Alpine Fitness and Mentorship: Interview With Steve House

Steve HouseAs an alpinist, Oregon-born Steve House has achieved a number of stunning ascents across the world. In 2004, he marked the second ascent of K7 West in the Karakoram via a new route, established a new winter line on Canada’s Mt. Alberta in winter conditions and his most noteworthy climb is the central pillar of the Rupal Face on Pakistan’s Nanga Parbat, which earned him the Piolet D’Or alpine award.

But as an author, coach and climbing mentor, House is revolutionizing how climbers train and how they are taught. With coach Scott Johnston, he’s published Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete, which combines training theories and scientific knowledge to build the ultimate program for climbers and mountaineers. He is also the founder of Alpine Mentors, a program which aims to develop the next generation of great alpinists with a structured program of coaches and athletes. I joined House to talk about the development of his methods, the misunderstandings of strength training and how his own mentorship as a young climber living in Slovenia spurred the creation of his program.

THE CLYMB: You once mentioned that the Rupal Face was the culmination of years of a psychological and physical journey. Did your training change from your 2004 attempt to your 2005 summit?

STEVE HOUSE: It actually didn’t; it was basically the same. I started working with Scott Johnston, the co-author of the book that we did together. It took a couple of years, but in 2004 I was able to climb the route on North Twin, then soloed K7 and then from that expedition we went through to Nanga Parbat, which we didn’t summit for various reasons. Then coming back the next year, in 2005, it was basically your classic cycle: came back from the expedition, had a month off, rested and ate hamburgers and ice cream and then got back to it, putting the work in for the fall, and showing ready and fit in August and September 2005.

THE CLYMB: During this expedition, did you come up with the idea that instead of maintaining a fitness level, that you reach your peak fitness just as you’re heading out for the trip?

SH: No, that was known about for a long time. That’s the foundation for endurance training such as running and other sports. It’s well known that you can’t maintain a high level, and that’s also why sports like track and field have seasons because the athletes can’t keep a competitive level for more than that. I had understood it for a long time but hadn’t implemented it in terms of climbing before. I hadn’t had a coach before that could help me do that and I didn’t have the knowledge myself. I really started to train smartly around 2000-2001 … I hired a Nordic ski coach that helped me think logically, like, “Okay, I have the technical part figured out and I need help with the aerobic part so I arrive at the technical part fresh and capable.” That didn’t work out with her because she didn’t understand the sport of climbing. I brought that process to Scott Johnston who is a long time climber and a world-class coach. He had a unique skill set that allowed us to put it all together.

2005 was the third year that I’d been trying this peaking strategy. I had previously tried it in 2003 on an expedition to Masherbrum, which we didn’t succeed; then in 2004, I tried to peak for K7 and the North Twin trip with a specific period. I aimed for the K7 and Nanga Parbat period in July and August, which was the peak period for that year, and again in 2005, 2006 and 2007. 2008 was an earlier peak for a spring trip to Makalu. It depends on when the expedition is. In Nepal it’s before or after monsoon season so I’m training for the spring or fall.

Steve House

THE CLYMB: What differences did you see in traditional alpine training at the time that you felt required redefining?

SH: I think we’re trying to make people shift their viewpoint on climbing to include the possibility that it be treated like sport. It’s not enough to climb when you feel like it, and while people have gotten far that way, it doesn’t get you to the top-level in any discipline. It’s a matter of making room in people’s minds that it could possibly be done that way. A lot of people who have mountaineering objectives, full-time jobs and families say “I want to be ready for my Mt. Rainier climb in June, but I have kids and I work 40-hours a week, and how do I want to most effectively prepare given time is a valuable and limited commodity?” So it also addresses that audience as well, the one that doesn’t have the freedom to go mountaineering five days a week.

THE CLYMB: Do you believe that alpinists should be striving for a balance between aerobic and gym training, or favoring one over the other?

SH: Strength training is an important part of any kind of endurance training program. The focus is that in our strength training prescriptions, we want people to understand that the purpose of strength training is designed to have a positive impact on their climbing. It doesn’t matter how much weight someone can move around in the gym. The gym is not our sport. We’re climbers. Climbing is our sport. The gym is a very specific and positive tool when done correctly, but there’s a lot of not totally understood information about strength training in general.

THE CLYMB: Could you elaborate on some of those misunderstandings?

