When you consider that rock climbing evolved to enable people to train for mountaineering, it is highly ironic that there is still such a stigma attached to the idea of training specifically for the white stuff itself. The reality of course is that the new genre of desperately technical modern ice and mixed climbs require a level of gymnastic ability that would shame many 8c sport climbers. At the power end of the scale we have the 'Vail style' dry tooling routes, which represent a fusion of sport climbing with ice and mixed climbing. At the endurance end are the modern style of long, arduous face routes with repeatedly difficult climbing over many pitches. Which ever you choose, if you want to play at a higher level then it may reassure you to know that you certainly won't be the first to break the mountaineer's sweetest taboo if you decide to head for the gym.
The author illustrates the benefits of specific training for mixed climbing with a casual ascent of the M9+ classic 'Pyma' in Valsavarache, Italy. Photo: copyright David Pickford / www.davidpickford.com
To most ice/mixed climbers, the idea of training goes about as far as rock climbing in the 'off season' to keep the arms pulling, combined with the odd run or hill walk to keep those pins in trim. If nothing else, this philosophy will certainly prevent you from going back to first base by the time the fall hits again. But there is much to be achieved from taking things just a little bit further. This article will first examine some of the more advanced and specific exercises that have been used to great affect by some of the World's most accomplished ice/mixed climbers before moving on to look at some more general methodology for improving overall cardiovascular fitness. It must be stressed here that the emphasis will be on training for technical ice & mixed climbing as opposed to high altitude mountaineering.
1) Specific Strength and Endurance Training
In all skills related sports, the key aspects of technique should be incorporated into physical training regimes as much as possible. This is why gymnasts prioritise the use their apparatus for gaining strength as opposed to clocking up endless hours pumping iron. As ice/mixed climbers we have much to learn from this - so if you're going to get strong you may as well do it with tools in hand!
1a) Ice axe pull-ups
The first and most basic specific training exercise for ice/mixed climbing. Use a bar or beam and hook your axes over it (taping or padding them if necessary to avoid damage - to the beam that is!) For strength work you may wish to avoid using your leashes and perform the exercises foot free (or even with a weight belt or on 1-arm if you're up to it!) Pull-ups with arms at different heights are a useful variation to enable you to vary the loading on each arm in a manner which is very specific to climbing. For endurance work, stay leashed up and try using a foothold or bungee stirrup for assistance in order to reach the required repetition target (see guidelines below)
1b) Travelling ice axe pull-ups
A slightly more advanced version of the above exercise performed with a grip slightly wider than shoulder width. Pull-up to the centre, travel sideways to touch your chin onto one wrist, then back across to the other wrist, back to the centre and then down again.
1c) Ice axe ladder work
Even better still is to use a Bachar ladder (or equivalent overhanging wooden, metal or rope ladder) to crank-up on your tools. This incorporates the relevant synchronisation of isotonic (moving) and isometric (static) muscle contractions to mimic the neuromuscular patterns of real climbing. Try it with your feet for endurance and without them for strength. But be warned, it can be dangerous to go up high on your own strapped to a pair of ice tools; so either grab a belayer or, more practically, do 'up & downs' between two rungs. The best possible combo is to have two pull-up bars spaced apart from each other and a foothold or kick board close by for some extra help.
1d) Isometric ice axe locks
For those fierce moves that require you to hold static arm positions either to place pro or to hack out your next placement - these exercises are killer. Perform them on their own or in combination with any of the above three exercises. Use three key positions: fully locked, 90 degrees and 130-150 degrees. Experiment with 1-arm work for strength and for maximum specificity, try swinging your free axe above your head 3 or 4 times as if trying to make a placement. 2-arm work, with a possible foot for assistance is best for endurance. Contraction time guidelines are given on the table below; but be warned - any longer than 30 seconds per lock could be damaging in terms of repetitive strain to your tendons and joint capsules.
