Sunday, December 9, 2012


For a short while in my youth I was an Olympic hopeful. I was in the fourth grade and planned to bring home the gold in axe throwing. This realization came to me immediately after throwing an axe at a stump and having it stick. Never mind the fact this was not an Olympic event. If curling could be in the Olympics then so too could axe throwing, and by the time I reached my prime it probably would be. I committed myself to this course and began a strict training regimen consisting of much axe throwing and the consumption of saltine crackers smeared with Miracle Whip. As the day wore on I found the axe would stick in the stump less frequently. Then I started missing the stump altogether. I had peaked too early. Deciding my best axe throwing years were behind me, I retired from the sport before it in fact had come into existence and spent the remaining days of summer trying to imagine a means by which I could represent my country by eating crackers adorned with various condiments. 

Training for Everest includes no Miracle Whip, and very little axe throwing. Yet the lesson learned in the course of my dashed Olympic dream remains relevant; Pace yourself and do not peak too early. Even for a climber who is in good condition, preparing for Everest will take many months. During this time he will likely injure himself training and have to rehab while pressing on. The key is to avoid joint problems and muscle tears. These can be deal killers. Building gradually with one's training is the best way to stay right with this. I aim to peak about a month before any climb. 

It is generally agreed among mountain climbers that the best means for preparing to climb a mountain is to climb a mountain. I have found this to be true for many of the peaks I have pursued. Packing weight up steep trails near my home quite adequately built the requisite muscle sets. But the unique demands of some mountains argue for something more. Everest is one such mountain. 

Strength and endurance are minimum bids when attempting any major peak. Much of my 5 day-a-week training is focused on these.  But Everest asks for two additional attributes I have identified in combing over many accounts of successful and failed attempts. 

The first of these is efficiency. This is true of any high altitude climb, but even more so with Everest where extensive time is spent in very thin air. Simply put, when little oxygen is available one must make premium use of it. Poor technique, wasted movement, or a busy mind all squander oxygen. As the Sade lyric goes "he moves through space with minimum waste, maximum joy." So practicing efficiency begets efficiency on the hill. 

The Khumbu Icefall
 The second critical attribute is flexible core strength. This is primarily owing to the Khumbu Ice Fall, a four kilometer long valley of tumbling ice blocks the size of houses. Regarded by many climbers to be the most difficult part of getting up Everest, the Khumbu icefall can take 10-12 hours to navigate.  It's labyrinth of crevasses and ice walls lead 2,000 feet up the valley to camp one. Getting through the Khumbu involves ice climbing, suspension ladders and scrambling; not a good match for the typical weight-forward troglodyte body type. So I have enlisted the help of professional Trainer Mike Locke at the Bellingham Athletic Club.  Mike has worked for many years training college, professional and Olympic athletes, as well as First Responders. He trained me for my Denali climb in 2007. 

Mike has constructed three distinctly different workouts for Monday, Wednesday and Friday of each week. Each take me through a battery of 6 timed stations designed to build flexible core strength. There is a 30 second rest after the sixth station, then I start over again. I do six full rotations, then 30 minutes of timed rowing sprints. All of this is preceded by tissue mobilization techniques designed to gather maximum benefit from the stations. There is no conventional weight lifting in these workouts. Instead the exercises harness my own body mass. Using kettle bells, hanging rings, risers and medicine balls I exert in as many different directions as ice moves in the Khumbu. 

It should go without saying I will also pack weight up steep trails and enlist the other preparations that have proven effective to me. Somewhere along the way I will probably even pick up some Saltines.