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.