The ‘fast and light’ revolution in kit and techniques means that top mountaineers now sprint up mountains, smashing records as they go, rather than laying siege to them – bit how fit do they need to be, and how can you prepare for your own mini adventures?
Jon Gupta is one of the world’s fastest rising climbers – by the age of 28 he had summited major climbs at 6000 7000 and 8000 metres including Everest. In 2017 the Montane athlete set a speed record for climbing Kilimanjaro’s 5895m by its steepest route, in just eight hours and eleven minutes. The air is so thin on this mountain that there is half the oxygen available than at sea level – so how has be built such bulletproof endurance?
RISING Why did you pick Kilimanjaro for your speed climbing challenge?
JON GUPTA, CLIMBER ‘I really like moving fast in the big mountains. Over the last 10 years I’ve grown a love for the high altitude world and seem to be able to perform really well in this extreme environment. Kilimanjaro is a staple of my guiding work and over the last nine years I have got to know the mountain inside out, with 18 ascents. So it was just a matter of time and logistics. This particular speed ascent was part of a film I’m making with my friend Dave Talbot and outdoor brand Montane.’
RISING What was the toughest part about it?
JP ‘On the day I felt really strong, but once you reach 5500m everything becomes really hard work! I was pushing my body as fast as it could go but my heart and lungs couldn’t psychically work any harder, so I had to take quick 30 second breaks every five minutes to allow my body to catch up.’
‘I encourage people to enjoy training and just increase the level they do, whether it’s running or Crossfit’
RISING How do you train for moving fast at high altitudes, above 5000m?
JP ‘The simple message I give to my clients joining my expeditions is: “Big lungs and strong legs.” On top of this a huge part of high-altitude mountaineering and doing really big days out is having the mental strength to keep on pushing. I try and encourage people to make sure they enjoy the training they do and perhaps just increase the level of training they already do, whether this is running, cycling/ spin or Crossfit.’
RISING What kind of training can you do outdoors?
JP ‘Nothing beats actually spending time in the mountains as training, and you can do this with a big pack on and moving faster than you might normally ‘walk’ up a mountain. This is easily the best training. But fundamentally anything that means your legs and lungs are working hard for a prolonged period of time.’
‘I suffered a 10-minute full body cramp towards the end – it was quite scary’
RISING How important is nutrition to your performance and what’s your strategy?
JP ‘I recently had an interesting experience related to this. After Kilimanjaro I ran the Welsh 3000’s (55km, 4500m
/-) in just under eight hours and suffered a full body cramp towards the end. It was quite scary and took 10 minutes to pass! It took my legs nearly six days to recover completely from running the Welsh 3000s. Just 10 days later I ran The Bob Graham Round (106km, 9000m
/-) in 22 hours 28 minutes and it could not have gone better. The round went smoothly and without any cramps or muscle problems. After The Round it took only a few days for my body and legs to recover fully. The only difference in the two days: nutrition.’
‘On the Welsh 3000s I was dehydrated most of the time and just ate a few sweets to get around. On the Bob Graham Round I started hydrated and well feed. During The Round I ate constantly all the way and drank all sorts of good fluids throughout the day. The difference was black and white and it was all down to hydration, salts and food intake. ‘
RISING What about when you’re high and you’re having to carry everything with you, including water?
JP ‘For my big speed ascents at high altitude it’s often more of a balance between weight and speed. Anyone who was ever climbed with me will know that I see hydration at high altitude as the single most important factor in performance. Sure, I will eat as well but you are moving slower and more constant and probably don’t burn as much energy in a short space of time as running an ultramarathon, so I tend to eat less.’
RISING What’s the most surprising benefit of building fitness for the mountains?
JP ‘I’m often surprised at just how far I can push my body at a high level in a serious environment and it just continues to perform. Hours and hours into a huge day the psychological benefits of experiences and previous big days out play a huge part in keeping you going, knowing that you have done it before, and you can do it again.’
