Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review of Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete.

Recently, Patagonia Books published Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnston.  Constantly seeking to better myself as a climber, I could not resist the title.  I have read Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism:  Climbing Light, Fast, and High cover-to-cover numerous times.  At the time of publication, it was widely considered a template for cutting-edge alpinism involving structured physical training and unconventional techniques on next-level climbs.  House and Johnston’s new book appeared to be a worthy successor to Twight’s title, and it certainly proved so on the first read.

The first thing I noticed when I got the book was its size; this thing is BIG.  The author’s choice of the word “manual” for the title was clearly intentional.  The book is textbook-sized and organized like one.  Like any good textbook, though, the material is presented in an extremely accessible manner.  The writing style utilizes clear, concise, and palatable word choice.  It addresses complex topics in a way that allows for comprehension while avoiding oversimplification as well as unnecessary details.  The text also features great full-color photographs to inspire and motivate, in addition to vignettes from some of alpinism’s finest.  The list of guest-authors for these mini-articles reads like a who’s who of cutting edge alpine climbing from the 1970s to the present. 

As for the content itself, the reader will find little that is groundbreaking from an exercise physiology or sports science perspective.  Much of our knowledge of the unique sport of climbing is drawn from the vast annals of decades of research and experience in other well-studied pursuits such as running, cycling, and Olympic lifting.  However, whereas much of this information is left scattered across a variety of texts to cobbled together piecemeal by the interested alpinist, House and Johnston’s valuable tome compiles the wealth of knowledge into a single location.  Further, the extraneous information is winnowed from the climbing-specific knowledge, leaving the reader with a wonderfully dense amalgamation on­­­­­ the pursuit of alpine climbing as an athletic endeavor.

The text guides the reader through all the necessary fundamental lessons in physiology before addressing each phase of a well-designed training program, from recovery and transition, to base period and muscular endurance, to peak and tapering.  Also included are specific treatments of altitude physiology and training, nutrition, and mental fitness.  Finally, accompanying spreadsheets available for download aid the budding trainee in constructing an appropriate program and recording progress. 

True to the nature of the alpine environment, the text pulls no punches in reminding the reader that training is difficult, self-discipline is demanded, and peaks in strength and ability only happen at the end of a long march through a challenging build-up of fitness.  A few quotations prove telling and unapologetic:  “You can’t coach desire.”  “Eliminating all alcoholic beverages may be a good idea while training and climbing.”  “The only good reason to climb is to improve yourself.”  “No movies, no television, no gaming…reduce music…reduce internet and e-mail…avoid drama.”  “Progress is simple:  you must want who you might become more than who you are right now.”  However, to the reader who can cope with these Spartan recommendations, the fruits of the labor are promised as literally “being in the best shape of your life.”

While the text is no doubt compelling, it does have its limitations.  A few more typos and editing errors than normal provide occasional distractions to the reader and demand a bit more thorough line editing.  This slight inconvenience aside, the book is quite clear in its target of alpine climbers.  Those looking to improve their sport climbing game could certainly learn volumes about physiology, structured training plans, periodization, and nutrition, but they would likely be better served by the many books Eric Hörst has published specifically regarding training for technical rock climbing.  There are prescriptions for gaining the cardiovascular fitness to move heavy loads uphill steadily and quickly, but none for maximizing your hangboard workout or sending that sick project at the Red River Gorge.

Training for the New Alpinism provides a wealth of knowledge and inspiration for both well-trained alpinists and those just entering the realm of structured, goal-directed exercise.  The text unabashedly advocates a plan for becoming a better climber in the lofty realms of snow, rock, and ice guarded by tempestuous and hostile environs.  Finally, it does this while extolling the virtues of disciplined training, exhorting readers to push their limits.  It waits patiently, hoping to bear witness to the next generation of strong mountain athletes willing to follow its precepts, pushing the limits of human possibility ever-further.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Patagonia: Los Gringos Turistos

I pulled hard against the sharp, juggy undercling, right arm extended and tense, left hip turned into the wall against the steep overhanging limestone.  I pressed outward with my toes, my core tight as my left hand groped for a hold, missing the good one and finding purchase on three fingertip dimples in the white rock.

