This isn’t a review as much as it is a retrospective of my my 8-10 months trying to follow the program as laid out in Steve House and Scott Johnston’s Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, by Patagonia Press. You can read my review of the actual book here. To call this a review of the program wouldn’t be fair. A true program review should come from someone who was able to follow and implement the training as prescribed by House and Johnston exactly. You could say I’m reviewing my interpretation and implementation of what they talk about.
Our implementation of the plan in New Alpinism (NA) is what has formed the backbone of this blog since it’s inception late in 2014. We built a training program around the book to prepare for an alpine trip into the Bugaboos, which we somewhat successfully completed in late August. Along the way we took a trip back to Mount Katahdin in Maine to get some of our alpine systems dialed in and had some success. After the year of preparing for alpine-style climbs in a decidedly non-alpine base of Halifax, Nova Scotia, I can be confident in imparting these few lessons that I want to get out of the way before I talk about the nitty-gritty of the NA framework:
- Fitness forms the base from which alpine climbs happen. Without fitness there can be little chance of alpine success. The NA book provides a solid framework in which to build fitness.
- Fitness is a necessary but not sufficient component of alpine success. Without solid and efficient climbing systems and route finding skills there can be little chance of getting to the top. However, with a strong foundation of fitness you can hang in there and make a few mistakes without the wheels falling off like we found out on our last 14 hour day Katahdin adventure. The NA book will NOT give you any of these skills. Unless you’re soloing you’re not going to run your way up the mountain. We somehow didn’t figure this out until well into the plan.
- A true alpine skill set is the meeting point between very high levels of fitness and years of experience with alpine climbing. I’ve seen it in person in the Bugs and it is beautiful to behold.
Here’s my thoughts on my experience with the program. Keep in mind most of these are my thoughts on the experience and not a direct critique of the directives of the programming. I’ll acknowledge that a lot of my failings with the program likely come from me not following the program as prescribed.
- Kept me on track. I’ve never followed a fitness plan for more than a month before this.
- Focus on data tracking appealed to the stats nerd in me
- Progressive loading pushed me further than I thought I was willing to commit, time-wise
- I was much, much fitter at the end of the program than I was at the beginning measured either anecdotally or objectively. I can say with confidence that I simply would not have been able to complete the West Ridge of Pigeon had I attempted it last year from either a fitness or skill set perspective. When I remember my first ‘alpine’ experience climbing Pamola IV on Katahdin last year, a much less serious objective, I was then at the utmost limit of my fitness, climbing skill set and logistical ability. This year on the West Ridge I was certainly pushed to the max at certain points of the day but completed the route without any problems. The main difference is that this year’s limit is much, much higher than last year’s.
- In sum, the plan did what it was supposed to do. I was fit enough at the end of the program to accomplish the goals I set out for myself. I also realized the benefits to be had in specific, directed, periodized training. This, to me, is more important than getting up single route.
- It was brutal. Committing to 20+ hours a week of training while still maintaining a normal life sucked.
- I somehow put on 25lbs during the 8-10 months. No joke, I finished 2014 at 210lbs and left for the Bugs at 235. This isn’t the plans fault at all, but still…wtf.
- I ended up not liking the data tracking sheet they provide so I switched to a very simple sheet I made in Google Sheets.
- I ended up lacking what I thought was a key fitness component, what I started calling ‘another gear.’ While I could plod along forever if I needed to as soon as I tried to speed things up my heart would redline immediately. This was particulary bad when I was trying to cross through a noted rock fall zone late in the day. I would stand there catching my breath saying to myself ‘I really need to get moving here’ but not able to move nearly as fast as was necessary.
- I didn’t prioritize recovery and paid the price with a major physical downturn in July. In reality this was the end of my training, everything after that was just getting out climbing, trying to repair the mental damage of feeling like I was falling apart. I can’t overstate how huge of an impact this had on my confidence and fitness going into the trip. Had I kept the intensity and volume at a manageable level through this period I would have ridden a high point into the trip as opposed to coming in after a month of low activity.
- The positives were very positive and the negatives were all likely due to my inexperience with training at this level. I lacked a solid analysis of what kind of fitness I needed to work on and a failed to address my actual weaknesses and focus on my strengths. Under the surface I knew I should have spent more time running in Zone 3 to build that ‘second gear’ that I lacked but I hate running so didn’t do it and paid the price.
- The time requirements were just too much. Towards the end I would cheat myself and say things like ‘recovery is important so 3 of this week’s hours will be stretching’ or whatever, just to make the time requirement.
- As mentioned above, recovery needs to be the true priority to ensure that a person doesn’t overload their system.
If I were to do this program again, and I may, I would have all of this experience to draw on to make sure that I focus the training to do exactly what I need it to do. I now know how my body reacts, how much recovery I need, how to (hopefully) manage my appetite and what weaknesses to focus on. I think I would also manage the time requirements differently. I would find higher-quality workouts that I could do to achieve the same impact in slightly less time. 20+ hour weeks might be fine for real athletes but for regular schlubs like me that have a job, partner, family, other interests, etc. it’s just not realistic. I think planning a periodization schedule that peaks around 10-12 hours a week is more realistic and would likely achieve the same results if all of that time is focused on high-quality work.
I’ll say that the benefits of having a top-notch training partner that more or less shares your values cannot be over-stated. I would be very surprised if an alternate universe Matt would have maintained the program much longer than a month if I hadn’t been able to go through it with James. Talking through all of this stuff as you go is very helpful and having someone on the same plan helped me commit. Backing out of workouts usually isn’t an option when you have someone waiting for you.
This program is for you if:
- You like numbers. Tracking numbers, building plans for numbers, checking your progress, etc. If measuring changes in average heart rate on a 5km run excites you, then this is your program
- You are motivated by objective outcomes
- You like spreadsheets
- You have lots and lots of free time
- You are good at self-motivating
- You want to get better
That’s about it. I’m 100% glad I went through the process. The lessons I’ve learned about how to train and how I respond to training will be invaluable in my climbing career going forward. I’m still working out the details of what I want to do for this upcoming year but the principles I learned here will certainly play a huge role in whatever I work towards.
I give Training for the New Alpinism 5 grizzled mountaineer’s beards out of 5.