Open main menu

Strength training and conditioning for mountain climbing

I'm training for a Rainier climb late this summer and am curious about what others find to be the best exercises for strength training and conditioning.

I know that the best way to get in shape for climbing and backpacking is to do just that, hike, climb, and so on with a heavy pack.

However, beyond that, if you had an extra 20-30 minutes at least twice a week to devote to specific strength training what would you choose to do? I've had and consulted the book Conditioning for Outdoor Fitness (published by The Mountaineers) for years, so I'm not starting from scratch.

I've got a regimen that includes: squats, lunges, abs, push-ups, calf raises, but am curious if anyone has other suggestions: plyometrics, etc... I want to make the little extra time I do have worth my while.

There are no real secrets - just get out and do it. The Mountaineers book is a good source. The main thing about Rainier is endurance and, on the mountain, acclimatization. Guide services tend to go up too fast for decent acclimatization, but being physically fit does not guarantee you will avoid AMS. If you can, get 3 or 4 days and nights at an altitude of 8-10 thousand ft with no more than a day's gap before starting the climb. That means hiking/jogging/being active at that altitude (carry a pack of the same size). A heart rate monitor can help check on your exercise level (it's easy to slack off without something to remind you.

There is a fairly good (but very technical) book by Mike Ferris, The Altitude Experience, from Falcon. Charlie Houston's Going Higher is also good.

Your big problem is going to be the altitude, not the strength, hence aerobic capacity and threshold, and mostly acclimatization. I've seen you at the OR Show Demo Days, which are held up at altitude - you have the strength, so work on the endurance side. Actually, you won't have any real problem.

Thanks, Bill. I agree that you just got to get out and do it. Since my time can be limited, I like to get the most bang for my buck, so to speak. And, I prefer doing stuff to "training" anyway.

Fortunately, I will have nearly two weeks out west (making my way from SLC to Rainier) right before the August climb, so I will have some opportunities to get altitude worked in.

Rainier will be my highest elevation yet. I think my highest previously was 12,000+.

One other thought about altitude, it has been suggested to me, by a close friend, who's also a nurse-practitioner and who suffered altitude sickness (in Nepal maybe?, can't recall), to bring along some Diamox.

Now, I have no reason to expect serious trouble with altitude. I had a bout when I drove from Kansas to Winter Park, Colo., in one day a decade ago (not a good idea), but other than that, I've only had the occasional headache, as long as I keep drinking water and take it slow. I've been above 10,000 and up to 12,000 with little effect. I also will have quite a bit of time to acclimatize beforehand.

BUT, I would hate to go do this climb and discover that at 13,500-feet everything changes for me.

So, should I get a prescription from my doctor and bring it along, just in case? I don't like to mess around and take anything unnecessary. I think that has its own set of issues.


I have never used Diamox. So I can only comment on what I have observed in others and read in Hackett's and Houston's books on climbing at altitude.

It is really best as a prophylactic rather than a cure, since it takes some time to act (talk to your doctor about this). It has some "interesting" side effects - for one thing, carbonated beverages taste flat, and, I am told, beer in particular has an "off" flavor (one person told me it tasted "metallic"). It is a diuretic, so you have to drink LOTS of water, more than you normally would. I have also been told that people often get tingly feelings in their fingers and toes.

As I have observed in others, it doesn't necessarily help. When I was assisting Ricardo, the 3 of the 6 of his clients who were using Diamox were the ones who had splitting headaches and lassitude by the time we were a bit above 16,000 ft on Orizaba. Ricardo is standing, the 3 with AMS are the three sitting on the right. You can see from the image that they were a bit out of it.

My "Primary Care Physician" (as the HMO terms the primary contact person) is very much a woodsy person, as I have mentioned on Trailspace before. He is one of the people who does not adjust well to altitude (I think the number usually quoted is 8%), though Barb and I see him and his wife out backcountry skiing from time to time. He has used Diamox and found it didn't help him much. He does frequently prescribe it for people who are headed off for skiing at Utah and Colorado resorts. He told me that he normally suggests people see what they feel like when they get to the resort, and if they are getting the mild AMS symptoms, then start the daily regimen. Then the next time to a resort, he suggests, that since they have a history, they start a day or two before hitting the slopes. The idea being, it helps some, and not others.

Well, I'm not going to use it as a prophylactic, because I have no cause to and I don't take stuff I don't need, especially when there are side effects.

