Preparation for Mt. Elbrus Climbs
Climbing Mt. Elbrus (18,510 ft.) requires familiarity with snow and ice skills (up to 45 degree slopes), strength endurance, and strong cardiovascular conditioning. Just because you exercise regularly (four to six times per week) does not mean you have the conditioning needed to reach the summit of Mt. Elbrus, the highest peak on the European continent. Plenty of people who have the endurance to run a marathon fail to summit high-altitude peaks. Pure cardiovascular fitness is simply not enough. Summit day alone requires stamina necessary to travel sometimes 12-15 hours round-trip. You should be comfortable enough to ascend 3,000 ft of elevation on successive days carrying up to 25-30 lbs.
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 without pack weight
- Flexibility training
Most people will need to train specifically for Elbrus for at least three to four months. 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 trekking-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 program.
Hike along outdoor trails, gradually increasing your pack weight until you are comfortable carrying a 25-lb. pack. If you live where it is relatively flat, go up and down stairs or train on an inclined treadmill or Stair Master. Use whatever varied surface terrain (i.e. gravel beds, sand dunes, river banks) you have access to. A reasonable goal would be to ascend 3,000 feet carrying an average pack of 25 lbs. in a two- to three-hour period, or roughly 1,000–1,500 vertical feet per hour. A good training option for 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, start with a hike that gains up to 2,000 ft. elevation over 5–7 miles round trip, and carry a 10-lb. pack; each hike try adding two to three pounds until you are comfortable with a 30-lb. pack, then begin increasing the total elevation gain and mileage. When you can gain 3,000 ft. with a 30-lb. pack, start decreasing rest breaks and increasing speed on each conditioning workout. A month from your climb, you should be comfortable carrying 35 lbs. on your conditioners. Two training techniques that will be useful for high-altitude trekking 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 several minutes. Push as hard as you can going up, then recover coming down, and repeat for anywhere from 20–45 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 35 lbs. the entire time. If possible, participate in as many hikes at altitude as you possibly can to learn how your body reacts 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, 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 (up to 45 degree) snow and ice, and strength endurance is required in all areas of the legs and hips.
Training primarily with free weights will give you the functional, trekking-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 30–45 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.
Include spinal-loading aerobic training options three to five times a week. Appropriate options include 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. While biking, rowing, and swimming are aerobic options for the earliest stages of training, be sure as you get closer to your trip that you include activities suggested above that load the spine and legs the same way that trekking will.
When first beginning a cardiovascular training program, begin with three weekly workouts of 30 minutes of sustained activity at a moderate intensity, and build to 4–5 aerobic sessions of sustained effort for at least 45–60 minutes. Be sure to include a 5–10 minute gentle warm-up before working at your target heart rate for the day (for most workouts, choose a level of exertion that allows you to connect a few words together in a phrase, but leaves you feeling comfortably tired at the end of the workout), and cool down with 5–10 minutes of appropriate stretching of the muscles you use most in your activity, including lower back, calves, hamstrings, hips and quadriceps.
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 (35 lbs.) on the first day for at least 3,000-ft. gain, and a somewhat lighter pack (25 lbs.) for greater mileage on the second day to simulate your approach and summit days of your trip. This will not only be helpful physically, but also prepare you psychologically for the challenge of repeat high-effort days without any recovery days in between. A sample week of training a month prior to your climb might look like the chart below, 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 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.
30–45 min no pack, recovery level (<65% Max HR).
10–15 min. at the end
Hills, stairs or high incline treadmill 35–40 min, 35-lb. pack, interval level (short bursts >85% Max HR)
Full body, 12–15 reps per set, 45 min.
10–15 min. at the end
75 min. no pack, distance level (65–75% Max HR)
10–15 min. at the end
Full body, 8–10 reps per set, 45 min.
45 min. no pack, tempo level (75–85% Max HR)
10–15 min. at the end
Hike 6–8 miles, 35-lb. pack, gain 3,000 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness
Hike 8–10 miles, 25-lb. pack, gain 3,500 ft.
As needed to prevent stiffness
The expedition was thoroughly planned and it seemed as though every conceivable contingency had been identified and wired into the game plan — we were never left wondering what was going to happen next