An Outline For Expedition Preparation

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What does it take to adequately prepare for climbing mountains in the great ranges in the world, whether it’s the Sierra Nevadas or an expedition to Mt. Everest? Unfortunately, there is no single right answer to this question. People come in many shapes, sizes, and ability levels, and each of our unique physiologies plays the central role in determining what it takes for us to adequately prepare for a chosen objective.

The following tips, ideas and basic philosophies might provide you with the understanding of what goes into preparing for an expedition, where being underprepared could mean very serious consequences.

Our approach is scientific, but was molded and developed for climbers who are relatively lazy and hate the gym and who like to get through life with as little physical effort as possible. Most good climbers are lazy unless they have a particular goal in mind – which is not a bad thing, because the only way to stay balanced, if you climb a lot, is if you rest a lot. That having been said, it is hard to overstate; alpine climbing and high-altitude climbing – particularly larger scale climbs and expeditions – sometimes feel like they require an almost super-human level of physical fitness. The reality is that a great deal of preparation and physical output in the days and months leading up to your climb is absolutely necessary if you hope to do well, be safe, and have fun in the mountains.

There are a number of variables that can and should affect the specific exercises and activities that you use in your training efforts. The guidelines listed below should serve as a basic framework into which more specific activities can be meshed after some careful consideration and thought.



  1. Timing: When to start training, and summary of the timeline of training.
  2. Outside Activities: Activities for when you can get outside (during the week or on the weekends).
  3. Indoor/Gym Activities: Gym and cardio exercises for during the workweek and when you can’t get outside.
  4. Sample Weekly Schedule and thoughts on Rest Days
  5. Goals and Targets
  6. A Quick Note on Diet
  7. Results, Analysis, and Conclusion


One of the most important questions in a training program is when to start. How soon is too soon (it’s never too soon!), and how late is too late? Ideally, we would all train year-round and plan for a peak in this training just a little before our climb. However, factors such as a job, family, and just plain old lack of motivation can make training and maintaining a high level of fitness year-round nearly impossible for most people. We assume that if you are reading this article you have been somewhat active and haven’t been on the couch exclusively during the past three years.

For an expedition or climbing goal that is scheduled to start in late April or early May, we would begin seriously training in December. This allows you four to five months to slowly work back into activities like weight training, but it’s not such a long period of time so that you find yourself really losing interest and getting bored with the workouts and routines. A period of four to five months allows a gradual and structured approach to the training, but it isn’t so long that most folks stall out on a plateau in their progress and/or bottom out on their strength, endurance, and interest in the program.

Training can be summarized in two categories: (1) going to the gym a lot, and (2) going climbing as much as possible. Obviously, there are a lot of subcategories or choices of activities at the gym and in the mountains, but you probably don’t care to read much beyond that simple strategy for now –leave the science to us.


Outside Activities

To put it plainly, your goal in exercising outside and on the ‘cardio’ machines should be to kick your butt – aerobically and anaerobically – for as long and as hard as you can, keeping in mind certain thresholds and your own personal safety of course. When you are first getting started, it probably won’t take much time at a high level of activity to wear you out. As you get further into your training schedule and get into better shape, these thresholds will increase, and you will be able to go farther and harder before reaching a point of exhaustion.

It’s no big secret that climbing is the best training for climbing. Once again considering reality, most of us don’t have the opportunity to get into the mountains on a regular basis as part of a training program. The next best option is to try to simulate the physical challenges that you would encounter on such an adventure. Here is a list of activities that you can do outside to save yourself from the doldrums of indoor training:

  • Hiking: Uphill, with a pack on, for a few hours at a time.
  • Hiking or Climbing in Snow: If you live near the snow, go for hikes in your mountaineering boots and snowshoes if necessary. Again uphill, preferably with at least a moderately sized pack.
  • Stairs: Run or hike them. If you can find a long set, put your pack on and do some laps. You can gradually increase laps, increase weight in the pack, and decrease your lap time.
  • Mountain Biking: Ride a bike uphill over rough terrain for a few hours at a time. This is great cardio, aerobic, and muscular training. Wear a helmet!
  • Climbing: Rock climb and do some ascents of peaks and routes appropriate for your skill and comfort level, if at all possible. Some form of climbing or mountaineering as preparation for a bigger climb is absolutely necessary and worth extra time and expense, if need be. The benefits are not only physical but mental as well. It takes most people a while to settle into the climbing mindset and to get used to the more serious environment that the mountains present. Any time that you can spend in this environment prior to your big trip will make your adjustment – once on the climb – go a lot faster.
  • Skiing: Alpine touring and backcountry skiing are great ways to get some uphill mileage and have fun while you are doing it. The climbing motion on skis fitted with climbing skins is very ergonomic and works most of the same muscles that hiking uphill does.


The following activities are good for general fitness but not recommended as stand-alone training activities:

  • Swimming: The primary benefits for climbing are aerobic and cardiovascular conditioning.
  • Road Running: Also, good benefits for aerobic and cardiovascular conditioning, but road running, unless mixed up with other exercise, produces very specialized fitness.
  • Trail Running: If you can run on trails and, most importantly add significant hills, you will achieve much relevant muscular and cardiovascular development.
  • Balancing any sort of running with other forms of muscular training is key to achieving proper muscular fitness. Over the years we have had many climbers join our basic level trips who have not trained with heavy packs or by hiking uphill; almost without exception, these folks have had a very hard time with the physical aspects of mountaineering. In some cases these climbers were world-class athletes, marathon runners, and Ironman competitors. Running of flat terrain is simply not the same as hiking or running hills.


