After Summiting Denali, Reflections on Training for the Climb

Brad Miller and Clay Kimmi of Adventures for Action set out last May to climb the West Buttress of Denali (Mt. McKinley) to raise awareness and funds for the International Health Partners of the United States and Tanzania (IHP-TZ). This blog post is the third in a series Brad and Clay are writing for Tahoe Mountain Sports, who is helping to gear them up for Denali. In past posts, Brad mused on the difficulty of big mountain training and how they were training for the summit.

Anyone who participates in a big mountain expedition inevitably gets asked the same few questions over and over again. One of which is this one:
“Did you train hard enough?”
In the case of Clay and I the answer is yes and no.
However, when it was all said and done, we were definitely prepared enough to get up Denali, which we did in a very respectable time. After being stuck in weather for 4 days at 17,000 feet, we were able to summit on day 12 and were down on day 15. We were definitely up for the task.
Climbing Denali is definitely not easy. We both had times where one of us would crash and were hurting by the end of the day.  More than once I had to fight tooth and nail just to stay awake in camp long enough to quickly choke down as much food as possible before passing out in my sleeping bag.
Most amateur climbers occasionally have a few of those days where you think that you should have trained harder because you feel like you just can’t go on.  But, those days are one of the reasons we all get out there in the mountains.  Those days are the tests we seek; they are the proving grounds.  During the times when you feel like you are at the end of your reserves, you have the opportunity to grit your teeth, dig deep and find the hidden strength to succeed.  And, after all, that is what big mountain climbing is all about.

CLAY

Once on the mountain, Clay found that there was a distinct hole in his training regiment that left him hurting up to 14,000 feet.  When I asked him if he thought his training was adequate, his to-the-point reply says it all:
“Overall . . . no.  It was quite simply the lack of sled training that kicked my ass.  Not living and training at altitude was a small part of it, but the lack of strength training with the sled was what really affected me.”
No matter how much altitude you do with a heavy pack, everything changes when you pull a 70 lb sled. You have another item to deal with that is constantly trying to foul and trip you up.  You use different muscles than when just packing loads on your back. And combining all of this with skis makes everything that much more difficult.
In Kansas, Clay focused on stair climbing and running. While those activities certainly helped prepare him for the mountain, he neglected training with a sled and paid the price. Having trained up to 70 lbs with a pack while in his hotel stairwell in Kansas City, he felt fit and prepared. However, adding another 70 lbs on a sled that constantly fought upward progress showed him just how possible it is to take yourself to the end of your energy reserves while hauling heavy loads.
In addition to the hard work of pulling a sled up, Clay, a Kansas dweller, was not able to practice skiing downhill with a pack and sled. This missing skill set was desperately missed on our descent.  Add to that bad breakable crust snow conditions, the descent was a constant fight instead of a pleasant cruise back to base camp.
In reflecting back on how he trained, Clay said that aside from obviously adding a heavy sled element, he would have focused more on interval training in place of long distance running as he feels the intervals were more beneficial.

BRAD

For my part, training in the Tahoe region served me well.  Throughout the summer months I was able to pack very heavy loads to altitudes of 10,000 feet on a regular basis.  The winter months allowed me to train in a manner that exactly reflected the work we were to undertake on the mountain.  Being able to work up to a 65 lb pack and 70 lb sled while skinning  up and skiing down packed forest service roads helped my mind and body comprehend and prepare for the task ahead.  Doing all this work at an altitude of over 6,000 feet made me that much more fit and I feel like Clay underestimates how much working out at 700 feet set him back.  Although he spent a week in Colorado before flying to Alaska, I don’t think this “acclimation trip” helped him much.  To access Denali’s West Buttress route you fly in to base camp at 7,200 feet. While my blood was already accustomed to this “daily living” altitude, Clay had to immediately started acclimatizing and so was handicapped from the start.
I agree with Clay that interval training was very important, surprisingly so in fact.  It is counter-intuitive to think of interval training as preparation for mountain climbing because there are no sprint-rest periods like in soccer or football.  What we discovered, however, was at 17,000 feet and above, a simple slip or stumble that requires a fast movement to correct constitutes a sprint.  These snap reactions skyrocket your heart rate and breathing and intervals definitely helped in recovery during these situations.  Intervals also greatly helped me lower what I call my working heart rate — the heart rate level I maintain when slowly slogging up the hill in a pace where I can climb for an hour or two without stopping to rest.

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