Tag Archives: fitness

The Balance Test: Are You Ready for Carstensz?

I’m going to go out on a slick, mossy jungle limb and suggest that the core skill of improving balance isn’t receiving enough attention in our fitness training programs. I am fully aware that balance training just isn’t very sexy when compared to running, weights, yoga or other more traditional fitness elements. If, however, you want to succeed on Carstensz – whether on the trek in through the muddy jungle, the ascent of pitch after pitch of 4th and low-5th class gullies, or dismounting the Tyrolean traverse at nearly 16,000 feet – get serious with your balance training!

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Sara McGahan steps carefully across an airy gap en route to the summit of Carstensz.

Did you know that balance is simply a motor fitness skill? I used to watch people walking slack lines and reasoned that they were aliens – I thought I could never do that! Nothing could be further from the truth. Read this now and believe me later, we can improve our balance just like we can improve our strength and flexibility! Wouldn’t you agree that training to improve our balance and stability in advance of an adventure seems a significantly better option than learning that our balance needs help smack dab in the middle of the jungle? And including balance training into our life is ridiculously simple. Just add 5 or 10 minutes of balance work a few times a week to start.

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

We took advantage of the waves in Bali before heading into the jungles of Papua. Suffice it to say that Mark Tucker was one balanced surfer!

If you want to get technical, you can use the Romberg Test and Stork-Stand Balance Test to get a performance baseline for your balance. Incorporate balance activities into your daily life/workout and watch your improvement over time! Really easy! Here’s how …

Experiment with these challenges:

  • Balance on a single leg.
  • Hop on one foot.
  • Close your eyes while standing on one leg.
  • Walk the edge of a sidewalk for as long as possible without falling off.
  • Move your legs closer together while doing bicep curls.
  • Look up while doing lunges.
  • Raise your arms overhead while walking the edge of a sidewalk.
  • Carry a light weight in one hand while standing on one leg.
  • Walk a log or a downed tree limb. (Challenging ourselves on unstable surfaces fantastically simulates the experiences we will encounter in the jungle.)
This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

This steep, slick bridge, with its flimsy handrail, was still one of the best bridges we crossed this day. These bridges are regarded as somewhat temporary as heavy rains often destroy them.

While it is true that improving our balance also gains us improvements in coordination, stability, athletic skill, strength, and posture, that we will likely suffer fewer injuries and hopefully trip & slip less, and that we can indeed become better runners, skiers and cyclists, I believe that the true benefit for a Carstensz climber centers around the pure enjoyment of movement through a notoriously challenging environment. I hope you’re standing on one leg as you are reading this!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!

Got balance? Be inspired to challenge yourself!


Setting Fitness Goals, by John Colver

John’s ideas on outdoor fitness training keep the hard work of fitness training fun & manageable! He sports a long history of athletic endeavors, including a very recent bike ride across the country and past employment as a professional mountain guide! In addition to a strong fitness background, he presents fitness information in an articulate and thoughtful manner. He has recently completed “Fit By Nature,” a guide which encourages fitness through practice & training out of doors. Enjoy John’s contribution to this blog!

“I enjoy training and coaching for mountaineering more than any other sport. Why? It’s a very serious business up there and mistakes can be costly. Here are some thoughts which I hope will help with creating a successful plan.

We’ll do many sports and activities in our lives. I’ve run marathons, competed in Ironman triathlons, played rugby & soccer. I’ve fenced, I’ve played tennis, I even rode my bike across the country this year. So what’s different about mountaineering? It’s one of few times in my life where I have to keep going, because when as tired as a person could get, there are no aid stations and no medical tent. You can’t bail out even if you want to! If I don’t train to the level required; there could be some negative consequences for me and my teammates.

How to decide the type of training

So how do I know I’ll be ready? I replicate as close as possible the type of effort that I’ll be required to do on the expedition. And I keep things simple by creating two training goals — a primary and a secondary goal.

In mountain climbing the primary requirement is to be able to walk, hike and climb for a long time. Rarely is an effort shorter than five hours and rarely does it go longer than 14 hours.

The second fitness requirement is to have the necessary strength to do things like pick up and carry my rucksack all day, to shovel snow, put up a tent, get someone out of a crevasse, and climb steep terrain using both legs and arms/hands. So I don’t want to be left short in this area.

Planning the primary goal

The first thing I do in training is to plan my primary goal activity. I’ve trained before for mountain climbing and I know it takes me about *10 long hikes to be ready for a big climb. And I train progressively. I might start with an 8-mile or 4-hour hike and build up to a 14-mile or 8-hour hike. So I’ll block that time out. It could be one long hike per week or two per week but I will find a way to do that number because I know it will work for me. I’ll also do shorter hikes or even stair climbing in the middle of the week – however I will not sacrifice my primary goal activity. In other words – doubling up on the shorter sessions won’t take the place of my long hike.

Because an expedition requires hiking on multiple days, I will plan two or three ‘mini expeditions’, perhaps at month intervals before the trip – this could be a weekend backpacking trip or it could be a decision to do long hikes for three or four consecutive days. However, I will not do this every week because if I do I’ll risk overtraining. I want to know I’ll be ready but I don’t want to be injured or exhausted before the expedition. I have a friend who walked around Lake Washington for preparation for a Kilimanjaro climb. 70 miles in four days. She stayed in motels and ate at restaurants. It’s different from backpacking, but my friend didn’t feel that she had the experience to go backpacking alone. I admire the creative approach. It achieved the primary goal and it was an adventure in itself!

