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Training Your Ambition

I often get asked by people who are either considering climbing Everest, or simply intrigued by it, what level of fitness you need to climb the mountain and how much training is enough to get you ready.

If you are planning to go on any trekking trip, or climb any mountain above 4000m, you need to be fairly fit- climbing an 8000m peak requires a different 'something' all together.

Before I went on my fist Himalayan expedition to climb Mount Manalsu (the worlds 8th highest mountain), I had no idea about what it would be like to try and survive in the 'death zone', which is our atmosphere above 8000m - basically, nothing can live up there- definitely not humans.

I had asked lots of questions to climbers who had, and asked them to compare what it felt like being up there, to their training down here, and the answer was always pretty much: "it's incomparable".

Obviously, climbing is not an Olympic sport, and there are plenty of tougher physical challenges than climbing Everest- for instance, I could not run a marathon in 2hrs 15 or complete an iron man in record time, but climbing 8000m peaks is a unique challenge- it’s a culmination of physical and mental exhaustion that has built up over many weeks, sleep deprivation, extreme high altitude and the physiological problems that come with that, freezing temperatures, and many objective dangers from the mountain and the weather.

However, as much as I was told this and how I trained for it, the full realisation of just how tough summit night on a Himalayan peak is, no matter how fit you are at sea level was a real shock. Quite simply, you are asking your body and mind to be at their peak, when the reality is you are at your weakest. No matter how many 20mile runs I had done through the country side at sea level, none had put my life at risk, none had started when I'd not slept the two nights previously, and none were fuelled by nothing more than a dairylea triangle. Being in the death zone, I came to understand, is like no place on Earth.

Despite painting a tough picture of what it's like on these mountains, the real challenge is those 48 hours from reaching summit camp, going to the top, and then getting down safely again. The rest of the time- those prior weeks on the hill, are understandably not anywhere near as hard. They are mostly a delicate balance of training your body for summit day- I.e. acclimatising, learning the route, building endurance basically turning your body into a mountain machine, and then at the same time losing precious fat and energy reserves, battering your feet and joints, and letting the altitude take its toll on your body. Basically, you're getting stronger, but you're also getting weaker.

So how DO you get ready for 8000m peaks? The simple answer is climb lots of them. The difference in my performance on Lhotse summit day last May, compared to Everest summit day two years previously was staggering. Had I trained harder? No. In fact, I'd trained less due to a knee injury. Stepping out of the tent at 11.30 at night and looking up, Lhotse just faded into the night sky- I couldn't see a single head torch ahead of me, and I felt alert, energised and ready to go. We stormed to the summit without stopping in 6 hours, and made it quickly and safely down to camp 2 at 6,400m that same day- 16 hours on our feet, without having slept or eaten properly for a few days beforehand.

That night, compared to Everest where I was battered, exhausted, and life threateningly injured, to me, there is a clear reason why I was a better climber on Lhotse, despite training so hard for the big E, and that was simply down to the fact that I now had more experience.

So I’ve learned this: "never, ever underestimate specificity". If you want to get good at climbing mountains in Wales, go climb mountains in Wales. If you want to get good at climbing mountains in the Himalayas- the biggest on Earth, in a safe and efficient way, then spend as much of time and money as possible climbing those kind of mountains. Of course, a strong foundation of skill and fitness on smaller peaks are ideal transferable skills when moving too higher mountains, but the trend of people climbing Mont Blanc and then setting their sights on a mountain like Everest is, with the hindsight and experience that I have, very foolish and totally incomparable.

If you dream of one day standing at the base camp of Mount Everest, looking skywards and hoping to stand on its lofty summit, then do yourself a massive favour- climb some mountains in the Himalayas first- island peak, followed by AMA Dablam, followed by Cho Oyu or Manaslu, then the big one.

With hindsight, I had Manaslu under my belt and still wasn't ready to take on such a big challenge and it is only now with 5 Himalayan peaks, various Alps trips and countless weekends in a north Wales and the Lakes that I know I am prepared and skilled enough to climb 8000m peaks safely and understand more about the risk and challenge that I am taking on.

But the most important thing to recognise, and that I have learnt so far during my few years mountaineering, is that we never truly reach our full potential, so there's still always a lot of room for improvement. With every new expedition I know I'll be learning new things, finding new weaknesses, and analysing my experiences so that I am a better mountaineer in the future.

Lastly climbing a mountain like Everest isn't really about fitness at all, it's about experience. So remember- with any challenge- "never underestimate specificity".