‘New Alpinism’ promotes cross training regimen for climbing success

Boulder roots, when training was cheating, and being in tune with yourself

Courtesy of Scott Johnson

Steve House was seeking a better way to train after he was forced to turn back during his attempt at Pakistan’s Masherbrum, a 25,659-foot peak, in 2003. He’d had overtrained for the climb, according to Scott Johnston, who stepped in to provide some advice. Johnston shared concepts about training for climbing as athletes train for other sports — and House, hoping to find a way to avoid situations like Masherbrum, was open to it. He felt like he had reached a plateau in his climbing.

“He was never dictatorial in his advice or approach to coaching; he was always teaching,” House says. “And when I would go and try to learn more on my own, it only reinforced what Scott had taught me.”

That advice on training is compiled by the two in their recently released book, Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, which lays out how a methodical training routine, like those used in more conventional athletic sports, can help a climber improve climbing performance more effectively than just climbing for training.

It could be said that they have rewritten the book on climbing performance, considering authors House and Scott strived to enlighten those fixated on the concept that more is better, addressed the misconception that climbing is the only activity that can improve climbing performance and showed climbers that weight lifting is not committing sacrilege. A few have said that their book is an updated and more extensive version of Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism, since they both support the concept that some climbs should be replaced with other training activities in order to improve overall climbing performance. House and Johnston’s proposed training regimen to improve climbing performance involves running, strength-training and core-focused exercises, and it actually has Boulder roots. Johnston started experimenting and absorbing training techniques here in the ’70s.

He drew influences from fellow climbers in the Boulder climbing scene in the ’70s who were setting high standards through training.

“They were ahead of the rest of us because they had developed a way to train for climbing by not actually climbing,” says Johnston. “Building their strengths not on the rock, but at completely different settings allowed them to make pretty big steps.”

Johnston remembers a few who excelled in his climbing generation because of their gymnastic training, like Jim Collins. Collins, now known for his business publications, such as Built to Last, an exposé on the performance of companies, is still an avid climber to this day. He celebrated his recent 50th birthday climbing the 3,000-foot “Nose” route of El Capitan at Yosemite Valley. Robert Candelaria, the current owner of Colorado Athletic Training School, was another from that time who was able to advance so quickly in climbing because of his gymnastic training background. Focusing his training on improving his climbing allowed Candelaria, teamed up with fellow climber Roger Briggs, to capture what’s touted as the first all-free grade five climb in Colorado by completing “Naked Danz” (5.11) in Eldorado Canyon in 1975. Candelaria was also able to take on the V12 bouldering problem, called the “Butt Slammer,” which is rightly named for its cringe-worthy landing, and was featured in Pat Ament’s A Climber’s Playground: A Guide to the Boulders of Flagstaff Mountain. Ament, well known for accomplishing the frustrating “Right Hand Mantel” on Flagstaff after training himself using a one-armed mantel on a two-inch wide wood ledge on a wall, says this concept of using gymnastic skill to improve climbing ability was developed by Jon Gill in the ’50s, and allowed Gill and himself to make groundbreaking ascents at the time. The book Training for Climbing: The Definitative Guide to Improving Your Performance by Eric Horst also attributes Gill as being the first person to engage in highly regimented training for climbing. Even though Candelaria was the secondgeneration using gymnastic skill training to improve his climbing, he still received flack from the climbing community.

“I started setting new standards for myself, and I got accused of cheating,” says Candelaria. “People would say ‘Training like that is cheating,’ but that’s like saying since I study extra in the library to get a better grade, and that’s cheating, too.”

At that point, training for climbing off the rock was considered unconventional. There weren’t climbing gyms like there are today. Since even climbers who saw the benefits of training didn’t have the ease of just going to a rock climbing gym, some creativity was required when it came to training.

The Macky Auditorium provided just the right venue with a basement corridor with sandstone walls, nicknamed “The Pit,” Johnston says, where he would train by traversing back and forth across the walls. He considered it the place everyone went to train for rock climbing after work or school at the time. He noted how the climbing scene was more tightknit back then.

“We all kind of grew up together and knew one another,” Johnston says. “Because it was small, and once you were inside of it, it was very collegial and close knit. [We] pretty much knew everyone in the climbing scene. When you would go to Eldorado Canyon you would know everyone.”

Even though Collins and Candelaria were among the first Johnston saw cross training with other activities to progress their climbing, the person most famous in his generation for this method was not from the Boulder climbing scene, but actually Tony Yaniro, made famous by his California accomplishments. In 1978, Yaniro conquered the world’s hardest climb at the time, the “Grand Illusion” route in Sugarloaf, California, with a rating of 5.13 b/c. To train for the climb, he built a few wooden crack simulators for his home, which allowed him to mimic some of the movements necessary to complete the climb. In the New Alpinism, one of Yaniro’s contributions is a piano movers’ metaphor that illustrates how specific training, and training for efficiency produces the best results. In his example, when there were more movers who were untrained, they were actually less effective than fewer nmovers who really knew what they were doing.

