Learning the Meaning of Mountain Fitness

It was September 2014. I was nearing the summit of Mount Athabasca and I knew I was in trouble. My friend had convinced me to join her on an alpine course offered by one of the local guide companies, Yamnuska Mountain Adventures. I loved being out in the mountains and wanted to expand my skills so I agreed to sign up. My biggest concerns leading up to the course were whether I had sufficient prerequisite skills and if the weather would cooperate. I never thought about my mountain fitness and the role it would play in my ability to enjoy the course or even complete it.

The skills training part of the course was engaging and fun and for three days I enjoyed learning about moving safely on glaciers.  I even got to try ice climbing. On the fourth day, the course culminated in a climb of the Silverhorn route on Athabasca. The 45 degree angle on the horn was steep enough to take a toll on my legs and I spent much of the climb out of breath.

The guides, always focused on client safety, urged us to move quickly so we could summit and then be down safely before conditions deteriorated. With that in mind, I pushed myself to my limits on the climb. At the top of the Silverhorn, as I surveyed our descent route, I had a sobering thought. We had many miles and much work left ahead of us to get down to the parking lot. I didn’t know it at the time but many injuries in the mountains occur on the descent.  People are tired or become complacent, less focused on safety, believing that with a successful summit, they have  finished their work for the day.

I started down, following the guide as closely as I could, but I soon fell behind. My legs quickly began to feel like wet noodles, drained of strength and energy. It took long hours trudging down the glacier and then the moraine. The mountain guide who had led me up was very patient and encouraging as I picked my way down the rocky moraine on wobbly legs. I was miserable, beating myself up for the lack of fitness that would have seen me complete the adventure in good time, with a smile on my face.

But how, I wondered, was I so lacking in the fitness I needed? I couldn’t chalk it up to age, the guides were my age or older. I had completed a half marathon a few months before the course.  I wasn’t out of shape. But the running had not prepared me for what the mountain would throw at me.

It was then I realized that I needed more specific fitness training, a training program that would better prepare me for the next time. And I vowed there would be a next time. The pain, exhaustion and anxiety I felt on the Silverhorn would not deter me from future mountain adventures. I just had to get better at training for them. That’s when I started reading everything I could get my hands on about training for climbing and mountaineering. I developed training programs that worked for me.

I was back in the area in the spring of 2016.  After a couple months of training, I was ready to take on Mount Andromeda. My guide and I easily made the ascent and stood on the summit well ahead of our planned time. I had plenty of energy left for the descent and enjoyed the long walk down the glacier, taking in the sunshine and blue skies that make the glaciers sparkle and define the rock cliffs. My guide pointed out Andromeda Strain, a challenging, advanced route up Andromeda. Maybe I’ll decide to try it someday, maybe not. If I do, I know I’ll have the right tools to achieve the fitness I would need to get up there.

Happy mountain adventuring, people! If you’re looking to improve your fitness for your next adventure, the team at Mountain Fitness Training and I would love to help. Browse the rest of our site to learn more.

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