Aconcagua is the second highest of the Seven Summits, and at 22,838ft it is a formidable peak: even if you choose the easiest way up the mountain, you are looking at a one way trip of ~35km / 22 miles with 4000 meters (13,120ft) of ascent. The typical climber takes about two weeks to get to the summit, allowing time to both acclimatize and wait for the somewhat elusive weather window.
OK - if you do the math it doesn't actually sound that bad, does it? Fourteen days for 22 miles and 13,000 feet elevation gain should translate to an average of just a little under 2 miles and 1,000ft of ascent each day. Of course it's not that easy: there are acclimatization days, load carries, rest days. And most of the action happens above 14,000ft ASL where the air is thin and every step is a battle.
So how do you prepare for a climb like this? Here's what I told the team as they signed on to the mission:
The better your cardio base is, the better your chances of acclimatizing and making it all the way to the summit. A huge part of the battle is mental, but you have to be working off a super strong cardio base to even be in position to fight that mental battle. What I mean by that: being in marathon shape is a great benchmark; short of actually running a marathon, you ought to be able to knock out a twenty mile run/walk over the course of 5-7 hours without feeling like you’re going to collapse at the end of it.
In addition to an excellent cardio base, the ability to suffer is key. Climbing at altitude and in the extreme cold that characterizes Aconcagua means that there will be plenty of suffering, even under the most favorable conditions; the outcome of the climb depends majorly on the question of how badly you want it (while respecting physical limits and objective hazards, of course).
If you're not already an ultra endurance athlete with a first-hand idea of what this suffering talk is all about, I'm a big fan of overnight training sessions: start at dusk and hike all night until the sun comes up again; ideally up a local hill or mountain and carrying weight. When a 12 hours overnight hike like that doesn't faze you anymore, chances are you'd handle the physical demands of Aconcagua just fine.
Now this is all preparation for a "typical" climb. You may know that I (together with Libby) am planning to head back up on the mountain for a one-day speed ascent in January, after the team expedition is complete. Here's where the need for specialized training kicks in.
I was lucky to be able to use Globetrotter's hypoxic chamber at their Munich, Germany, store for several weeks of altitude training; the altitude chamber helped me further build my mountain running base after I had already spent time training in the Himalayas and on Kilimanjaro in October and November.
And even though I have plenty of experience running big mountain trails, I will be the first to profess that my training tends to be largely unstructured and from the hip; for this project, tailored coaching from an elite triathlete and experienced ultra runner brought discipline into my approach and was just what I needed to optimize my time in the Globetrotter altitude chamber - thank you Stefani for sharing your expertise with me and holding me accountable!
Interval sessions and tempo runs, core and quad exercises as well as lots of cross training; some of it at a simulated 17,000ft, and other parts near sea level. I'm excited to have seen major improvements over the course of my training and feel better prepared than ever to push hard. But first I can't wait to get out there with the team and climb the mountain in proper style, and in the company of not one but three badass ladies. Wish us luck!!
PS - If you want more concrete tips on how to train for the kind of non-technical endurofest that Aconcagua is just holler at me. I've got the original team welcome & training emails saved and am always happy to share :) I'm also available for coaching and guiding.