Training for technical climbing at altitude

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  • #6562
    Malcolm Bass

    Hi Scott and Steve,
    I very much appreciate all the superb information you share here.
    When climbing technical ground between 6 and 7 k it seems to me that my breathing is my limiting factor. I am talking about terrain that I have the skills for, and that I seem to be strong enough to climb, and that is several grades below my sea level grade. Rock, mixed, ice, it doesn’t seem to matter. What I find is that I can make each move, but if the moves don’t allow for rests I get more and more breathless, but with no discernable pump. So far all has been well, but long sequences leave me gasping uncontrollably and with darkening peripheral vision. Of course I largely accept this as part of the boundless joy of climbing at altitude, but wonder whether there is a training approach that might help? It seems to be getting worse as I get older, I am 52. I have a three guesses/questions: 1) would lots ( frequency, duration) of easy “arms” climbing help in the same way that lots of aerobic running does? I don’t do much of that as local cliffs are all perfectly formed, but very small( northern England). But I could do more at the wall. 2) do training gains from leg based endurance training carry over? it seems like they might given that it is breathing that feels like the limiter 3) this one is only tangentially related and applies to legs as well as arms: given that VO2 max declines with age would you advise a bit more training around / above the AnT for the middle aged mountaineer? ( I am quite expert at slow running and do a lot but tend to avoid higher intensity stuff unless I mistakenly run, ride, or climb with the wrong people! I am nowhere near doing 5% over AnT). Thanks for your help. Malcolm.

Posted In: Alpinism

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    Anonymous on #6563

    Thanks for contacting us. Technical climbing over 6000meters is never going to NOT leave you huffing and puffing unless you are very well acclimated. Could it be that your issue is more related to lack of acclimatization than it is to fitness?

    Your question 1)
    If you are confident that you are well acclimated to 6000+ meters and still having this problem then it is worth considering ways to improve fitness even further. Less than vertical routes require the legs to do most of the work in propelling you upward. Your legs have 2-4 times more muscle mass than your arms, they also typically contain a much higher percentage of slow twitch muscle. This means they use a lot more oxygen than the arms will AND are more easily endurance trained.

    The real issue with true quadrupedal movement like climbing steeper terrain is that; ever since our predecessors stood up, our hearts have evolved for bipedal locomotion. They are relatively smaller than quadrupedal mammals. We are starting off with an built in design limitation.

    Your question 2)
    See above but your legs are the limiter here not your arms unless you are climbing overhanging routes at 7000m.

    Your question 3)
    At 6000m you cannot get anywhere near the power level or HR of Anaerobic Threshold or maxVO2 for more than a few seconds. There is just not enough oxygen to support that power output. This is why the basic aerobic capacity, as measured by the Aerobic Threshold, is such a good predictor of high altitude performance. Read this article for more explanation:
    There will be some gains in endurance from training at around and above AnT and that may contribute a small amount to your overall performance. BUT it is the basic aerobic capacity at AeT which is the engine that is getting you up those big climbs. Maximal oxygen uptake, as measured by maxVO2, has a very poor correlation with high altitude climbing performance so don’t waste time and mental energy worrying about that nearly untrainable (at your age) quantity.

    Work on increasing your power at the Aerobic Threshold if you want to climb big mountains faster.


    Malcolm Bass on #6568

    Thanks for the very helpful reply Scott. Fascinating stuff about human hearts not being the optimal size for quadrepal locomotion.

    You may be onto something with acclimatisation. On short trips it when there is good weather at the start it is super tempting to do the minimum acclimatisation then get onto the main event whilst the weather holds. Something for me to think about.

    Sounds like a continued focus on largely aneorobic leg work is the way forward. This is welcome advice: running and walking in the hills, with friends or alone, is a great source of joy to me, as much about living well as it is about training (although it is that too). As a follow up, how does the “AeT within 10% of AnT” calculation work on HR ( without a lab)? I am guessing this is 10% of AnT HR. So someone with a AnT of 160 would want to push their AeT to 144 (within 10%, 16 beats, of AnT) before doing much AnT work?

    As to encountering overhanging ground as these altitudes: on my climbs I would regard that as a failure of my route finding skills!

    Thanks for all the advice

    Anonymous on #6569


    Note that you have what I presume to be a typo in the first sentence of the second paragraph. Anaerobic should be AEROBic.

    Thinking more about your initial question: Do you feel this out of breath with you climb hard technical pitches at lower elevation? If not then it is an acclimatization issue not fitness.

    the 10% rule: Yes 10% of AnT HR. If you don’t know AeT from a lab then you’ll have to guess or use MAF or ventilation (nose breathing or conversational pace).


    Malcolm Bass on #6593

    Yes , a typo, I meant to write AERobic.
    No , I don’t feel out of breath on hard technical pitches at low altitude, so as you suggest, maybe not enough acclimatisation.

    napreitner on #63512

    Hi Scott and Steve,

    I know this thread is quite old, but I’d be really interested in hearing your thoughts on improving arm muscle endurance in a slightly different situation. For climbers interested in improving muscle endurance for overhanging climbs at lower altitude, would it be useful to engage our arms in our aerobic training program (high volume of training below AeT)?
    Concretely, would it helps to substitute running or stair-master sessions with rowing at the gym or doing cross-country skiing?

    Or would you recommend to have focused arm endurance training rather than trying to combine leg and arm endurance training in the same sessions?

    My understanding from Training for the New Alpinism is that an important benefit of training below aerobic threshold is to improve *muscle* ability to use oxygen and fuel (improvement of capillaries, mitochondrial mass and enzymes, myoglobin) and it seems that bringing these benefits to the arms would be very useful even for single pitch climbs (and even more for long alpine routes, which is what I mostly focus on). After all, a long overhanging pitch can easily last several minutes and as you mention in the book, even an 800m runner spend a lot of time training their aerobic base even though their event can be below 2min for elite athletes.

    Thanks for your insight

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