[CC image courtesy of Matteo Leoni via Flickr]
This week, Jed from Nebraska asks:
Any advice for a 53-year-old guy who’s climbing Mt. Elbrus in August?
I’ve been climbing for seven years. I climbed Kilimanjaro two years ago, and last summer I climbed Mt. Rainier, Mt. Baker, and did two overnight winter climbs of Mt. Elbert [a Colorado 14er]. I also took a week-long technical climbing seminar in the cascades.
I’m looking for a six-month endurance program for Elbrus, thanks!
So first, this is totally the kind of mountaineer you want to be.
Someone who’s just climbing their ass off, all over the place, in all seasons, and LOVING IT.
Full disclosure: I’ve never climbed Mt. Elbrus. But I did spend all of last year training for 18ers and 19ers, so I’m happy to share a little of what worked (and also what didn’t).
By the way, Mt. Elbrus is totally on my list, so I do hope Jed will come back and do a guest post. (Nudge, nudge.)
Climbing Mt. Elbrus: What to Expect
At an elevation of 18,510 ft., Mt. Elbrus is the highest peak in Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus Mountains. Jed will be climbing the South Route (or Normal Route) with outfitter RMI.
Accommodation along the route is in huts, which should lighten his load a bit. However, poshness comes at a price. According to SummitPost, the long-drop toilets on Mt. Elbrus might be in the running for worst on earth!
This video will give you a rough idea.
The South Route isn’t technically difficult. But like all Mt. Elbrus routes, it’s infamous for cold and windy conditions. Also, much of the climb is on a glacier, so snow climbing, rope travel, and crevasse skills are helpful.
On summit day, climbers typically ascend from Pastukhova Rocks (15,000′) to the summit for a gain of about 3,500 ft. That’s a big day in Colorado, never mind at 18K! So good training over a number of months is essential.
Training Goals for the Mount Elbrus Climb
So here’s what Jed can focus on to get in shape for his assault on Mt. Elbrus (and all the other fun stuff he’ll climb along the way):
Endurance Training to Build Aerobic Base
This is absolutely going to be the main event for every mountaineer on every mountain — from Colorado 14ers to Everest.
When done right, endurance training will allow you to travel more comfortably on long-ass climbing days (like that 9–12 hour summit day on Mt. Elbrus). It also teaches your body to burn fat as fuel, which can keep you from bonking like Donkey Kong halfway up.
The sucky thing about endurance training is that it takes a long time to build that aerobic base. So even though Jed’s eight months out from Mt. Elbrus, it’s not too early to start.
The good news about aerobic training is that it can be pretty nonspecific, especially in the early stages. Running around the cornfield will train your aerobic system just as well as slogging up a 14er. (Good news for Huskers like Jed.)
Sucky Weather Training (not a technical term)
More than most mountains, Mt. Elbrus is prone to wind, cold, storms, whiteouts, and all-around terrible weather.
Jed can definitely use the winter months to expose himself to the elements and test his clothing and equipment.
This also prepares him psychologically for the possibility of shitty conditions on summit day. No one loves it. But it happens.
Sport-Specific Training (Snow Climbing, Glacier Rescue)
While Mt. Elbrus isn’t super technical, Jed will want to get on as much snow as possible to refresh is climbing skills.
Good crampon-ax technique improves safety and confidence. Plus it will totally save your leg muscles on a 10-hour summit day.
Jed can also grab some buddies and practice his rope travel, anchors, and glacier rescue skills on snow.
This gives Jed some extra power to push through tough spots and react fast in emergencies. When combined with a good aerobic base, it will also improve his performance and comfort at high altitude.
Getting Plenty of Vitamin L (Elevation)
While the exact physiological mechanisms are unclear, anecdotal evidence suggests that people who climb frequently to altitude have an easier time adapting on big mountains like Mt. Elbrus.
Jed already zips over to Colorado about once a month to climb, which is pretty awesome.
But even if you can only make one or two forays above 10,000 ft. before the main event, definitely do it. (Bonus points if you can make a high camp and soak in the thin air for a few days.)
You may not get a lot of physiological benefits from infrequent trips to altitude. But you’ll be more mentally prepared for the drop in performance and all the weird body changes you’ll experience on Mount Elbrus.
With experience, you’ll also learn when you can push your body at altitude and when it’s telling you to rest.
A lot of climbers deemphasize it, which is too bad. Because general strength training has tons of benefits for mountaineers.
It increases your comfort and endurance on long climbing days and prepares you to carry more weight.
Strong climbers are also less likely to become injured, which is a major benefit when you’ve invested heavily in prep and training.
Strength training to improve stability and protect your joints becomes even more crucial with age. And that’s super relevant given the number of people who are now climbing big mountains like Elbrus into their sixties and seventies!
Self Care and Relaxation
Training for a big mountain for months and months can put huge demands on your mind as well as your body.
First, it can be hard to keep up the enthusiasm to train and train and train. If you’re burning out, or worried about it, this blog post on training burnout and motivation might help.
As you get into harder, more technical stuff, it’s easy to get frustrated with yourself. And that’s dangerous, because being out of tune with your body can set you up for injury and overtraining. (When your body speaks, listen!)
In the mountaineering world, it’s also easy to start comparing yourself to others. Because if you climb big mountains like Elbrus, you will no doubt start running into both world-class mountaineers and gifted novices.
Don’t worry about them and their awesomeness. Focus on doing your best and having a good time.
Finally, you may just need to learn to shut negative people out. Because unless you are age 22 with 6 percent body fat, there will always be asshats who tell you you’re too fat or too old or too whatever to climb your mountain.
