Measured ‘door to door,’ mountaineering expeditions range up to nine weeks in length. Often, a significant portion of time is spent in several modes of transport gaining access to remote regions (for example, Everest base camp is more than a one week walk from the nearest road).
Once on the mountain, weather, terrain, logistics and acclimatization must each be taken into consideration. Of these, it is most dangerous to ‘shortchange’ acclimatization. At extreme elevations, it’s not just about ‘ignoring’ a bad headache; rather, altitude sickness can strike swiftly and be deadly.
Moreover, scheduling extra days for acclimatization and weather delays greatly increases the chances of overall success. Three times I’ve been captive in my tent high on a mountain waiting up to eight days for storms to abate. I’ve also seen climbers, who had already invested weeks, abandon their efforts because they were ‘out of time’, only to have the weather break the next day and provide fantastic conditions for a summit push.
On some climbs, I’ve participated as a member of a commercial expedition and on others I’ve organized things on my own. In every case, I use the decision making skills I learned in the military. As a former Army Captain, I planned and executed operations and deployments, the objectives and logistics of which were far more complex and challenging than anything I’ve experienced on a mountain.
Even as a member of a commercial expedition, you should be ready to make your own decisions should the need arise. On several occasions, I’ve summited without the guide making it and I’ve also had to intervene (when invited) in the decision making process to improve our team’s chance of success. It pays to stay immersed in the details and be a contributing member of the team.
Overall, high altitude mountaineering requires the ability to plan for many scenarios, pay very strict attention to detail (as one minor missing item can cause a failure to summit or worse) and yet retain and display great of patience and flexibility as conditions change.
Finally, expeditions involve myriad personal administrative details. Organizing the continuity of a home and business, as well as travel arrangements, visas, currency exchange, immunizations, security, and maps are just a few of the considerations. I also invest time planning how I will chronicle my experience on a mountain, bringing multiple cameras and requisite communications gear and power supplies. You might be surprised that some people obtain few pictures. Even if the team plans for some of this, I try to be as self contained as possible.
I also keep my immunizations current, for the entire world – and the nurses at the OC Department of Health remarked that they had never seen anyone with as many shot records.
Both physical and mental preparation are critical components for a successful climb.
My physical objectives are to arrive at the mountain in peak condition and then stay healthy and carefully manage my energy over the time span (typically several weeks) required to complete the climb.
I have found it best to maintain a high level of year round fitness and ramp it up depending upon the anticipated difficulty of the mountain. Similarly, it’s more efficient to group several climbs over a few months, rather than ramp up each time. Accordingly, each time I took a break in my career, I would schedule two or more climbs, typically over a 4-5 month period.
The biggest portion of my physical training focused on building exceptional cardiovascular and muscular endurance under load (e.g. backpack).
My training regimen for Everest was the following.
Monday - Friday (5X per week):
--Morning - 90 minute hike with heavy backpack (65lbs) either up and down hills, or through deep sand on the beach. I’ve also found hiking along a rocky jetty noticeably helps my balance and agility.
--Evening - cardio 60 minutes. Either on a Stairmaster / Versaclimber or similar machine and/ or a sport involving sprints/ interval training (basketball).
Weightlifting 2X per week for one hour each. Medium to lighter weights with high repetition covering all major muscle groups.
Weekends – longer endurance hikes at altitude. My favorites were early Saturday hikes from downtown Palm Strings to the aerial tram station on Mt. San Jacinto. This climb took 6-7 hours and covered 11 miles while gaining 8500’ of elevation. Better still, the cable car ride down was free – as they didn’t check tickets at the top! On Sunday, I would finish the week with a 3 hour mountain bike ride along the coast.
I maintained this regimen nearly religiously for the nine months prior to my departure for Nepal. Life outside of work was reduced to one long training cycle, interspersed with meals on the go. This routine put me in very strong condition for the mountain, noticeably better than most climbers and even some guides.
DEVELOPING TECHNICAL SKILLS:
The second aspect of physical training is developing the technical skills requisite to the particular mountain. For example, although I’ve taken several courses and have done a number of climbs, I’m neither a frequent nor advanced rock climber. However, I’ll train to rock climb at a skill level at or above the level of the particular mountain that I am targeting.
When my opportunity to climb Indonesia’s Carstensz Pyramid presented itself on less than three weeks' notice I took three steps. First, I practiced knot tying and the use of climbing gear (protection) daily. Second, I took several hours of private instruction at a climbing gym to refresh my skills. Finally, I arranged to meet in Yosemite with one of the other climbers and practice together for two days on a big wall equivalent to what we would face in West Papua.
Undoubtedly, my military training, especially as a Ranger, was my best preparation for high altitude mountaineering both in terms of sheer mental toughness as well as understanding how people (including myself) react under extended physical and mental stress, including adverse weather, and sleep and food deprivation.
That said, since any number of things can prevent success on a climb, I’ve studied everything I reasonably could about each mountain. Further, I’ve learned the importance of recognizing and being ready for windows of opportunity. For different reasons, I’ve had to approach a couple of the expeditions with an attitude that this will be my only chance. At times, that meant taking a chance with even a low probability of success, because if you don’t go, then your chance of success is zero. Two of my experiences may illustrate this.
Nearly a decade prior to going, I had decided that I would attempt Everest at least once in my life. I didn’t know if I could do it, or even how I would afford it. I just knew that I had to try. Learning that the historic success rate on Everest was roughly one in six for all climbers and roughly one in fourteen for first timers was sobering. Even so, I believed in keeping my goals in front of me. So, I purchased a personalized license plate “29,035FT” (Everest’s altitude) as a not so subtle reminder to myself. I also kept a map of the mountain near the front door of my house.
With Carstensz Pyramid, there had not been a successful legal expedition in years. I had been a member of an expedition that was cancelled at the last moment in 2002 after the Bali bombings.
Nevertheless, I didn’t forget Carstensz. I made it a point to continue gathering information. For example, if I met anyone who had been to the region I would get copies of any maps they had and the names of anyone who had assisted in their travels. I also made sure I was on the list for all of the outfitters that had historically taken expeditions to Carstensz. Finally, I began planning to run my own expedition to the mountain. Over three years I built up a substantial file. When several key pieces of the puzzle lined up briefly in June 2003, I was on the ground in Indonesia three weeks later.