Training for the New Alpinism — Book Review

Post by blogger | December 16, 2014      

I’ll confess my guilt. I was a fitness fanatic during my peak as a climber and ski alpinist. Ask anyone who knew me in those days. Sometimes I was unstoppable — that is until I crashed big and disappointingly often from over training, overuse injuries, poorly conceived workouts and bad nutrition — not to mention lame mistakes in judgment. Yes, I blundered. Looking back it was a miracle I got as strong as I did. I now know how bad that blundering was because I’ve been educated by authors Steve House and Scott Johnston as to how physical training is done RIGHT, specialized for alpinism.

At first glance, House and Johnston’s book, “Training for the New Alpinism,” appears to be a testimony to fanaticism. It’s big, obsessively detailed, and harkens to an ultimate goal of amazing human performance. Perhaps the book does support a sort of compulsive disorder (train! get stronger!), but it’s a calculated and effective fanaticism, girded by years of science and the high alpine experience of hundreds of climbers.

It is difficult to express how complete this book is. Huge, 464 pages, backstopped by complete bibliography, references and a thorough index. Front material is brief and excellent: an essay by pioneer “new alpinist” Marc Twight, “…make yourself as indestructible as possible,” along with a few pages of alpine history to presumably show we are in a new age of alpine climbing.

Then it’s into the core. Core fitness, core training philosophy — even core stories about epic success and failure in the great ranges. Fourteen chapters in all. I got a workout just paging through it.

Anyone who tracks alpine climbing knows who co-author Steve House is. In 2005 he and Vince Anderson did a stunningly fast ascent of the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat, for which they won the Piolet d’Or prize for exemplary climbing. Steve is also a skier. He’s worked as a heli guide, and ski tours out of his home in Colorado. Author Scott Johnston coaches World-Cup nordic ski racers. He climbs as well. No doubt he provides the scientific coaching wisdom that’s foundational to the scope of this book.

Inside, you'll find textbook style athletic training info interspersed with first-hand accounts of alpine heroics.  It's an armchair read as well as a how-to that'll make you stronger.

Inside, you’ll find textbook style athletic training info interspersed with first-hand accounts of alpine heroics. It’s an armchair read as well as a how-to that’ll make you stronger.

What’s amazing about this book is it’s so packed with wisdom you can read it randomly (if you want full benefit you should treat it like a textbook–one you like, anyway.) Rather than do a blow-by-blow of each chapter, here are some random snips to get you interested. Oh, and yes if you want to be a fit ski mountaineer nearly everything in this tome applies as well, perhaps with the exception of the “Specific Training by Climbing Trip” described on page 256. But then, even ski alpinists can use a break in routine.

“Scott’s Killer Core Routine” (pp195). Getting into the meat of modern training, Scott and House give you a core routine that appears as good as they come, then segue into a “General Strength Routine.” Don’t waste too much time on the 19 variations of pullups, but do get doing with that box step, mix in some specific quad strengtheners, and you’ve got a workout that’ll be plenty specific to ski alpinism.

The wall-facing squats are particularly apropos. They might look a bit weird in an airport lounge, but they’re perfect for that 5th night in your hotel room waiting for the storm to clear up. In my opinion, combine with the basic wall sit and you can prevent dreaded quad atrophy while also working on your core.

“Push your car around the laundromat parking lot” (pp232). Unclear if you do that with a full or empty gasoline tank, but it sounds like a good workout.

“Weighted Hill Climbs” (pp238). Use water, dump it out for the downhill so you don’t blow your knees. We’ve done that for dry land training. It works.

“A Conversation with Peter Habeler” (pp318). “….of course my private life was more or less shambles, I had ladies, but when they were asking, ‘Me or the mountains?’ I would say, ‘The mountains, I’m sorry.'”

“The Training Effect” (pp46). If you’re an a mature uncoached athlete you can’t get enough information about this. Gist being that if you want to get stronger and have more fun cruising around the mountains, you’re progression to fitness has to be done just right or you’re wasting your time. If there is any one key section in this bible of the bod, it’s this. Indeed, you could plan just about any exercise program specific to a sport, go by this chapter, and you’d see some success — perhaps even a personal best.

“Illness” (pp85). Attention mountain town athletes who snivel and cough all winter, this section will open your eyes and perhaps save your immune system. Basically, you can’t train (or otherwise heavily exercise) when you’re sick. Period. Doing so does you no good. It’s all lined out here with specifics.

On a somber note, while the “metaphor” of this book is indeed climbing, near the end (pp404) you’ll find an essay by the late extreme skier Andreas Fransson who died in an avalanche this past summer in South America. Fransson expounds on the “Necessity of Cycles,” and how one needs to beware of obsession, and familiarity that causes a loss of respect for the dangers you face. Perhaps this was something Andreas struggled with to the end. After all, his pace was amazing. Who knows? He’s gone now but his mentorship lives on.

