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To get to the top, get training first

October 14, 2003|J. Michael Kennedy | Times Staff Writer

After 16 years of watching climbers return from their ascents -- or in many cases, attempted ascents -- of Mt. Whitney, Doug Thompson has reached this conclusion: Most people who make the climb do little, if any, training. And many pay a steep price in pain and suffering.

Thompson owns the Whitney Portal Store, the last outpost for people who make the arduous pilgrimage to the highest peak in the contiguous United States. Every year, he sees thousands who attempt to scale the nation's most popular climbing mountain. Thompson says he can tell almost immediately how climbers will fare, and some of his assessments seem to defy conventional wisdom.

"What usually happens is that marathon runners have a harder time than people who are a little overweight," Thompson said. "People who are a little overweight are going to go slow and drink a lot because they are going to sweat. The key is slow ascent, liquid and food."

Which is not to say that Thompson advocates disregarding training. He has seen too many people come down off the mountain with banged-up knees, bleeding toenails and fractured limbs. Many were couch potatoes who thought the climb would be a lark. Thompson has his own way of gauging potential climbing success.

"Say somebody walks in off the street and tells us he wants to climb Whitney," he said. "If that person is a construction worker or a janitor or a waitress, someone who's used to being on their feet all day, they're probably going to make it. But someone who just goes to the gym and can lift 500 pounds probably won't make it because he's got no long-term endurance."

Scott Zagarino of Santa Monica-based Adventure Training Consultants tells his clients they must focus on strength and endurance training for Whitney. For instance, one day a week should be devoted to weightlifting, he said, to strengthen legs and back, both of which will play a key role in making it to the top.

"You're carrying a heavy pack and you're under stress for a long period of time," Zagarino said. "There will be long periods of discomfort." Instead of a routine 40-minute run, he recommends walking along a trail for four or five hours, which is the kind of stress your body will endure.

One of the more popular Whitney-related Web sites is run by Bill Kirk of Alta Loma. And part of the reason for that popularity is a series of Southern California training hikes suggested for would-be climbers. (Find them online, at They begin with a relatively easy hike north of Redlands and progress to climbs that are more difficult and at higher altitudes.

"If you're a total couch potato and have been for years, it's a two-year deal," he said of the time needed to train. "But if you're in reasonable shape ... you shouldn't have any trouble."

Carole Latimer, whose Berkeley-based Call of the Wild adventure travel company caters to women, said she has difficulty conveying to clients how tough they are going to have to work while hiking in the Mt. Whitney backcountry. She asks prospective hikers to rate themselves athletically and more often than not, they give themselves higher marks than they deserve.

"We tell people they have to understand that they will be carrying a backpack at a high altitude for many days on end. They have to be ready for that," Latimer said. "Some are what I call gym queens: They look fabulous, but they aren't tough. And you've got to be tough."

While hikers by the thousands go up Mt. Whitney Trail, the same is not true of the much-more-difficult East Face and Mountaineer's Route that require technical climbing skills. International Mountain Guides of Ashford, Wash., for instance, has a strict set of guidelines for mountaineering route climbers, including months of hill training with heavy packs.

Eric Simonson, one of the company's owners, said the mountaineering climb requires previous mountaineering experience and stressed the need to do exercises that require balance. He also said one unknown always is how people react to the high altitude and the sickness that often comes with it.

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