Story by Eric Carter: Ultimate Direction Ambassador, Ski Mountaineer, Alpinist and Mountain Runner
I’ll never be a cutting edge climber or alpinist. I just don’t climb that hard. I’ll also never be a world class pure endurance athlete.
All that leaves me is to search out a niche that requires the use of my endurance on relatively easy but still technical terrain. This has lead me to the idea of “aerobic alpinism.”
I didn’t coin the term but I’ve adopted it. In really hard climbing it’s very stop and go. Even “alpine style” climbing, which is synonymous with light and fast still includes difficult climbing. You move at a high intensity and then stop to belay…warm up, cool down, repeat.
Instead, my favorite routes have a bit of running (or ski touring) to approach a technically easy alpine objective. It might require some scrambling and even the use of ice tools and crampons but very little use of a rope (with the exception of a few easy pitches or rappels). This allows the pack to stay light and comfortable for the approach. It also allows for speed on technical sections when moving un-roped. It’s minimal belaying, minimal equipment, minimal insulation but it’s easy to access the equipment and nutrition you do carry. You’re always moving; it’s aerobic alpinism.
What I’m describing captures a huge range of difficulties from simple scrambles to some of the hardest routes. This is why I think of aerobic alpinism as a climbing style rather than a difficulty classification. We have something that falls between mountain running and hard solo climbs. What exactly that is depends entirely on the athlete! Three factors contribute to an athlete’s ability to perform high-level aerobic alpinism:
- Moderate-to-high level of technical climbing skill.
- Advancements in modern climbing equipment designed specifically for fast and light travel.
- Elite fitness that results from both the increase in training for alpinism within the climbing community but also the crossover between more traditional endurance oriented communities (like mountain runners) and climbers. Being comfortable on difficult terrain makes it easier to free solo the terrain.
What might be death-defying climbing to one might seem as normal as walking on a sidewalk to another. It’s the result of many hours of exposure and practice on challenging climbs that brings a high level of skill. As climbers develop their skills they demand better equipment and we’ve seen attention turn to gear that is designed to facilitate this type of aerobic alpinism. The five essentials for today’s aerobic alpinism:
- Lightweight equipment, adaptable enough to run with (or at least move quickly) but also capable of climbing technical terrain.
- Gear that packs small enough to be carried close to the body.
- Equipment that is easily accessible and easy to take on and off.
- Easily accessible and digestible nutrition and hydration that won’t freeze or puncture.
- Lightweight, breathable, and flexible clothing to layer and retain warmth when you slow down.
It’s not enough to be able to climb technically well but it’s also critical to have the fitness to move fast on the approach and throughout the climb. In the past, a common attitude was that one could “climb into shape” and that training was unnecessary but modern alpinists have shown that the best train like Olympians and the benefits pay off.
Because classifying climbing difficulty is a challenge it’s impossible to give a perfect example of what is aerobic alpinism but following list provides close examples:
- Nick Elson’s speed record on the Grand Traverse was a spectacular display of fitness and technical skill. Nick climbed 10 summits in the Tetons and covered 12,444 ft of elevation gain (with climbing up to 5.8) in just under 18 miles and six and a half hours.
- Colin Haley’s solo of the North Buttress off Begguya (Mt. Hunter) in a record 17 hrs covered terrain up to M5 and AI4 en route to the 14,573 ft summit.
- Kilian Jornet’s “double” on Everest.
- Ueli Steck on the south face of Annapurna.
- Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell’s Fitz Traverse in Patagonia.
Call for comments:
- Did Eric leave anything out? How else might a climber or a runner hone their skills to develop aptitude for aerobic alpinism?
- With Eric’s criteria in mind, what are some of your favorite examples of notable aerobic alpinism objectives?
- Gear: is there something more you can add to Eric’s gear summary for aerobic alpine-style objectives?
I’ve certainly benefited from a better understanding of endurance physiology and training through resources such as TFTNA and your blog. I love the combination of biking, hiking, running and scrambling and lightweight gear (including my UD vest) as a quiver of tools to get into the mountains and explore farther or faster then I ever have before. I think your description of and approach to aerobic alpinism applies equally to much lower end pursuits than those elite examples. I am truly inspired by your efforts and those of your peers and happy to apply them in much more modest pursuits. I’ve covered more alpine terrain in the last couple of years than the previous 10, and been able to weave those trips into constrained family life by carving out 5 am to 10 am windows.