1e) Ice/mixed bouldering
Giles Cornah training for the desperate mixed routes of the western Alps on a boulder close to his home near Briancon in the heart of the Ecrins Massif. If you don't have a boulder like this nearby, be creative - many structures offer opportunities for mixed training, such as garage ceilings with wooden beams, stone walls, and climbing walls (as long as you have the owner's consent to get your axes out). Note that in the photo Giles is wearing trainers, not boots and crampons - a good way of improving tool technique and strength.
Bouldering with axes is by far the best overall exercise for developing specific strength and endurance along side the appropriate range of neuromuscular skills for ice/mixed climbing. Of course, the best thing is the real thing and if you happen to come across any thinly iced leaning boulders above a perfect snowy landing then consider that Christmas really has come early. More likely it's the middle of summer and you'll need to make do with a convenient man-made stone wall or a specially adapted woody.
With stone walls you can sometimes practice technical hooking and torquing manoeuvres with your axes between the stone work whilst balancing your crampon points on small edges. Just make sure it's OK for you to be there and, if in doubt, use blunt axes and just big boots (without crampons) to keep damage to a minimum. With regards to a woody or home training facility, 5-20 degrees overhanging is the optimum angle (subject to ability) and preferably with some sort of stone kick board for crampon work (cemented in blocks work well). For axe placements use screw-in metal 'O' rings (available from most hardware stores) or, more crudely, simply drill some pick sized slots in the plyboard. The more adventurous may even screw or bolt on some thick blocks of wood for simulated 'slam-in style' ice placements, or even a crack section for torquing. These can be easily removed when they get trashed, with minimum damage to your beloved board. Some bolt-on hold manufacturers even offer specialist ice axe placement holds which can be worth experimenting with if you can afford to do so. Whatever happens - stay off the crags. Don't be surprised if you turn up at Hueco with a set of tools and someone tries to use them on you!
Note that for all of the exercises described above it is strongly advisable either to wear a helmet and face guard, or else to remove or tape-up the hammer, adze and spikes of your axes.
2) Antagonist Upper Body Exercises for Ice / Mixed Climbing
With the exception of some of the more specific types of ice axe bouldering, none of the exercises described so far really focus on the dreaded 'jelly arm' that so often occurs when you're desperately trying to swing your axe and hack out a stubborn placement. Whereas rock climbing strength is invariably just a simple case of locking-off and pulling-up, a whole series of antagonist (or opposition) muscles are brought into play when trying to place and maintain the stability of your axes. These are primarily the deltoid (shoulder) group - for raising the axe, and then the triceps and wrist /forearm muscles to drive it home into the ice. In addition, when mixed climbing, a whole series of synergists ('supportive' muscles which help to maintain the stability of a position) are brought in to help to keep your axe in a fixed, rigid position when balancing it on precarious, marginal edge placements. So forget about being able to crank 1-arm pull-ups, if you can't even get a placement or hold it still then it could be worth checking out some of the following basic weight training exercises. Note that for Ice/mixed climbing purposes they are best performed for endurance only (with lightish weights and 30 reps+) to really get that burn going.
2a) Shoulder press
A highly specific shoulder/tricep combo, performed seated with a bar or dumbbells to the front or behind the head (close your eyes and you could be chipping away at brittle water ice!)
2b) Dumbbell side & front raises
A shoulder isolation exercise to simulate that repeated lifting of the axe. Go for a full range of motion raising the bells from thigh level right above your head. Love the pain.
2c) Dumbbell triceps extensions
A triceps isolation exercise which is effectively the same movement as placing an axe; except here the idea is to keep your upper arm fixed in the vertical position above your head and to hinge at the elbow. Cable push-downs are a useful multi-gym equivalent.
Note: for those who don't have access to weights - press-ups and parallel bar dips are an ideal alternative.
