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Experience, skills and fitness levels...

Assessing your physical fitness before a big mountaineering objective or ski trip is difficult but crucial. Here we aim to give you some levels to aim for to match your objective and current fitness levels.

Mountaineering and Ski Touring Fitness levels

Completing a challenging mountain objective requires a few key ingredients:

  1. Conditions
  2. Weather
  3. Technical ability
  4. Endurance Fitness
  5. Mental toughness

You can’t do much about the conditions and weather, but you can do a lot of preparation to improve your technical ability, endurance and mental toughness. The first thing to do is assess your current fitness level with the requirements of the climb or ski tour. Then after looking at the amount of time you’ve got before the potential trip you can start to plan your path to improved fitness and endurance.

Fitness Levels

For the following levels we are talking about cardiovascular endurance, rather than traditional weights in the gym or climbing wall sessions. These will help, but they should be viewed as an addition to your cardio training, rather than the other way around.

Obviously the following mountain fitness levels are a rough guide, and quite subjective. Pay particular attention to the weekly volume, which is normally a good indicator of your current training state. You can count any exercise where your heart rate is properly elevated, rather than a mellow walk to catch the bus. If you feel like a shower would be nice afterwards, then you’ve probably been exercising hard enough.

  • Level 1 – You undertake 1 or 2 outdoor activities a week, probably totalling 1 or 1.5 hours total. These might be walks/run/cycles or the equivalent in the gym.
  • Level 2 – Your weekly training volume is around 2 – 4 hours, including a longer session at the weekend. You’re getting out 3 times a week, and walking uphill with a rucksack on is manageable for a couple of hours and doesn’t leave you exhausted.
  • Level 3 – You are getting out every weekend and a couple of times during the week. At this level you’re a keen outdoor enthusiast, and not running/cycling/hill walking every week is frustrating. You are happy with a 6 – 7 hour hill walk with a light rucksack, a two hour run or a hilly 50miles on the bike, and this doesn’t leave you exhausted for the next week! Weekly volume around 4 – 6 hours.
  • Level 4 – You have been training regularly for several years, maybe for big objectives in the mountains or for competitive sports back home. Running a marathon in under 4 hours, or undertaking a 100mile cycle sportive would be a fun challenge. You are happy carrying a rucksack in the hills for 7 hours or more, gaining more than 1500m height gain. Weekly volume is around 6 hours plus.
  • Level 5 – You have a background in competitive sport, training 5 – 6 times a week. You already have the stamina, but train to go faster. You should make sure you have the leg and core strength to carry a medium weight rucksack over rough terrain for several hours. Mountain days with over 2000m of ascent are challenging, but don’t leave you exhausted.

One thing to bear in mind (pointed out by regular climbing guest Alastair) is that there’s nothing wrong with being fitter and stronger than your objective requires. You will go faster, enjoy it more and have more options for your ascent.

How to improve my mountain fitness before the next trip

Hopefully by reading through the fitness levels above you can get a bit of an idea about how to jump up to the next level. Here is some general advice about training for the mountains rather than a full blown training plan. There are some links to some excellent resources at the end of the article.

For an example, lets look at an ascent of the Matterhorn, taking just the last two days of a five day programme:

  • A two hour walk to the Hornli hut with a medium weight rucksack (around ten kilos)
    Four to five hours in ascent, featuring sustained scrambling with some sections of fixed rope where upper body and core strength is useful.
  • From the hut to the summit its about 1200m of height gain, at altitude.
  • Normally three – five hours in descent on the same route.
  • Because of the terrain, everyone must have enough energy and reserves to scramble and climb safely. No wobbly legs allowed!
  • Rucksack weight whilst on the climb is reasonably light, around 6 – 8 kilos.
  • After a rest at the hut, one and a half hours to the lift station.

So you can see that if your only used to doing a couple of hours of flat walking/running/cycling a week, the Matterhorn is going to be a bit of a shock (and your not going to summit). Building a training programme that gradually gets your weekly volume up to a point where you can scramble for more than eight hours takes time.

Example number 2 – The Haute Route Ski Tour, a six day programme.

