Planning Makes Perfect

I’ve been geeking out on The Rock Climber’s Manual and experimenting with the training concepts within with my crew here in Bend (thx Rod!!!).  It’s the first time I have ever focused on actually training for rock climbing (as opposed to my core passion – mountaineering – a very different discipline), and the concepts outlined in this book are very effective.  After indoor and outdoor rock climbing recreationally on and off for years, I thought I simply wasn’t the best rock climber.  I’m short, heavy set for a climber, and not super strong in my hands and arms.  However, I have been seeing tangible results for the first time and skipping grades and feeling great.  This experience has reminded me of the importance of training.

I have seen many friends and clients struggle on their dream trips or mountains, and they think I am simply “amazing” for the things I have accomplished in the mountains, but the reality is that I have simply learned the importance of planning and training.  This recent experience has just reminded me just how effective training can be to help us improve at something we’re not great at, to take us to the next level in our goals, or even just set a good foundation to get started.  Read on…

What is YOUR dream goal, your bucket list item? I am personally uninspired unless I am working toward a big goal. I have actually felt this way for several years now until I recently got the opportunity to scout the Rwenzoris trek of Uganda for Call of the Wild in March. The Rwenzoris trek has three of Africa’s highest peaks along the way, so I’m not going to miss the chance to climb them along the way! This gets me jazzed and inspired to get out of bed each day to dream, train, and organize.

Aconcagua, the highest peak in Argentina

Aconcagua, the highest peak in Argentina

An old high school friend of mine, we’ll call him Eddie, is also inspired by a huge goal – to climb Aconcagua, the highest peak in Argentina. Now, Eddie is not a climber, not a backpacker, and is not even hiking regularly. Do you think it’s wise for him to aim to climb Aconcagua within a year?

I do, as long as he’s motivated, plans, and executes his plan.

It does no one any good to dream big but fail to take the next basic step – to lay out a solid plan to get ready and fulfill that dream.

“A goal without a plan is a pipe dream.” -Mike & Mark Anderson in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual

Part of planning is determining what your strengths and weaknesses are in face of your dream goal. In Eddie’s case, Aconcagua is a tough but non-technical mountain. It requires great stamina to hike for nearly 3 weeks for 5-10 hours a day typically with a heavy pack, up to 60# to an ultimate altitude nearly 23k ft.

What are Eddie’s strengths? He’s highly motivated. This is incredibly important and powerful and can make up for a lot. I was in the same boat when I first bit by the mountaineering bug.

What are Eddie’s weaknesses? He currently lacks the experience, equipment, and fitness required for a mountain like Aconcagua. He need to fully embrace these weakness and work slowly and methodically on each one of them.

Normally, the greatest benefits will come from focusing on weaknesses. For example, I naturally have great endurance, above average pain threshold, proven ability to acclimatize, and keen body awareness, but I have a lower than average pack-carrying capacity as a very small woman. Thus, I focus much of my training efforts on slowly increasing my pack weight in a diligent, disciplined training program so that I can carry the food and equipment required for my objective.

Carry a pack nearly half my body weight is tough to say the least

Carry a pack nearly half my body weight is tough to say the least

In Eddie’s case, he needs to work on all of this weaknesses as he is quite unproven in this arena. As he is training, strengths and weaknesses will likely make themselves more apparent and he can alter his training appropriately.

A big goal like climbing Aconcagua in 12 months can be incredibly intimidating. Where do you even begin? Breaking the large goal into smaller intermediate goals really helps the large goal feel more manageable. Eddie will have to think about what skills and fitness is required to climb Aconcagua and break them out.

