How we’re training for Denali: from Tahoe to Kansas

Brad Miller and Clay Kimmi of Adventures for Action set out this May to climb the West Buttress of Denali (Mt. McKinley) to raise awareness and funds for the International Health Partners of the United States and Tanzania (IHP-TZ). This blog post is the second in a series Brad and Clay are writing for Tahoe Mountain Sports, who is helping to gear them up for Denali. Brad mused on the difficulty of big mountain training and inspiration from his brother in his last post.

Training for a big mountain is a funny thing.  Oftentimes people who have their sights set on a far away peak don’t live anywhere near the mountains.  Those of us who are lucky enough to reside in a mountainous domain are still challenged by the fact that the mountains we live near are usually much shorter that whatever goal we have in mind.  Clay and I have found ourselves in both of these situations and it has made for an interesting 9 months of training. I live in Tahoe, which is a great area if you are in training for a mountain goal.  Although the peaks top out around 10k feet, the plethora of mountains means I have plenty to keep me busy. Clay on the other hand lives in eastern Kansas, where the hills roll and the mountains are but a distant memory.  He has had to adapt his training regiment to suit his surroundings and busier life.  Here, in our own words, is how we manage training for mountain climbing with and without mountains.


I have always subscribed to the sport-specific method of training; the best training for a sport is to play the sport itself.  Of course, I cannot go climb Denali all year, but expedition climbing a big mountain (as opposed to light and fast alpine style) is all about carrying lots of gear, and Tahoe affords me ample opportunity to prepare myself for really heavy loads.  Having so many peaks out there helps me have lots of fun peak-bagging and seeing new places, and helps stave off the inevitable boredom that training eventually educes.

During the summer months I found myself hiking on dry dusty trails up to the many close summits that surround Tahoe.  My two favorite trails for weight training became the “direct” approach to Pyramid Peak and the Ralston Peak trail.  The Pyramid trail is a steep 4000-foot climb over a short 3.5–4 miles.  This allows for a really tough day that can be completed relatively quickly.  The trail offers spectacular views of Lovers Leap to the south and is the perfect outing for anyone who wants a stiff challenge.

The Ralston Peak trail starts higher and is thus shorter.  It is also less steep, more scenic, is a little closer to Meyers, which all together provides a shorter day.  It is also, in my opinion, the best-kept secret in Tahoe day hikes.  Although no one ever talks about Ralston except to backcountry ski, this peak overlooks Echo and Aloha lakes and rewards hikers with some of the most magnificent views that Tahoe has to offer.

Besides being a climber that was in descent physical shape to begin with, I began my Denali training 9 months ago in the summer of 2011.  I stayed pretty casual about it but tried to get out at least once a week for a steep day hike.  I began with a 40 lb pack and eventually worked my way up to 60 on the trail.  Because Tahoe did not produce a heavy winter this year, I stayed in trail hiking mode for many months, gradually increasing weight, distance and height.

Along with hiking I continued body weight strength training; pushups, climbing hangboard and pilates to build and maintain overall strength.  I do not lift heavy weights, in part because as a climber I avoid adding mass, but mainly because I do not have access to a gym with weight lifting equipment.  I also began running, which I hate, but I find running important as it adds an aspect of high-output cardio that helps me maintain a lower working heart rate while on a mountain.  Running is also a great way to get a quick workout when you are pressed for time or can’t get out for a long day.  I began with jogging a mile or two and worked my way up to five, where I capped my distance runs.  In the 3 months prior to departure I added interval training, starting slow and working up to one hour of intervals at 45 seconds of fast running and 75 seconds of walking for recovery.  Interval training is great and I like it much more than distance running.  It is a fantastic cardio workout, can be done on a bike, is a great way to burn fat if needed and is a good way to change things up to add variety to your workouts.

