The following essays are stories of some fun stuff, including extracts of monthly articles written for the Syracuse Track Club newsletter.

Mountaineering Experience-1

Many years ago, as a contributing role in the STC newsletter, I was asked to write about my Peru climbing experience. I had a difficult time with this task, wondering how to fit a mountaineering piece into a runner’s newsletter. After another adventure, this time on Denali, aka Mount McKinley, North America’s highest peak, I was still searching for an angle that will bring this experience into a relevant focus for Central New York runners. What has climbing 20,000-foot peaks got to do with running? The answer is “everything”, and at the same time, “nothing”.  Interestingly, both of these expeditions were failures from the standpoint of a summit success: with multiple human tragedies on Huascaran in Peru, and foreboding weather closing the late climbing window on Denali.

I have run all the local races: the Mountaingoat, the Boilermaker, Caz 4th of July, etc. I have run a number of marathons, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Salt Lake City. I very much enjoy running, and it continues to supplement my training regimen. Too big to be fast, I had at times, been frustrated about my inability to become more competitive than the top 10-15th percentile on my best days in my 30’s. Many years ago, however, I began to raise the stakes in another realm I enjoyed: mountain climbing.

I began hiking in the Adirondack and White Mountains as a boy, encouraged by my dad. My ambitions steadily increased as I achieved my goal of climbing all 46 New York high peaks 4,000+’. Soon, I found myself climbing in the winter, often with my dog, Yoshi. She also climbed all 46, and was my all-time favorite climbing partner, despite ACL surgery. Next, I went west, in search of loftier summits, and climbed Mount Rainier, obtaining mountaineering training in the process at a week long “expedition seminar”. I then travelled to Peru to climb in the Ishinca Valley, followed by a tragedy-marred attempt at the 22,000+-foot Huascaran. And then it was off to Denali (Mt. McKinley). Up went the ante.

Throughout all of my climbing adventures, running has always retained a key role in my life, though racing has been subverted to mountaineering, at least for a time. Three-hour plus marathons have been overshadowed by twenty-hour treks or sixteen-hour summit days. Yet, without the knowledge that this person could indeed finish a 26+ mile run in a strong manner, the confidence required to attempt these major climbs would certainly be lacking. Much of long-distance running is mindset and attitude, balanced upon a sturdy training base. In my opinion, this is even more so in mountaineering. Denali drove this lesson home, when we moved rapidly up the 20,320’ peak to 14,200’ camp, but found further progress seriously impaired by the weather. Although our team reached 17,200’, day after day passed without a weather window that would permit a safe summit bid. It requires an extreme positive mental attitude and utmost patience to preserve one’s sanity in such a situation, and I feel fortunate to have been able to lean on prior running experiences for the patience and mental stamina that saw us through those long days of waiting.

Climbing mountains and long-distance running are both aerobic sports. However, beyond this, the activities diverge greatly. Above 12,000’, it is difficult to walk fast, to say nothing of running. Above 15,000’, it is two breaths for each step. One needs to be content with a slower pace. In fact, the “rest step” climbing technique incorporates a slow, methodical plodding that allows a short rest period with each step. This is a far cry from running, where much of the gait cycle is actually spent with both feet off the ground! On the other hand, heart rates approaching 90+% of maximum can be sustained for hours during both activities, despite the differences in velocities.

Running is certainly helpful in preparing the climber for big mountain ascents. However, I have learned (perhaps the hard way), that the two most important training tactics for climbing are training with a load (backpack), as one usually is lugging 50-60 pounds of gear up these peaks, and training at altitude (if possible), or at least planning to climb slowly above 8,000’. A simple rule of thumb for avoiding altitude sickness is avoiding an increase in sleeping altitude more than 1,000’ per day, on average. You can climb as high as you like each day, but you should not sleep more than 1,000’ higher than you slept the evening before (“climb high, sleep low”). Obviously, running does not help much with either of these two principles. Slow ascents allow time for acclimatization, a process by which the body adapts to altitude via mechanisms such as increasing the proportion of blood that is red blood cells (the hematocrit), increasing the breathing (ventilation) rate and heart rate, etc. Elite runners, and bicyclists, often take advantage of these mechanisms by training at altitude, usually over 5,000’. One loses adaptations at about 1,000’ of altitude effect per day. In other words, physiologic acclimatization to 8,000’ of training lasts about eight days after return to sea level. Easy come, easy go? More next time: glacier travel (staying out of the crevasses), sprinting up 60 degrees incline at 62 degrees latitude at 16,000’, why the guides didn’t think marathoners make good mountaineers, etc.

