Mountain climbing in all of its forms is becoming increasingly popular as more and more people are drawn to the outdoors. Mountain climbing draws people from all walks of life and for all different reasons–some climb to challenge themselves, both mentally and physically, while others climb to unplug and escape the chaos of urban life or to seek out wild spaces and the fresh air and breathtaking views those spaces provide. As an experienced climber, I often find myself faced with questions from friends and family who are interested in getting into the sport: How do you train for mountain climbing? How can I get started? What do I need to do to prepare for my first big mountain objective?
If you’re struggling with any of those questions yourself, or any similar questions about a trip into the mountains, I hope this post will help you clear things up and help get you ready for your adventure! To summarize what you all came here to know, here’s the answer in a sentence or two; The way to train for Mountain Climbing is to actually climb! If you can’t do that, focus on body exercises that develop targeted climbing muscles as well as cardiovascular training and logistical practice! The specifics await, so read on!
First Things First! What Do You Mean by “Training”?
The word “training” can mean a lot of different things. Does it mean how to train a certain muscle to do the job? Or does it mean how to practice in order to acquire a crucial skill? The answer is YES! In this guide, we’ll cover some basics for both physical preparedness training as well as proper skill acquisition. We’ll start off with a great summary of what you need to know and do to be prepared physically and with the proper skillset. At the end of this article, I’ll share with you a sample routine to develop stamina, strength and appropriate high altitude preparedness. Shall we get started?
What Kind of Climbing Will You Do?
Let’s start by talking about different types of climbing; once you’ve identified what kind of climbing you’re interested in, we can get into how to train for your specific discipline. Much of the physical preparation will be the same for different climbing disciplines, though not always identical. The term “mountain climbing” is pretty broad and encompasses a whole range of different disciplines of climbing, all of which require different types of preparation and training.
The most basic and beginner friendly type of mountain climbing is hiking. Now, a hike up the hill near your house in most cases would probably not be considered a “mountain climb” and neither would a stroll around a nearby lake on a dirt hiking path. Some hikes, however, do take you to the tops of mountains and require a fair amount of training and preparation. Some of these hikes peak famous mountains like Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and Mount Whitney in the eastern Sierra Nevada, but they are good choices for beginners since they require no technical rock climbing and very little specialized equipment.
Mountaineering (Mountain Climbing)
Mountaineers have the same goals as hikers: to get to the top of a mountain. Unlike hiking, though, mountaineering involves navigating technical terrain and requires much more specialized equipment: mountaineers wear technical clothing made for hard exertion in cold climates, and they often wear crampons and wield ice axes to climb on ice and snow. On top of that, they use ropes, harnesses, and super-specialized equipment called “protection” to arrest a climber if he or she falls.
The last type of mountain climbing I’ll talk about here is rock climbing. Just like the term “mountain climbing,” the term “rock climbing” applies to a whole bunch of disciplines too. There’s bouldering, sport climbing, and traditional or “trad” climbing, but the types of climbing most commonly used to climb mountains are multi-pitch trad climbing or alpine climbing. These types of climbing require a huge amount of specialized knowledge as well as technical skill: While alpine or trad climbing, you’re usually climbing in a pair and both climbers are roped up for the entirety of the climb. This means that the climbers are constantly engaged, either in climbing or belaying and, like mountaineering, these types of climbing require a lot more training and preparation than hiking mountains does.
Now that we’ve broken up mountain climbing into different disciplines, we can start to talk about how to train for each one. Keep in mind that there is no one answer to fit every person in every climbing situation, but here are some basics to get you started.
Training for hiking is pretty straightforward: You train for hiking by hiking! In order to walk up a mountain and have fun doing it, you need to prepare by working on your physical fitness. If you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with hiking trails, you can get your cardio workouts in on the trail. Walking or running two to three days a week for about 40 minutes is a great place to start. As you get in better shape and get closer to the date of your objective, start trying to fit a half-day or full-day hike into your schedule about twice a month. These hikes should include hills if possible–cardio is important but it’s also important to train the muscles in your legs to get you up those hills. I’ll use Half Dome as an example here again. The hike from the valley floor to the top of Half Dome involves about 4,000 feet of elevation gain (and later, loss) over the course of the 16 mile hike and takes most people 10 to 12 hours to complete. Rick Deutsch has a great article over at Adventure Sports Journal where he offers advice on how to train for a hike up Half Dome. He suggests beginning your training about 2 months before your trip, focusing on building up cardio length and intensity until you can walk well over two hours at a quick pace. Then train for hills by hiking uphill with a weighted pack or using cardio machines like the stair stepper or the elliptical trainer. Depending on your starting fitness level, you can modify this training plan to fit your needs. If you exercise regularly you may not need to alter your regular routine too much to get ready for your hike, but if you’re a relatively sedentary person you might have to start training further in advance to prepare for such a long and strenuous hike. Check out the suggested routine advice later in this article.