Indoor/Gym Activities

All gym sessions should start with a warm-up of some sort to get the blood flowing, muscles loosened up, and body generally ready to go. Keep the intensity low and don’t get tired on this warm-up. Then move on to your weight training session. After the weight training, we might have you do a longer cardio session to target cardio-fitness and to move blood through your recently broken-down muscles. Stretching after a workout is always a good idea. Stretching the muscle groups that you just got done working on, and additionally, antagonist muscle groups, can help prevent soreness in the following days.

Weights and Repetitions: Climbing and mountaineering require far more endurance than they do sheer strength. As a general rule, you should use less weight and do more sets and reps than a typical weight-training program would include. Our target here is overall fitness and longevity of performance rather than sheer strength, explosive power, or building muscle mass. Being able to last under strenuous activities is best supported with complicated, long circuit exercises involving gross motor patterns.


Sample Weekly Schedule for City Folks

Monday Gym
Tuesday Gym
Wednesday Wall Climbing
Thursday Outdoors in city training
Friday Gym
Saturday Outside in the mountains training

Outside in the mountains training

Goals and Targets

You should have some concrete goals to shoot for in order to gage your progress and evaluate your physical capabilities as you get closer to the climb. I am sure at one point or another you have felt like you have been in really good shape and probably the fittest guy or gal on the block, only to be left in the dust by some unassuming passerby. Were they just really, really fit? Or were you not quite as fit as you thought? There is a lot of subjectivity in these things, and so setting some concrete goals or targets can help you accurately gage how you are progressing in your training.

Here are a few goals to shoot for – so you will not be overly surprised by other’s capabilities 😊.

  • Gain 4,000 feet of elevation in under 4 hours with a moderate pack (40lbs)
  • Gain 3,000 feet of elevation in under 4 hours with a heavier pack (50+lbs)
  • Gain 2,000 feet of elevation in under 3 hours with a very heavy pack (60lbs)
  • Increase speed and resistance on cardio machine for an hour without reaching a threshold of exhaustion. Shoot for 2,500 feet in an hour.
  • Ride your mountain bike for 2-3 hours at a time, climbing a few thousand feet of elevation in the process. Maintain a constant “all-day pace” while climbing.
  • Complete day hikes and moderate climbs that involve 8+ miles of hiking and 4,000+ feet of elevation gain.
  • Complete climbs and overnight outings with moderate to large backpacks on.
  • Mountain Running


General Six-Month Training Plan for a Major Climbing Goal in May:


  • November – December: Ease back into the gym scene and start setting the base for weight training; add cardio with trail running and mountain biking.


  • January: You should be seeing progress in regards to strength and endurance, and cardio should be coming along.


  • February: Now you are feeling good and your strength and endurance are solid. You can push on the cardio machines well and push yourself when hiking and climbing.


  • March: You should now be moving past a good level of fitness and not only feel, but also see some physical results and products of your training.


  • April: This should be the time to peak and start to taper down your weight training while maintaining a high level of cardio activity until you pack your bags and board the plane.


  • May: Reap the benefits of all of your hard training and accomplish your goal!


Quick Note on Diet

The sky is the limit on how seriously you want to take your diet. We use countless resources when we design a plan for proper nutrition and eating right for your climbing goals. Perhaps it’s good to state that to utilize a recovery/electrolyte drink and up a higher protein intake after exercise will become more prominent during the preparation. Cutting down on or at least eliminating caffeine is a good idea. I personally think the idea is to lose your tolerance or desensitization to caffeine before your trip, so that when you do partake while in the mountains, the effects are greater than they would otherwise be. You can scale it back prior to a trip and then happily jump off the wagon once in the mountains. A nice caffeinated beverage can be just the ticket for those cold alpine starts.

Just prior to heading into the mountains and in preparation for burning tons of calories with minimal intake, you might opt to build up some stores. Although tempting, don’t do this too far in advance lest you compromise your training and/or burn it off before it comes time for your trip; an unnecessary task for your body to deal with.


Results, Analysis, and Conclusion

Climbers who have gone through this planning, and training, implementation process a few times will likely have an easier go of it than people training for and hoping to tackle their first large-scale objective. We encourage everyone to keep journals and notes on things like training routines, timing, gear lists, and calendars. We have found these notes incredibly useful for planning future trips. As your experience grows but memories of details fade, it can be hard to remember when exactly you started training, what activities you did to train, and what sort of gear you took along last time. By keeping good notes and documenting all aspects of your expedition or climb, you can save yourself a lot of effort when it comes time to prepare again. If you make a calendar or schedule, save it and pull it out the next time.

This practice ties very closely into the post-trip evaluation process. After your training efforts and climbing trip have come to an end, spend a little time reflecting on how things went and on how well you think you prepared, and consider what you could have or should have done differently. After every trip we try and think, even if it’s informally, what we could have done without for gear, and what we wish we had brought along and didn’t. We consider the strategy and approach we took and review how things on the climb went compared to what we had planned for. We also consider physical condition (or lack thereof). Another benefit of doing something like this is to take an occasional walk down memory lane by looking at notes from over the years, and reliving some excellent adventures in the process.

In conclusion, we hope you join our Expedition Preparation Program and let us help you to prepare your dream expedition.


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References: We appreciate Coley Gentzel’s reflections on his preparation to expeditions, because his notes mirror well a general outline to what one should consider during an expedition preparation.

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