2d) Wrist curls
Performed with a dumbbell or barbell either seated with the wrist placed on the knee or kneeling with the wrist on a padded bench, Use both an under and an overhand grip for balanced development of those forearm synergists. Rock solid tool placements guaranteed!
Training Structure Guidelines
As with any type of training, choosing the correct exercises is merely the first step. It is your ability to structure the number of repetitions and sets in a way which taxes the appropriate physiological energy systems that will determine the ultimate effectiveness of your work-outs.
1) Recovery times between sets
The most important thing for strength work is to feel fresh and well recovered before attempting the next set (golden rule = aprox 1mins rest per rep performed. IE: rest for 5-6 minutes after a set of 6). The idea of 'middle distance' endurance work is to take comparatively shorter recoveries which will tax the cellular machinery involved in anaerobic respiration; for example: 3-6 mins rest for 12-30 rep/sec/move work, 6-12 mins for 30-50 rep work. Rest times between longer aerobic sets are less of an important issue and anything between 10 and 20 mins will usually suffice.
2) Number of Sessions per Week
Again this is subject to your level of fitness and experience of training, although 2-3 strength sessions a week or 3-4 endurance sessions a week is a good guideline to work from. Note that a total rest period of, say, 4-5 days or, alternatively a light 'recovery week' of very easy training is advisable every 3-6 weeks or so.
3) Leg Conditioning
As well as having lungs like balloons, for nearly all ice/mixed routes (Vail excluded) it helps to have a strong set of pins for those technical rock-overs on mixed slabs or calf-busting, never-ending ice faces. One-legged squats are a benchmark exercise so if you can't do one then work up to it progressively over time using a hand for assistance. If you can then your legs are probably strong enough anyway. Avoid sets of heavy weighted squats as these will develop unwanted leg bulk, although some endurance work with free weights or on machines can be worthwhile if your thighs are in need. Calf raises can also be useful, again if performed for endurance (50 reps+) and with weight for assistance if required.
4) Aerobic and Cardiovascular Training
Being aerobically fit makes a massive physical and psychological difference to your ice/mixed climbing. Not only will you be able to last out on longer routes but you'll feel that much more relaxed on arrival at the crag after that long slog of a walk-in. Cycling, running and fell walking junkies take note: the recommended guidelines for optimum enhancement of aerobic capacity (V02 Max) is 30-40 minutes of steady sustained effort at approximately120 bpm, 3 times per week. Needless to say, hardcore mountaineers will be able to handle more than this. Remember also that rather than sticking to the same old boring plod routine, it is worth kicking in with a few anaerobic intervals just to boost the heart rate and simulate the effect on the heart & lungs of those crux sections of the route (or the walk-in!) Recommended interval times are 3-6 bursts of 40secs-3mins of effort interspersed by rest intervals of an equal time period. The use of a heart rate monitor makes this type of training far easier, not to mention more interesting.
5) Nutrition and Hydration
Most ice climbing excursions will drain massive amounts of fluids, micronutrients and stored glycogen from the body's reserves. For prolonged training days as well as for days on the mountain it is worth getting into the habit of taking isotonic or electrolytic replacement drinks as well as energy bars or gels. With rock climbing you are more likely to get away with a quick chocolate hit but for ice days you'll need a more sustained-release form of energy from complex carbs. It is possible to get it right with normal food but the lightness, compactness and portability of most of these sports nutrition products makes them an obvious choice for the hill.
Perhaps even more so than rock climbing, ice and mixed climbing are disciplines which are critically dependant on technique and skill. The exercises described in this article will hopefully provide some off-season amusement to keep you in shape but they are no substitute for the acquisition of sharp-end mountain experience. Ice and mixed climbing are amongst the most intensive and multi-dimensional types of climbing and it will take more than just a pair of tree trunk arms to get you up and off the mountain safely: remember to have fun and play safe.
To find out more about Neil Gresham's performance coaching services and coaching holidays, visit www.climbingmasterclass.com