Denali Mountaineering Experience- 2

The most commonly climbed route to the summit of Mt. McKinley is via the “West Buttress”, popularized by the famous Bradford Washburn. Of the approximately 1,200 climbers that attempted the peak during the months of May, June, and July, the year I tried, the overwhelming majority ascended via this route. Twenty miles in all, the lower half of the route follows the Kahiltna Glacier, winding upwards through abundant crevasse fields, cracks both deep and shallow, wide and narrow, and seen and unseen. Climbers are typically flown in, three at a time, in small propeller planes, landing on the glacier at 7,200 feet on the southeast fork of the Kahiltna. We began our move roped-up in groups of four during the first “night” (the sun was above the horizon twenty hours per day). This tactic was to allow travel while the snow was more consolidated and frozen, minimizing the risk of a crevasse fall during the heat of the day on the lower glacier. Between 11 am and 3 pm, the temperature on the lower glacier is easily above freezing in July, and snow bridges across crevasses can become mushy.

The mountaineering guides are keen to express their advice on training for climbs such as these. These guides often measure the success of their trips by the strength of their clients, and they are quick to measure climbers early, offering tips for the weaker climbers. One can prepare for these “big mountain” climbs in many ways, not the least of which is by climbing hills and steps with a backpack. Cross training is ideal, including cycling and running on a frequent basis, and incorporating hill training into the regimen as much as possible. For example, for Mount McKinley, a typical week late in the training schedule for me was as follows: Monday AM: three climbs of 550’ up a hill on Route 20, with a sixty pound pack (8-10% grade), PM: bike 20-30 miles “fast”; Tuesday AM: run up Pompey Center Rd. (350’ ascent), PM: Stairmaster 45-60 minutes; Wednesday AM: bike 40 miles (as many hills as possible), PM: upper body weights; Thursday AM: two or three climbs of 550’, again with a pack, PM: run or Stairmaster 45-60 minutes at easy pace; Friday AM: off, PM: climb or bike; weekends: hiking in the Adirondacks if free, or a long run with hills, and/or a long bike ride (50-60 miles) with as many hills as possible, some upper body work, and climbing with a pack. In the winter months, it was helpful to wear a pack and tow a weighted sled via snowshoes, to simulate the real situation. The idea here was to build leg and back strength, while gradually accumulating endurance while carrying a load.

Unfortunately, there is no practical way to train for altitude, unless you train at altitude. In upstate NY, this is obviously impossible. One could stop in the Pacific northwest on the way to Alaska, and spend some time on Mount Rainier, at 10,000’ at Camp Muir, for example, but this is not reasonable. Climbing slowly at the destination is usually sufficient. Our ascent up the lower Kahiltna was very slow, and allowed abundant time for acclimatization to altitude. It is said that one “camps their way up McKinley”, and this is true on the West Buttress route, as we made camps at 7,800’, 9,000’, 11,000’, and 14,200’, before starting some serious climbing up to high camp at 17,200’. We climbed steadily from base camp to 7,800’, and from camp to camp each day until 11,000’, when we began “carry days”. In other words, we would carry loads up to 14,200’, and then retreat to spend the night back at 11,000’. Here we also spent several rest and weather days. It was the same deal at 14,200’, carrying first to 17,200’, retreating to 14,200’, spending several days until well-rested, with ideal weather for a move to high camp. At 17,200, we began a long wait for good summit weather, which never came during our window of opportunity. I was on the last plane off the glacier that year.

The guides, both young and old, have a very similar viewpoint regarding what it takes to climb successfully on a trip such as this. Positive mental attitude, strength, and persistence will usually get you to the top, along with a fair amount of luck, to cover factors such as weather, avalanches, falls, and crevasse hazards. Interestingly, attitude regarding the preparation of “pure runners” is not always positive among the guides. Reasons cited include: lack of endurance (20 hour days), lack of strength (50+ pound loads), and impatience (during off days doing little or nothing, and with the often slow pace). I am sure I do not share this sentiment. Long-distance runners who train properly for these climbs are as good as anyone else, in my mind, and running as a training tool is very valuable for preparation. This assumes however, that running is used along with other means of training, especially strength activities, such as climbing with loads. In fact, I think that marathon running in particular, will provide a solid base of physical endurance, abundant patience, and a positive attitude required, to maximize the chance of reaching the summit, should everything else go well.

Dan Wnorowski, M.D.

to be continued… ADK winter climbing, Aconcagua, Argentina, Elbrus, Russia, White Mountains, NH Presidential winter traverses, the Bumps Hillclimb bike series, triathlon evolution to Ironman, cancer x2, rebirth of adventure lifestyle post-retirement.