Alpine start training

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  • #43083

    Is there any specific training for improving your alpine start?

    More background to the question:

    I went to Rainier in 2018 as part of 2-day climb from Paradise, where we stayed at Camp Muir, woke up around midnight for the summit bid. I had a fitful sleep that night due to feeling the anxiety from not having trained enough (definitely anaerobically deficient at the time) and from the altitude. It was seemingly all fine until we roped up and started hitting the hills at moderate speed around Ingram Flats, where I couldn’t handle the pace and called it. Felt like my heart was pacing at million miles and I couldn’t catch my breath. Everything aside, I definitely felt like the midnight start took me by a surprise. Being informed that we’re starting at midnight for as part of alpine start versus practicing this for the first time at 10K in the dark definitely shook me. So my mind and body painfully dragged on the first 30 minutes of the climb, eventually overtaking the desire to summit.

    I’m definitely not a morning person and it’s such an effort to train early in the morning so I’m wary that alpine start will be my shortcoming for the future climbs. What advice would you have to better prepare for an alpine start? Both mental and physical preparations are needed so anything branching off of alpine start is greatly appreciated.

    As for training, I went even far as planning to mimic the alpine start scenario at home before another Rainier summit attempt coming in several weeks in end of July. Sleep around 3pm, wake up at midnight and start a long 12-hour training session with 40lb pack (indoors stair climbing)…Or practice this in shorter time frame, from 4am-6am with Zone 1-2 runs so it isolates the first couple of hours and the body builds familiarity to what it feels like to wake up and start hitting the hills?

    I couldn’t find any insight on this in New Alpinism book so posting this question here. I’ve purchased the 8-week mountaineering program and am currently on week 6. Thank you for any advice in advance


Posted In: Mountaineering

  • Participant
    DominicProvost on #43085

    Alpine starts and lack of sleep are just part of the inherent stress that needs to be overcome to climb mountains. I think you might be putting too much blame on the lack of sleep and not enough on the lack of fitness. Rainier is not an easy mountain. If you had been fitter the effects of the lack of sleep would’ve been the same relative hindrance but you would’ve still been able to perform at a satisfactory level to keep slogging.

    If I have to drastically shift my sleep schedule I take melatonin. It allows me to fall asleep much earlier than I usually would, thus getting enough sleep so that my day just starts super early on the alpine start. If you know in advance that you’ll need to get alpine starts (say you’ve got days scheduled on rainier), shifting your sleep schedule to going to bed super early could completely solve the issue.

    I’ve also had pushes where I’d drive from revelstoke on a friday evening, get a nap at the columbia icefields parking lot and start climbing in the middle of the night. I don’t habitually drink coffee, if I’m doing something like that I’ll have tea with my breakfast. Caffeine is an extremely effective stimulant when you’re not addicted to it. I find I can move for about 12 hours before the lack of sleep really starts catching up to me, with enough fitness for a properly planned objective it’s enough for me to be out of the way of objective hazard (I wouldn’t want to be there mid afternoon anyway) and able to catch a nap back at the parking lot or in an island of safety. I’ll usually squeeze a few minutes of shut eyes if I hit a warm spot with no overhead hazard on a summit ridge or a col or whatever, and then get a couple hours nap at the car after climbing before safely driving back into town.

    I have experience with forcing myself to stay awake through my late teens’ party years. I wouldn’t recommend skipping sleep on purpose, it’s just unhealthy. However I do think there is value in experiencing how your body responds to lack of sleep and learning how far you can push through, as well as what happens when you sit down completely exhausted and just fall asleep no matter how much you’re trying not to. With more alpine starts and long pushes you will become familiar with how your body reacts to being tired, and you will learn how to deal with it.

    I’m glad you asked the question. I’m sharing my experience and thoughts here and hoping it’ll be of use to you, but I will be really happy to read other climbers’ insights on the matter. If I can piggyback on your thread, I’d love to hear if there’s anything that can be done with regards to recovering after skipping sleep due to getting an alpine start.

    Anonymous on #43132

    I love getting up early. And I hate alpine starts.

    I suspect that evening/morning person may not matter. Getting up at a time when any person would rather sleep just feels horrible. I’m not sure training could overcome that, although as Dominic says, the fitter you are, the bigger margin you’ll have.

    In addition to melatonin, there are prescription anti-stress drugs that can help. A friend recommended one of these instead of sleeping pills because there isn’t any grogginess when you wake up. It just relaxes you enough to sleep.

    But again, fitness should be the main tool you use!

    Svn_audry on #43330

    This is really helpful. Thank you both, Dominic and Scott for valuable feedback.

    Dominic, I really took this line to heart: “Alpine starts and lack of sleep are just part of the inherent stress that needs to be overcome to climb mountains”. The fact that everyone is probably all slugging through the first part of alpine start is somehow comforting – I’ll embrace this fact at camp. The advice to start shifting sleep schedule can be applied with a low effort so I’ll plan on this- a great idea as well. Perhaps waking up 30minute earlier than everyone’s alarm will give me a head-start (sleeping at individual tents for safe social distancing!) and time to gather self a bit more than haphazardly getting ready in a crunched time.

    And to Scott’s point, no morning person may enjoy getting up at midnight to start a climb..I’ll try to mentally shift to fully embrace and welcome this part of the routine rather than build so much anxieties around it. Thank you both

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