Ignore those people. Seriously, they’re just sad souls who desperately need to get laid.
Training Roadmap: Eight Months to Mount Elbrus
So I know that’s a TON of shit to do, but the good news is you don’t have to do it all at once. Here’s how I’d break it down between now and August.
January and February: Rest, Transition to Training, and Cold Therapy
The periodicity principle tells us that we can’t train hard all the time. Nor should we try.
Trying to be a year-round beast is a good way to hurt yourself, stress your joints, overtrain, and burn out mentally. (Take it from a girl who trained for 11 months straight in 2017. That will not be happening again!)
If you haven’t taken an off season yet, now is the time. You’re going to be demanding a lot of your mind and body between now and August. So throw pressure and structure to the wind and just do exercise you enjoy.
Do yoga. Ride your bike. Take a little kid hiking. Whatever sounds fun.
When you feel rested, refreshed, and pain free, ease back into training with low-intensity aerobic training. (You should be able to chat with a friend and breathe easily through your nose at all times.)
You can also add some basic strength training that hits all the major muscle groups. (Upper, lower, core.)
For your training hikes, try a winter ridge. They tend to be windy AF, so it’ll be just like Mt. Elbrus on a crappy day! Some suggestions near you (Jed) in Colorado:
- Grizzly Peak D (Loveland Pass)
- Fletcher Mountain (Summit County – Blue Lakes near Quandary Peak)
- Atlantic Peak (Summit County – Mayflower Gulch)
- North Star Mountain (Summit County – Hoosier Pass)
If you haven’t yet, you might want to pick up a copy of Dave Cooper’s book, Colorado Snow Climbs. He covers all of the above hikes and many more.
March to May: Unleash the Endurance Beast (Slowly)
This is the time to gradually build up the aerobic base that will carry you to the top of Mt. Elbrus on summit day.
- Again, keep your intensity low most of time (conversational, easy nose breathing).
- Start weekly interval training. Run for about two minutes at 80 to 90 percent of your max heart rate, then recover and repeat. This should feel tiring but fun! If it’s misery, run fewer intervals, shorten your intervals, or hold off until you have a better aerobic base.
- Make one of your cardio workouts long (roughly 30 percent of your training volume).
- Endurance training takes time, so be patient. Increase your volume by 5–10 percent each week. But don’t be afraid to repeat a week if you’re feeling tired or sore or you miss a couple workouts.
- Every four weeks or so, drop your volume by about 30–40 percent. It’s hard to rest, but you’re actually getting stronger!
Continue strength training. Beginning in April, emphasize heavier weights and shorter sets. (Try 6 sets, 4 reps). You can also combine strength and cardio by gradually increasing the weight of your backpack.
Snow climbing season usually begins around April in Colorado! It flies by, so get in all the couloir climbing you can. Some fun ones that are reasonably accessible:
- Juliet Couloir (Mt. Neva)
- Boudoir Couloir (Horseshoe Mountain)
- Whale’s Tail (Whale Peak)
- Cristo Couloir (Quandary Peak)
- Angel of Shavano (Mt. Shavano)
June to July: Peak Training (in Nebraska)
This is the part where the rap breaks down. Continue to build your aerobic and anaerobic training volume, and start making your activities as sport-specific as possible.
Now I get that sport-specific mountaineering training is hard to do in Nebraska and in much of the country. Hey, even in Colorado, I can’t train on 14ers every day.
So here are some cardio workouts for those days when you can’t get your feet on a real trail:
- Take a run in hilly terrain.
- Find a friendly high-rise, parking garage, or stadium and run the stairs or ramp.
- Grab your heavy backpack and hit the Stairmaster. I have a pal who pretty much trained for Denali this way.
- Find a short hike with some L and do a few laps with your big pack on. The gain adds up! (When I’m visiting fam in Cleveland, I do Furnace Run Loop 8–10 times.)
- When all else fails, put on a movie, put on your pack, and do step-ups.
Continue your strength training and transition to the muscular endurance phase. From here on out, do lots of reps at low weight. (Try three sets of 15 reps and add one rep each week.)
Conveniently, your peak coincides with the climbing seasons for California, PNW, and Colorado. So it’s a great time to indulge in a little adventure travel to the Cascades, the Sierras, or the Colorado 14ers. Get some L and have some fun as you approach your training peak!
August: Taper and Stoke
I never used to taper long enough before big mountaineering trips. Honestly, I was terrified! I wanted to wring every ounce of training out of my body before the main event.
But in 2017, Hurricane Irma delayed us nine days in getting to Bolivia. Which forced us to have a three-week taper.
And you know what? It was awesome. We all felt super energized on the mountain. (Well, not every minute. But I do think the forced rest helped.)
So enjoy your taper. Starting 3 weeks out, cut your training down to 80 percent, 50 percent, and 30 percent. If you feel tired, do even less than that.
Use your free time to pack (use my high-altitude packing list!), charge your devices, water your plants, and spend time with loved ones. Because they’ve probably been missing you while you’ve been training.
And then go hit the Mount Elbrus climb and enjoy the crap out of every minute!
No matter what happens, it’s going to be an amazing, life-changing experience.
Well Jed, hope that’s helpful and wishing you all the best!
I hope you’ll stop by from time to time and let us know how your training is going. And come September, please consider giving us a guest post about your Mount Elbrus climb. I for one am curious!
Got a training question? Email me and ask! I do my level best to respond to everyone. You might even get featured on the blog (with your permission).
Originally published Jan. 31, 2018.