Life’s lessons & training with Lisa Thompson
Training for climbing and trekking can sometimes seem as difficult as the expeditions and treks themselves. Find out from climbing veteran/personal trainer Lisa Thompson how she overcomes the many obstacles on the way to the top — and how she might be able to help you meet your goals.
By Sharon Birchfield
I recently had the chance to sit down Lisa Thompson, founder and owner of Alpine Athletics. Lisa has climbed six of the seven summits, including Mt Everest and is the second American woman to summit K2. She uses her firsthand experience in the mountains to create specific training plans for her clients, however you’ll see in this interview that she dives much deeper than tracking mileage and heart rates.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Where are you from? How long have you been climbing? How did you get into climbing?
I’ve lived here in Seattle since 2004, but I grew up Illinois so I didn’t get exposed to mountains until I was an adult. I first attempted Mt Rainier in 2008. It was terrifying and I was very unprepared but it gave me a glimpse of what I’m capable of. I learned a lot even though we were unsuccessful with the summit, and I was hooked! I came back the following year and was able to summit.
What has driven you to pursue climbing the world’s highest peaks?
I think what stuck with me is that it’s not just a physical pursuit. I like the idea that it’s a combination of physical and mental challenges. I like surprising people, too. Especially when they expect something different of you. Mountaineering is also humbling, because you’re not in control, the mountain is. The sooner you understand that as a climber, the easier time you’ll have.
What do you love about mountaineering?
That combination of mental and physical challenges, for sure. Beyond that, it’s the people. I have been fortunate to meet people and see places that so many others haven’t had a chance to; countries where you meet people whose lives are vastly different from mine. Our definition of happiness is usually based on possessions, while other cultures value personal connection. I try to take a little of that with me after every trip. I also value the shared passion that creates bonds amongst climbers. There is a special connection created when you leave your comfort zone together in the mountains — you create lasting friendships.
What is your favorite summit treat or trail snack?
Nut butters are my all-around go-to. They’re portable, made of whole foods and calorie dense. For big days and alpine starts I add chocolate covered espresso beans. They give you some sugar, caffeine, and fat.
What are some common setbacks or challenges people face when climbing high altitude peaks?
- Competition is the big one. It’s human nature and I still struggle with it but the more you realize that you’re not competing with the people on your team and it doesn’t matter who gets to camp first, the less distracted you’ll be by things that you can’t control. It’s important to let that go and focus on what the mountain demands from you personally.
- Self-care and staying healthy is also a big deal, a stomach bug can ruin your climb so it’s important to be meticulous about maintaining distance, washing hands, taking care of yourself, especially now.
What are some successful strategies you’ve found through your experiences that address those challenges?
Take care of yourself. It comes back to mental toughness, and letting your ego go. Maintaining strength so that you have reserves when it matters.
What are some common mistakes people make when training for mountain objectives?
The big one is that you’ve got to put in the work. It’s either going to be hard now (while you’re training), or it’s going to be hard on the mountain. Also, for some reason people don’t always equate mountaineering with endurance. There is also the mental aspect that I find people overlook. People might be fit enough, but when something unexpected happens you need the mental strength to overcome it and still be an asset to your team.
What sets you apart as a coach?
As a coach, I work with different levels of experience, circumstances, and geographic locations, and I have to be ready to work with all these different things creatively to get climbers ready for whatever their mountain goal is.
What sets me apart is that I’ve climbed these mountains, so it’s not hypothetical for me. I’ve also climbed them as a normal person, not as a guide or professional athlete; so I had to train while also balancing work and personal commitments. So I get the challenges that people face. I also think a lot of traditional trainers overlook the mental aspect of climbing. I also coach athletes to prepare tactically in addition to mentally and physically, which means knowing the mountain, the route, the gear, the specific challenges you’re likely to face.
