Preparation for Climbing Cho Oyu
During this six-week climbing adventure to the summit of Cho Oyu— one of the 8,000 m peaks and the sixth tallest mountain on earth (26,906 ft./8,201 m)— you must be comfortable carrying at least 30 lbs. for weeks on end. You will face very cold temperatures as well as extreme altitude. You will need to have solid cramponing skills, be able to rappel with a pack on, and be comfortable using ascenders on a fixed line. In addition to solid alpine living, snow, and ice climbing skills, you need significant strength endurance, high-altitude tolerance, and strong cardiovascular conditioning.
Keep in mind that just because you exercise regularly (four to six times per week) at lower elevation does not mean you have suitable conditioning needed to reach the high altitude summit of Cho Oyu. Plenty of people who have the endurance to run a marathon fail to summit high-altitude peaks. Pure cardiovascular fitness is simply not enough. You should focus on building physical conditioning at lower altitudes necessary to ascend 4,000 feet of elevation on successive days carrying 50-60 lbs. Although you will not be carrying such weight on Cho Oyu, by training your body to that high tolerance, you will have built extra reserves that will serve you very well on the mountain as you inevitably start to lose musculature and body fat from being at an extreme altitude for six weeks.
Prioritize your training efforts in the following way, assuming that you are in good health and injury-free:
- Climbing conditioning — pack-loaded uphill hiking, walking, and stair climbing.
- Strength training — for the lower body and core.
- Cardiovascular training — including both aerobic and anaerobic workouts with and without pack weight.
- Flexibility training.
Most people will need to train specifically for their climbing Cho Oyu for at least six to nine months, building up from a solid baseline of fitness. During your training, you will need to progressively ramp up your hike time, distance, and elevation gain (at roughly 10% per week) to safely and effectively build your climbing-specific conditioning. Trying to rush this will increase the risk of experiencing some sort of training injury and not being ready for your trip. Below are more details of how to incorporate these four priorities into your training program.
Hike along outdoor trails, gradually increasing your pack weight until you feel comfortable carrying a 50-60-lb. pack. If you live where it is relatively flat, go up and down stairs or train on an inclined treadmill or StairMaster. Use whatever varied surface terrain (i.e. gravel beds, sand dunes, river banks) you have access to. A reasonable goal would be to ascend 3,500 ft. carrying an average pack of 50 lbs. in a two to three-hour period, or roughly 1,500 vertical feet per hour. A good training option to simulate pack weight is to carry water in gallon containers or collapsible jugs, so you can dump water at the top as needed to lighten the load for the descent.
In early season, you should be comfortable gaining 2,000 ft. elevation over 5-7 miles round-trip, with a 30-40-lb. pack; each hike, try adding three to five pounds until you are comfortable with a 55-lb. pack, then begin increasing the total elevation gain and mileage. When you can gain 4,000 ft. while carrying a 60-lb. pack, start decreasing rest breaks and increasing speed on each conditioning workout. A month from your climb, you should be comfortable hiking on successive days with at least 60 lbs on one of those outings.
Two training techniques that will be useful for extreme altitude climbing are: 1) Interval training, 2) Back-to-back training (discussed in more detail in “Putting It All Together”). To include interval training, find a steep hill or sets of stairs that will allow you to climb steadily for one to three minutes. Push as hard as you can going up, then recover coming down, and repeat for anywhere from 20-60 minutes, depending on how close to your climb you are. Gradually add weight to your pack (no more than 10% per week) until you can carry 60 lbs. the entire time. If possible, participate in as many hikes at altitude – and in winter conditions — as you possibly can to learn how your body reacts in extreme cold and above 13,000 ft. elevation.
Be sure to include at least 5-10 minutes of targeted stretching following every workout, specifically for the hamstrings, glutes, hips, calves, forearms, lower back, and quadriceps. If you have any areas of concern early season, add emphasis to making sure you have normal range of motion about all your joints. This will become even more important as you add weight and distance to your conditioners.
Training with free weights, bands, a backpack, bodyweight exercises, or gym machines will help you build overall strength, particularly in the core (lower back and abdominals), upper back and shoulders, and legs. Developing strength in your upper back and shoulders will help you with such tasks as carrying your pack and using trekking poles effectively. The calves, hips, quads, hamstrings, and glutes are all involved in ascending and descending steep, hard-packed snow and ice slopes (up to 30 degrees), and a great degree of strength endurance is required in all areas of the legs and hips, especially during those segments when you will be carrying a pack and pulling a sled.