Intermediate goals for Aconcagua include the following:

  1. Get in great hiking shape
  2. Refresh backpacking skills and get in great backpacking shape
  3. Experience climbing over 15,000ft
  4. Organize logistics for Aconcagua expedition
  5. Acquire basic snow climbing skills
I have hiked Mt Diablo over 40 times over the years to prepare for different objectives

I hiked Mt Diablo over 40 times over the years to prepare for different objectives

Obviously, having a very solid hiking base is key before throwing a potentially demoralizing pack on your back and trying to crank out the miles. Most of Aconcagua is not snow covered, so ability to be comfortable setting up and managing camp in a typical backpacking style is key. Working up to carrying a heavy pack is a key component of backpacking, and is part of the challenge of Aconcagua in particular. Another unique challenge of Aconcagua is the extreme altitude of nearly $23k feet – how does one train and prepare for that? The logistics can be intimidating enough and should be broken out separately. Snow climbing skills are important for summit day when you are likely to be climbing on snow. While these skills are a only required for a small portion of the overall climb, they come at a critical time when you are the most tired, at the highest altitude and have the highest propensity for falling and needing these skills.

Each intermediate goal is then broken out into short-term goals which can more easily be turned into calendar deadline entries and to do lists. As an example for Aconcagua, we can breakdown sample short-term goals for step #3 – getting the backpacking skills and fitness ready for the demands of many consecutive days of carrying a heavy pack and setting up/breaking down camp over and over.

Short-Term Goals for achieving intermediate goal #3

  1. Sign up for a course like the Sierra Club’s Backpacking Training Series offered in the Bay Area or do some guided backpacking trips to get tips from experts
  2. Procure backpacking equipment. Train with it to test it and gain intimate familiarity.
  3. After building a solid day hiking volume, begin hiking with a weighted backpack starting at 15# and adding 3# each week. Working backwards to carry a 60# pack, you must start a minimum of 15 weeks in advance and not miss any weeks. For those without previous experience, it would be wise to start even 6 months in advance to be more gentle on your body. Make your hikes mimic the actual event as much as possible (distance, gain, altitude).  As you get closer to the trip, add in a mid-week pack workout with 50-75% of your current training pack weight. This helps keep your body used to carrying weight without stressing it too much and gives you time to recover from your tough weekend hikes.
  4. Plan several backpacking trips of increasing difficulty throughout the year, including ones in the U.S. above 14k ft.
  5. Evaluate progress and adjust training accordingly.

Recording your results serves several purposes by:

  • Forcing you to plan. Laying out your training program in written form (spreadsheet, journal, etc) makes you think about, plan, and schedule your training instead of leaving it to chance.
  • Providing accountability – Did you do what was planned? Why or why not? You can see it in black and white that you are doing what you said you set out to do.
  • Providing a feedback loop – Are you on track or progressing too slowly? Do you need to change your program? How are you feeling mentally and physically?
  • Serving as a motivator – It feels sooooo good when you are doing what you said you would do, see results, feel good and start getting closer to your dream.

In the future, you can look back at your old records and learn from your mistakes and successes to train even more efficiently for new goals.

Planning makes perfect. You still need to have a solid plan, execute it, and evaluate it’s effectiveness…but you are setting yourself up for failure if you move toward an ambitious dream without making an effort to create a well-laid plan.

Please share with me what your big dream is for 2015 and how you are going to go about achieving it!

Additional resources:

The Outdoor Athlete by Courtenay and Doug Schurman – great for hikers, trekkers, and backpackers

The Rock Climber’s Training Manual by Mike & Mark Anderson – excellent for serious rock climbers

Training for the New Alpinism – A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by Steve House – best for well rounded alpinists

Best Training Hikes in the Bay Area

Training for backpacking and mountaineering has several components – cardiovascular (both endurance and interval to raise anaerobic threshold), strength training, and “sport specific.”

Sport specific refers trying to mimic the activity as best possible.  For example, in mountaineering, we typically carry heavy packs up and down steep slopes over several days for anywhere from 4 to 10 hours on average.  It’s tough to mimic those conditions in the gym, but we can do so out on the trails.

Hiking Montara Mtn gives training at sea level new meaning

Beautiful single track















I would recommend hiking with the pack you will actually carry in the mountains.  This achieves several objectives – gets you more familiar with your gear, gives you a chance to see if there are any issues with the fit (i.e., waist belt digs into your hips), and best simulates the actual conditions of your climb.

Water is the best way to weight your pack.  It’s easy to calculate (1 gallon is 8.8# and 1 liter is 2.2#), it’s plentiful and can be convenient on really hot days, and you can pour it out if you need to move faster or your knees are bothering you on the downhill.