  • Six days of ski touring at altitude, staying in huts.
  • The need for solid legs after the uphill – the ski down can be pretty tough on tired legs!
  • Each day involves 6 – 8 hours of ski mountaineering
  • The ascents involve some technical skinning, climbing with skis on backpack and you need enough energy to do this safely.

So you can see from both of these examples (which both sit in the middle of what you can do in the alps, not easy but definitely not too hard), that mountaineering and ski mountaineering is much more serious than going down to the gym and running on the treadmill.

1. Regular visitor Sarah just below the summit of the Matterhorn in less than ideal conditions. Sarah’s running and crossfit training gave her enough reserve to allow us to push on a little, when other groups had turned around.

2. Niall and Lee making good use of their high levels of pre-trip fitness to make an ascent of Mont Blanc from the Italian side, a route with over 3000m of ascent from the valley.

Training tips and advice for mountaineering and ski touring

With that in mind, here are a few quick tips/thoughts, with more detailed blog posts to follow in the future.

  • Train realistically. Get out in the hills with a rucksack on and walk uphill.
  • Train in bad weather. Once your out the door it won’t be as bad as it looks...
  • Enjoy your training. Do an activity that motivates you and you enjoy. It’ll make those early mornings or after work sessions easy.
  • Don’t rush it. It takes a long time to build up to a large weekly training volume, and rushing it will bring injuries, fatigue or probably both.
  • If you’ve trained hard, rest. If you haven’t then get out the door for more.
  • Train with friends or with an organised group. They will hold you to that weekend hill walk.
  • For beginners to intermediates, volume is key. Don’t worry about interval sessions or any of that stuff, just get out for slow steady walks/cycles/runs and stay out longer instead.
  • Find the time. If you make your training a higher priority then there’s always time to fit in a training session. You just might have to shift your priorities around a bit thats all. We are all busy with work commitments, families etc, but have a think about your day to day schedule and see what you can do. See this for some ideas, and google “time crunched athlete”.
  • Go to the gym if you enjoy it, but avoid them if you don’t. If you do go, make sure your not just lifting weights with your arms, get those legs and lungs working.

That’s it for the moment. More detailed articles coming soon and if you have any questions in the mean time contact us

What level of skier am I?

Trying to gauge your own ski ability is pretty tricky, and it does depend on who you compare yourself to!

We have split our ability benchmarks into five sections, and although there is some overlap you should be able to slot yourself in somewhere. The grades take into account experience as well, just because you’ve skied one powder run it doesn’t mean your ready to jump up to the next level!

Under each section there are examples of trips that might be suitable for you, but you should contact us to discuss that further.

Rest assured that we always start our off piste and ski touring trips with a warm up run, but it’s still important to try and match people to the right course and trip.

For our Vallee Blanche descents we offer a half day test ski around the Grand Montet in Chamonix so you can have a warm up and we can assess your skiing ability if your not sure wether your ready for the Vallee Blanche or not.

  • Level 1 – You can link five or six turns on red pistes, but haven’t skied any off piste or soft snow.

    If you want a dedicated lesson, then we recommend hiring an instructor, but we can guide you around the resort with some off piste tips.

  • Level 2 – You have skied “side-country – i.e. the edges of the piste, over lumps and bumps. You might have skied some soft powder on the piste. Black runs are a fun challenge.

    The Vallee Blanche in good condition or one of our easier introductory ski tours.

  • Level 3 – You have skied some longer off piste runs in soft snow. Linking more than a few turns is tricky in soft snow, but hard snow is OK. Short steep sections are challenging, maybe by some controlled slide slipping.

    You would enjoy the classic Vallee Blanche, or other classic off piste runs. A hut to hut ski tour like the Grand Paradiso could be good as well.

  • Level 4 – Bring on the powder! Long moderately steep (red to black run equivalent) powder slopes is what we’re after. Skiing through trees and general off piste obstacles is good fun. Pistes are OK, but you’d rather be off piste.

    The harder classic off piste runs in Chamonix, or the harder variants on the Vallee Blanche. The Haute route ski tour would be good fun.

  • Level 5 – Like level 4 only steeper, and more committing. Powder runs are good, but steep slopes where control and technique count is what really floats your boat, think jump turns. You are a very experienced off piste skier.

    At this level you will have a good idea of what your capable of, and after some warm up runs to assess the conditions we can try some steeper lines.

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