Karsten Delap getting into position to take photos.
I instantly knew I had missed the correct hold but was rapidly fatiguing against the steeply angled rock and the lack of forearm fitness, a result of two preceding weeks characterized by much walking but little vertical movement.  Nevertheless, I committed to the poor handhold and released my right hand aiming for what I knew to be a good handhold above.  With a furious scream and a powerful burst of energy, I sprang upward, missed, oozed down a rough patch of rock, and fell off.

Downtown Bariloche.
  “Nice work, man,” said Kevin, from behind his camera, suspended in the air on a rope just a few feet away.  With an injured foot and hip, he was playing the role of photographer.

I flexed my hands, attempting to force blood back into my cold, numb fingers.  Despite the cold, it was good to be out climbing, moving.  It was good to get pumped, get tired, strive, scream, flail, push, fall.

We were making good use of our last two days in Bariloche, taking advantage of the opportunity to catch up on not only our sport climbing but also cultural experiences we had neglected.  We spent the days cragging and the evenings acting like tourists.  We sampled the many things Argentina in general, and Bariloche in particular, do well--ice cream, wine, chocolate, beer, and beef.  In contrast to the preceding two weeks, we kept a much more relaxed schedule, resting, catching up on sleep, and catching up with Kevin’s friends.

At Berlina brewery.
On our last evening, we shared the kitchen at the campground with a group from Buenos Aires.  A gaggle of high school students had just graduated and were spending a week in Bariloche to celebrate.  A couple of their mothers serving as chaperones were in the kitchen preparing milanesa, similar to chicken fried flank steak.  I watched with interest as they prepared the meal while I absent-mindedly kept an eye on our remaining tortellini, the last of our field food.  Slowly, the students trickled in and out one-by-one, seeing what was for dinner and offering a greeting.

As they came, the students started to linger, asking questions when they discovered I knew a little Spanish.  Soon, there were a half-dozen teenagers crowding the small kitchen, intently querying me about my life, my age, my work, my wife--everything they could think of.  In short order, the two women ejected us all from the kitchen so they could finish making dinner in peace.

The students invited us to sit with them and their parents and teachers for dinner.  Soon, we were conversing about our recent climbing attempts, our stay in Bariloche, our return to the states, their activities for the upcoming week, and their aspirations to become school teachers, coaches, engineers, and entrepreneurs.  We became facebook friends, gave out business cards, took photographs, and shared customary hugs and kisses on the cheek before finding our way back to our cabañas.

The next morning, we packed for a bittersweet departure.  The youths and their chaperones were gathering for breakfast.  Amidst a clamor of, “¡Ciao!” and, “¡Buen viaje!” we left the campground.  I anticipated the long road home and recalled the enthusiasm of the amazingly friendly students.  There was nothing to do but smile.

Grabbing one last choripan on the road (courtesy of Kevin Shon).

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Patagonia: Shifting Winds

The atmosphere at Refugio Otto Meiling is what could be described in castillano as “¡re buena onda, che!” or “really good vibes, dude.”  I was speaking with Gaspar, the caretaker of the hut, a young man in his late 20s with a mop of shaggy brown and blond hair, clear blue eyes, a weathered face familiar with sun and wind, and a persistent smile.  He complimented my attempts at Spanish and we made plans to get beers in Bariloche when we were all off Monte Tronador.

The view from Refugio Otto Meiling.

Packing for the hike up to the refugio.
I turned my attention to the hut’s other occupants--two separate groups of middle-aged men from Buenos Aires and a local mountain guide with his elderly Italian client.  There were just enough people at the hut for us to all converse in a mixture of Spanish, English, and a little Italian.  The amicable atmosphere lent itself to friendship and conversation, preventing any potential reclusion of our group as the three gringos in the corner of the room.

One of our new acquaintances inquired about our attempt earlier in the day on Pico Anón, the international summit and the highest point on Tronador.  I again got to relate a story of a summit unattained.

