What could cyclists and mountaineers learn from one another?

Dedicated and driven, thighs and calves that eclipse the sun, upper bodies eclipsed when they turn sideways. Not many hikers or mountaineers would fit that description, but a few cyclists would. There’s some important lessons these two groups could learn from one another, all without having to shave their legs.

What cyclists could teach mountaineers

Heart rate zones

If you talked to almost any hiker or mountaineer about heart rate zones or perceived exertion they’d probably give you a look as blank as Brexit is depressing. And yet talk to almost any club cyclist and suddenly you’re on a rocketship heading to zone 5, via FTP and of course a bit of sweet spot. Heart rates and perceived exertion let you know how hard you are working on a bike: it’s important to knowing whether you can maintain it, whether you’ll blow up, how wasted you’ll feel later. It’s pretty important to know these things in the mountains or on harder routes too, where you need to go fast but must be able to maintain that pace. Using a heart rate monitor might be a bit keen for most people, but keeping your perceived exertion in mind on a scale of 1 to 10 might be a good idea, and if you’re regularly pushing above about a 4 (steady but definitely doing something) on a long day then its going to get very hard at some point.

Bottom line, though, is if you can’t hold steady conversation when you’re out mountaineering then you’re going too fast: you’re no longer efficient and that’ll do you no good on a long day out.

RPE-scale

Some familiarity with perceived exertion is a good way to measure efforts on a long hill day. Many cyclists are used to doing this sort of thing.

Diet

Weighing grams of quinoa, chia seeds, and pomlaa essence into a bowl isn’t for everyone, and the amount of nonsense in some cycling publications about nutrition is staggering (but yet to reach the squashed aadvark, cucumber couli and rabbit anus potions promoted in some triathlon magazines). However, giving at least a bit of attention to diet, especially on the hill, could be useful to many hikers and mountaineers.

I’m not suggesting chugging gels until you void yourself, though some people do like that, but six flapjacks a day is not a balanced diet. I should know, I’ve been there.

And man cannot live on Snickers alone. Just a bit of attention to what you’re eating on big hill days can make a massive difference. Also, cycle-style snacking rather than the torrent-style download of a one-hour lunchbreak is definitely the way to go.

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It’s a vital part of any day – getting in the calories is essential, but pay a bit of attention to what you’re eating too.

Weight

I’m seriously into weight saving on my kit (see here and elsewhere on this blog for example) but even a mediocre cyclist will want to know the weights of everything on their bike. That’s a good starting point for making things lighter and therefore easier to get up a hill. The other thing is spending money… “This bottle cage is 4 g lighter than my current one and only costs £40? Sold!” Some cyclists are an absolute sucker for new stuff, and it’s not an attitude I particularly like (for what it’s worth, relatively few serious racers will spend stupid money on their bike: regular crashes make Dura-Ace a waste of money. Ultegra will be the limit for most people; Dura Ace being for posers or those dedicated and good enough to get free team kit).

But a lot of hikers and mountaineers are at the opposite end of the spectrum, willing to spend hundreds on petrol or beer, or both, but not invest in new kit which will make their life easier and more enjoyable.

If you upgrade all the krabs on your harness from those of ten years ago to modern ones you will save a kilo; if you get a good down sleeping bag you will save a kilo. They are big weight savings, and much better value than the cyclist’s bottle cage.

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Four bags being used on the same overnight trip – size (and weight) matters to both cyclists and hikers.

Training

It’s obvious, and one I covered in a similar post about runners, but training really does make things easier. Not only easier, but it enables you to do more interesting routes more often, and with reduced risk of injury. Surely that’s worth doing?

Cycling

First big bike ride – Stage 1 of the 2014 Tour de France route – this was only possible because of training. Training let’s you do cool stuff, so it’s worth doing! And training itself might be cool stuff!

What mountaineers could teach cyclists

How to navigate

It’s a prerequisite of being in the mountains: you can navigate. You might not be brilliant, but you’re probably keen to improve and you realise its importance. You might well know that the hardest part of nav is getting out of the car park, and once that’s over it can only get easier…

Cyclists, on the other hand, are often terrible at navigating.

They will blindly follow their Garmins off a cliff, cycling into the sea and wondering if they might get a Strava KOM for their troubles. Reading a map on the bike is a pain but having some idea of where you are going is a good idea. It just takes a few more minutes of planning, rather than being the rat to the Garmin’s Pied Piper bleeps.

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Navigation with a map is a pain while on a bike, but having a rough idea of where you’re going is a great idea. Don’t blindly follow the Garmin.