Training primarily with free weights will give you the functional, climbing-specific strength that will help you most in the mountains. Free weight training requires that you balance the weights as you would your own body, weighted with a pack, in three-dimensional space. When starting any strength conditioning program, complete two full-body strength workouts a week for 45-60 minutes each, focusing on compound exercises such as squats, lunges, step-ups, dips, pull-ups, rows, dead lifts, bench presses, pushups, and overhead presses.
In the beginning phase of strength conditioning, focus on building a foundation for harder workouts; to that end, keep the weight light enough to concentrate on good form and complete two sets of each exercise for 8-10 repetitions. As you continue to train, you will shift focus to building strength (generally lower reps, 5-8, with heavier weight). Four to six weeks before your climb, shift your training to focus on strength endurance (higher reps, 10-15, with light weight) to turn the newly gained strength into greater strength endurance. Each training phase should vary the weight used, repetitions completed, number of sets, and rest intervals. Regardless of training phase, always be sure you maintain proper form in order to prevent injury or strain.
When embarking on a cardiovascular training program for a climb as strenuous as an 8,000 m peak, you should already be at the point starting out where you are regularly including four to six weekly aerobic sessions of sustained effort for at least an hour each. Include spinal-loading aerobic training such as trail running, walking on an inclined treadmill, doing stair stepping or step mill training, jogging, working on an elliptical machine, walking up and down hills, or participating in step aerobic classes. Reserve one to two days per week for pack endurance training (two to six hours), one to two days per week for high intensity intervals (30-60 minutes) and the other one to two days per week for general cardiovascular fitness (60-90 minutes). Get as much experience on all sorts of varied terrain as you can, including (as strange as it sounds) walking in crampons on rocks. Be sure to include a 5-10-minute warm-up at reduced intensity before working at your target heart rate for the day, and cool down with 5-10 minutes of appropriate stretching.
Putting it all together
Roughly a month before your climb, you should be at the conditioning level where you are comfortable hiking on consecutive weekend days, what is referred to as back-to-back training. This involves hiking with your target climb pack weight (60 lbs.) on the first day for at least 3,000 ft. elevation gain, and a somewhat greater mileage, elevation gain, or both on the second day to simulate the back-to-back requirements of long days on your trip. This will not only be helpful physically, but also prepare you psychologically for the challenge of repeat high-effort days without significant recovery days in between. A sample week of training a month prior to your climb might look like the chart above, in an effort to help you build as much stamina as possible.
Be sure to include at least one recovery day per week and listen closely to your body. Take the final week to taper or gradually reduce the intensity and volume of training so that by the time you leave for your trip you are well rested and physically and psychologically up to the challenge.
You can find additional training resources at www.BodyResults.com for the following:
- Training articles
- Training books and DVDs
- Customized online mountaineering specific training
Special discounts are available for Alpine Ascents customers at the page www.BodyResults.com/aai
This training information was provided by wilderness sport conditioning experts Courtenay and Doug Schurman of BodyResults.com. They are the exclusive conditioning resource for Alpine Ascents. They oversee all client training, are co-authors of the book, “The Outdoor Athlete” (2009), and are creators of the “Train To Climb Mt. Rainier” DVD.
45 min., recovery level (<65% Max HR).
10-15 min. at the end
Hills, stairs, or high-incline treadmill, 45-60 min., 40-50-lb. pack (short bursts >85% Max HR)
Full body, 12-15 reps per set, 1 hour.
10-15 min. at the end
90 min., no pack, distance level (65-75% Max HR)
10-15 min. at the end
Full body, 8-10 reps per set, 1 hour
45-60 min., no pack, tempo level (75-85% Max HR)
10-15 min. at the end
Hike 8-10 miles, 50-60-lb. pack, gain 3,000 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness
Hike 10-12 miles, 40-lb. pack, gain 4,000 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness
All in all this was a great expedition. Both had good leadership skills. Michael and open and direct communication style, gave clear instructions and tried hard to make the group work well as a team.