SH: Strength training is pretty well understood, but some experts want to cloud the waters so they look more important. It’s actually fairly simple: you can take the basic, fundamental principles, one of those principles being you can start with a general strength approach. All sports do this whether it’s gymnastics, running or alpine ski racing. You need to spend a couple of months hitting all the muscle groups evenly with roughly a protocol of 10 repetitions of a given exercise, and you build up over those 8 weeks, progressing to three or four exercises gradually over a couple of months.

What people need to understand is the correct timeframe for training is not weeks, but it’s months or years. A lot of people will say they’ve been training for two weeks, but that’s not training. Training happens when you’re doing cumulative, gradual, progressive exercise over many, many months. That is how you get really fit. For strength training, it depends on the athletic background, and it can take as little as 4-6 weeks or as much as 8-12 weeks to get that general foundation going. Then it switches to what is called a ‘max-strength protocol,’ where we reduce the number of exercises to the most functional, the ones that are most common for climbers and alpinists like pull-ups, squats or one-legged box step-ups, and then you switch to a repetition protocol that develops your maximum strength in an effective way.

It depends on people who either need to increase their muscle mass, like teenagers, or people who need to reduce their muscle mass because they’re too bulky and the strength-to-weight ratio is important in climbing. They may be super-strong but they have too much muscle mass. Especially if you’re talking about an aerobic activity like alpine climbing, and you have too much upper body muscle mass you have to carry around. I think the basic principles can be simplified; they don’t need to be made overly complicated. They can be very effective and the key is applying them consistently with the modulation of the appropriate workout and rest periods.

Steve House

THE CLYMB: What is your definition of the word ‘mentorship’ and how did your mentorship define you when you were living in Slovenia?

SH: Mentorship is about teaching good judgement. I don’t want to teach someone where I have to tell them how to swing an ice axe correctly for example, not in the context of Alpine Mentors. What I want to do is connect mentors with climbers who have the technical skill and foundation, and know how to climb safely in terms of placing gear and ropework. We’re more working on what route to do when, when to turn around, when is it safe and when is it dangerous. I think that’s what for me, back in Slovenia, I had modeled for me very well … I didn’t know it at the time, but when I left Slovenia and came back to the States, I started going alpine climbing here. I had this picture of what that sort of mental decision making process looks like. It helps to keep me alive, make good decisions and develop as a climber.

THE CLYMB: For aspiring climbers who aren’t eligible for a program like Alpine Mentors, what are some ways of finding their own role models?

SH: We just created a program for those people and it’s called Alpine Mentors Unofficial. It’s a closed Facebook group so you have to ask to join. It’s not for beginners, but our team looks at the profiles and at what they’re doing or climbing, and if they look like beginners, they won’t be admitted. But if they are admitted to the Facebook page, there’s an assumption of risk and acknowledgement of how the system works. Then people can either offer mentorship or search for a mentor. People can provide their location and meet mentors for as a little as an afternoon or as long as a lifetime.

Steve House

THE CLYMB: How do you differentiate mentorship from ‘hand holding’ to letting someone develop their own intuition?

SH: Developing someone’s intuition is what we’re all about. Intuition is a tricky thing to define because it’s very amorphous, but getting people to a point where they can look at their mountain and see the same thing I see is pretty cool. They see the route, they see the condition, they know where to go, they see the danger without really thinking about it. That’s what intuition is: it’s judgment without conscious thought.

My adage is ‘the burnt hand teaches best.’ My role as a mentor is to let them climb and make decisions, then step in when things start to go wrong or become excessively hazardous. If they say ‘Hey, what do you think?’ I say ‘Here’s what I see. I see XYZ, It’s 1 o’clock, the rocks are falling and the sun is hitting that face, so maybe it’s time to get out of here.’ We’re not guiding because we’re not making the decisions, the climbers make those themselves.

THE CLYMB: On the Alpine Mentors website you mention a book Boys Adrift as an inspiration. What do you consider to be a coming of age ritual for developing climbers?

SH: With Alpine Mentors, we have a graduation ceremony in which we tell stories about what we did together and I acknowledge what they’ve learned and what they’ve done. Then they become mentors themselves and teach other people what they’ve learned.

THE CLYMB: In your climbing career, what do you believe you’re still learning?

SH: I’m still learning so many things. One of the greatest things about technique sports like climbing, Nordic skiing, or even tennis is you have the potential to keep getting better as you get older. As a climber, it’s interesting to me that, though I’m 45 years old, and maybe not as strong as I used to be, I still get better fundamentally and technically. I still take ski lessons every year and become a better skier every year. When you do it for 30 years like I have, the subtleties are notable when you’re tracking your improvements. That’s the great thing about climbing: it’s ageless.