The payoff though, as every mountaineer knows, is similarly titanic. On the best climbs, even the pride that stems from pushing yourself to physical and mental limits fades as a deep, stirring sense of communion with the universe overrides everything else.
That sense of communion is harder to come by when you’re unconditioned for the task. A successful mountaineering experience begins long before you reach the trailhead: You’ll want to spend months building up your strength and endurance.
Getting your lower body in shape is absolutely critical. Those legs, after all, are the true workhorses up in the mountains, and you won’t get more than a few miles upslope if they haven’t been properly prepped and trained. Here are a few basic lower body exercises fundamental to roaming the heights.
Squats, done with or without weights, are particularly good for strengthening the gluteal (“glutes”) and quadriceps femoris (“quads”) muscles as well as the hamstrings. A “sumo squat,” in which you lower to a stance with thighs in line with the ground, then return to a standing position with your feet aligned with your hips, helps improve your scrambling.
Try doing several sets of sumo squats with 10 repetitions each. You can also perform the squats while grasping a dumbbell from one end, letting the weight hang vertically between your thighs.
There are plenty of other variations, including the “jumping squat,” where you launch in the air from a stable crouch, and the “three-quarter squat,” where you lower yourself from standing to a sitting position with your feet shoulder-width apart. There’s also the “box squat,” in which you rise from and return to a seated position on a chair with feet at shoulder-width distance.
Lunges are excellent for priming quads and glutes for powerful, launching steps and leaps.
As with squats, there are plenty of different versions to approximate and prepare for a range of in-the-field movements.
In the standard lunge, you begin in a standing position, step forward on one leg and lower that knee to the ground, then push back to your original poise.
Repeat with the other leg to perform a single rep. You can add to the challenge with a jumping lunge, in which after lowering to a knee you reverse the forward leg mid-air in a leap.
Radial lunges enhance your stability and flexibility for multiple angles of stepping. Envision yourself at the center of a clock face. Facing the 12 o’clock position, perform a standard lunge. Then shift to 1 o’clock and do another lunge with the same forward foot, repeating around the clock face until you hit 6 o’clock.
Shift to the opposite foot and work your way back to 12 o’clock.
It’s also essential to strengthen your calves, which do so much of the work hauling you up those steep mountainsides and dancing across talus fields. Step-ups and step-downs make it easy: Holding dumbbells or wearing a pack, climb up and down on a single stair or box roughly a foot high.
You can also balance on the ball of one foot upon a curb or stair, keeping the other foot poised in the air, and then steadily raise and lower your heel 10 times or so.
Keep in Mind
Many people like using hand-weights when doing squats, lunges, and other lower-body exercises. Remember, though, that nothing prepares you as well as wearing your fully loaded pack. If you aren’t in fighting shape, ease into the regimen by gradually increasing the pack’s weight as well as the number of reps or sets.
It’s always a good idea to consult with a physician before adopting a rigorous exercise program, and it never hurts to have a trainer or other expert guide you. Reading about an exercise is one thing, but watching someone else perform it really cements the technique.