I’m also trained as an engineer, so I’m really data-driven. All my clients use smart watches with heart rate monitors so that I can track and analyze their physical performance. The data helps me to coach each athlete individually based on their response to the stress of training.
Your website mentions the aspect of mental fitness as a key component for successful climbing. Tell me more about that. How can we train ourselves mentally for mountain objectives?
First I think it’s really overlooked in Western cultures. I believe that our minds have the potential to be so much stronger than our bodies, but we don’t value training them in the same way we do our physical bodies. So, I encourage the athletes I work with to take the time to write down why their mountain objective is important to them. For example, are you climbing in honor of someone? To prove something? Climbing is hard, and if you can go back to that thing, the thing that’s motivating you to climb, it helps you get through that difficulty. I also have people take the time to write down that they’re worried about — what gives you anxiety? What are you scared of? Next, write down a plan for how you’ll address that. For example, if you’re worried that your hands will get cold, have a plan, like extra mits or hand warmers, ready so that if it happens it’s not novel or stressful, you just grab the extra mits and keep climbing. Also, if you can safely simulate the environments that give you anxiety before you go you’ll be in better shape. That means that if you’re concerned about ladder crossings, set up an aluminum ladder in your yard and practice walking across it while wearing your boots and crampons. Then practice doing it in the dark. The more you can understand and simulate the mountain scenarios that concern you, the more prepared you’ll feel when you get to the mountain, and the more fun you’ll have.
An entire spring season has effectively been eliminated this year — on Denali, Everest, etc. What advice do you have for people whose goals have been eliminated due to quarantine?
First, be kind to yourself; give yourself a break if you’re not in as good of shape as you think you should be. It’s hard to stay motivated without a goal and we’ve all had more stress added to our lives recently. I also recommended that clients focus on building their cardiovascular base if they don’t have a goal right now This means spending lots of time running, hiking, or cycling below your aerobic threshold. Building a solid cardiovascular base as this will serve you well in the mountains. I also encourage athletes to think about those foundational things that will help you be a better climber when the mountains open up again. Now is a great time to work on skills like tying knots with mittens on, or building anchors, those foundational skills that we don’t always take the time to focus on because we’re always so focused on a specific goal.
A lot of us haven’t been able to be as active we normally are during the Stay at Home Orders the last few months. Do you have any specific advice or exercises you’d recommend for folks starting to get back outside?
I think you have to be realistic, and not be hard on yourself. Set goals that are realistic for where you’re at now and be flexible as we wait for the mountains to open again.
K2 is exponentially more difficult than Everest, but it’s funny how Everest is always the first thing people want to talk about. K2 is much more remote, your access to rescue and definitive medical care is extremely limited. It’s also relentlessly steep and full of objective hazards like rock fall and avalanches. It demands every bit of you as a mountaineer.
Do you have a favorite mountain or peak that you’ve climbed?
I still really love Mt Rainier. It was the first big mountain that I climbed, plus the fact that it’s so elusive to us as Seattleites makes it special to me.
The first step is to understand the mountain you want to climb, and it’s challenges, and measure those against yourself. You can’t let your ambition get ahead of your abilities. That’s when we get into trouble.
Mt Baker and Aconcagua are very different mountains. On Aconcagua, you’re going live in an expedition environment for several weeks and you’ll carry a heavy pack for long distances over multiple days at high altitude. You’ve got to be physically and mentally ready for that by simulating that as much as you can while training. Mt Baker is a shorter climb at lower elevation so the demands on your body aren’t as great. For each mountain you’ll need a solid cardiovascular base and mountain-specific strength. Training for endurance will be more important if you’re climbing Aconcagua than Mt Baker. Ultimately, every athlete is different and every mountain is different. It’s important that you follow a training program that is specific to you — your skills, your training environment, your personal commitments — and your mountain.
We can’t recommend working with Lisa highly enough to meet your next goals in the mountains, whatever they may be. You can find her company, Alpine Athletics, and more training information on her WEBSITE.