House notes that he’s proudest of the contributions to the book, like the ones Yaniro made, along with contributions from other climbing greats such as Charlie Fowler, Mark Twight and Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner.

“I’m proud of the essays that came in from other contributors because they contributed so much depth and richness to the book,” House says. “They brought history, experience, perspective that Scott and I alone could never replicate.”

House and Johnston might have used the contributions to show how well-known climbers have dealt with certain situations, but they had the hard task of determining what made the cut in the rest of the book. Both felt a responsibility to do the best job they could, considering they started developing the book after House received so many questions about what he did for training during his book tour for his Beyond the Mountain, which was about his personal experiences completing some of the most challenging climbs the world has to offer.

“In some cases, a single paragraph is relating knowledge it took scientists years to understand, so we had to make many judgments about how much to educate our readers,” House says. “Our difficulty was not so much to give them only correct information but to give them the right amount of information, so that they can self-coach and train themselves.”

In New Alpinism, the authors summarize scientific findings and research and show how these findings can be applied to climbing. The book provides sample workouts, including a maximum strength circuit workout that is comprised of frenchies, box step-ups, onearmed isometric ice ax hangs and overhead squats. The authors provide extensive nutritional information and sample training guides to get a climber started. They also try to connect the dots for the reader when they describe how the body should be operating during different workouts and training, and how honing in on certain areas makes the biggest difference.

One of the important aspects they point out, which House experienced during his Masherbrum attempt, was making sure not to over train. For each person, this level is different. Even though the book went into detail about what to do for training, what level to train at and what to consume while doing so, House and Johnston have made the point during their book tour that the book is meant to be a resource, not a cover-to-cover guide. The training regimen examples in the book are meant to be examples, Johnston says. Each person requires a training program that is developed from his or her capacity for training and might need to be changed along the way, depending on the body’s response to the training.

“What we tried to do in the book that I think is unique is we really empower the reader to monitor their own training, to decide when how much is enough,” Johnston says. “Because that’s really what a coach and athlete do working together. You need to do enough to get better, but shouldn’t get to the level where you are exhausted. The higher the level the athlete, the harder to determine where that line should be drawn.”

Johnston’s ideas about training for climbing haven’t always been as regimented as is outlined in the book. When he was younger, he would run up Flagstaff with his buddies while they all carried their rock shoes and would do some bouldering along the way. Now, he says, he realizes they were already combining the two aspects, endurance from the running and strength training by working on bouldering problems, which are considered essential for training in the book. But when they set out for these activities, it was very unstructured. They weren’t basing their choices on science — as the book now does. Just as he discovered what worked for training from activities such as his Flagstaff outings, being a guinea pig by trying methods out on himself and coaching others in cross-country skiing, he says, climbers have to find out what works for their own bodies.

When it comes to the aerobic exercise, suggested in the book as being vital for improving climbing performance, House noted that Rocky Mountain National Park and the whole Front Range are ideal areas for training.

“One under-popularized asset that Rocky Mountain National Park has is great climbs with long approaches,” House says. “Climbers, including me, generally loathe long walks to the base of the ‘real climbing,’ but these long walks are great base training, which as we describe in some detail, is the most important component of one’s fitness for alpine climbing.”

The book not only goes into a climber’s physical performance, but their mental performance as well. One aspect that makes climbing different than other conventional sports is how much mental preparation and risk assessment are necessary. In the book, the authors state that the mental training aspect for climbing is the most difficult 80 percent, but the authors have found that the mental strength that develops through regular training transfers well for the difficult mental challenges of a climb.

“The training gives you a controlled environment where you can find out what you are really capable of, so you don’t have to find that out later, when you get into a situation that might be a little over your head, or more difficult than you anticipated,” says Connie Sciolino, Alpine Training Center founder. She agreed also with their assessment that it’s important to work the muscles in training in the same fashion as they will be worked during a climb in order to get the best results — coming back to that metaphor of the movers who know what they’re doing.

Confidence, obtained through training, may be an important factor in climbing, Johnston says, but there is a balance that needs to be obtained considering how hubris, an over-confidence, can ultimately lead to death during a climb. He says a climber just can’t stop as in a running race when they hit a wall. Climbers have to make sure they can continue all the way down to the bottom of the route, which requires a constant assessment of their mind and body. This concept that a climber has to be constantly in tune with both mind and body is shown to be essential for training success. It also goes along with a statement that appears in the book: “Nothing has come close to the blunt power of climbing to inform us about ourselves.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com