Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire was a pretty big deal. The Amber Spyglass was huge. Those two books and this one win my Oscar for ‘Most Eagerly Awaited Books Ever’. That’s right, Training for the New Alpinism is a book I’ve had on pre-order for over a year and when it was released in America before the UK I was very frustrated. Now this sizeable tome (of similarly mass to the aforementioned beefy-books) has been consumed, has it lived up to my expectations, or has it crumbled into Dust…
This book was released this year and to little in the way of fanfare, save for amongst training geeks and keen armchair mountaineers. However, it’s going to influence people for years to come. The first thing that hits you about this book is the sheer size of it: it’s over 450 pages. Even reading it every time that you drop the kids off at the pool you will still be reading it for months, unless you have constipation or, ironically, diarrhoea. The presentation is beautiful: it’s a mix of big glossy pictures, first-person accounts from leading mountaineers, diagrams, and text. Written by Steve House, a noted Alpinist and all-round bad-ass whose autobiography is excellent and who has got up more hard climbs than I’ve read books, is one author. The other is his trainer, Scott Johnson, also a competent Alpinist and a coach and physiology guru. Immediately this should be telling you something:
this book is not for beginners, nor is it spoon-fed rubbish with little research having gone into it. This is a serious body of work, the sort of thing that you dip into again and again, sometimes while on the loo but sometimes just for something to inspire.
It’s a beast. This book might well be re-read as many times as Extreme Alpinism – it’s right up there.
This was the only trip I’ve ever been on where I prepared really hard and man it made a difference. Training works. (Photo copyright Joe Barker)
There are some exceptional characteristics to this book. Firstly, it has few prescribed exercises or training plans (OH NO?!). Oh YES more like. Instead of delivering a list of sit-ups and jogs to go on it tells you how the body works, how it adapts, how we all differ, and therefore how to design your own training program.
There are no short-cuts – it’s not offering ‘get fit quick’ but instead telling you that long hours and perhaps years of work are required to get seriously fit. ‘No bullshit, this is what it takes’ it says.
There are some utterly wonderful photos in here such as Ueli Steck blasting up the Supercouloir on the Tacul. In fact, I do wonder how they can sell the book for about £25 when there are so many quality pages of text and pictures. The whole book is amazingly well presented. Mine is going to get dog-eared over time but the aesthetic will remain.
I love the physiology chapters. I am interested in how the body works, how to train it, and how adaptations and training shape its functionality and performance. There’s a lot of details here that you would not find in your typical training guide and unless you are familiar with degree-level exercise physiology books then there will be a lot of new ground for you. I do a lot of reading around this sort of area and still found some good new information. As an academic it’s also nice to see references in the text so if you want to read further you can chase these up, though you can of course ignore them completely.
Completely ruined after a day on the Ben. Need more training!
When the advice comes it really flows. There are some tips and tricks given that you wouldn’t find it most book and sometimes the authors appear from behind their pages and give personal views such as ‘we take vitamin pills while away’. No longer do they sit on the fence having offered the positive and negative aspects of these sorts of things – they comment and this can be very useful.
The personal accounts are absolutely brilliant: Ueli Steck’s is fascinating; and Peter Habeler, a mountaineer of whom I know relatively little, positively shines from the pages of his interview.
Of all the chapters, the nutrition one is in some ways my favourite. If offers some very good advice that divides eating during training and eating during performance, which is key. They are not offering anything new here, just good basic advice on healthy eating. There are a couple of nice recipes in here too on making energy bars.
Providing a summary of over 450 pages is not easy, but the basic message is that you have to work at it: there are no ‘free lunches’, as Mark Twight puts it in his section. Instead, they emphasise that smart training and, crucially, avoiding over-training can really improve performance.
They state that endurance is the key to mountaineering fitness and needs to be built on long steady runs and hikes in the mountains. As training progresses, strength training and high-intensity workouts should be incorporated to maximise power.
The balance of power/power-endurance/endurance/ultra-endurance I find fascinating.
Getting the mileage in. If this is good training then there’s no excuse!
Are there any downsides?
Firstly, if you are not already a pretty fit mountaineer then this book is not for you and you would be better off with a more basic training guide.
Some of the exercises in here are pretty advanced (eg. hanging leg raises) and there is so much information that some people might find it all a bit daunting. Similarly, if you are not familiar with any sports physiology and training terms then subheadings such as ‘Capillary density as a determinant of ATP production’ may be pretty daunting. However, you can dip in and out as you see fit.
There is what strikes me as two odd omissions. Firstly, the lack of section on injuries (there are 3 pages in total on injuries, and two of those are on over-training which is not, in the conventional sense, an injury). Writing a whole chapter on injuries is a serious business but I think a few pages on how to avoid them, how to recover from them quickly, and when to get help, would be beneficial. The other omission is flexibility and stretching, which I think is a crucial part of training. There are a few other omissions (I was surprised there was no mention of dead lifts, for example), but nothing else that really struck me.
The other problem I have is with the North American units for some things, such as the ‘cup’ in the food section; conversions in the text would have been useful. Some of the text is a little bit clunky at times but it is often followed by fantastic sentences – one final set of eyes to read it might have been useful, and they may also have picked up on the two or three spelling or small grammatical mistakes that have slipped through: though very minor they shouldn’t really happen in a published book.
Tom doing plyometrics on Adam and Eve.
The bottom line
The bottom line is that this is an absolutely excellent book. It is the best book of its type: extremely well researched, specialist, well-written, and very informative. If you want to get fit for endurance sports and particularly mountaineering then there isn’t a lot out there that can rival it. The Lore of Running would be the go-to endurance book but that’s obviously short on the mountaineering details. I think Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism is unbeatable for sheer hard-hitting training advice (“The main goal of physical training for alpine climbing is to make yourself as indestructible as possible”) that I will never forget (I did that last quote from memory – I hope I got it right) but this book is more subtle and ultimately informative. I would still recommend Twight’s book over this for most people as it offers more information on more topics, but this is the one you want if you are keen about training, want to know about the body, and want to get the most out of it. No spoon-feeding, just solid advice and something from which you can make informed decisions. Harry Potter and The Amber Spyglass let you think for yourselves and that’s the key to a good book: let the reader’s mind do the talking.