In just over 5 weeks’ time I’ll be packing my bags and heading off to Nepal to attempt to summit the beautiful Ama Dablam mountain (FYI it's the pointy one to the right in the photo below with Everest in the background!). At 6,812m with some steep and technical parts this will be no easy feat and despite having been above 6,000m on a couple of mountains before I’ve been training hard this year to prepare my body and mind for the expedition. Hopefully this blog will be of interest to others thinking about attempting a similar climb or endurance challenge, particularly if trying to fit training in around a full-time job and other commitments.
I’ve split the preparation below into my three key categories: stamina, strength, and skills.
Running has been my core form of exercise over the past few months. Not only has it been brilliant at building my endurance but also strengthen my legs and core, helped in realizing what nutrition works best for me, and been a great test of mental resilience. It's also for the large part (unless you count race fees) free to do. From starting this year actually hating running my 5km commute to work, I’ve completed 3 road marathons, 1 mountain marathon (with over 2100m ascent), and a 60km hill challenge (1500m ascent)! I also entered two 100km ultra-runs this Summer, ending both after 80km for a number of reasons. Although disappointed not to finish, the main goal for entering was as training for the mountains and I’m just glad to have ended both injury-free and with some important lessons learned, particularly in regulating my energy levels and mindset over long distances. Getting outside and running in the hills also gives me a brilliant sense of freedom and movement that I don't find elsewhere.
Cycling is also great exercise for building stamina and working on those mountain legs. In July I cycled 60 miles London to Brighton and also completed the Prudential Ride London (100 miles) (in torrential rain!). With a full time job, I find cycling is something that can be fitted in around life in London quite easily with a bit of effort – from switching the tube for a cycle into work, doing some laps of Richmond Park on a Sunday morning, or making a visit out to Surrey to see friends a bit more adventurous by getting on my bike and finding a route over the hills.
I’ve been working with the awesome Lottie (Lottie’s Fitness) to build my strength, particularly for core and legs. I first met her through IGO’s morning training sessions over the summer and now train with her once a week in Battersea Park with a friend. I’ve never worked with a personal trainer before and had got into a bit of a rut doing the same things at the gym, so she’s been great at mixing up my routine using kettle bells, weighted balls, dumbbells, and a host of techniques to keep me motivated during training and push my body - I certainly feel the burn! I also much prefer working outside in the park than in a gym and having a friend there on a similar level to “compete” against for the reps works well too.
I've also been going regularly to Barry’s Bootcamp. There are a number of Barry's gyms now in London and luckily one is right by my office so I can easily fit in a session before work. The hour flies by with the intense combination of weight training, cardio and anaerobic exercise (like sprinting up inclines on the treadmill) with a very enthusiastic instructor. With the music pumping and lots of other people working out around you (usually surreptitiously glancing over to see who's higher on speed or reps!), you feel very motivated even pre-8am. It also keeps the heart rate elevated, apparently meaning you burn more calories and increase your lean body mass. I always leave sweating and feeling pushed to the limit but looking forward to the next one.
Continuing the S theme I should also mention here the importance of stretching - my legs have been so tight particularly after long runs and a couple of sessions just focused on working out my tired muscles is vital. Remember the foam roller is your friend (and also maybe a torture device at times)! I've been loving incorporating some yoga into my routine on a weekly basis recently too to aid recovery; YogaWorks does a great yin yoga class on Friday evenings focused on stretching, unwinding, and de-stressing after a long week - perfect!
I only get the standard amount of holiday from work so if I'm doing at least one big (2-4 week) expedition it doesn't leave much time left to train in the mountains themselves. However I try to escape the city and head to Wales or Scotland whenever I can for a long weekend to get out in the hills. Big days on tough terrain with poles and a heavy rucksuck are ideal training for the mountains, not only for the body but also in practicing looking after myself (i.e. drinking / eating enough, personal admin) and camping (tent routines, using stoves, packing the right kit etc). I was even lucky enough to get some winter conditions over Easter and completed a snowy Snowdon horseshoe, guiding a friend and scrambling across Crib Goch with my crampons and axe!
Being confident on rock, especially in big boots and when tired, is also going to be critical for a safe climb on Ama Dablam for the more technical sections so getting out to smaller mountains and routes when possible is key. It can be tricky getting in enough training on rock when based in London but currently can second up to around HVS and am comfortable on steep terrain following successful summits of Mount Kenya and the Matterhorn over the past year and previous multi-pitch climbing routes in Europe in my summer holidays. If you can’t escape to real rock, in London (and many big cities) we're spoilt now with the number of climbing gyms that have now cropped up, open to abilities of any level, and so I’ve been regularly bouldering at Vauxwall and lead climbing at the Westway to keep up my technique.
The 3-day Arcteryx Academy in Chamonix in July was fantastic in building and consolidating my mountain skills and I recommend it to anyone wanting to further their knowledge. I was fortunate to get on the Mountaineering 3 (advanced) course where we did a day of skills practice on the Petit Aiguille Verte with a guide and small group; from knowing what rope length to use on different ground, to coiling, creating protection, setting up belays, lowering someone, and lots of good refresher experience of leading on steep ground. The following days I did a women’s ice climbing course on the Mer du Glace and a day of lead climbing multipitch (getting further confidence on rock and setting up anchors / belays), plus meet some awesome people who equally love being in the mountains!
When I can’t be in actual mountain conditions, I’ll practice with my ropes at home (or even in my head!) – going through various scenarios. At high altitude, hypoxia (lack of oxygen) can affect reasoning so I’m aware my footwork and rope skills need to be fresh in my mind and come quick and naturally when needed, especially in an emergency situation.
Overall, it may seem a lot - making sure you're strong, building endurance, and practicing all those vital skills for the mountain, alongside work and everything else in day-to-day life. But when something is your passion it doesn't seem like such a chore to have to fit it all in.
Sacrifices of course have to be made; I've missed friends birthday parties as I've had races early the next morning, I've gone straight to a hen do exhausted from a ultra run, spent the morning of a wedding training whilst everyone else was having a boozy pre-brunch, and got used to drinking alcohol-free beer (surprisingly not bad!). But I've also been overwhelmed by the generous support I've received from my friends and family: those who I can call for a motivational chat when I'm on a low mid-race, to joining me for 7am training sessions or weekends in the hills, and the legend (you know who you are!) who got up at 5am to drive me to a race, kept me company along the last 10km of an ultra, sorts out all the best snacks (very important) and generally listens to me ramble on about kit or when I'm over-tired and need to vent! Thanks to all who've been there for me and helped me reach my interim goals this year.
As someone wise once said "fail to prepare, prepare to fail" and you want to make sure you're in the best possible shape to reach the summit. Interestingly, I had a health check last week and my resting heart rate has gone down by just over 10 beats/min this year, which is testament to how much my fitness has improved. I also feel stronger and more capable than I've ever felt before both mentally and physically so hopefully all this training is paying off. Now bring on the mighty Ama Dablam!