It's possible I'll bring it along for "just in case," knowing it's not as effective that way, but I'm undecided. I don't want to kick myself later for not having it, but I don't have any cause to bring it either, so I wouldn't take it in advance.

I'm inclined to just forget about it, unless I have any symptoms at altitude leading up to the climb.

I too found that Diamox didn’t seem to help people suffering acute mountain sickness (AMS), or preclude the onset thereof. Wikipedia has some interesting links on this topic (ref: I seem to recall research I read ten years ago from one of the high altitude research projects suggesting prophylactic use of Diamox may acually predispose one to AMS. As Bill mentioned, Diamox acts as a diuretic. Dehydration is strongly correlated with all forms of AMS, as well as frost bite. Thus while Diamox may mediate an accute episode, its utility is only transient. Taking Diamox as a prolaxis may actually increase one’s disposition to AMS, since it’s diuretic qualities agrivate dehydration.

The best way to avoid AMS is staying well hydrated, well rested, avoiding alcholoic bevies, and restricting elevation gain to less than 2000/day. The best cure once you are stricken is descending.

One last word on AMS. You don’t even need to be very high to be stricken. I have climbed over 20K’, yet the worst case of AMS I experienced had me chucking my cookies, such was my headache, after returning from the summit of Mt San Bernadino, a peak in So Cal barely over 8K’ elevation.

As for conditioning for long uphill walks, stadium steps and stair cases work the muscles you’ll use. But it is sooo boring. I like cycling up steep hills – at least you are outside. Standing or walking around in a half squat will also provide a good conditioning. You can do squat walking while going about your day to day activities without putting asside time for it. Avoid deep squats and other exercises that articulate your weighted knees greater than 60%, as this may place unnecessary stress on the joint, and possibly cause a strain injury.

Once you are on the mountain, at elevation, strike an easy, slow pace. Newbies to elevation mistakeningly push too hard, get winded, and end up trapped in a maddening cycle, walking a short distance until winded, resting, then walking a bit more, more resting… Most find establishing a steady pace that can maintained without getting winded minimizes the suffering. I am not sure if the walk/rest vicious cycle gets you there faster than just plodding like an old man, but repeatedly winding one’s self is tormenting and makes the walk feel longer.



Thanks for all the comments, everyone. I appreciate them.

so what to do with that extra 30 minutes..? I'd say more endurance training. My best performance boost has always come from running and more running. Overall strength doesn't matter much if you can only do it for 15 minutes. You're going to be pushing for hours on end.

I never could figure out a way to train for getting up in the middle of the night for the move to the summit though.

Bill, I'm wondering if that pic you posted isn't the same place as this one of me. 1st decent stopping place above the hut.

For strength training check out Kettlebells.

so what to do with that extra 30 minutes..? I'd say more endurance training. My best performance boost has always come from running and more running. Overall strength doesn't matter much if you can only do it for 15 minutes. You're going to be pushing for hours on end.

For what it's worth, I already run 4-5 days a week, including a long run of anywhere from 8-14 miles (depending on where I am in a training program) and try to hike 1-2 times a week. So, I feel like my endurance side is fairly well covered, though I agree that doing more helps a lot and nothing replaces going out and actually doing the miles.

Since the endurance side is fairly well established — with room for tweaks and improvements depending on my current goals — I feel like I should focus on improving my strength and conditioning routine.

Thanks for all the suggestions. I will need an extra hour or two a day to try them all!

Bill, I'm wondering if that pic you posted isn't the same place as this one of me. 1st decent stopping place above the hut.

Possibly. But your photo looks like the traditional campsite at 16,000 ft. My photo was just above that, and about 500-600 ft below our turnaround. Just above the campsite, the slope is pretty continuous and smooth to the rim of the crater.

Depending on your level of fitness, has a lot of sport specific workouts for mountaineers and climbers, however they can be pretty long in duration and the daily workouts are no longer free. He does post some free workouts for people to check out.

If I only had an extra 30 minutes a day to workout, I'd probably go with workout of the day. Again, depending on your level of fitness and experience, there can be a steep learning curve at first, but the benefits are worth it, IMO.

Thanks, rwd. I'll check those out too.

Many great suggestions. Consider pull-ups as well. I am not a fan of gyms unless they are set up outdoors on a trail, but I've found hammer throws to help with arm strength for pushing up the trail with trekking poles (simulates the motion).