It’s More than Physical Training
In addition to your physical training, you’ll also need to prepare for the logistical side of your objective. First of all, you’ll need to decide what equipment you need and make sure to test ALL of your equipment during your training. Perhaps your most important piece of equipment is your shoes. There’s no one pair of shoes that works for everybody, so you’ll want to go to a local outdoor store and try on a few pairs. Some hikers prefer boots, which provide ankle support, while others prefer to wear trail runners, which offer less support but can also have a less clunky, more comfortable feel. I personally wear Altra trail runners. These shoes are super popular among hikers and come as either high tops or low tops, but like I said before, everybody has different preferences so try something on and then make sure you wear it during your training to break it in. I won’t go into all the details of equipment, but you can check out this example list of what to bring on a hike like Half Dome if you want to know more.
How Do I Train in the Proper Environment?
Finally, you’ll need to plan ahead for variables like weather and altitude. If you live in the mountains, you are already accustomed to living at elevation, but if you live at or near sea level you should look up the elevation of the trailhead as well as the summit of the mountain you plan to climb. If the trailhead is thousands of feet above your home elevation, it’s a good idea to try to do some of your training at elevation to get used to the feeling of hiking at altitude. In addition, it’s a good idea to plan a couple extra days for your trip to get acclimated. Camping at or near the trailhead the night before your hike will help you adjust to the elevation, but if the hike is very high you might want to consider spending two nights there and doing a short, slow hike up to a higher elevation the day before your trip. For more information on how to prepare for high elevation hiking, head over to LIVESTRONG and check out this helpful article.
You’ll also want to consider the climate of the area you’re planning to visit. If the temperature is much colder than the area where you’re training, you’ll want to add some cold-weather training into your plan as well. This might be as easy as waking up extra early to exercise in colder temps, but if you live somewhere like L.A. or Florida, you might have to travel to a snowier climate to train for cold weather activity. Climate is an oft-overlooked aspect of training, but it’s a really important one because you need to make sure that you have the right gear to protect you from the cold before the morning of your climb!
Mountaineering? Step it up a Notch
If you’re training for a big mountaineering objective, your preparation will need to be quite a bit more rigorous than the preparation for a big hike. Coley Gentzel, a program coordinator for the American Alpine Institute and a Denali Guide, says that he likes to begin training for big mountain ascents four to five months in advance. Not surprisingly, Gentzel believes that the best way to train for climbing is by climbing. He also acknowledges, however, that not everybody can get out into the mountains or fit climbing into their schedule on a regular basis, so he suggests cross training with other high-intensity outdoor activities like hiking (preferably in snow), stair or hill running, mountain biking, backcountry skiing, swimming, and trail running. You should definitely find the time to fit climbing into your training plan as often as possible, but these other activities will help get you into top physical condition when climbing isn’t an option.
Train Indoors if You Must
Gentzel also encourages strength training in the gym on the days when you aren’t training cardio outside. You can check out his article here for a great list of strength exercises as well as a basic weekly outline that you can use as a basis for building your own training plan. Of course, different things will work for different people so experiment with different kinds of strength and cardio training and see what works best for you.
In addition to training for physical fitness, you’ll need to train for the logistical and technical side of things. Knowing your systems and being quick and efficient will save you valuable time on the mountain, and could make the difference between summiting or being forced to retreat.
Training Involves Knowing Your Equipment, Where to Find It, How to Use it, and How Fast You Can Get it Working
As you assemble a list of equipment needed for your objective, make sure that you are comfortable with each piece of equipment and know exactly how it functions. Take the time to learn your gear so that when you need it on the mountain you won’t waste any time figuring out how to use it. In addition, make sure you are familiar with your route. Many beginning mountaineers will spend countless hours training for the physical aspect of the climb only to miss a key turn on the approach and end up lost or hours behind schedule. The logistical preparation can be just as important as the physical prep work, and it can also help motivate you to train since poring over trip reports, maps, and photos will keep you psyched on the adventure to come and remind you why it is you’re working so hard. I recommend setting aside a couple blocks of time each week to train for non-physical aspects of your climb. Research the area you’re going into, practice your anchor building, rope management, self-rescue, and knots. Learn more about the features of your gear and practice packing and unpacking your gear quickly. Doing these things ahead of time will help you get all the kinks out before you enter the high-stakes environment of the mountains, and you’ll thank yourself later when you’re watching your partner dig around in the bottom of their pack trying to find the chapstick.
