Training for mountaineering and training for Rainier in particular is an expectations game. If you don’t know what to expect you fret over every little detail and want to make sure that your training regime is the “right” one for mountaineering. If you do know what to expect especially on a climb like the standard Disappointment Cleaver on Rainier you know that you need to have a solid base conditioning level and a propensity to suffering. Acclimatization is often the weak link, not fitness, and unfortunately almost everyone, even locals, can’t do anything about it.
My girlfriend’s brother wants to climb Rainier over Labor Day weekend. I found this out about a month ago and even though the beer and pizza diet has caught up with me I am not too worried. My base level of conditioning when I found out was I could jog, albeit slowly, for about an hour. Not in good shape but I’ve certainly been in worse shape. To prepare and whip myself into condition, for the last few weeks I have bumped it up a notch and added hill work and heavy backpack slogging. I added these two types of training for very different reasons and I think they will each payoff.
Hill work is always good. If you’re trying to climb Disappointment Cleaver you’re essentially climbing a big snowy hill with crevasses. Undertaking a Rainier climb is not something to be taken lightly but on a nice day the standard route is fairly safe. I added hill work because I can push myself to exhaustion relatively easily, recover and then do it again. I have a very steep hill near my house, steep enough for my little Honda Civic to have a hissy fit going up it. I do a quick warm jog and then do three reps of this hill at 80% walking down between each. Very conveniently at the top of the hill is a dirt running trail that loops for 3/4 of a mile and has a few pleasant ups and downs. This is my recovery loop and it gives me a chance to get my lungs under control. All in all this set of 3x hills and then trail jog takes 20 minutes. I do three sets of these and then about a mile cool down. By the time I am done I have burned out my lungs, burned out my legs and am all around spent. If I didn’t have a trail run in between sets of hills I think my hill work would be considerably less effective. By jogging between sets I recover enough to push myself on the next set, I keep my heart rate up for much longer and I can really focus on recovering my breath while still moving. All of these things are important while climbing.
I have also added heavy backpack work to my training. I am lucky enough to have Mt Si close by which allows me to hike about 3500 vertical feet with a 50lb pack but when I lived on the east coast I did just fine on the stairs of a nearby parking garage. The key is to start light and go for as long as you can with an hour being the minimum. I like to be able to feel relatively ok with a 50lb pack on my back for a couple of hours but that is just me. Now that I have Mt Si to train on I do about 3500 vertical feet in two hours and then take a little over an hour to get down for a grand total of three-ish hours. While heavy backpack work is mind-numbingly boring it builds that run-you-like-a-rented-mule endurance that is crucial for mountaineering.
Will this training be enough for Rainier? I’m wagering yes because I know what to expect. On the hike to Camp Muir I am going to start early in the AM and take as much time as I need. There is no rush and the longer I am on the mountain the longer I have to acclimate. This is the only day that I will have a heavy pack and I can rest as much as I need. On summit day I’m going to leave early for safety reasons and my pack will be next to nothing. I’ll pace myself and take decent breaks where it is safe. I know I have the endurance and suffering capability to move through the objectively hazardous sections quickly and that is the only place where true speed matters.
I also have a few tricks up my sleeve this time. This time I am ditching my heavy Koflach Degre plastic boots and will be sporting a much lighter pair of La Sportiva Trango Alp GTX boots. They are similar to the La Sportiva Trango S Evo GTX but a little less technical. Another very similar pair of boots are the Scarpa Charmoz GTX. All said I should be rockin and rollin all the way to the top. I’ll let you know how leather boots on Rainier go.