Also, if you are in Californina before your trip (you mentioned going out West), then I'd suggest looking up CVAC Systems. I am a part time independent sales rep for them (but to physicians mostly-it's an upstart company), so keep that in mind for fair and balanced info. There are a few systems scattered throughout California (including my hometown of Temecula at the home office). The process is Cyclical Variations in Altitude Conditioning. I can tell you more through email if you're interested (don't want this to seem "commercial"). The process quickly conditions your body to acclimate to high altitudes. Let me know if you're interested. I can send you the link to the website and other related links if you want via email.

There is a workout regimen at that I've found to be helpful. I've been applying the concepts of this workout and have gotten good results.

Everyone is right about the elevation. I don't know what you are at right now. But I took Acetazolamide with me (my first question to the doctor was, "does viagra really help you with elevation sickness?- His response, after a dumbfounded look was, "Is this code for a problem we need to discuss? To which I replied, "no I mean that literally!", "Yes, but there is something with less, um, Side Effects"). I only live at about 660 ft. above sea level, and we only had 10 days total to be up and back. I took the pill starting at base camp. Its only side affect was frequent urination (for me) It beat the terrible headaches and nausea s?ome of my crew experienced (they were flatlanders from Texas). So, I wouldn't just say, "its not for me" because it would be if it meant making your summit bid or staying in the tent vomiting (one of our team). Trust me. Also, anything that pushes your cardio to over your 80 % max really does help. Even if you are running like that. You will do great, but the whole blood ox. thing is the kicker. Also. I have hiked all my life with really heavy packs and never had a problem, but plunging down onto your knees for mile after mile on the way back down on the slushy glacier- while plunge stepping, really pains your knees. Any plyametrics that can prep you for this like jumping onto and off of a thigh high box, then going into a squat position might help the knee joint for this movement.

Basic weight lifting functions to enervate the muscles you will be interested in. Unless you know how, best to spend a few hours over a month to get a personal trainer involved so that you don't hurt your self (e.g., lunges and squats) and make sure that your knee never goes beyond your toe.

Generally, hiking or training with a heavier pack is not as efficient as throwing the iron around.

Associated with building muscle and the stamina that will come with building it, is probably a change in your diet to make sure you get enough nutrition to do this extra work. Drop sugar and alcohol (and if you can do it, wheat). If you are lifting weights you need to consume about 1 gram of protein for every pound you weigh - per day...over at least 6 meals. Meals should be higher in protein, medium in carbo and lower in fats. The number of calories per day you need to sustain your body weight and activity is on the internet. If your workout clothing smells of ammonia after you exercise, cut back on the protein. If you are tired all the time and have difficulty completing your exercise, increase the carbohydrates (not the fat). If you want to get serious about this it will take about 90 mins a day.

But given that you want to get up Rainier here is a pretty good recipe for something a bit bigger. Nothing wrong being fit enough to go that high either.

Here is a good plan for running if you don't now:
and for the curious

I now have Cheyne_Stokes symptoms at high altitude (you sleep for as long as you can hold your breath). Diamox before bed works fine until I get past the early acclimatization bothers. Since it is a diuretic, plan on nightly excursions. A pee bottle takes care of the necessary.

Your physician and a pharmacist should be able to make out a several day prescription for you with little hassel. You should research the net and get the diagnosis and the suggested dosage. They will need that to get what you need. It is a drug used for epilepsy. If you have that, then you don't want to be double dosing.

Most people on Rainier live within a few feet of sea level. Most don't get sick. Everybody has some symptoms. Most forget about it when they are not breathing hard. Being fit will not help at all with altitude adjustments. But it will make you feel better at the end of the day.

@Alicia: Chop firewood with a pack on; hit the stairs/stairmachine with a pack on; jumping jacks and box jumps with a pack on. Just do more stuff with a pack on your back, especially dynamic, whole-body movements. These things can be completed very quickly, provided you always have a pack ready to go...

Thanks for all the advice. I'm sure it will be of interest to many others too.

I've been focused on strength and endurance and have been loading up the pack more and more. Since my base weight with a toddler was already 36 pounds (her and the carrier), that hasn't been as hard as it might have been. I'm supposed to get up to 50 pounds or so before the climb, but am already into the 40s.

I'm doing even more squats, lunges, planks, push-ups, abs, etc... and upping my hiking and running mileage (I've been running since high school, so that's nothing new) even more too. I have a number of bigger hikes and backpacks prepared leading up to my mid-August climb.