* I’ve trained over 300 people to climb Mount Rainier and many other people to climb the seven summits. Assuming proper self care and a good overall training plan, I have never seen anyone fail who did 10 long hikes in a 90 day period before the climb. Could I get by with less? I could, but why take the chance? I want to know that I have what it takes to climb up and down the mountain so for me and my climbing team, I make sure I get those 10 hikes on the calendar.

Planning the secondary goal

For my secondary goal, I will build strength in two ways. First, I’ll do stair climbing, stair-master or uphill walking two or three times per week. Second, I’ll do cross training either every day for 20 minutes or two longer sessions such as a circuit training class. I’ve also observed many people successfully build the necessary strength for expedition climbing by doing activities such as yoga, kick boxing, body pump, cross-fit, or by working out with a personal coach. Given the technical nature of the Carstensz climb, it would be appropriate to plan some visits to the local climbing gym to build rock-climbing-specific strength and skill.

My weekly breakdown will look like this.

  • Saturday – Long hike
  • Sunday – Rest
  • Monday – 45 – 90 minutes stair workout and 20 minutes strength workout
  • Tuesday – Shorter hike or other activity (cycling, running) and 20 minutes strength workout
  • Wednesday – Circuit training or 45 minutes stair workout.
  • Thursday – Rest
  • Friday – Cross training or circuit training workout.


I live in Seattle today. We have hills and hikes everywhere for training. However, I used this program to train for an Aconcagua Climb while living in London. My Sunday hike was downtown through parks and streets, taking a break for lunch, meeting friends for coffee and walking home. All with a small pack with a 20 lb. weight. I wore my jeans and street clothes. For my mid-week workouts, I’d use stairs and hills in parks. One time when the weather was foul, I walked up and down the stairs at a tube station for five hours, listening to an audio book and taking breaks at Starbucks. Was it fun? It was OK – but it was my primary goal and nothing was going to stop me from completing it. One exception to changing my hike goal has been to occasionally substitute a long hike for a long bike ride. Bike riding is a good form of cross training because it trains the aerobic system and it builds the lower core muscles that are used in expedition climbing

Three biggest mistakes I see in training:

  1. Primary goal doesn’t get done.
  2. Secondary goal doesn’t get enough attention.
  3. Too much attention is paid to tertiary details.

My experience is that time flies when an expedition is looming. It is easy to let things slide. To ensure success, keep it simple. Make the most important training, the most important thing, and you’ll be well on your way towards a successful expedition.”

Developing a personal fitness training program

Part 2: Developing a personal fitness training program

There’s too much information and too many opinions regarding fitness training to make easy sense of it all. Still, developing a personal fitness training program doesn’t have to send us into a tailspin. While each one of us has different starting points, fitness levels, goals, etc., we know enough to do this right. It might be personal, but there are definitely right ways and wrong ways to go about it.

A good start might be to check out what’s available in your local area. Do a resource check. Here are examples of the types of mountaineering-specific programs that exist, from loose collections of information to professional coaching. Spend an evening browsing the web to find out what’s available in your area.

The second part of a sensible start includes evaluating your current fitness level. Depending on your health and fitness, this might include a medical check-up with your physician and an initial discussion with a physical fitness trainer.

  • If you are healthy and fit, plan on 3 to 6 months of sport-specific fitness training. Consider a medical check-up and the guidance of a fitness trainer a solid move for focusing your training.
  • If you are healthy but unfit, plan on 6 to 18 months of fitness training. Consider a medical check-up and the guidance of a fitness trainer a wise option.
  • If you are unhealthy and unfit, plan on 12 to 24 months for fitness training. Consider a medical check-up and the guidance of a fitness trainer mandatory.

Next, you’re ready to set your goals and develop a timeline for accomplishing them. While this may seem rather tedious (and perhaps initially overwhelming), a simple systematic approach is all that is needed. The good news is that you are expected to make adjustments and update your goals along the way, so don’t get too bogged down in the details. In part 3 of this fitness series, fitness coach John Colver offers simple advice on how to set your goals.

Physical fitness training in preparation to climb Carstensz Pyramid

Part 1: What to expect in Indonesia

Climbing and traveling in New Guinea requires physical strength, stamina, endurance, balance and agility! A core fitness program is a key component to enjoy the adventure of traveling & climbing. Tackling Carstensz in anything less than your absolute best fitness is tantamount to running the Leadville 100 without shoes: possible, but silly! The approach trek travels through rain forest (emphasis on rain!) and boggy terrain, and the climb ascends to high altitudes (the summit is 16,023 ft/ 4,884 m), with the actual ascent of Carstensz being a moderately difficult and challenging rock climb. On top of that, though Carstensz lies along the equator, the weather is fickle. It is common to be rained upon throughout the adventure, and it is not uncommon to see snow on summit day. Here are a few pics to help inspire the athlete in you to get started …


Understanding what to expect once our feet are on the ground in Indonesia helps us focus our fitness training.

The altitude, length of trip, the remoteness of the area, the multi-day trek to base camp, and the technical nature of the climb, all contribute to make this a challenging and demanding trip.

What to expect:

  • Steep hiking with 40 lb. loads
  • 12-14+ hour summit day
  • Exposed fourth-class climbing
  • Several hundred feet of low fifth-class rock
  • Several Tyrolean traverses
  • 15-20 rappels

Here’s a clear example of qualifications requested for joining a guided party as well as some basic fitness guidelines.

Part 2: Developing a personal fitness training program