Friday, March 19, 2021

Training for the West Buttress of Denali

Sunrise over Denali (A. Stephen)

The West Buttress of Denali is definitely one of the most classic mountaineering routes up one of the most iconic mountains in the world.  From the beautiful position deep in the rugged Alaska Range to the chance to tag the tallest mountain in North America, an expedition to Denali is in no way easy, but the rewards vastly outweigh the effort.  I’ve guided the route three times, and I know from experience that nothing can fully prepare you for the West Buttress, but getting in good shape, and exercising your “suffering threshold” can help get you ready.  Here are some pages out of my training regimen for the Great One.

(A. Stephen)
Cold Weather

I think most experienced Alaska Range climbers would agree that you never really know what you are going to get.  As far as conditions and weather are concerned, the best thing you can do is try to have no expectations.  You can learn about trends in the weather, and conditions on the glacier via word of mouth or the internet, but considering that the average guided West Buttress trip takes 18-21 days, there is much that can happen once you’re fully committed.  An adage I find myself using a lot is that it is either “freeze or fry” out there- there is no middle ground.  While being too hot can be an issue, for most people being too cold is much more formidable.  You can train yourself to function in the cold pretty easily, however.  If you live in a cold-weather winter climate, go camping!  

Functioning in the cold isn’t ever too pleasant, but by gaining some experience with it you can gain the mental fortitude to make it work.  See one of my previous POSTS for some winter camping advice.  

If you don’t have access to a cold winter climate, one exercise that will help increase your cold threshold is to put your hands in ice water until you can’t stand it anymore, then try doing various activities such as tying knots, knitting, cooking dinner, etc.  This exercise is pretty limited however; the best thing you can do is either head to a cold climate for a winter camping excursion (at least one!).

Fellow Institute guide Nate Furman checking out the view on the upper
 mountain (A. Stephen)
Physical Training

As far as physical exertion goes, you should expect to carry packs weighing up to 70 lbs, while hauling a sled loaded with up to 80 lbs of gear.  Fortunately most programs will work off of a double carry system wherein the majority of days up to 16,000ft will only require carrying a fraction of that weight (an average of 50 lbs).  While the lower half of the route is at a fairly moderate pitch, the upper half can be quite steep, requiring precise footwork and a steady pace at altitude in order to stay warm.  No day's gain is more than around 3000ft in elevation, but climbers should be prepared to be moving 2 or 3 days in a row in between rest days.  I have tried to ask most of the guests I’ve had on the West Buttress what training program they used to get in shape.  I’ve heard everything from pulling tires around the cul-de-sac to a steady diet of mountaineering and backpacking to “nothing in particular.”   What we generally tell people at the Institute is that any regular physical activity focusing on cardio is decent, but there are some specific activities that are better than others.

Climbers using french cramponing technique to ascend a steep hill
with loaded sleds (A. Stephen)
One of the best things you can do to train is hiking with a weighted pack.  If you can find a hike in your area that steadily gains 3000ft in 3 or 4 miles, this is an ideal place to train.  Start by hiking the trail with very little weight or none at all.  I try to carry most of my weight in water, that way I can dump it out at the top and save my knees on the descent.  Every week, add a little bit at a time (no more than a 5% increase per week) until you have reached up to 70 lbs.  The rigors of pulling a sled involve muscles that even experienced climbers aren’t used to using, but if you can hike for 5 or 6 miles gaining 3000 ft of elevation or more in 4 hours without getting totally worked, this will be sufficient to develop the extra strong back and leg muscles needed to contend with an weighted and unruly sled.  The other benefit to hiking with a heavy pack as training is that it helps you prepare your mental muscles for carrying a heavy pack day after day.  Try to do the hike 3 times a week, with adequate rest days in between.  As with any training program, make sure you listen to your body and only attempt the hike when you are feeling fully rested.  You can get more details on creating a successful training program from a great book by former Institute employee and prolific climber Steve House, entitled “Training For The New Alpinism.” 

"Training for the New Alpinism", by Steve House and Scott Johnson is by far the best training manual I've come across.  Unlike others in its genre, it isn't too heavy on technical jargon, and written in a way that laymen can understand.  While it is written with the cutting edge, high-altitude athlete in mind, the book is very helpful for the basic level alpinist as well, and the training plans and exercises outlined are easily transferred for easier objectives (such as the West Buttress) than Steve House and company attempt.  Picking up a copy of this book should definitely be the first step for the prospective Denali climber.

The West Buttress also requires a decent amount of upper body and core strength.  I recommend doing a separate routine for each, twice a week.  Again, start slow (1 set per session, and add reps per week)!  You aren’t going for max strength here, instead building endurance for the long haul (up the section of fixed lines that is!).  The routines I use can be found in “Training For The New Alpinism,”  or many variations can be found online- but try to find a mountaineering-specific one.

