Mountaineering training tips from Training for the New Alpinism

By Ilan Zeimer > A lead guide at Grajales Expeditions with 50 Aconcagua summits under his belt. When he is not guiding in the Andes he is mountain biking and trail running in the hills outside Mendoza.


For years now, I have preached to each of my Aconcagua groups the need to move slow and steady in high altitude. If you overdo it you will cross the point of no return and find yourself having to go down the mountain early with altitude related complications. This has been especially true with guests that train for aerobic sports not related to mountaineering: marathon runners, triathletes, bikers, etc. Used to training hard and improving speed, the slow consistent walking required in high altitude seemed counter-intuitive and lazy. That is until the headaches, nausea and insomnia would catch up with them after pushing too hard on the first carry to Camp 1, or even on the long approach from Confluencia.

Three pillars to improve as an athlete

Ironically, after reading Scott Johnston and Steve Houses’ Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete I realized I was making the same mistake in my training as my guests were making in their acclimatization: pushing too hard too fast. Proper training, as I came to read, is based on three guiding principles: Continuity, Gradualness and Modulation. You can practice your preferred sport regularly and be in good enough shape, but if you want to evolve as an athlete you need to follow a plan that includes these three pillars.

I can think of no better example of Continuity than that of my colleague at Grajales Expeditions, Nicolás García. For years Nico was a good amateur rider on his bike 3 or 4 times a week. Then three years ago he started training formally under the tutelage of a local coach. There was off-season riding, pre-season riding and race- season riding. He was on his bike 6 even 7 days a week. When I asked Nicolas about his experience with this kind of training, I assumed he had felt a significant improvement after several months. At least that is how it is in the movies, no? Rocky has three months to stop smoking and start a proper training regime and voilá! he is ready to face Apollo Creed.

But according to Nico, it wasn’t until his second year of continuous, organized training that he really felt the difference. And now three years into it, he is consistently winning races in his category. So yes, Continuity is essential. But as Scott and Steve point out, there is no quick fix. Training takes time and patience and long term planning.

For me, it was the second guiding principle of the book that I realized I was heeding the least: Gradualness. Starting the season with a couple of weeks of easy activity before jumping head long into your sport is not what the authors consider gradual progression. To them there are four phases to a training plan, what they call periodization, that must be adhered to for the athlete to get the most out of their effort: a recovery period, a transition period, a base period and a specific training period.

Each period prepares the body for the one to follow according to the physiological changes that occur at each stage. And each has very specific parameters that need to be followed so that we don’t injure or exhaust ourselves along the way. For me it was the transition period I realized I was most consistently ignoring. Two weeks of easy activity is not, according to the book, anywhere near enough time to transition into more intense activity. We must dedicate 6 to 8 weeks to low intensity training before our bodies are ready for an increase in training load.

And when they say low intensity they mean LOW. Training intensities are divided into 5 zones all thoroughly explained in the opening chapters. For a proper transition into more intense training we need to carry out our exercise at what these authors define as Zone 1: Basic Endurance. This is easy-paced training with an HR in the range of 55–75 percent … of your maximum heart rate. This is often referred to as a “conversational pace.”

What! Two months of conversational pace running and biking. How boring! How am I ever going to get in shape like that? And here I was sounding like my athletic clients on Aconcagua; incredulous when I told them that to properly acclimatize they needed to spend the entire two weeks of the expedition walking at a snails pace. But now, after several years of following the book’s advice it is amazing what a difference periodization and gradualness really make.

Before, I would often get colds as I started my training. There were weeks of utter exhaustion or others with knee pain. That is no longer the case. These symptoms are all part of overtraining which the book covers in detail through physiological explanations and specific examples from Steve House’s own experience of climbs he failed at from incorrect preparation.

The importance of weight training

The second big take-home lesson for me from Training for the New Alpinism was the importance of weight training even for purely aerobic pursuits. Mountaineering, rock climbing, mountain biking or hill running are all perfect excuses to be in the mountains enjoying the outdoors and getting fit at the same time. The gym, for me, is the polar opposite. And something I have often avoided. You don’t have to be in the gym all year long. And the book is full of outdoor alternatives. But during the transition period and part of the base period there is no better way to get strong then doing gym style exercises.

Whether you decide to read Scott and Steve’s book or not it is essential that you are clear about your athletic goals as you plan your training program. If you are considering climbing Aconcagua it is imperative that you break down the different challenges this undertaking will require so that you can land at the Mendoza airport fully prepared for the adventure ahead.

In Aconcagua, powerful turtles do better than explosive hares

Consider the long slow hiking on uneven ground, ascending 600 meters on zigzagging trails with a 16 -22 kg pack; the stamina you’ll need for a 12 hour summit day; and the psychological rigors of tent life at high altitude, and design your training program appropriately. As intense as several 40 minute sessions on a stairmaster can be, this may not be the best use of your time when preparing for a high altitude expedition. I would highly recommend a mix of both aerobic and strength training geared more towards endurance than to speed and intensity. For Aconcagua train to be a powerful turtle, not an explosive hare.

[ Text: Ilan Zeimer / Photos: Thomas Herdieckerhoff · Pablo Betancourt]

Training for the New Alpinism is a complete guide for those looking to prepare for a mountaineering objective, like Aconcagua. If you are looking to train on your own there are even training schedules and specific training routines to get you started. If you are looking for additional information or for more personalized guidance, Scott and Steve have a Web site,, that offers informative blogs and videos, training plans available for purchase and the option for online coaching. Check it out!

8 comments on “Aconcagua, slow and steady wins the race

  1. Ilan
    Great commentary on training and techniques for climbing that all should read.
    Hope all is well with you and your family.

    • Hi Karen. Thanks for your comment. Hope you’re still getting out to the mountains and training on your bike like always. How are the huskies?

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