How I Prepared to Climb a Big Mountain without a Training on a Big Mountain

Heading up to Camp Muir and later, the summit of Mt. Rainier!
I had a great time writing this as a guest post for Camp The Summit, but didn't want anyone to miss it! Here it is, and the guest post link is here.

“Omigod. I’m going to climb that?”  Looking out the car window en route to Ashford, Washington, that’s all I could say. Beautiful snow covered Mount Rainier loomed in the distance. Some will argue Rainier isn’t a big mountain. There are 53 peaks in Colorado over 14,000’ and Rainier stands at 14,411’.  True it isn’t Everest big, but it is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. 

Serious mountaineers come to Rainier for training. Depending on the route, you’ll gain upwards of 10,000 vertical feet and spend a good bit of time at altitude. To me, that makes Rainier a big mountain.

In January of 2010, I signed up to climb Rainier as part of the Big City Mountaineers Summit for Someone Climb Series. As part of an all-women’s team, I scaled the mountain with RMI Guides on a four day program in August. It’s the first climb of its kind I’d done and had no idea how to start preparing. Ideally, my training regimen would involve a lot of hiking and elevation gain, but I live in Southeastern Pennsylvania. I didn’t have easily accessible mountains to train on. But through research, help from friends and a lot of trial and error, I was able to prepare well enough to have a successful climb.

1. I Learned Some Stuff

I was a mountaineering n00b when I signed up for Rainier.  Even if you’re climbing with a guide, it’s important to have at least basic levels of knowledge. Reading books like Freedom of the Hills can help, but there’s no substitute for hands-on training. I took a three day introduction to mountaineering course with Eastern Mountain Sports in Lake Placid several months before the climb, and it helped me feel more confident about staying safe on Rainier. There are guiding companies across the country, including the renowned American Alpine Institute, that offer classes to help get you started. And if you’re doing a guided climb, sign up for one that has a training component, like RMI’s four day Rainier program.

On Algonquin in the Adirondacks with EMS Climbing School!

2. I Consulted Experts and Experienced Friends, and Formulated a Training Plan

I knew how to train for some specific activities, but climbing a big mountain wasn’t one of them. Thanks to the twitter community I’ve found myself in, I was able to compile a list of training tips from friends who understand what it takes to climb Rainier. I owe them a lot! 

The actual day-to-day training plan I used came from a DVD called, fittingly enough, “Train to Climb Mt. Rainier.” The DVD was produced by Courtenay and Doug Schurman of Body Results, and is a targeted training tool for novice and intermediate mountaineers. Courtenay actually wrote the mountaineering conditioning chapter in the seventh edition of Freedom of the Hills! On the DVD, you’ll learn about aerobic and anaerobic training, flexibility, strength, and best of all, you’ll get access to their 6-month training plan. There are many different plans out there (from IMG), but this one is very specific, and it works. Find one that works for you and commit to it, no matter what.

My last training hike! On Mt. Minsi. (P. Gensel)

3. I Made Sport-Specific Training a Priority

The piece of training advice I heard most frequently was to train with a heavy pack as much as possible. When you’re climbing a big mountain, you’ll spend most of your waking hours with weight strapped to your back and your body needs time to adapt to what that feels like. I heard stories of marathoners stopping short of summits because, despite their cardiovascular conditioning, their bodies weren’t prepared for the long uphill weighted battle.

My training plan called for a gradual increase in elevation gain and hiking time over the course of six months. In the beginning, I’d hit one of my favorite local hiking spots with 20 pounds on my back and hike for two or three hours. By the end of the plan, I was supposed to gain 4,000-5,000’ of elevation over eight hours with 40 pounds or more at least once or twice a week, coupled with interval training. I’d do some of my favorite local hikes, like Glen Onoko Falls, multiple times in one day. If I couldn’t make it outside, I’d hit the Stairmaster or treadmill and try to gain the same elevation. It’s exhausting and time consuming, but it pays off. So, get a heavy pack on and start hiking!

4. I Trained My Brain

"Mountaineering /n./ slow walking uphill while not feeling very well." 

Mentally pushing through the physical suffering and fear that makes mountaineering what it is can be the difference between summiting and not. On summit day, we climbed up Rainier for 16 hours on less than four hours of sleep. I was exhausted, my muscles were screaming, and I had an altitude-induced migraine. I spent a good bit of summit day absolutely terrified, glancing at gaping holes in Rainier’s beautiful glaciers that could swallow me whole. But I trusted my training, my guides, my team and myself. I had a mantra I recited with each step. Rock climbing had exposed me to primal fear, and I’d found ways to cope.

The fear, the risk and the suffering are all part of what makes mountaineering special. You’re pushing yourself physically and mentally beyond boundaries you thought were impossibly fixed. It’s exhilarating. Though looping the Mount Tammany hike three times on a 95ยบ summer Pennsylvania day was monotonous and downright awful at times, it helped me prepare mentally for what was to come. A completely rained out backpacking trip in the Catskills did too. So get out there, try some things that scare you and push you mentally!

Altitude training on Quandary Peak in Colorado! (A. Campbell)

5. Since I'd Never Been at Altitude, I Got There

Prior to my trip to Rainier, I’d never climbed above 6,000’. I had no idea how my body was going to react to the lack of oxygen at altitude. At 14,411’, Rainier is high enough to cause issues for climbers who have trouble coping and those who ascend too quickly. I took a short trip to Boulder, Colorado the month before the climb and hiked Quandary Peak (14,265’) to better understand how my body dealt with going from sea level to 14,000’ in two days. It wasn’t pretty, nor did it feel good, but I’m glad I was prepared going into the Rainier trip.

If you’ve got a big mountain or two under your belt, I’d love to hear more about how you prepared for it! Tell me in the comments! This post and associate comments also appears on Camp the


SuzRocks said…
I've found that just spending the night someplace lower than 7k feet helps so much. highest I've been is 15k, and I wanted to die. Or maybe I thought I was dying. And I was living at 10k at that point.

Now that I'm living at sea level again (as opposed to Denver), I have to deal with it every time I go back to CO to visit my husband. a month ago, I flew in, we drove up to the mountains and went on a hut trip. I went from 0-11k in about 5hrs. I was just so exhausted and it was so hard for me. The next morning, I woke up and was fine (by fine meaning, I didn't want to die- I could keep up pretty well with all the guys that lived in CO and it was fun).

If you're in decent shape and you're doing stair stepper/hiking any hills you can find where you live, and then just take the time to acclimate, you'll do pretty well.
Katie said…
It's definitely hard going from sea level to any elevation. And even if you live at elevation, sometimes going up is really hard anyway! Agreed though, being in shape is always helpful. Thanks for sharing!
Anonymous said…
I'm hoping to do a S4S climb for 2012 and fit into the complete noob category, myself. Great to hear what's possible with some discipline!

Going to Montana last fall was my first time really at altitude and, coming from sea level, I was surprised at how weak I felt those first couple of days!

Thanks for always being a source of inspiration.