Get Stronger With: Walking Uphill Carrying Heavy Stuff

I look up at the trail ahead of me, the stair-stepped section ahead will gain me most of the final elevation to the top. But it is steep. All I hear is the sound of my breath coming in fitful gasps and the blood pounding in my ears as I grind my poles into the dirt and push up the first stair. Only one hundred feet to go.

This winter I was invited by my friend, Ben, to join him on a trip up Mt Rainier this summer. Rainier has long been on my tick list and Ben is a great guy so I replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!” I got home that night and told Mrs. Homeontheloose. We high fived and then she asked a very pertinent question: “Are you ready for a climb like that?”

“Of course not.” was my reply. “But I have six months to train!”

Since our main activity is sport climbing, I have spent the past three years trying to get as light as possible while developing my arms and fingers to the best of my ability. My poor legs have been left to waste away in pursuit of the better strength to weight ratio of specialization. The approaches at Shelf Road and Rifle are short, casual strolls along mostly flat terrain to approach your climb. The Kautz Glacier Route on Rainier on the other hand has something like 1000′ gain for each mile!

Plus, I hate running.

January passed and I continued my rock climbing fitness program with some half-hearted attempts at including some running and leg strength workouts. Then Ben threw down the gauntlet: “5 posted workouts each week from now until we hit the mountain. Get serious guys!”

“Oh shit.” I thought, “I’m going to have to get my act in gear.”

I stepped up my leg strength gym workouts a-la Steve House and Scott Johnson’s excellent Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, and Ben invited me to join him on training hikes up the local steepness that is Green Mountain. We would meet every Tuesday, drop a three gallon water jug into my pack, lace up the mountaineering boots and point ourselves uphill.

The first few trips up Green were a bit of a horror-show for me. With sweat pouring down my face and massive blisters building on my heels I would grind up the trail, promising myself that each switchback would be the last, tricking my mind into pushing just a bit farther until, at last, I would be on the summit. A quick high five, check the Strava time, dump the water and then trip trop down the trail with a now lightweight pack. Then back home I would stretch, moan and nurse my blisters until Tuesday rolled around again. I dreaded the thought of getting back on the trail.

Until about week four.

They say that building a habit takes 30 days. While I had only been up on Green for four days, the mental preparation and building the stoke to get out there each week must have counted for something because, while the hike didn’t get any easier, I began to look forward to it. Instead of a grueling death march the hike became, well, almost pleasant. As my legs and lungs developed the weight dropped off and I became a slightly more lean mean fighting machine.

Here is the program: 

  1. Find a steep hill. Ideally you are looking for something that will provide 1000′ of elevation gain per mile. If you don’t have a handy mountain nearby, stadium stairs are a good replacement though you will ned to do multiple laps. Or maybe there is a high-rise near you that you can access to do your training. House even mentions you could do this workout by stepping up on a 12″ box over and over but I would save this option only for those stuck in hopelessly flat spaces. Ideally, you are looking for something steep and long.
  2. Load up on the heavy stuff. I’ve been shooting for a pack weight that is 20% of my
     body weight. (This is another good incentive for losing weight!) Pro tip: If you use a 3.5 gallon water jug like the this one or this one you can achieve most of your weight from water. Water is just over 8 lbs per gallon. When you get to the top of your climb you can dump the water and save your knees on the downhill. You can also use the same jug to hold water on your next road trip!
  3. Walk uphill. I like to wear my mountaineering boots for maximal specificity. They also serve to protect my weak ankles whilst walking with heavy weight. I use poles because I’m clumsy and they help a lot, especially on some of those bigger step ups.
  4. Timing: Ideally you would do this twice a week with at least 2 days rest in between. However I have had great results hiking once a week  and spending two days in the gym with weights.

Add Walking Uphill Carrying Heavy Stuff to your other strength workouts and I think you will see a good uptick in uphill hiking strength. Please let us know your thoughts below.

See you out there,


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