When it finally snowed in Tahoe I switched my regiment to more specific activities.  On Denali we will be traveling on skis and pulling a heavy sled along with carrying a pack.  Fountain Place Road, one of Tahoe’s service roads offers a great “day one” simulation in that it rises 1500 feet over 4.5 miles (a little taller than base camp to camp one on Denali.  In times of good snow coverage, I skinned up Fountain Place road, carrying my pack and pulling a sled.  Once on top I could dump weight and ski down the road creating a realistic gear cache scenario and a shorter day out than just hiking.  This not only allowed me to gain sport-specific strength and experience what working day to day will feel like, it also allowed me to test my gear and dial in my sled system.  Again, I gradually added weight until I was able to carry a 65 lb pack and pull a 70 lb sled, hopefully 20 or more lbs beyond what I will haul on the mountain.

As the weather has turned warmer I have heard the climbing-sirens’ irresistible call and have spent more time on the rock, which is probably not the best choice but keeps me sane and physically strong.  I have also hit the road more, putting in long rides on my cyclocross bike.  With little lake level snow I have abandoned the sled and mainly run and ride for my cardio workouts, but I do so knowing I can now handle the weight and feel that if I hit the mountain tomorrow I am ready for the challenge.   Tahoe has helped me prepare well.


Oh my goodness, I miss the mountains!  When I graduated from the University of Kansas in the winter of 2005, my stint in the flatlands was done.  I KNEW that I would never again be subjected to the unrelenting monotony of the Great Plains.  I gratefully migrated upstream to the rugged, majestic beauty of the mountains.  Love at first hike!  Rolling amazing terrain to hike, bike, run, climb, snow slide and swing ice tools… everything that I had longed for in the days of my youth in Kansas City.  The mountain lifestyle got in my blood and, as with many of our ilk, became my lifestyle.  My days of laziness and inactivity were a thing of the past!  I found myself getting cranky if I was not out pushing myself mentally on the sharp end or post holing at altitude with the dogs “helping” to break trail.  Training was never really on my mind, but the daily hike, climb or ride became the norm.  I found grace in the seasonal migrations, following the snow uphill toward Summit County, CO, and then sliding with the melting snow down to the Left Coast for summer gardening and High Sierra playing.  The grace of my waste vegetable oil–powered suburban and dumpster-diving for food made the free flow quite literal.

Ahh the days of yore…. writing about them brings a big ‘ol smile and loads of gratitude for that lifestyle.  Training was not something that ever crossed my mind.  Daily, I would scratch whatever itch popped up and stay in darn good shape in the process.  Alas, change is the only constant in life, and a wedding in October of 2011 lured me back to Kansas City.  I had a blast welcoming a new cousin-in-law to the family, and a 10-year reunion two weeks later seemed like a good way to wait for the snow to start falling in the high country.  Well, there must be something about the combination of family, friends and loads of connections that can spring the trap of opportunity.  I got snagged, hook, line and sinker, and found myself teetering on the edge of moving back to the flatlands.  Fortunately, a climb of Rainier at the end of September 2011 with great friends led to a promising opportunity of another sort – a trip back to Alaska.

So, this past fall, I found myself with one of the most challenging decisions I have made in a long time: leave the mountains where I had found my bliss playing in the hills, connection to the Creator and a groovy seasonal lifestyle, or return to the flatlands to pursue exciting new opportunities and create a more sustainable future in community with family and friends.  Hello conundrum!  After loads of wrestling with pros and cons, ups and downs, ins and outs, the return to the homeland won.  BUT, the caveat was that I had something BIG to look forward to – a trip to attempt Denali.  I realized that this meant a huge change in my lets go play out the back door in the mountains mentality, to getting psyched up to train with a heavy pack running up stairs over and over.  I love challenges, and generally thrive when they are presented.  However, the abrupt and somewhat rude transition from earning my turns at 13,000’ after work to dripping sweat in a poorly lit stairwell in a tall building in Kansas City, Missouri, was, well, shocking.

I found that the surreptitious access to a hotel stairwell had replaced ducking ropes for powder turns; 330’ at a time with an elevator descent had replaced my hike off of 6 chair to Snow White Chutes at 12,000’ and descending with graceful turns down to the chairlift for another lap.  Every week as I add another gallon of water to my pack or push for another lap in the dingy stairwell, I am motivated by the slopes of the Great One.  It is a change to say the least.  The miracle of the interweb continues to provide a constant level of motivation.  Videos, blogs and trip reports all help to keep me motivated, knowing that others are out there getting the goods in the alpine realm.  Regular trips also help keep the stoked meter up.  An annual trip to Red Rocks in Vegas provided an opportunity to pack in some serious climbing.  A return to Colorado to collect gear and dial in my ski/skin setup allowed me to solo some ice and grab some turns for sanity’s sake.  Most recently, a trip to New England allowed for the first time exploration of the Gunks and Northern New England.  Variety is a spice that I love, and it has certainly helped with the transition in both living location and training.

