The prevailing wisdom in climbing is that to get better at climbing you just need to climb more often, on increasingly harder and more daring routes. This esoteric approach to improvement has romanticised vertical pursuits, particularly mountaineering and alpinism, to the point where improvement has often been more art than science. A fairly new perspective on mountaineering and alpinism (Mark Twight being the primary driver) has taken a different approach, and Steve House has placed himself squarely at the forefront of this movement with ‘Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete.’
This book spoke to me as a newer climber for a number of reasons. First and foremost, if the book looks and feels like a university textbook, that’s because it basically is. If ‘Mountain Climbing 101’ was on the academic calendar for your local school then this book would be first on the syllabus. Steve House uses a combination of well-researched physiological principles and anecdotal stories from some of the best alpinists in the world (Mark Twight and a particularly poignant story from Chad Kellogg written before his fatal climbing accident in Patagonia come to mind) to slowly paint a picture that alpinists have been doing it wrong this whole time. He builds a case that alpinism has ignored what the rest of the endurance-sport world has known for decades – that peak improvement and performance comes not from non-stop redlining but from slow, gradual increases in volume and difficulty.
The first third of the book sets the stage by educating the reader in how the body reacts to strength and endurance training. This physiological underpinning may be of interest to those who wished they had taken a kinesiology degree instead of rec studies. Steve House (with considerable help from his trainer and mentor Scott Johnstone) then details why this approach works, using numerous examples from the worlds of running, biking, nordic skiing and other endurance-centric sports coupled with simple examples of whole-body strength exercies.
Once the reader has an understanding of how their body works and why that’s important for the 12+hour days commonly associated with even the most rudimentary alpinism and mountaineering objectives, Steve starts to build a four-stage training guideline designed to take the reader from a more-or-less couch-prone level of fitness to completing a particular mountain objective. This, in my opinion, is the book’s best quality. My experience with training material is that it is either been too specific (e.g. the ‘12 weeks to a half marathon’ plans that detail every single minute of your life) or far too vague to be of any real value for someone like me that’s not an ultra-dedicated recreational athlete. House provides just enough week-by-week advice that I was able to build a ~40 week training plan for an upcoming trip to Mount Washington to try and tackle Huntington Ravine. Although it took some advanced Google-ing to find, House even provides online document templates that you can use to create a training plan and track your progress in Excel or Google Sheets.
Here is where the book’s layout really shined. The training plan overlays the meat of the book well enough that I found myself constantly referring back to it to check on my progress and update my plan. My copy of the book has the dog-eared look of a resource that’s actually been resourceful. I’ve seen my fitness and rock climbing improve steadily over the first 20 or so weeks of the program. However, a major chest cold sidelined me just as the prescribed workout volumes started to get to the point where I was going to have to make some serious life concessions to keep up with. Luckily House’s approach is flexible enough that I can adjust my plan and re-enter it without feeling like I’ve fallen too far behind.
The book, however, is not without fault. The latter third of the book is comprised of a nutrition section that I feel is inadequate. It has the feeling of being tacked on and isn’t nearly as actionable as the first two thirds. Sports nutrition is a topic that is certainly complex enough to warrant one (or several) textbooks all on its own and can’t be dealt with in a chapter or two. In my opinion, the book would have been better served focusing solely on training and leaving nutrition for another effort. Lastly, the book finishes on the topic of mental training and trip planning for alpine climbing. This is a topic that I’ve never been able to get into as a reader and as such I’ll pass on making commentary on it here. House is a masterful alpine climber with lots of international experience in the greater ranges so I’m sure his advice is sound and battle-tested.
Without hyperbole I can say that this is the best written and most useful book I’ve ever purchased on the topic of training for any sport. It had the right mix of being accessible while providing a science-based approach that matched my own interests and approaches to the topic. I’ve read some criticisms of the book that say it’s offering nothing new of value to the athlete. To counter that, I’ll say that it was the first book I’ve read on the topic that inspired me to get actually off the couch, which is new enough for me.
Buy Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House and Scott Johnstone here:
Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete