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Why you need to be in Better Shape Than Your Guide!
By Doug and Courtenay Schurman
There are 3 primary reasons why you will need to be in better shape than your guide to keep up:
- You will probably carry extra weight
- You lack the experience to travel efficiently on difficult terrain
- Physiological excitement from the exposure and novelty uses extra energy
When most people do their first mountaineering adventure, they choose to go with a guide service. It makes sense. The guide service takes care of a lot of the details and provides you with the expertise that would probably take a considerable amount of time to gain yourself. Guides also have a lot more resources available to them to help make the trip easier.
On a guided trip, a guide will commonly seem to travel effortlessly over the challenging terrain and make it look so easy compared to how most clients are progressing. Is it because the guide is in far better shape? Sometimes, but not always.
In order to keep up with your guides, you need to be in much better shape than they are.
To avoid extended wear and tear on their bodies, guides pare their gear down to the least amount necessary for a given trip and use everything they bring with them. They know exactly what they need under different conditions. They also typically have lighter weight gear than novice mountaineers.
Novices generally carry extra stuff, oftentimes unnecessary items, or rent equipment that may be heavier than the lightweight gear someone who climbs all the time may have. They tend to overpack, carrying superfluous things “just in case.” They also may be called on to carry additional group gear to base camp (such as ropes, tents or poles, wands, pickets, water filters, cooking supplies, even surplus food.)
When my husband and I started climbing seriously over a decade ago, we started out with the most basic gear recommended by instructors in our climbing course. At the time we didn’t pay much attention to overall weight of each item, but a few ounces here and there on everything eventually adds up to serious weight. As we continued to build our experience base, we eventually replaced everything with lighter gear based on research, performance, and personal recommendations from other mountaineers. On our initial climbs of Mt. Rainier we carried packs heavier than 50 pounds, whereas now we can do a 3-day climb with about 30-35 pounds. If you are going on a guided trip, you will need even more strength than you think you will; train to be stronger than your guides, who may be carrying lighter packs than yours.
Experience / efficiency
You can expect your guide to be much more skilled traveling over uneven terrain (rocks, ice, snow, heather, downed trees, scree slopes) than you are. While you take a step and slide backward, or stumble on rocks in your crampons, or struggle to get good purchase on an icy section of snow, your guide will be picking his way carefully and skillfully across the slope or confidently kicking steps for the rest of the group as though he was born doing it. The truth is that he’s probably been doing it for years; he knows how to do such tasks efficiently, effectively, and economically.
Novice mountaineers expend far more energy doing the very simplest things based on the fact that those skills are still foreign and involve more thinking and awkward movements to coordinate muscle with memory. With experience--getting out multiple times and putting the skills to use--you, too, will become more adept at the basics, but until then, you need to compensate by having more cardiovascular stamina, strength, and power to make your way up a mountain by sheer determination and perseverance.
The first time I climbed Rainier, I hadn’t been taught the rest step or pressure breathing, and when I heard steam engines puffing all around me at 11,500’ (others pressure breathing to facilitate oxygen exchange in the thinner air) and felt the nausea swirling in around me, I would have gladly shifted into using both energy-saving techniques, but they were not yet tools in my repertoire. Now, at first sign of a little nausea at altitude, I instinctively shift into slower, paused steps (rest step) and deeper rhythmic pressure breathing without even consciously thinking about it any more.
Psychological – exposure, conditions, adrenaline / energy
Guides are familiar with exposure and the “thrill of the climb.” What once might have been scary to them is now old hat and does not cause the same heightened awareness as before. Novices may be doing such an adventure trip as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and as such, may have no idea what it is like to be on a 30 degree (or steeper) icy slope with a gaping crevasse at the bottom, or on an exposed ridge that drops 2,000 feet in either direction. The exhilaration and thought of the unknown may use a lot more energy than that used by the more experienced climber. With any dramatic exposure or scary new task, novices shift into relying on adrenaline, and while initially they may feel a burst of pure energy, going purely on heightened adrenaline levels can leave you physically and psychologically drained, sometimes for days afterward.
One of our early alpine rock climbs was a multi-pitch running belay ridge climb on the West Ridge of Forbidden, a low to mid fifth class climb with dramatic drop-offs to either side. Not only were we new to running belays, but cleaning and collecting all that gear, and having it swing awkwardly around my body as I tried keeping pace with the other climbers, added to the dramatic exposure and relatively little sleep the night before. This all led to relying on pure adrenaline for much of the 18-hour day. It took us several full days afterward to fully recover from completely depleting the adrenal system.
Preparing for Your Next Trip
Keep these factors in mind when you are training for your next adventure. If you only train for the weight of the pack you expect on the trip on easy local terrain you will probably find the trip will be far harder than you expected. Many times it is tough to practice on the type of terrain you might encounter or be prepared for the physiological excitement that you might experience on the trip. To help offset this you can train with a heavier pack than expected (5-10 pounds more) or train for a longer time period than expected. For example, if on your first day you will be carrying a heavy pack to base camp for 5-6 hours, followed by a lighter pack summit attempt, then training to carry your heavy pack for 7-8 hours can provide that extra conditioning to offset the other factors.
If you wish to have help from a wilderness sports training expert putting all the pieces together into a suitable periodized training program for you based on your end goal, equipment availability, time allowed before your adventure, exercise history, and body’s strengths and weaknesses, please visit Body Results’ WebTraining overview to learn how we can help you.