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Preparation for Summit Day
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS
Physical conditioning is obviously an important component that goes into preparing for a high-altitude ascent. But psychological readiness must not be overlooked. Below we take you through a typical summit day and discuss what you can do in advance to make sure you are able to enjoy the climb ahead of you, both physically and mentally.
Most expedition, multi-day, or high-altitude climbs require at least 3-4 months of solid physical conditioning leading up to them; the higher and/or longer the climb, the more involved the training. Consider a 2-day climb of a 14,000 foot peak such as Mt. Rainier, which usually involves hiking up 4-5,000 feet of elevation with a heavy pack (anywhere from 35-55 pounds) on Day 1 and then on summit day (day 2), going the rest of the way (4-5,000 feet) to the summit, then returning to base camp to retrieve gear, and descending the remainder of the distance to the trailhead.
General Conditioning Program Requirements
If you have prepared adequately, based on programs elsewhere on www.bodyresults.com such as priority training, from Train to Climb Mt. Rainier or Any High Peak DVD or from The Outdoor Athlete book then you have knowledge of all the conditioning components you need to succeed. You will have already included:
- regular spinal-loading cardiovascular training specific to high altitude climbing,
- appropriate periodized strength training specific to your body’s needs 2-3 times a week targeting mountaineering-specific muscle groups;
- adequate daily flexibility training to ensure normal range of motion in all joints;
- gradually increased pack weight on hikes until you can carry 5-10% more than your Target Pack Weight (TPW) several weeks before your climb;
- at least 1-2 Back-to-Back Pack Carrying usually on weekends, leading up to your trip
Check, double check, triple check.
The Long Day
In order to get ready for the rigors of summit day, whether that is a trip on Everest, Denali, or Mt. Rainier, it would be highly beneficial to have one of your conditioning outings be a Long Day, or an all-day trip with a loaded pack. You might be thinking, “man, on top of everything else listed above? What about those of us who have to WORK for a living or RAISE A FAMILY?” Trust me, been there, doing that. It can mean the difference between thoroughly enjoying your climb and suffering through it.
Consider a typical summit day climb of a high-altitude Cascade volcano such as Mt. Baker (see Mt Baker 2009 Trip Report) or Mt. Rainier (see Mt Rainier 2007 Trip Report and Mt Rainier Overview Page):
- Reach base camp Day 1 early afternoon, prepare camp, melt water, eat
- Grab whatever rest you can between 6 p.m. and midnight
- Get up at midnight or 1 a.m. Day 2 to spend an hour in the cold and dark getting ready
- Start walking by 1 or 2 a.m. via head lamp
- If you are fast and lucky with great weather and a well-oiled, coordinated team, summit between 7-9 a.m.; if you are not so lucky, by noon or 1 p.m. 12 hours after starting from base camp
- Return to base camp (drop of 4-5,000’or so) in 3-5 more hours
- Grab a bite, fill water bottles for the descent, tear down camp and pack up
- Descend another 3-5,000’ to the trailhead in 3-5 hours. Total round trip time on Day 2 can be upwards of 18 hours for larger or slower parties.
If you have not had any day hikes of at least 10-12 hours, you will have no idea how your body will perform over such a long stretch of activity. While the Back-to-Back is crucial for experiencing what repeat days will feel like without recovery time, the Long Day will be invaluable in preparing your feet, shoulders, patience and mental faculties for the extreme endurance needed to succeed on summit day.
Succeeding at high-altitude climbing is really a matter of juggling unknowns. If you are going with a guided group, it is highly probable that you will not know any of the members in your climbing party until you are going through a gear check at the trailhead. You cannot control the weather. While you can plan a trip during what is considered “optimal months” or “high season” for your given objective, snow levels vary from year to year, and you cannot control climatic factors such as El Nino or La Nina or recent storms.
However, there are some things you can take charge of ahead of time that can make you feel more comfortable on summit day:
- Hydrate and fuel often – set a watch alarm on your hikes to get into the habit of drinking every 30-45 minutes and having a light snack as you hike; keep drink and food handy so you do not have to stop when the urge to nibble strikes.
- Gear Familiarity – alpine starts generally require that you will be putting on crampons in the dark, tying knots by head lamp with frozen fingers (which if you are new to knot-tying can be confusing even in broad daylight and room temperature), starting a flame stove in the wind, and doing tasks on little restful sleep. Be as familiar with all of your equipment and gear as possible so that simple tasks do not use much of your energy or brainpower. Save it for the climb.
- Mantra – Have some sort of saying or tune you turn to when the going gets tough, whether that is something like “Inch by inch / it’s a cinch” or some upbeat song you can hum silently or softly to yourself to force yourself to keep moving.
- Turn around time – Don’t get caught unaware! Have, know, and stick to your group’s turnaround time on summit day. Having a set time can be a huge motivator that indeed, at some point you WILL be able to rest and turn around. This can help greatly with pacing, and it is how guides gauge your progress; if you struggle to gain 500 feet per hour that first hour out of camp, they know there is no chance to reach the summit before snow conditions turn sloppy.
- Study the route – Know what is expected of you and what the route will be like in terms of terrain, any plans for rest breaks, and difficult areas (whether from technical challenges or navigation). By knowing more about what lies ahead, you remove some of the “unknowns” that can be unnerving and run your adrenaline levels extremely high. Study previous trip reports, talk with guides, other climbers who have done the route before, rangers at camp, or even descending climbers.
- Know how to handle your own fear factors – For more on the psychological components of climbing and mountaineering, please refer to fear factors.
Ultimately, you can be in tip-top physical condition and have great weather for your climb, but if you fumble with your equipment, get spooked by exposure, or forget to eat and drink regularly, you still run the risk of not reaching your objective. These are all things you can manage ahead of time, to some degree, or at least be aware of going into a climb. Enjoy your experience!