A girlfriend of mine once brought 10# boxes of trash compactor bags in her pack, but when we started to run out of daylight and needed to move faster, she couldn’t do anything with those boxes. If she had water, she could have poured it out to lighten her load.

One disadvantage of using water is that it is more dense than the actual gear with which you will fill your pack.  This makes the center of gravity feel much lower than it will be on the actual climb.

Hiking the fire roads on Diablo

Company at the summit of Olympia Peak

One standard training principle is to carry the water up to the top of your hike, pour it out, and then descend with a lighter pack to save your knees and legs.  I never did this because I find the downhill to be quite challenging.  Its also the most dangerous part of most climbs – you have gravity pulling you downward, a false step is more likely to result in a fall, and you are the most tired when descending.  I always found it really valuable to train for the descent as well as the ascent.

When I first started climbing, I took the time to research all the major steep day hikes in the Bay Area.  I calculated the feet gain per mile to figure out which hikes would give me the best bang for my buck.  Mt Diablo tops them all for being a butt kicker that really simulates the strain you’ll experience on a mountain.  Mission Peak as also great for its relentless slope and was a great hike to do when I was more pressed for time.  Others are good for variety, but I didn’t feel were as beneficial as a staple.

Hike Miles Altitude Gain Feet/Mile Comments
Mission Peak – Main Trail 6.0 2100 350 Can be very hot in summer, but bring layers and liner gloves as temp can really drop once you gain the ridge near top
Mt Diablo North Peak Loop fm Regency Gate 9.9 3100  313 Real butt kicker –  when I’m really serious, I would do this one EVERY weekend. Bring a map and lots of water, can be VERY hot in summer.
Mt Diablo – 4 peaks of Diablo 16 4700 293 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Del Valle to Sunol 19.5 5600 287 Long long hike that requires a car shuttle. I’ve done this twice in about 8.5 hrs
Mt Tam – Mtn Home Inn TH  6.5 1500 250 Beautiful hike. Good for variety, but not nearly as hard as top two.
Montara Mountain 8 1800 225 Start in Mitchell Canyon and summit Eagle Peak, main summit, North Peak, and Olympia Peak. Takes ~7.5 hrs.
Windy Hill – Portola Valley Loop  7.2  1400 195 This has a long flat start and the grade is not consistent, but this is a good alternative for variety.
Wunderlich Skyline Loop 10.0 1800  180 Wooded and cooler in summer.  Well-marked trails.  Gentle grade but continuous slope.  Good for endurance but not very grueling.

All distances and altitude gains are based on publicly available info, my own recollection and use of an altitude watch, or maps.  If you redo any of these maps with your own GPS, feel free to send me your stats so I can improve the accuracy of this chart.

Please feel free to shoot me any questions or share any other local hike gems you may have.  Finally, I’ll put in a plug for my friends at BodyResults.  Most of what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from Courtney Schurman who has been writing my training programs for the last decade for big objectives.  Call of the Wild clients get special discounts at

Hope this helps your progress toward your backpacking and climbing dreams!

The gang on a windy day on top of Mission Peak

Friendly tarantula on Mt Diablo in Oct

Guide to Bay Area Climbing Groups

When I first started climbing in 2004, I knew no one that climbed and all my friends thought I was completely insane.  I relied a lot on guided trips to gain skills and experience, but that was expensive and the fabulous people I met on those trips were scattered around the country.  In the years since, I have slowly built a network of great climbing partners, many of whom I have met through local organizations.

As I often get the question “How can I meet climbing partners?”, I thought I would write this brief guide to Bay Area climbing organizations and provide my personal perspective on them.  I welcome others’ perspectives on these groups as well as any groups I may be missing.

American Alpine Club Sierra Nevada Section – this regional section of the AAC is chock full of super experienced climbers who are also very social.  It can be difficult to break into the AAC community as you need to attend one of the periodic events such as the Pinecrest Climb In or the ice climbing weekend at the Lost Trail Lodge, but as a climbing groupie, I appreciate the opportunity to meet legendary climbers such as Royal Robbins, Jack Tackle, and Allen Steck.  They also have a great annual holiday dinner at Spengers in Berkeley.  The AAC offers many other great member benefits such as Global Rescue insurance for the nominal $75, but you can sign up and attend most of the events as a non-member as well.