On the road to Monte Tronador.
Our day had begun well enough, traversing the glacier west of the hut on an icy crust just strong enough to prevent us from punching through to the sugary slush of snow below.  We moved silently forward through the pre-dawn darkness, roped together as we advanced, individual globes of light from our headlamps strung out between crevasses in the frigid morning.  I sensed the tension in the rope, moving in step with my two partners. 
On the way to Pico Anon (Internacional)
Dawn found us crossing the southern ridge of Tronador onto the Chilean side of the mountain, on the western aspect, once again out of the sun.  The sight in front of us revealed a prolonged stretch of steep, hard snow slopes dirtied by rockfall and scree released from the poorly consolidated tower of volcanic tuft above.  The long runout below fed directly into the gaping crevasses in the maw of Glacier Blanco.  Hurried but cautious, we traversed the slopes in the growing wind.  Attaining the west ridge of the peak, a bergschrund and mixed rock terrain guarded the summit only 200 feet overhead.

Onward and upward to the southern ridge.

We paused momentarily to consider the rapidly lowering cloud ceiling, dark clouds looming and engulfing not only the summit but the entire south ridge we had just traversed.  A stiff gale put us on our knees and blasted our faces with ice pellets.  The daylight sun was evidenced only through the partially translucent fog and the reflection off the brown-tinged snow.  With visibility rapidly diminishing, we shouted to one another through the gusts.  Unanimously, we elected a prudent retreat back to the hut.
Descending in the clearing whiteout.

I relayed this tale, as we all shared a freshly prepared meal of goulash.  The forecast for the next day called for a severe storm to arrive no later than noon.  As Karsten and Kevin discussed our plans to hike out the next day, I hatched a plan of my own for the next morning.  I ruminated on the view of Cerro Lamotte through the bay window, a jumble of small rock fingers protruding through an icy cone atop a small glacier.  Far from the highest point on Tronador, Lamotte nevertheless represented a minor summit on the extreme end of the mountain’s east ridge.

Lunch time!
I informed Karsten and Kevin of my intent to make a rapid ascent of this sub-summit early the next morning before our hike out, offering them the opportunity to join me.  Feeling uninspired by yet another snow slog and suffering their own array of over-use maladies, both elected sleep over a second consecutive 3:30am wake-up call.

The next morning I set out in the darkness, the first to depart the hut.  I immediately second-guessed my decision.  The temperature was not quite so cold as the preceding morning, so with every step I found myself punching through the crust of frozen snow and post-holing up to my shins.  After a half-dozen steps I became unperturbed and developed a steady rhythm, ascending the ridge at a cardiac pace.

Intermittent clouds covered the landscape, warning of the approaching storm.  Despite the occasionally limited visibility, navigation was quite simple--follow the ridge to the saddle, avoiding the glaciers on either side, turn right on the next ridge and begin rock climbing.  I negotiated steepening snow and wove a path through minor towers on 4th class terrain.  Fifteen feet of gray ice with a coating of granular snow led to a final short, simple hand crack guarding the summit block.

Cerro Lamotte summit shot.
From my perch on the tiny peak, just large enough to sit on, I could see nothing, engulfed entirely in cloud.  My entire world was a small pedestal of rime-covered tuft that fell away precipitously on all sides into grayness.  The only evidence of my exposed position were the blasts of frigid air surging upward from behind and below, washing up and over me, fiercely flapping the hood of my jacket.

As I could see little, I did not linger on the summit. Shortly after descending back to the saddle, the clouds broke briefly, revealing both my path eastward back to the hut as well as the glorious first light of dawn.  I paused once more to take this in and snap a few photos.

I returned to the hut for an early breakfast as my companions began to stir.  While we prepared for departure, the predicted storm arrived, bringing driving winds and a steady bout of freezing rain and sleet.  The weather did little to dampen our spirits.  I put on my rain gear and stepped outside into the awesome force of the storm.
Sunrise near the Cerro Lamotte summit.