High Alpine Training
Now, if you’re training for a big rock climbing or alpine climbing objective, you’re going to have to alter your training plan yet again. Oftentimes big mountain rock climbs have involved approaches that can include miles of hiking, either cross-country or on primitive climbers trails with thousands of feet of elevation gain, all while wearing a heavy pack–and that’s before the real rock climbing even begins. So you can use a lot of the training ideas we’ve talked about for hiking and mountaineering to prepare for the endurance needed for long days in the mountains.
In addition to physical fitness and endurance, though, in order to succeed on a long, technical rock climbs you’ll need to focus most of your training time on rock climbing. Many rock climbers live in urban areas and therefore only get out to climb real rock on their weekends if they’re lucky, or maybe even just on holidays if they live far from developed climbing areas. If this is the case for you, you’ll want to spend the majority of your training time at the local climbing gym.
Fake Rocks? Yes, They Can Help!
Though very different from climbing outside, the climbing gym is a great place to develop climbing technique, endurance, power, upper body strength, and tendon strength in the fingers and forearms. All of these things will help you on your big climbing objective, and I would recommend climbing in the gym 3-4 times per week for 1 or 2 hours in the months leading up to your objective. While gym climbing is a great way to train, I cannot stress enough the importance of getting outside to practice your climbing skills on real rock before attempting any kind of multi-pitch trad climb. Most climbers can attest to the fact that gym climbing is very different from outdoor climbing. I’ve seen many a 5.12 gym climber get shut down on a 5.8 hand crack in Yosemite, and I’ve even watched a collegiate bouldering champion cruxing out while trying to place a nut on a 5.7 slab climb in Tuolumne. Don’t be that climber! Use the gym as a place to train, but be humble when transitioning to outdoor climbing. Start on routes that you think are well below your physical limit, and work your way up to climbing harder routes.
“If You Look Good, You’ll Climb Good”! WRONG!
I asked my friend and climbing partner Jake Ramsay, an AMGA rock guide who spends his summers guiding for the Yosemite Mountaineering School, to weigh in on the most common mistakes he sees among beginning mountain climbers. This was his response:
Bad Outfits. If you look good, you feel good, and then you climb good. No, I’m just kidding, but when it comes to beginning climbing I have three words of advice for you: Systems, systems, and systems! I see new climbers out on big routes in Yosemite all the time and you can tell that they’re new not because of how they’re climbing but because of what they’re doing when they’re not climbing. Their anchors are a mess, they’ve got loops of rope hanging halfway down the pitch, and they spend thirty minutes at every belay trying to organize their gear, check the topo, figure out where the heck they are, and then get ready to start the next pitch. I think the best way to learn about climbing is by finding a mentor–it’ll keep you safer for longer and can be the most beneficial thing for your climbing.
I agree with Jake 100%. A mentor who already knows the ropes is an awesome resource because they’ll teach you the right way to do things the first time around. If, however, you don’t have a mentor to teach you multi-pitch skills, you can train for your adventure by researching and practicing the systems yourself. There are tons of books, youtube videos, and other resources available to you that break down the basics of climbing in a digestible way so that just about anybody can learn the skills necessary to rock climb. If you’re training for a big multi-pitch climb and you’ve never multi-pitched before or don’t have much experience, you should spend some time each week researching and practicing these skills in your house, at the park, or on the ground at your local climbing area before you take them up on the wall. Some of the most important skills to review and practice are as follows:
9 Crucial Skills
- Placing and removing trad gear
- Building anchors (natural anchors and gear anchors)
- Belaying from the top
- Managing your rope while on a climb
- Reading a “topo” or route description
- Extending your placements to avoid drag
- How to ascend a rope or rescue a stuck rope
- How to rappel a multi-pitch route.