I had a hard time finding any flaws in this book. Thinking about all my friends, young and old, made me wish House and Scott had done more with age issues, perhaps by dividing up some of the workouts or even de-recommending exercises that are hard on the knees and back. Likewise, so many alpine climbers train with ski touring, and with co-author Johnston actually being a ski coach, I would have thought they’d have more specific advice on how to incorporate skiing into an alpine mountaineering fitness plan. But perhaps that’s the next book, as House does do his share of skiing and obviously so does Johnston.

Another minor crit is with their coverage of injuries. Reality is any mountain sports athlete will eventually have to heal and perhaps even work around chronic health problems that don’t go away. How to do that could be a whole other book, but more about dealing with this would have been appropriate here, perhaps just some warnings about exercises that are hard on the knees and such, with work-arounds. Likewise, while perhaps the concept of “cross training” is inherent to the methods House and Johnston cover here, I would have liked more details about how useful cross training can be to prevent injuries or coddle chronic problems.

That’s enough excerpting and pontificating. Honestly, I believe any mountain sports athlete who does _any_ “training” to get stronger should own and study “Training for the New Alpinism.” Not only will you get the latest science, but you’ll also find it’s a good read. Also, lest we forget, ski mountaineering is alpinism just as much as ice and rock climbing.


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18 Responses to “Training for the New Alpinism — Book Review”

  1. Rod December 16th, 2014 9:01 am

    I came out with a different interpretation about quad training.

    Wall sits are ok, but heavy weights are needed.

  2. Lou Dawson 2 December 16th, 2014 9:47 am

    Rod, I advocate “moving” wall sits, eccentric (gradually dropping down lower and lower). Once you’re fit and injury free you can hold a backpack in your arms for added weight but initially body weight seems to work well. If you get a burn, you’re probably getting what you need unless you’re a Worldcup racer or something. Lou

  3. Matt Kinney December 16th, 2014 10:21 am

    I was loaned this book for a few weeks and it is certainly comprehensive, perhaps too much But before I even started into all the training material, I was enchanted by the incredible climbing pictures and the stores behind them. It’s bound to be the largest paperback about climbing, so it should be easy to find. I would buy it in hardback. It will take awhile to read from page 1.

  4. Charlie Hagedorn December 16th, 2014 11:11 am

    Totally agreed. Every time I open this book, I learn something new.

  5. Mike Marolt December 16th, 2014 2:06 pm

    To now, I’ve relied on the bible by Twight so if he is endorsing this, I know I have to get it and that it will be relentless. The journey always begins in a gym…..ha.

  6. Rod December 16th, 2014 2:58 pm

    Lou, you could be right.
    I ski 60 days a year resort and 40 backcountry and I feel that I need the heavy weight lifting.
    Obviously in the resort, but also when I climb long steep couloirs with skis on the pack, especially if I want to have fresh legs for the down.

    Incidentally, weight lifting helps my mountain biking

  7. Mike Marolt December 16th, 2014 3:06 pm


    I also rely on on-mountain skiing for power. Here in Aspen, hiking the Highlands Bowl and skiing it non stop is about as good of training as there is in my view for skiing peaks, and the higher the peak, the more power needed. I’ve never had any issues with ascending big peaks, but on both 8000 meter peaks I have skied, the descents were about as physically demanding as anything I have ever done. I barely got off one. My legs were just numb from making ski turns….if you could call some of them that. After that, the combination of the gym and on mountain non stops, skiing crud, bumps, has really changed my ability to enjoy the ski descents from those high peaks. I tapped into some training with Mark Twight and it really concentrated on the obvious endurance, but not so obvious power aspect to training and it made a world of difference.

  8. Mark Worley December 16th, 2014 11:04 pm

    If this is similar to the Twight book, but obviously more detailed and up-to-date, I would get it. Reading the Twight book’s adventures/ misadventures never gets old.

  9. Chet Roe December 17th, 2014 10:45 am

    A huge emphasis of the book, to my reading, was the emphasis on long, low intensity, aerobic base conditioning…..not commented on above here…

  10. See December 17th, 2014 10:51 am

    Power, endurance, lack of injuries… pick two?

  11. Clyde December 17th, 2014 11:21 am

    Of course, you could have gotten a five year head start by reading “Climbing: Training for Peak Performance 2nd ed.,,” which has nearly all the same info. Just sayin’.

  12. Patrick Hidalgo December 17th, 2014 11:37 am

    I really enjoyed this book because it was so comprehensive, easy to read, modular, and it also gave source references for further topical study. It is also applicable to mere mortals like myself who don’t get above 14k too often. Even if you weren’t into mountaineering at all, it would be a great alternative workout plan. No matter what your background is, you will learn something from this book.

    As Chet mentioned above, the low intensity aerobic training to establish/build your base is one of the major points of the book. Without a plan like this in place, I know I am guilty of trying to max out every workout which ends up being counterproductive. Their workout system will help you avoid that common pitfall. The over all focus is to help you become more efficient.

