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.