Finding ways to stay motivated with little to no vertical relief is far and away the most challenging part of living in Kansas City.  The land that I had been caretaking in the San Luis Valley, CO, has an unbelievable view of the Sangre De Cristo mountains – 6000’ of vertical from valley floor to the summits of the Crestone Group of 14’ers.  I placed my hangboard to maximize that view, and each session my inspiration and motivation came from the majesty before me.  I went from that view to 33 lonely flights of stairs in a dark stairwell.  Lets get psyched!  I have never been a gym person and the idea of spending federal dollar notes to go sweat with suburbanites makes me want to puke.  Time to reinvent and revamp the daily routine!  I have found myself doing things that in the past I thought were crazy.  However, necessity is the mother of invention, so the knobby tires came off the bike and slicks went on, the harness went into storage and the running shoes were found.  No skis, snowboard or ice axes to play with this year – they were left for a lonely winter in a barn.  I had gallon water bottles, ankle weights and a heart monitor to play with this winter.  Learning intimately about interval training, hill repeats, periodization, nutrition are all part of the arduous and sweaty process.  I have managed to find ways that I feel actually simulate some of the motions that will be encountered on the mountain.  I spent a week shoveling, wheelbarrowing and raking more than 200 cubic feet of compost on a suburban permaculture project.  If pushing 6 cubic yards of compost in a wheelbarrow through mud is anything like pulling a sled on a glacier than I am feeling pretty ready for this!

In the past several months, I have carried heavier loads, ran and ridden longer distances and durations than I ever thought possible.  Pushing my body to the edge of its capability in new ways has proven to be an interesting and delightfully surprisingly change from simply playing.  The necessity of changing both my mentality and mode of training has helped me to change my view on exercise.  I am aware of the importance of daily physical activity on a deeper level.  Living in Colorado, being active literally came with the terrain.  Living in Kansas, exercise has become a necessity for sanity, yet one that does not come without motivation.  Finding that motivation daily to go out and push myself is one that I still am challenged with. Fortunately the dangling carrot of Denali gets me stoked!

Tips for big mountain training

1. Form a training log.  Google docs is a great way to share what you and your partners are doing and helps keep you honest.

2. Carry water or other eject-able ballast.  Water is heavy and allows you to dump your load at the summit to save your knees on the descent.  Rocks can be used if you don’t want to waste water but water allows you to really fine tune your pack weight and increase by small amounts.  You can also be a Trail Angel; more than once I have filled up the canteens of hikers who misjudged their water needs.

3. Use trekking poles.  For a long time I thought trekking poles were lame.  That all changed when I started packing really heavy.  Poles help reduce knee strain and have saved me from terrific falls many times.

4. Variety is key.  When training over the course of many months, it is easy to get disheartened and bored.  Do many different activities to keep your spirits up and mind fresh.

5. Utilize rest and recovery.  Remember, you build muscle during recovery, not activity.  Find the right number of days a week you need for rest and recovery and stick to them.  Occasionally take longer breaks off to go on a trip and mentally recover. Fuel yourself with healthy, nutritious food.

6. Dial your system.  Use training days to test gear and figure out your systems, allowing you to hit the mountain ready to climb.

7. Find a partner.  If you can’t train with your climbing partner, find someone else who will motivate you to work out with.

8. Take a few training runs up other mountains.  Meet with your partners to check each other out while having fun.  Practice skills and make sure everyone is up to date, fresh and has good group chemistry.

9. Take skills training if needed.  Some skills are better learned from instructors.  Avalanche avoidance/rescue and glacier travel and crevasse rescue fall under that heading.  Make sure you have the skills to rescue yourself and others, regardless if you are using a guide service.

If you have any big mountain training or Denali training tips specifically, share them with us in the comments. [Denali photo by bdearth/flickr]

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