If you recognize some or all of these skills, that’s a great start, but I’d still recommend practicing them with your partner to ensure a smooth climb when the day of your objective arrives. Practice tying different knots and know which knots are best for which scenario, and practice belay transitions with your partner so you aren’t fumbling or dropping gear off the wall. Then take your skills outside and test your performance on short multi-pitch routes. Take note of what worked and what didn’t, and change your plan accordingly.
There are so many different things to consider when training for a big mountain objective that sometimes it’s hard to know exactly where to start. We’ve gone over the basics of training for hiking, mountaineering, and rock climbing, and the best advice I can give you to start training is to begin with your objective.
STRENGTH Training Sample Schedule
This routine is a great sample of a routine for all climbing disciplines. You can adjust slightly to fit your focus. For example, pull-ups and abdominal training is great for any fitness challenge, but much more so for rock climbing than for mountaineering or high altitude hiking.
Here is a one-week sample of what you would repeat over 4-6 weeks preceding your climb. Each week may need an increase in weight if you’re doing the routine properly.
- Bench Press – 3 sets of 10-12 repetitions to exhaustion (that means after 12 reps, you cannot even do it one more time! Set your weight accordingly)
- Chin-up – 3 sets of 10-15 repetitions to exhaustion
- Crunch or Plank – for crunch do as many as possible to exhaustion, and for plank, hold for 60-90 seconds (if that gets too easy, extend the distance between your elbows and toes)
- Step-ups – Simply step up onto a raised platform or bench 20-30 times – adding weight like dumbells and/or raising the height of the bench as you progress
- Calf Raises – Stand on the edge of a platform or bottom stair on a staircase with your toes on the step but your heels in mid-air. Then raise to your tippy-toes and return so your heel drops way down. Do 20, or repeat to exhaustion and add weight as appropriate
- Repeat Monday’s routine but vary the order of exercises
- Rest day
- Repeat Tuesday’s routine but vary the order of exercises
- Focus on Cardio routine only
Cardio/Stamina Sample Training Schedule
I prefer to vary my cardio between rowing and running, but obviously you can adjust based on the availability of equipment and your interests (ie. a rigorous 90-minute game of basketball will more than make up for a missed 25-minute rowing session)
- Jog for a minimum of 20 minutes (30+ is better) at a pace where you can have a conversation with someone beside you. This is not a “race pace” where you feel like you need to hurl and collapse at the end!
Wednesday OR Thursday
- Rowing machine session for 20-30 minutes during which you have an obviously elevated heart rate and respiration rate. If you are not breathing fairly heavily at the end, then your resistance level or your duration time was set too low.
- Choose Rowing or Running as per instructions above
This one is a bit tricky because the best way to acclimatize for higher altitude training is to actually train at a higher altitude. Barring that inconvenient and difficult option for most normal people who don’t live above 10,000 feet, the key is efficient cardiovascular training (heart and lung training). As your body uses oxygen more efficiently, it will do so in all environments more efficiently than if you do not train for cardio. The only other feasible option (which all but the most hard-core climbers will probably pass on) is to make use of an altitude tent. This is a tend that simulates the lower oxygen levels found at higher altitudes, and it can help acclimatize your body to such an environment. I’d say use this with caution and stick to a rigorous cardio routine like the one I’ve outlined, or any one of many others you can find online.
Examine Your Goals and Proceed Accordingly
Examine your goal and decide which things you need to work on before attempting it. Then break your training up into categories:
Strength, Cardio, and Logistics for your Half Dome Hike.
Endurance, Technical Rock Climbing, and multi-pitch systems for a long, alpine rock route in Patagonia.
Block out what you’ll do to improve each of these areas over the weeks and months leading up to your trip, and then stick to your plan. Sometimes you do everything right leading up to the climb and then some unforeseen variable like a huge storm or a bout of the flu or a broken piece of equipment will shut you down and force you to turn back, but that’s all part of being a climber. If you follow these steps you’ll be well on your way to a fun and safe adventure, and you’ll be able to feel confident that, summit or no summit, you did everything you could to reach your goal.
Hardcore Strength Training
Below is a list of good resources to check out for further reading on mountain climbing and how to train for it.
Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 9th Edition. The Mountaineers Books, 2017.
Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber Athlete. Steve House and Scott Johnson. Patagonia Books, 2014.
The Rock Warrior’s Way: Mental Training for Climbers. Arno Ilgner, 2006.
How to Rock Climb! 5th Edition. John Long. Falcon Guides, 2010.
(links to mountain climbing machines on Amazon)