Not so long ago, winter alpine sports like ski mountaineering (SkiMo), backcountry skiing, ice climbing, and mountaineering were reserved for an elite group of highly skilled alpine guides and athletes. But as equipment, information and beginner training groups have become more accessible, these once out-of-reach sports have gained popularity—especially among the endurance crowd.
Backcountry ski touring in particular has boomed. What was once seen as a fringe sport, or an activity that fell into the “cross-training” category for more traditional endurance sports, is now quickly becoming a primary interest for athletes the world over.
The information below is meant to serve as a guide to help you treat winter alpine sports with the attention, focus, and respect they deserve so that you can experience joy and excitement that being in the mountains has to offer.
The Aerobic Component
Being fit specifically for the mountains is important, not just so you can enjoy yourself, but to stay safe. Backcountry travel often necessitates long, multi-hour approaches. If you overexert yourself, you may put yourself at risk of an injury attempting your goal. Worse, you’ll be less able to handle an emergency if you need to. In short, a lack of fitness can get you into a situation that you’re not prepared to be in, and training your aerobic capacity should be the first step in your preparedness for high mountain travel. This component of your preparation can be approached in two distinct areas: endurance and intensity.
Endurance for the Mountains
Both aerobic and muscular endurance (fatigue resistance) are the foundation of a productive winter season—and preparation for alpine sports should begin in the summer, with a foundational endurance build-up that looks very similar to more traditional disciplines.
Often, mountain athletes have a preferred summer activity, such as cycling or trail running, that they use to build this foundation. Whatever your preferred discipline, make sure to start slow and build methodically. Spend the first 8-12 weeks below your lactate threshold so that you can develop the foundational aerobic strength— this can come in the form of long steady climbs on your bike, sustained hikes, or easy runs uphill.
Ensure these types of sessions are progressive in their duration and cumulative in volume. While they might not feel as gratifying as a good HIIT session, sub-threshold efforts not only increase aerobic endurance but also help to build muscular endurance for long days in the mountains. Once you’ve put in the time building your base, you can then begin layering in some intensity.
Intensity for the Mountains
Like most things in life, a solid foundation is important. Once that’s built the rest of the preparation can be put in place. Due to the high-output nature of many mountain sports, it’s a good idea to layer in some intensity in the late summer and early fall as you finalize your preparations for winter training.
Intensity training doesn’t have to be overly complicated. Classic VO2 Max workouts, like 5-minute hill repeats or Fartlek runs can be enough to force adaptation and provide adequate training stimulus. In conjunction with your endurance work, layer in 1-2 sessions above your Threshold each week in the 6-8 weeks leading up to the start of your winter season. Keep in mind that the overall training volume at this intensity is still very low compared to your total training duration. A proper warm-up and cool-down are still important and aim for quality over quantity when it comes to interval frequency.
When we talk about strength for mountain sports, we train almost identically to most other endurance sports—but there is one significant difference: load. The most obvious culprit is the load on your back: backcountry packs are filled with safety equipment, climbing tools, gear, extra clothes for weather conditions, food, and water. Therefore, a good mountain strength program must address core stabilizers and include exercises such as weighted carries and loaded multi-joint, functional movements like squats, deadlifts, step ups and lunges.
Additionally, we may wear snowshoes, skis, heavy boots or crampons. To anticipate lower body load, incorporate specific hip flexor and core exercises into the strength training program such as body saws, knee drives, mountain climbers, step ups and hanging knee raises.
Finally, if we are climbing, we must bring our bodies up the rock, snow, or ice. We need upper body strength to reach and pull ourselves up and over steep, technical terrain. We may be placing gear, managing rope or swinging ice tools and hanging from them for periods of time. Overhead carries, presses, hangs and pull downs are a few of the upper body movements we want to train under load.
Range of motion under load is another fundamental component of strength. Without optimal mobility, we are limited in how far we can reach and step, especially with additional load from gear and increased resistance due gravity forces and terrain surface.
With that in mind, you’ll want to combine your strength training with optimal movement patterns. Be aware: if you progress to lifting a heavier load, do you compensate by decreasing range of motion? Pair in mobility without load regularly to maintain flexibility in the spine, hip, chest, and shoulders and continue to weave in load for specificity.
One of the main distinctions between high mountain activities and other endurance sports is the imperative need for education both at the onset of your exposure to the sport and on an ongoing basis. Learning about and continually studying the backcountry will help you understand the risks, so you can keep yourself and your partners safe.
Avalanche courses are generally agreed to be the appropriate starting place. Depending on where you live, and the access available to you, there are different organizations offering educational opportunities. In North America, the American Avalanche Association and The National Avalanche Center do a great job of promoting awareness and education. Research what’s offered in your area and start with the intro class before you head out for backcountry travel.
It’s a good idea to practice your skills in low-consequence environments before you head into dicier situations. Your living room or backyard is a great place to practice beacon searches, knots and anchor building, for example. Use bad weather days at home to find the right gear, clothing, and practices to stay warm and mentally alert. Once you have developed your skills under inconsequential environments, progress to those with consequence: steeper terrain, snow, and ice.
Always do your research before you head into a new zone. Google Earth, guidebooks, and mapping apps can help you understand which aspects you’ll be traveling through, and which slopes might be dangerous. Your local avalanche center is also an indispensable resource when it comes to recent conditions in the area. If your zone isn’t covered, you can use weather apps to check the real-time and recent history of conditions like wind, temperature, avalanche danger, etc. Conditions change constantly in the mountains, so don’t rely on outdated information!
Lastly, if you’re new to mountain sports, you might consider a guided trip, or enlisting the mentorship of a highly qualified and experienced friend. The penalties for first-timer mistakes can be high, so the more exposure and experience you can get under a watchful eye the better. If possible, find a zone you can travel in often, and make similar trips using similar equipment. This will let you focus on developing the critical skills and observations to keep you safe and having fun.
Fitness, strength, and awareness are the cornerstones of the high alpine athlete. Focus on building your aerobic capacity slowly while adding strength, specificity and intensity in the right doses. Keep educating yourself and make awareness a constant touchpoint. With the right progression, you can enjoy some incredible experiences and gain serious fitness in the mountains.
This article was written in collaboration with Taylor Thomas of Thomas Endurance Coaching.