Psyched climbers on the summit of Denali (A. Stephen)


One of the benefits of spending the extended time required for a double-carry strategy on the West Buttress is that it allows most people a chance to acclimatize as much as possible before we head to the upper mountain.  By doing “double-carries” (ferrying loads higher on the mountain while returning to a lower camp to sleep), you can maximize your acclimatization time.  So, theoretically, you can just show up in Talkeetna without getting any acclimatization experience.  

In fact, unless you are consistently living at 10,000ft, there really isn’t much you can do that will gain you the high altitude experience needed, since any acclimatization built through periods at altitude quickly disappears upon returning to sea-level.  The best thing you can do to be ready for high altitude is to make sure you are in good cardiovascular shape.  Supplementing your weighted pack training with an activity such as swimming, running, or biking is a great way to increase your cardio and lung capacity.  I find mountaineering-specific benefit in trail running, as you are not only building cardio fitness, but also training your leg muscles to handle stress.  I repeat: start slow and don’t overdo it!  Listen to your body first and foremost; it is always better to skip training days if you still feel tired than overdo it and risk injury.

Heading up the iconic ridgeline between 14k and 17k camps in less than
splitter conditions (A. Stephen)
Mountaineering Experience

An expedition to the Alaska Range, whether guided or not, should never be attempted without at least a basic level of mountaineering knowledge or experience.  The Range is home to some huge glaciers and unforgiving terrain.  Walking and climbing in crampons, ice-axe arrest, roped travel, and crevasse-rescue techniques should all be very familiar to the prospective West Buttress climber.  There is no substitute for actual glaciated travel here in my opinion.  Basic mountaineering routes on any of the Cascade volcanoes are great pre-requisites, and my favorite has to be Mt Baker, where you can get a wide variety of easily-accessible training and climbing in.  By far the best way to gain specific experience for the West Buttress is to take the Denali Prep Course offered by the Institute, which will provide broad mountaineering instruction, as well as winter camping and backcountry travel skills.

Fruits of the labor: A climber enjoying the view from 17k (A. Stephen) 
Peak season is fast approaching for climbing the West Buttress, so if you are planning on heading north, now is the time to make sure you are in the best shape possible. I highly recommend picking up a copy of “Training for the New Alpinism” and entering into the training program the book outlines. If you have any specific questions, or would like help designing a program that tailors to your specific goals and time constraints, feel free to contact usat the Institute.

-Andy Stephen, AAI Instructor and Guide

1 comment:

TMartin said...

Andy, a warm hello. As a former particpant, a number of years ago, in two AAI programs: the Denali Prep Course and the Denali West Buttress; I'd like to share some insight to complement Andy's advice. The execution of a Denali climb is essentially a management task that juggles: cold, wind, altitude, hydration, nutrition, & stress (Note: the latter is composed of factors, that can affect one in a negative sense , such as lack of familiarity with the enviornment and equipment, lack of understanding in adaptating to team members and teamwork, & a lack of coping methods for fear of injury and failure). In my opinion, the best way to address these is to try to start preparing for the climb earlier rather than later. This allows time to acquire knowledge, experience, and even just to accumulate all the gear. Andy's suggestion for the Denali Prep Course is a great way to begin. An appreciation of the effects of cold weather is essential; in a potentially extreme environment, things don't always work as imagined ( how to thaw frozen goggles, frozen face masks, frozen zippers, frozen Gu, etc). and knowing how all one's gear meshes together, how do the boots fit, and how to acess and utilize a layering system is critical in injury (frostbite) prevention and general comfort. Altitude: from personal experience, if one can get some time at altitude, 11K -14K, such as on a volacano, this will give one actual experience minus all the other variables in how to handle pacing (rest step) , breathing, hydration, & the effects of altitude in a less harsh enviornment. Physical Training: To utilize my personal experience as an example, I had a very good base & I started training (PT) a year in advance. My initial objective was to increase my weekly volume of activity by cross training, advancing to include some interval training on the treadmill. I then started doing as much hiking as I could with the objective of increasing time on the trail so as to 'peak' a few weeks in anticipation of the climb. I wish I had started the hill climbing earlier - I included hikes up Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as a 'test runs'. My longest day, on the latter, was eight hours. In retrospect, I might have been better prepared mentally & physically if I had then pushed for a 10 hr day (just with a 12 lb pack) (note: from 14K Camp, to High Camp, to make a Summit push, and then return one will have a least 4 long and hard days so endurance on the feet is a real plus). Hope this helps someone. Good luck to all.