Q&A with Steve House and Scott Johnston, authors of Training for the New Alpinism
By Ian Ferguson
Photo by Steve House
Climbing big mountains requires a unique blend of physical attributes: the endurance of a marathon runner, the strength of a weightlifter and the precision and balance of a gymnast. While much has been studied and written about how to train for those more conventional sports, there hasn’t really been a training manual specific to the sport of alpinism – until now.
Professional climber Steve House, a native northwesterner, wasn’t able to maximize his potential as an athlete until he teamed up with Mazama resident Scott Johnston. Johnston is a lifelong athlete, climber and coach who has competed and coached at the highest levels. A mechanical engineer by training, Johnston applied his engineering mind to developing a training method for mountain climbers.
House is both the co-author of the method and proof that it works. His climbing prowess improved when he dialed in his training regimen, and his impressive accomplishments in the mountains would not have been possible without a focused approach to training.
Training for the New Alpinism does not provide a step-by-step, one-size-fits-all exercise routine for becoming a mountain-conquering hero. Instead, it provides the latest and most relevant exercise and nutrition science – backed by extensive testing and supported with anecdotes from the world’s best alpinists – to provide the aspiring climber with everything he or she needs to map out an effective training program.
Editor’s note: The following Q&A with authors Steve House and Scott Johnston was provided by PR By the Book.
What was the motivation behind
Training for the New Alpinism?
Scott: Steve and I had been kicking around the idea of putting our experiences with his training down in writing for a few years. We knew that nothing like this book existed in any language and we had gained knowledge that was unique in the climbing world. What really kicked us into action was that during Steve’s 2009 Beyond the Mountain book tour he was repeatedly asked what he did for training. His stock response became, “I could tell you, but it would take a whole book to explain it.”
How is a specific training program
beneficial for alpine climbing?
Steve and Scott: Alpine climbing is highly dependent on aerobic fitness. In our book we outline a training program that is based on general fitness moving to more climbing-specific fitness. Most climbers only train specifically by going climbing. Properly timed and executed specific training placed upon a large base of more general training will ultimately lead to the highest level of fitness.
What is the best way to balance strength and endurance for climbing?
Scott: That would depend on the type of climbing you’re training for and your personal training history. If you are very weak you will need more strength training. If you can do a one-armed pull up but get out of breath climbing the stairs then you will need to focus on aerobic endurance training.
Strength is the foundation for endurance more than endurance is the foundation for strength. So we place an emphasis on strength training in conjunction with basic aerobic conditioning as the two cornerstones of our program.
How important is nutrition to training?
Scott: Nutrition is one of the key determinants of health. Without good health, no training program can be successful. Nutrition also plays a huge role in recovering from hard physical work. We devoted an entire chapter in the book to the nutritional needs of alpinists.
What do you eat when training?
Steve: A balanced selection of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
What changes have you noticed in the alpine climbing world?
Steve: When I started climbing new routes in Alaska in 1995 we were at the beginnings of tactical changes that massively reduced the time it took to climb big routes. For example, in 2001 Rolando
Garibotti and I climbed a route called the Infinite Spur to Mt. Foraker’s summit in 25 hours (plus another 20 hours to descend to base camp). The previous fastest time was seven days. The difference was that we went really light. We didn’t bring a tent or sleeping bags, etc. We climbed until we needed a break, then stopped for 2-4 hours, hydrated, napped and then continued.
This made a lot of sense in the land of the midnight sun; but now this method has spread to big climbs throughout the world. This evolution was tactical, not physical. We were fit from climbing, but not fit compared to a world-class athlete in another sport such as running.
Future gains in speed and safety will come from applying directed training to ultra-long physical efforts. This will allow fitter climbers to climb quickly, efficiently, and as safely as possible. Ultra-runners and ski-mountaineering racers are starting to get into climbing. When truly well trained individuals – athletes who have been following intelligent training program for 10 years or more (as is common in running or cross-country skiing) – start climbing, we will see unbelievable accomplishments in the mountains.
What has been your toughest climb?
Steve: I’d say it was the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat. The climb to the ninth-highest summit on earth took eight days and we were operating on a minimum of food and sleep. Most other hard climbs we were able to go very light, and complete the climbs very quickly; you suffer much less on those climbs since the pack is lighter and you’re done in 36-48 hours. Eight days leaves a bigger mark on one’s psyche.
What were some of your favorite climbs?
Steve: I think of my climbing in terms of areas: Alaska, Canadian Rockies and the Himalaya. Each has its own highlight. In Alaska it would have been climbing the Slovak Direct in 2000 with Mark Twight and Scott Backes. In the Canadian Rockies it would be climbing the north face of North Twin in winter with Marko Prezelj. And in the Himalaya it would certainly be climbing a new route on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat with Vince Anderson in 2005.
What do you do when not climbing?
Steve: I run a guide service, Skyward Mountaineering. I write books. I ski tour in my home mountains, the San Juans. And of course I train and go climbing.
What are some of your upcoming climbs?
Steve: This year I’ll make two expeditions, to the Indian Himalaya and to Denali, both with the Alpine Mentors group.
Tell us more about Alpine Mentors.
Steve: You can hear the genesis story of Alpine Mentors in the video on our website, alpinementors.org. I run this nonprofit with my wife, Eva, and it’s 100 percent volunteer – both the organizational work as well as the mentoring. Our mission is to promote alpinism by encouraging, coaching and climbing with technically proficient young alpinists who aspire to climb the world’s great mountains in a lightweight, low-impact style.
You’ve done some work for Patagonia, designing and giving input on gear. What are some of your favorite pieces?
Steve: I’m especially proud of the R1 hoody because it has become a staple piece for climbers everywhere. I am also flattered that almost every company has attempted to copy it. To my eye, none have been able to improve upon our
Tell us where we can find your book and more information about you.
Steve: The book is available online and in Patagonia stores everywhere. My website is stevehouse.net and you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @stevehouse10. x