Legendary Fred Beckey and Allen Steck at the annual holiday dinner

Annual ice climbing weekend at Coldstream Canyon near Donner

American Himalayan Foundation – although not a true climber organization, the AHF is increasingly reaching out to the climbing community to raise awareness of the issues faced in the Himalaya.  I never miss their annual AHF dinner as a chance to meet others, both climbers and non-climbers, who are passionate about the Himalaya.  They typically put on a good show with interesting speakers and this year they’ll be featuring Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin.  The dinner price is steep at $200; however, you’ll get a receipt for the portion of your dinner that is tax deductible (it was ~$135 in 2011).

Everest summitters John Gray, Tom Burch (former AAC SNS Chair), and Apa Sherpa (world record holder for # of summits) at the AHF annual dinner

Jim Wilson and author Emilie Cortes with Sue and Phil Eshler, the first couple to climb the seven summits together

Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit  – a mountain rescue unit for climber networking?  Indeed, if you are interested in putting your climbing skills to good instead of evil, consider joining BAMRU or another mountain rescue team.  The trainings will keep you fresh, you will meet lots of other civic-minded and technically competent folks while building positive karma by helping locate lost hikers and climbers.  If you don’t want to join, don’t forget to donate in case you need their help some day!  Membership is $40 (yes, you pay for the honor to rescue others!), but the community is priceless.

Personal Rock Skills training in Tahoe

Rock Rendezvous – I have been a member of RR for a few years, but truthfully have failed to take full advantage of their benefits.  They are focused more on technical rock climbing, offer a monthly slideshow meeting, and priority camping in high demand locations like Tuolumne Meadows.  I have met some other great partners that were members of RR.  Their membership fee is very reasonable at $35.

Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section – this activity section of the Sierra Club focuses on non-technical peak bagging, although technical rock, snow and ice trips may be offered as private trips.  They hold a monthly slideshow meeting the second Tuesday in Palo Alto which gives you a chance to learn about a new region or climb, get to know other members, and hear about upcoming trips.  Amazingly, membership and trip participation is free.  It’s a friendly open community and most of the members are extremely active climbers.

Peak climbers at the annual PCS BBQ & Gear Swap

At the top of Mt Morgan with PCSers

Sierra Club Snowcamping Section – since when was snowcamping considered climbing?  Well, having mad snowcamping skills is critical on a snow or glacier climb, and could just save your butt if you ever get stuck out in a freak winter storm.  Many of my best friends and climbing partners have come from my involvement in the snowcamping section.  Seems like folks that have a penchant for suffering also have a lot of patience, tolerance, and are easy to get along with.  They offer an annual snowcamping training series for as low as $100 (Sierra Club members early sign up) to $125 (regular sign up for non-members) and alumni trips for a nominal fee of ~$25 (note: you may be able to attend alumni trips if you can demonstrate mastery of skills elsewhere).

Snowcampers on Echo Peak summit during record breaking low temps

A few others I know exist, but haven’t had much direct experience with, are Rock Ice Mountain Club in Santa Rosa, Bay Area Mountaineering Meetup, Berkeley CHAOS, and Stanford Alpine Club.

I hope this helps you on your personal quest to form a great group of climbing partners.  Don’t forget though that the responsibility goes both ways – you need to be a great climbing partner in order to foster lasting partnerships.  You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest climber out there, but you should 1) be at your personal best, 2) accurately represent your skill level and fitness, 3) consider the needs of the team/group as well as your own, and 4) follow through with your commitments.

Happy and safe climbing!!!

The Case for Backpacking – An Excellent Lifelong Exercise

You may have the impression that backpacking is an activity for only the young, fit, adventurous and with a distaste for basic hygiene.  However, backpacking is one of the best lifelong exercises that has the highest impact on your health with the lowest impact on your joints, and your wallet.