How to dress for bad weather

Cycling clothing is generally pretty good at being aerodynamic, and cycle shorts are remarkably good at what is an extremely difficult job. In fact, cycling clothing is excellent except for one thing: in severe weather, it is rubbish. There are exceptions, but cycling clothing is so far behind mountaineering kit when it comes to foul weather performance it is laughable. However, that is a whole other post. Regardless, cyclists should stack things in their favour and at least wear the most appropriate kit available.

The traditional layering system for outdoors doesn’t really work for cyclists – you can’t take off layers easily and where would you put them? – but the basic concepts of baselayers, insulation, and shell layers don’t seem to have reached a lot of cyclists.

Also, don’t just put on a million layers because you’re cold when you set off: you’ll melt later then freeze when going down a hill or sitting in the bunch.

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Cycling in nice weather is easy. It’s when the weather’s rubbish that it gets harder, and unfortunately that’s when the kit is often least effective.

Traveling for a trip

Mountaineers, unless they are lucky enough to live in the mountains, are used to traveling about to get to where they want to climb. They will travel across countries in their knackered cars and across continents on budget flights to get to where they want to be. Cyclists don’t do this. Many cyclists will do the same routes day in day out from their front door and never think to ride somewhere else. That’s mindless; it can’t be good for you. Putting a bike in a car is a pain, and on the train has its limitations (especially if a big fat man is sat in the bike reservation area), but once in a while it’s a great thing to do, opening up new roads. Do it once a month, and be thankful that you can do your hobby from your front door as and when you like.

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Packing your bike for a trip away is a pain…

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…but a whole lot easier than packing for an expedition. Go somewhere!

There you have it. Be brave, go in that cafe, go in that pub, and talk to the weird Lycra-clad people with their espressos. And you cyclists, talk to those weathered Gore-Texers drinking the ales. We may all just learn something.

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Chamonix Photo Diary

I snuck in a great four day trip to Chamonix this summer. As winter has barely got going yet in the UK I thought I’d jog my memory about a short trip where we got a lot done…

Day 1 started pretty late by Alpine standards. Lift up at about midday, down the Midi Arete, and then on to the Arete des Cosmiques.

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Guess where we are…

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Tacul Triangle.

We blasted up the Cosmiques Arete in good time – I’d done it before while it was first time for my partner Scott – and the atmosphere on the route was fantastic: laid back, stress free, easy going. Even the French guides we chatted to were in a placid mood, happy to join the queues and discuss very specific and extremely boring details about camming devices with us. We finished the route and took the bubble over to the fantastic Torino Hut.

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Walking over to Tour Ronde.

Our next day started early as we had the Tour Ronde north face in mind, a route I’d tried to try a few years ago, but conditions hadn’t even let us get to the route, let alone climb it.

We moved together over the bergschrund and made great progress as the sun climbed behind us.

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Scott getting going on the face.

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The Vallée Blanche.

We pitched some of the steeper ground, but climbing conditions were generally good. The crux chimney was pretty hollow and ‘boomed’ ominously, but good sticks were never too far away. Soon we were out onto the snowfield leading towards the summit.

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Solid screws and good ice. Very nice.

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Heading for the top.

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Legs burning. Feeling the altitude a bit at this point too.

We were pretty delighted to reach the top. We’d made good time on the route and for both of us it was our first ‘proper’ Alpine north face. We walked along the ridge until we reached the guidebook’s abseil descent and then began our six abseils back to the glacier. A rocket-speed run across the glacier meant we caught the last lift back to France from the Helbronner and we were back in the valley for celebratory beers. Fantastic day!

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Tour Ronde North Face from the cablecar.

We spent the next day lazing about, getting stocked up on kit, and then we caught the last lift up to the Midi. We couldn’t believe how quiet it was… too quiet. The forecast was good, conditions should still be good, why were we the only people on the lift? We found out soon enough.

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The famous Midi Arete…

A bit of micro-navigation found us safely down onto the Vallée Blanche where we prepared for our bivvy. It was very cold, very windy, humidity was 100% – it was going to be a grim night. However, slowly the cloud began to clear and figures and tents began appearing in the mist.

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These two guys eventually appeared out of the mirk. They looked absolutely wasted: staggering, slow, falling over.

The forecast slowly came right and we were treated to an amazing sunset and sunrise.

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The Aiguille du Midi from a different angle.

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Alpine sunrise: utterly freezing but completely beautiful.

The next day we made a quick decision to abandon our original plan of having a crack at one of the Couloirs on the Tacul as conditions looked poor. We instead climbed the Laurence Arete, a fantastic little route and a great end to a very productive few days. Sometimes conditions aren’t perfect, but if you take your opportunities when they’re presented, you take your time and change plans when forced, and you can have a great time. Thanks Scott, awesome trip.