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Training for climbing and trekking Mountain Madness

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?

  1. 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. 
  2. 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. 

How would train­ing be dif­fer­ent say, Mt Bak­er Mt Bak­er, be dif­fer­ent than train­ing from Aconcagua?

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.