crushing grade 24 on gear? Put the cams away and go old school, climbing only on passive gear… or move onto climbs with thin gear, runouts or both. All good stuff for the head!

2 – LEARN TO LOVE RUNNING UP HILLS

There is no way around it… An alpinist is constantly moving in the vertical plane. Whether hiking to the climb or daggering up a steep couloir, you are going to need very strong legs to get you and your gear to the top and back safely.  Steve House’s book “Training for the New Alpinism” is a fantastic resource and deals with a lot of the theory around training styles, cycles and how our bodies adapt. I highly recommend getting a copy and actually reading it. As you read this fine piece of work though you may start to notice a theme. Running up hills. A lot!

I tend to agree too. It provides high intense activity for your muscles and is specific enough to your planned activity. Taking the running off-road and onto uneven surfaces is even better. This enables you to train all those small stabilising muscles that you will need to keep yourself from toppling off the mountain. No matter how high the slope you can work on increasing the duration through various techniques such as sets or pyramids.

It’s hard work. Maybe a bit masochistic. But if you love alpinism then that should be right up your alley! Just be careful coming downhill as running downhill is hard on your joints. I normally choose to walk back down instead.

Josh on the exposed summit ridge of the Weisshorn (4506m), Switzerland.

3 – MIX UP YOUR CLIMBING

It doesn’t matter what you do, your body and head will adjust to any stimulus you provide. Eventually, you find yourself becoming complacent and your performance suffers, particularly when you are tested.  So rather than hitting the same sports crag every weekend, try mixing it up a little.

  • Climb at night via the tiny light of your head torch.
  • Practice techniques such as simul-climbing on terrain you are confident on. I would never suggest simul-rapping though! Ever.
  • Climb in your approach shoes.
  • Climb blindfolded! I tested this on a Grade 24 sport route I regularly do on top rope and loved the way it forced you to consciously engage in every movement.
  • Link up several multipitch routes in a day to see how many meters you can cover. Great for managing fatigue and improving the efficiency of your systems.
4 – CONDITION YOURSELF TO SUFFER

It’s hard to suffer in winter conditions in Australia, particularly Queensland where winter means stable weather and 20-25 degrees Celsius during the day! But you can certainly suffer! Australia is a big place and the bush can be a very harsh place.  Long multi-day hikes in the middle of summer when the mercury is pushing past 35 degrees or seeing how many laps of Mt Barney you can do in a 24hr window are just some ideas. Running a marathon or doing ultra-long trail runs are other ways. Essentially, get out there and do something that will take a long time, is physically demanding, mentally straining – in other words, Type 2 Fun. Let your imagination run wild.

On the sharp end of New Zealand alpine ice

5 – HEAD ACROSS THE DITCH

I’m kind of cheating here, but there is no denying that our island neighbour has the best, most easily accessed training ground for Australians looking to venture into the mountains. New Zealand offers a multitude of opportunities to help you hone the technical skills and mental game required for alpine climbing.

There is a plethora of classy climbing options from simple snow slopes to extremely complex mixed terrain. Snow pickets are used regularly which enables you to get proficient in assessing snow conditions, whilst the crumbling nature of the schist which the peaks are comprised of forces you to engage with the environment and be smart about the systems you use.

The glaciers of the Southern Alps are heavily crevassed. In fact, the Linda Glacier on Mt Cook is notoriously dangerous and considered one of the most complex routes to guide. New Zealand’s glaciers provide plenty of navigation practice as a result and there is no shortage of them to jump into to practice your crevasse rescue skills.

Finally, the weather. There is no barrier between Antarctica and New Zealand’s West Coast and the weather is temperamental as a result. Learning about weather forecasts, reading weather charts and understanding what the different cloud formations mean is a vital skill to learn. Because of how quickly the weather can change on the West Coast, you are sure to get a chance to practice!

Did you enjoy this article? If you liked it, you don’t have to put a ring on it, but why not throw a gold coin or crisp fiver at Vertical Year? Remember, all proceeds are going straight to ReachOut and the Climate Council. You can also follow Josh’s journey over at his Facebook page.

Josh Worley
September 2017

 

 

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?