If you have spent any time training on the indoor walls in the gym and have even moved outside to test your skills on some smaller boulders, you are already moving further into the world of climbing. Eventually, you are going to want to move to higher and higher peak until you feel that pull to take your first big mountain.
The best way to train for your first major alpine climb is by moving through the stages of training with someone who knows what they are doing. There are specific physical and mental goals that you need to set for yourself when you decide to take it outside onto your first big climb.
There are basic skill sets that you are going to have to master in order to hit the alpine slopes safely, completely apart from basic physical demands. Navigating your way on various types of hills and indoor walls are good ways to build these skills and give you the confidence in your body and mind to tackle a larger peak.
One of the most important skills is balance. This has two major parts to it. The first is your sense of balance. When you are climbing on a wall, you should be able to get to a point where you can balance on three of four possible points (two hands and a foot or two feet and a hand) so that you have the fourth appendage to make your next move.
The other aspect of balance that you have to keep in mind is balance in your body strength. If you are all upper body strength, this will only get you half way, and the same can be said for mostly lower body strength. You should also be working to equalize the strength in both sides of your body. While we all have a dominant side, your ability to split the work equally between left and right arms is going to be very important when it is the rock face that determines which hand is doing the work.
When climbing, the bulk of your weight should be supported by your stronger lower body, and your focus should be on your feet and their position, rather than always on where your hands are going next. You should have the ability to step gently, with confidence, placing your foot firmly where it should be on a foot hold rather than stuttering or slamming it down with force. Practice keeping the weight of your body on your legs, as they will tire less quickly than your arms.
The other skill that you will need to develop is scrambling. Fundamental movement skills are a key to navigating not only rock face, but also for conserving energy while scrambling over rough terrain. While there will be lots of rock face climbing on a mountain, on average, only about 20% of it will involve actual technical climbing. The other 80% will challenge your cardiovascular and muscular endurance in the navigation of rough terrain. Your ability to scramble is best learning through experience. You will only come to know and predict rough terrain, and how your body responds to it, after you have experienced your share.
If you are still relatively new to climbing, but are anxious to get out there and start climbing bigger and better rock faces, enlisting the help of a trained climbing instructor is the best way to ensure that your skills are developing properly, so that you don’t fall into any poor techniques. A good trainer can help you with your balance, footwork and moves so that you can be confident in your technique before taking it to larger peaks.
In order to train your body to be able to handle the physical rigors of an alpine climb, you need to concentrate on five major areas: strength endurance, to make sure your muscles can last the day; cardiovascular endurance; anaerobic training; strength training; and flexibility.
Muscular endurance is one of the most important aspects of getting out on longer, more arduous climbs. In order to build your muscular endurance go out climbing on a wall or rock face that is a few points lower than your most challenging climb. Warm up and start your climb, climbing for 10-15 minutes at first, and working up to about 30 minutes, and then have your friend lower you down or down-climb on your own.
Once you are at the bottom, start back up. You can work in tandem, climbing for 30 minutes, then belaying for 30. The most important thing to avoid is pumping out. A pump is caused by increased blood flow and lactic acid build up in the muscles you are using. If you pump out, you will pop off the wall. A pump can cause stains in your tendons and muscles, setting your training schedule back.
Do this endurance training 3-4 times a week for up to three weeks. Interspersed in the endurance training, you can work on building your muscular strength, especially in your upper body, as your lower body is getting a huge workout on the climbs. This can include free weight training for your biceps, triceps, lats, deltoids, and rhomboids.
Your forearms, hands, and tendons from your elbows to your fingers are also important to condition. Build your strength training into your workout twice a week if you can, on days that you do not climb. Leave at least 2 days between strength training workouts to give your muscles time to recover.
Cardiovascular endurance is another important component of a major climb. You are going to be working your muscles and sustaining a target heart rate for several hours. The usual one hour cardio workout three times a week is not going to do it. Plan weekends where you can spend several hours engaging in cardiovascular activities, like hiking, skiing, snowboarding, for several hours at a time. Anaerobic training involves short bursts of intense activity, and can help when you are scrambling or need to focus some reserve energy on a segment of your climb.
Anaerobic workouts are especially important in the few weeks leading up to your big climb, but you can intersperse them in your regular work out in the off-season as well.
Finally, flexibility is a key factor in being able to get your body to move places that it needs to get. If you feel that your flexibility leaves something to be desired, try devoting more time to stretching at the end of your workouts, holding and deepening each stretch for up to 30 seconds. Yoga and stretching classes can also help, not just with flexibility, but also with controlling your breathing.
The final step to hitting the big climbs is preparing yourself mentally. This means building up your confidence in your skills with enough experience, but it also means learning about how your body responds to fear and anxiety. Fear is an important survival mechanism, so be aware if it is simply springing from irrational “what ifs.”
Confidence in your skills and the skills of the people you climb with are half the battle. Once you have that, you can use breathing techniques, positive self talk, and realistic and sound preparation to allay your fears.