    I made an excel workbook out of their plan and when I asked the authors a few questions, they responded immediately.

  13. Ivan December 17th, 2014 5:02 pm

    I kind of liked your 30 minutes a day of high cardiovascular solution. I am pretty sure this book would be too much for most weekend warriors

  14. Kristin Ogden December 17th, 2014 9:08 pm

    I happen to love this book! My colleague Dave Simpson recommended it to me, and I was hooked at the carry gallons of water up and dump, before you go down. This book is MONEY. It seems to cover fundamentals that push any age, frankly. You can be as on point and suffer on their level, or ratchet it down and have aspirations for taking it further – they do a good job taking the fluff and ever changing nonsense out of other fitness reads and just lay it out. I loved it! But I also love to suffer.

  15. James Daniel May 30th, 2015 8:09 am

    I was given this book for my last birthday (Nov 2014). I’ve been using it for around 6 months now. I’m 55 and though I’ve been walking the hills for most of my life, I’ve only recently undertaken an “upgrade” project to get fitter for bigger things : Alps, Caucasus, Andes, Himalaya.

    I was using a generic HRM method before, based on running. Running fitness doesn’t emphasise muscle strength enough for mountaineering purposes, and it requires running (duh!), which entails impact injury risks that I just don’t need.

    There are no mountains anywhere near me, so I’m not vulnerable to the “just go out and do lots of climbing and it’ll be all right” trap. If anything, it’s the opposite: conversion to event-specific is where I have implementation problems.

    I’ve found the “by mountaineers for mountaineers” aspect of this book very reassuring. It goes into a lot of helpful detail (e.g. bikes are way more mechanically efficient than walking, so biking isn’t that applicable for us mountaineers). It even goes into different “flavours” of training programme for people who do technical climbing vs those like me who just want to plod (or charge?) up very big/high snow slopes.

    I dare say that some of the base aerobic conditioning that comes from lots of hours of low-intensity work is still to come – I’ve “only” being doing it for 6 months. I’m looking forward to what this will feel like after I’ve been doing it for 2 or 3 years.

    The explanations about how the physiology works are brilliant. Nothing you couldn’t piece together from elsewhere, but put together methodically so that the exercise recommendations all make perfect sense.

    My previous regime had no sense of building up to a specific event, in terms of changes in workload through time. That led me straight into a trap – I started out the first phase of the TNA yearly cycle at the same level of effort I had been sustaining up to that point. Since TNA’s all uphill from there in terms of workload, I soon enough reached a point where my body couldn’t cope and it was demanding way too much time as well. I had to re-calibrate after about four months. Before I start the next yearly cycle I hope I’ll be able to calibrate it better from the start, and peak at a manageable (if only just) level of workload.

    So far I’m very happy with the results. It’s a heady combination of challenging, humane and satisfying. The proof of the pudding (or at least of this year’s helping) will be this July, when I’m going up Elbrus.

  16. James November 17th, 2016 9:13 pm

    Love this book and have been using it for my training the past three months and though I’m not progressing as fast as I would like I feel very solid in the approach, and have had no injuries , which is a huge benefit. My biggest criticism on the book, but has little to do with the physical training part, is the diet he recommends is, in my view, is completely bunk. No one that wants to perform at a high level should have anything to do with this diet. The science is old, from the 70’s or perhaps the 90’s and that old school diet is for low performance in every aspect. Also the book states that supplements are a waste of money, what horse hockey, then it goes on to say how supplements were used on such and such a trip. There is some contradiction in the diet section. Anyways, yes, stay high performance and stay away from the diet recommendations. Otherwise, it’s a solid book for serious alpine climbers.

  17. Jeremy G. November 20th, 2016 9:27 am


    Just curious – what specifically are your critiques of TFTNA’s diet recommendations? It seemed fairly middle of the road to me and fairly in line with other time tested diets. A balance of carbs, fats and proteins consisting of whole grains, lots of fruits, veggies and lean meats is a recipe of success for most folks. I appreciated the discussion of the important role fat metabolism plays in endurance athletes. I also think its important to differentiate between diet at home, when you’re training, and diet while performing in the mountains, where availability, practicality and digestibility become important considerations. Just my two cents.

  18. wtofd November 21st, 2016 6:25 am

    James, I’m in the middle of transitioning to base (8 weeks of slow, low intensity workouts but with a fair amount of volume–9 workouts per week with one full rest day) and I’ve already seen a tremendous boost in energy. I’m stronger, my knee feels better, I’ve learned a lot about pacing and I’ve stopped worrying if I’m doing too much/little.
    As for the diet, I think it’s meant more as a rebuke of paleo/cross-fit/all-protein all-the-time diets and is a reminder that any sport requiring approached requires balance.
    So, what’s your dietary plan?

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