Injury and Mountaineering

Training for Everest is especially difficult because the training period is so long.  Most people take 6-12 months to train specifically for Everest, and of course the skills development and general preparation could take years.  But long periods of intense physical training also increase the risk of injury.  Just like marathon training, a big increase in weekly mileage over a few months can cause stress fractures, pulled muscles, etc.  In climbing, you have the added risks of falls, falling rock and ice, and weather related injuries.  Since the best way to train for mountaineering is to actually spend time in the mountains, in addition to serious cardio and strength training, some injuries become unavoidable.

I have now read multiple Everest preparation blogs, advising you to be “in the best shape of your life”.  If it only were so easy.  In a 12-months training period, for most of us, life gets in the way.  Work and family obligations, unexpected stress - like a new unplanned project at work, and unfortunately injuries.

In 2015, a week before I left for my climb of Vinson Massive, the highest mountain in Antarctica – an MRI showed that I had a broken auxiliary bone in my left foot.  Mountaineering teaches you to push through pain and discomfort, so before I knew there was an actual broken bone in my foot, I had hiked two 14ers in Colorado and ran 20 miles in a Ragnar relay race through pain.  In hindsight, that was pretty stupid.  My Antarctica trip was by all measures a success: an unparalleled adventure into a remote and beautiful continent of ice and snow; life-long friendships; and a most perfect summit day on Mt. Vinson, but the foot never properly healed. 

Six months later, as I was training for my Denali expedition in Alaska, the highest mountain in North America, I was in a small hotel gym rushing through my morning workout to get to an important business negotiation.  To get the maximum benefit from a shorter workout, I decided that deadlifts with fewer reps but double my usual weight was the way to go.  My lower back thought differently.  I spent the entire Denali expedition in agonizing pain each time I had to bend down to set-up a tent or shovel snow (which you spend more time doing on Denali than just about anything else), not to mention the 60lb backpack and a 50lb sled I pulled up the mountain that didn’t help matters either. 

So no surprises, as I ramped up my training for Everest, all of the old injuries came back and just for fun, I added a few new ones, like getting impaled by a large falling block of ice on a WI-5 waterfall climb in Hyalite Canyon, Montana (photo below of right before the injury), that left me on the couch for a month over Christmas holidays instead of a climbing trip to Ecuador.  I am sure each of us who trains has similar stories, pushing through pain when you should have taken a rest, old injuries nagging at you each time you try to achieve a new PR.

Like for many athletes, the hardest part of getting through injuries is the depression that quickly sets in when you suddenly go from 10 workouts a week or zero.  The endorphins your body feeds on when you train hard, disappear and the immobility is hard to bear.  For me, this is incredibly difficult to deal with.

Surprisingly, what helped me get through injuries over the last three years and stay in good cardio shape for mountaineering has been pool running.  Huge gratitude to my running coach, George Buckheit, who actively encourages pool running as supplemental training for runners and as a way to keep training through injuries.  And of course, the amazing good spirits and dedication of my Capital Area Runners team members who train as zealously in the pool as they do on the track.  Photo below of a group of us pool running after an intense long-run that morning.

I spent countless hours of pool running before each of my big expeditions, Vinson, Denali, and now Everest.  Here is a video on how to properly pool run for anyone who wants to add this to their training regime. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsamCiwQ9Ww

But sometimes even the pool is not an option.  In a stroke of bad luck, I got a bad respiratory infection the week before departing for Everest.  Most Everest advice columns tell you to bring antibiotics in the event of a variety of infections and illnesses you can pick up on the trek in or in Base Camp.  None of them contemplate taking antibiotics the week before you even get to Nepal.  By choosing the rapid ascent option for climbing Everest (i.e. cutting out two weeks of pre-acclimatization in Nepal by sleeping in a Hypoxico tent at home and flying straight to a higher altitude of Everest Base Camp), my body decided that the getting sick on the trek to Base Camp part should not be skipped no matter what.   Thus, I am still getting the full experience of the adventure!   

With rest being the only viable option as the last training preparation for my Everest trip, I have to admit that I do not feel even remotely that I am in the best shape of my life.  And the social media posts from those already in Everest Base Camp who are starting to feel the symptoms of the infamous Khumbu cough, give me shudders.  With trepidation, I hope that the years of training and climbing experience will come to my side when the challenges of Everest become real in the coming weeks.

Life has a way of throwing unexpected challenges at us and even the best training intentions get derailed.  So, to everyone pushing through injuries and sickness as you get ready for your upcoming fitness challenges, remember that rest, even if unwelcomed, can be your friend too.  We all come to the starting line with different life experiences, training plans, and injuries, but once the race starts, it is often mental strength that helps us push through the physical limitations.  As they say of mountaineering, and I think it is just as applicable to other sports, it is often 90% mental focus that gets you to your goal.