‘Being ‘hill fit’ is a different kettle of fish to being ‘gym fit’ on a cardio and psychological level’
RISING What key area of strength or fitness do you see people neglecting to train and then getting caught out by on the hills?
JP ‘Almost definitely this is always endurance. Doing a big day out is one thing, but then arriving at a camp and having to set up your tent, melt snow for water, eat your dinner then get up and do it all again the next day not only takes practice and experience but a huge amount of endurance.’
‘An average work out in the gym might last up to two hours. An average day in the mountains would normally be 5-8 hours. No comparison. Being ‘hill fit’ is a different kettle of fish to being ‘gym fit’ both on a cardio level and psychological level.’
RISING What feats of mountaineering endurance have inspired you over the years?
JP ‘I think the most amazing and impressive feat in recent times has to be the traverse of the Mazeno Ridge to the summit of Nanga Parbat (8125m). This was one of the outstanding ascents of 2012, and a rare recent success for a British team on an 8000m peak. Sandy Allan and Rick Allen took over 18 days to complete this astonishing achievement.’
‘Other prolific mountaineers and climbers who I find inspiring include Ueli Steck for his super impressive achievements all over the world; Simone Moro for ability to suffer during his winter 8000m ascents; Doug Scott, Stephen Venables and Chris Bonnington for being at the forefront of British alpinism in the Himalayas.’
RISING Do you think people are sometimes unnecessarily intimidated by the mountains?
JP ‘Yes, I’m sure they are. Negative press always get remembered and it is almost always a tiny percentage of the stories from days in the mountains. The mountains are such a wonderful place to have adventures and I love encouraging people to set of on their own mini adventures. Just make sure you check the weather forecast, take enough kit and clothing to keep warm and dry, and don’t forget your sandwiches.’
RISING What has been your riskiest moment in the mountains?
JP ‘I’ve had a few scary moments whilst out in the mountains climbing and skiing but there is only one incident where I got injured. Whilst climbing in Kyrgyzstan I got hit by rock fall at around 6500m. I was knocked unconscious and I split my head open substantially. We had to descend for two days before getting a heli-rescue to hospital.’
RISING And what has been your most rewarding day up high?
JP ‘My most rewarding moment is probably summiting Peak Communism in 2012. This was part of a bigger project called the Snow Leopard Award with my friend Nick and we were hoping to climb 5x 7000m back to back. Having turned back from close to the summit on Peal Lenin and then summited Peak Korjenevskaya at 7134m in just 3 days, we set out to climb Peak Communism. This is a huge mountain at 7495m but from glacier to summit it’s more ascent than Everest.’
‘We packed our bags with food and gas for a six day round trip and returned on day eight. Only around 20 people a year summit Peak Communism and we were the first climbers of the season heading up. We broke trail through very challenging conditions and eventually got into a summit position. On summit day conditions were still slow going and the cloud came in as we reached the summit ridge. There was so much unknown and doubt that we didn’t know we would make it to the summit until the second we arrived! It was such an incredible moment for both of us.’
RISING Although the highest peaks have been well targeted, many 4000-6000m peaks remain unclimbed and are perhaps more in the range of amateur mountaineers – do you agree?
JP ‘There are a huge amount of unclimbed peaks around the world from Greenland to Nepal to Aran to name a few. These range from simple easy scrambles to highly technical winter ascents. There are two options to attempting an unclimbed peak like these. Option One is be a generally competent hillwalker/ mountaineer and join a company who organise and lead expeditions to unclimbed destinations. The experience required will depend on objective of the trip.’
‘Option Two is to become a highly skilled, self sufficient and competent mountaineer who can organise their own expeditions to these destinations. Skills collated over years on mountaineering in both summer and winter conditions, alpine skills, and possibly greater ranges experience too. These can be gained both with a guide and through learning by themselves or with friends.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Jon Gupta climbing Scotland’s Ben Nevis and then skiing back down again…
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Comments are for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.