Interview: Steve House & Scott Johnston
Steve House is widely recognized as one of the leading alpinists in the world today. A strong proponent, and well known for his minimalist approach to climbing, known as ‘alpine style’ he has found success on some of the worlds biggest and toughest climbs, and claim credit for first ascents all over the world. He lives in Ridgeway, CO.
Scott Johnston is a climber who has had many significant ascents around the world before devoting himself to the world of cross-country skiing. He continues to climb around his home in Mazama, WA and continues to coach some of the top Nordic skiers in the world. Together the two have penned the recently released book Training for the New Alpinism- A Manual for the Climber as Athlete.
What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been working on this book for the last three years! This year I’ll make two expeditions, to the Indian Himalaya and to Denali, both with the Alpine Mentors group.
What have been some of your personal favorite climbs?
I think of my climbing in main areas: Alaska, Canadian Rockies, and the Himalaya. Each has its own highlight. In Alaska it would have been climbing the Slovak Direct in 2000 with Mark Twight and Scott Backes. In the Canadian Rockies it would be climbing the north face of North Twin in winter with Marko Prezelj. And in the Himalaya it would certainly be climbing a new route on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat with Vince Anderson in 2005.
Your new book Training for the New Alpinism is extensive, what motivated you to undertake the project?
Steve and I had been kicking around the idea of putting our experiences with his training down in writing for a few years. We knew of nothing like this book existed in any language and we knew we had gained knowledge that was unique in the climbing world. What really kicked us into action was that during Steve’s 2009 Beyond the Mountain book tour he was repeatedly asked what he did for training. His stock response became “I could tell you, but it would take a whole book to explain it.”
How is a specific training program beneficial for alpine climbing?
Steve & Scott:
Alpine climbing is highly dependent on aerobic fitness. In our book we outline a training program that is based on general fitness moving to more climbing-specific fitness. Most climbers only train specifically by going climbing. Properly timed and executed specific training placed upon a large base of more general training will ultimately lead to the highest fitness.
Can you give an example of your basic weekly training regiment?
Steve & Scott:
If by “basic” you mean typical then, no, since there is no typical week. The training varies greatly depending upon when it is being done.
What would you recommend for a basic program for someone not looking to climb high Himalayan peaks?
Steve & Scott:
We wrote a 464-page book to answer this—it is not condensable into a few sentences!
What is the best way to balance strength and endurance for climbing?
That would depend on the type of climbing you’re training for and your personal training history. If you are very weak you will need more strength training. If you can do a one-arm pull up but get out of breath climbing the stairs then you will need to focus on aerobic endurance training. Strength is the foundation for endurance more than endurance being the foundation for strength. So, we place an emphasis on strength training in conjunction with basic aerobic conditioning as being the two cornerstones of our program.
How important is nutrition to training?
Nutrition is one of the key supports of health. Without the health of the athlete no training program can be successful. Nutrition also plays a huge role in recovering from hard physical work. We devoted an entire chapter in the book to the nutritional needs of alpinists.
What’s on your menu?
A balanced selection of foods, including carbohydrate, fat, and protein.
What changes and trends have you noticed in the alpine climbing world?
When I started climbing new routes in Alaska in 1995 we were experiencing the beginnings of a tactics-change that brought massive reductions in the time it took to climb big routes. For example, in 2001 I climbed a route called the Infinite Spur with Rolando Garibotti in 25 hours (to the summit, plus another 20 hours to descend to base camp). The previous fastest time was 7 days. The shift was that we went really light. We didn’t bring a tent or multiple sleeping bags, etc. We climbed until we needed a break, then stopped for 2-4 hours, hydrated, napped, then continued. This made a lot of sense in the land of the midnight sun; but now this tactic has spread to big climbs throughout the world. This evolution in climbing was tactical, not physical. We were fit from climbing, but not fit compared to a world-class athlete in another sport such as running.
Future gains in speed, and therefore safety, will continue the developing trend of applying directed training to ultra-long physical efforts. This will allow future, fitter climbers to climb quickly, efficiently, and therefore as safely as possible. Ultra-runners and ski-mountaineering racers are starting to get into climbing. When a truly well-trained individual starts climbing—someone who has been following an intelligent training program for 10 years or more (as is common in say running or XC skiing)—then we will see unbelievable accomplishments in the mountains.
Who do you see as some of the great new climbers? What climbers have inspired you?
Ueli Steck’s recent climb of Annapurna, by a new route on the south face in 22 hours, is a harbinger of things to come. Climbers that inspired us were Herman Buhl and Reinhold Messner. Both trained for their climbs as best they could, given the knowledge at the time. Both established new limits in both rock-climbing (in the Dolomites) and big-mountain climbing (in the Himalaya) that within a decade or two became the new norms.
Climbing is often likened to “training for suffering.” What have been some of your climbs that caused you the most suffering?
The Rupal Face on Nanga Parbat comes to mind because the climb took 8 days and we had to operate on a minimum of food and sleep, and climb to the ninth-highest summit on earth. Most other hard climbs I did we were able to go very light, and complete the climbs very quickly; you suffer much less on those climbs since the pack is lighter and you’re done in 36-48 hours. Eight days leaves a bigger mark on one’s psyche.
What do you do when not climbing?
I run a guide service, Skyward Mountaineering. I write books. I ski tour in my home mountains, the San Juans. And of course I train and go climbing.
Tell us about Alpine Mentors.
You can hear the genesis-story of Alpine Mentors in the video on our website www.alpinementors.org. I run this 501-c-3 with my wife, Eva, and it’s 100% volunteer—both the organizational work as well as the mentoring. Our mission is to promote alpinism by encouraging, coaching and climbing with technically proficient young alpinists who aspire to climb the world’s great mountains in a lightweight, low-impact style
You’ve done some work for Patagonia designing and giving input on gear, what are some of your favorite pieces?
I’m especially proud of the R1 hoody because it has become a staple piece for climbers everywhere. I also am flattered that almost every company has attempted to copy it. To my eye, none have been able to improve upon our original design.
What’s your “secret weapon” in your backpack?
There is no secret weapon that you can carry in your backpack. Nor is there a special physical talent. Success in climbing is a balance of physical, mental, and technical preparedness. Climbing, as in any deep, compelling pursuit, requires a lifetime to learn.