Is a room with this view a dream or nightmare for you?

In 1997, my little sister gave me an annual membership to the Sierra Club for my birthday.  I *thought* I was in good shape until I started doing weekend hikes led by a woman who was approaching 80.  I could not keep up with her to save my life.  I was so impressed that I decided “I want to be like that woman some day!” and thus began my foray into hiking and backpacking, first with the Sierra Club and later on my own.

Backpacking is great exercise.  It burns anywhere from 400-800 calories per hour depending on your exertion rate, size, and how much weight you are carrying.  A typical day can range from 3 to 12 miles, and the calories I have expended (measured using a heart rate monitor) typically ranges from 2,000-4,000.  Can you imagine trying to hit that burn in a gym?

In addition to the mega calorie burn, one of the reasons that backpacking is considered such a good “lifelong” exercise is the effect on your joints.  There is much less impact from walking on dirt trails than walking or running on pavement.  Using trekking poles lessens that impact even more.

Carrying packs up the trail to Mt Morgan

Additionally, carrying weight on your pack strengthens all of your muscles, including those of your posterior chain which is essential for good posture and mitigating back injuries from lifting. Further, weight bearing exercises are critical to maintain bone density, and having strong muscles around your joints protects them from injury as well.  The improved balance from walking on uneven surfaces lessens the likelihood of injuries caused by falls down the line.

Backpacking is also VERY inexpensive compared to many other active pursuits.  Sure you need an initial investment in a good backpack, boots, poles, tent, sleeping bag, and stove, but truth be told, most of these items can be acquired used, borrowed, or purchased at a discount (think REI monthly used gear sale!).  It costs just as much in the way of gas to arrive at a destination whether you are staying in a hotel or camping, but the per night permit fees range from free to $15-20.  I would venture a guess that the average meal at a restaurant while on vacation can easily top $50, but with backpacking you prepare all your own meals.  Even if you opt for the freeze-dried boil in a bag route, your meal cost would usually be less than $10.

Wilderness First Aid skills may come in handy!

Backpacking is also a great opportunity to keep your skills fresh.  Unlike slaving away under fluorescent lights of a gym, backpacking gets you outdoors and tends to ignite curiosity in our natural world.  People often become more interested in learning about the flora, fauna, and geology of different regions.  They become more curious about weather patterns and how they are formed (as you get to experience the pleasant or unpleasant aspects of being surprised by weather!).  There are opportunities to build map reading and navigation skills or learn survival skills if you get more ambitious.

Spectacular Cottonwood Lakes

Finally, if you are not yet convinced, the beautiful scenery, in my humble opinion, is reason enough.  There is something incredibly peaceful and stress relieving about connecting with nature and disconnecting from our daily lives and over-reliance on technology.  Additionally, the time you spend with people out on the trail is truly quality time when there are no distractions and you can really get to know each other.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, but I’m not fit enough.  You can start off easy by not carrying much weight, picking easier flatter trails, and not going in very far.  Age is no excuse either.  Remember the 80 year old woman who showed me who was boss when I was in my twenties?  And many of the people out on the trails are in their 40s, 50s, and 60s.  Gender is no excuse either as many women hit the trails each year, even solo.  You would need to learn how to put up a tent or work a camping stove, but given all you have likely navigated many personal and professional challenges up to now, I’m confident you can master these tasks.

Girl power in the back country

How to would someone with no backpacking experience get started?  I am very lucky to live in the Bay Area, a hub of outdoor activity.  It just so happens the SF Bay Sierra Club chapter holds an annual beginner backpacking training that starts people with a  basic hiking level of fitness of and teaches them all the basics about gear, map reading, cooking, etc.

Learning map reading and navigation is an important skill!

Once you have the basics of backpacking down, you have many options.  You can go on shorter more local trips to build your confidence.  You can do the Sierra Club snowcamping training and take those skills to the winter environment.  You can also join guided backpacking excursions such as trips run by the Outdoor Adventure Club or Call of the Wild, a women’s only travel outfitter.

So, no excuses!  Hit the trails and let me know how it goes!

Sunset and moonrise on the way to Mt Langley