I do think I'll get a Diamox prescription from my doctor and bring it along, just in case. I'm spending more than two weeks leading up to the trip initially in Utah and then in Montana where I'll be at higher elevations than usual, so that will help too.


Yeah, bring the Diamox. I've had great luck with it. Take it if you feel like you have AMS not brought on by dehydration, etc. Take half a tab to start with (not sure what your pills look like).

Also, you might take some Diamox prior to your trip just "for fun" (ha ha) to see if you handle it ok. Hate to find out up high on a mountain that for some reason you don't tolerate it.

My bet is you'll be ok. I kinda got better at altitude when I got a bit older (smarter about things, more likely, but, age seems to be a factor too).

Not sayin' you're old (!) though.

Pack as light as possible. Hopefully your legs are ready for the abuse, sounds like you'll be fine.

Maybe get up to 11k in Utah when you're here. Head up to Alta, hike Catherine's Pass, up to Sunset, or, go up through Albion basin, up to Sugarloaf, cross the summit crest of Devil's Castle, then back down (easy 5th mostly 4th class exposed for a short bit. Early start, its t-shower time.

Cheers, and, hope to see you at the show 'round beer thirty...

Thanks, Brian. The funny thing is after all of this talk, I don't even have any Diamox yet: my doctor never returned my calls on the subject, and I haven't heard back about a prescription (yet) from my ER/outdoor doctor friends who were looking into it (though I'm sure they will let me know as soon as I get on a plane tomorrow).

Maybe I'll see how things go in Grand Teton and beyond on my way upward, but I'm not worried either (maybe I should be more concerned, but I'm not). I will have some opportunities to go higher in the two weeks prior to my trip, so I'll have some inkling.

Thanks for all the advice. I'd go do Rainier tomorrow if I could.

Maybe I'll get to see you next week in SLC. I'll trade you a free beer for some Diamox!

Maybe I'll get to see you next week in SLC. I'll trade you a free beer for some Diamox!


Got a few extra tab's kickin' around. I'll toss a few in my show pack for ya. Couple three four oughta do the trick.

I'll be at the usual spot: climbing area. I think we're tryin' to dodge the t-showers tomorrow night somewhere for some craggin'. Location TBD, but, maybe up high to beat the heat. Rumor has the LCC road under some construction starting tomorrow (one lane traffic, ugh).


-Brian in SLC

Thanks, Brian!

Sorry, this is a late reply ... but I was just going to comment, one thing I've found to help with altitude is to do lots of intense cardio on an ongoing basis. For example I'd do HIIT training on the elliptical trainer at the gym ... and find subsequent hikes at elevation to impact me less than at times when I hadn't been doing the cardio.

Most of my "elevation" hiking is from about 7-10K feet, occasionally to 11, 12, or much less frequently 14K ... so YMMV...

So how'd the climb go? I hope congrats are in order...?

Yes, I did it! Thanks for asking.

It was a lot of fun and I would happily have gone back and done it again the very next day.

I felt absolutely great the whole time, not even a headache. It was fantastic!

(A trip report is long overdue, but here are some pictures in the meantime.)

After all the discussion about altitude and acetazolamide (aka Diamox), did you end up using it at all?

Congrats Alicia!

After all the discussion about altitude and acetazolamide (aka Diamox), did you end up using it at all?

Nope, not even an aspirin. I didn't have a headache or anything. I felt great.

Congrats Alicia!


Wow - congrats! Nice work, and happy to hear it went so well.

Wow - congrats! Nice work, and happy to hear it went so well.

Thanks, Bill!

Alicia - quite few responses, so I will stick to what worked for me to fill in the extra 30 minutes+ a day after work in preparation for a first time, Mt Shasta climb (May w/ snow). I bought a treadmill with an incline; loaded a backpack (about 35-40lbs of weight in a bucket); and walked a brisk pace to get the cardio going and build the legs.

After three months training after work - no problems on the climb. This was primarily my preparation for a may climb as spring is a busy work time with 10to12hr days on a chair.

good luck.

oops - i see this is an old post and you made it (too many threads). Well, for others that are trying a first time climb - still useful.

oops - i see this is an old post and you made it (too many threads). Well, for others that are trying a first time climb - still useful.

Thanks for sharing anyway. I'm sure it will helpful info for someone else too.

November 28, 2020
Quick Reply

Please sign in to reply