How To Climb Mountains
A top mountain climber shows you how to reach new heights in fitness and put the “abs” into “abseiling”

January 28, 2014

mountain climber

In the upper altitudes of CityRock, an indoor rock climbing wall in Observatory, just outside Cape Town, the muscles in my forearms and chalk-dusted fingers have become toyi-toying strikers – they’ve stopped working but they’re more than happy to shake and move about unproductively.

Not so Joe Mohle – who was named UCT’s Sportsperson of the Year last year – who started clambering around in the cracks of Table Mountain sandstone as a schoolboy and has since climbed through the ranks of the world’s top traditional climbers and has reached number two.

Fortunately he’s here to show me, and you, the ropes.

Beginner climbers need to revamp their bodies to comply with climbing’s demands; a climber needs upper body strength, a stout core, exceptionally strong forearms and ample reserves of leg strength. “Climbing is all about conditioning. Your body is your vehicle.” You can’t buy a new vehicle like surfers can buy a better board, you have to upgrade it through work, he says.

It’s important to train opposing muscles, says Mohle. He explains that climbers mainly use a protagonist set of muscles – the ones entrusted with pulling your body up, down and across rock faces. “After years of climbing those muscles become highly developed to the detriment of others. Some climbers get a hunched back because the muscles on the back become so strong and overdeveloped,” says Mohle. He recommends swimming as cross-training. “I do strengthening and recovery exercises – I’ll fatigue those muscles so they get worked, and this increases the blood circulation and aids in recovery.”

Although climbers often have wiry, lean frames, the sport is not off-limits to those carrying heftier muscle mass. Mohle’s training partner was a bodybuilder before he started climbing, and the muscle mass that he carried into the sport helped him to progress quickly. “If you come from gym background, it’s going to be in your favour.”

“Good cardio is essential,” Mohle emphasises. “Running is important for my progression. You’ve just got to find what works for you.” Aside from maintaining fitness, he says that running helps him control the peaks in his performance cycle. “When I can feel myself peaking in strength, I’ll run and lose that extra kilogram.”

Running also helps with recovery, says Joe. “In climbing, you can get a massive build-up of lactic acid in the forearms.” This makes it very difficult to grip. “My muscles get really stiff after I’ve been climbing for four or five days in the mountains, and then going for a run is great – you can feel the blood circulating and cleansing those muscles from lactic acid.”

Besides Mohle’s superior fitness, what makes him one of the world’s top climbers is his ability to control his energy levels. “When the route becomes really difficult and you’re climbing at your limit, you’re going to have to refine your movements so you’re not over-expending energy.”
Joe rests when given the opportunity during climbs. “Use as few muscles as you can when you’re resting, breatheI s and compose yourself,” he advises. “There’s no way you’re going to get to the top if you’re at your limit and you’re wasting energy.”

Shifting your weight tactically is a climbers’ strategy that can make the difference between a peak being summited or insurmountable. Keep your arms straight so you use fewer muscles when you’re in a resting position, Mohle instructs. He recommends transfering your weight from your arms to your feet. “Bring your hips closer to the rock or square on by turning. As soon as you twist in, you’re directing weight straight onto the feet.”

You can only climb as hard as you boulder, Joe says. “Bouldering is a very distilled form of climbing where you concentrate on moves and technique. All you need is shoes, a chalk bag and a bouldering mat. It’s a very social side of climbing because many people can go at once. We’re lucky to have some of the best bouldering spots in the world in South Africa.”

Climbers need to have both the power-strength continuums of the physiques of sprinters and marathon runners, explains Mohle. If you want to climb hard for long durations, you’re going to need to build the power base of a former as well as the stamina of the latter. Bouldering helps to build a power base, and from there you can focus on endurance, says Mohle. “It’s low-reps, high-intensity type approach which is the best way to build strength and technique, and it’s also a great way to get into climbing.”

Mohle finds his some of his best strength and core exercises in pull-ups and campus board training. “You might not bulk up so much but you do get stronger.” Sculpting a climbers core is crucial for climbing, he adds. “Because when it gets steeper, your core direct weights onto the feet and enables you to use your feet.”

“Climbing is much deeper than just a sport, and that’s why it ticks all the boxes for me. I’m always learning about myself through climbing – it’s a very metaphorical way of being, of understanding yourself and those around you.”

“You deal with a large amount of failure along the way, like any other sportsman,” Mohle says. “Climbing is a very definite activity – either you can do it or you can’t. It’s always putting those challenges out there, it pushes you to do things that at first you thought you couldn’t do. The best example would be a harsh environment like an alpine route where you’re cold, hungry and thirsty, but you’re there because you want to be there. And when that moment comes you think, I’m going to fall, but you push through,” he says. “That’s a real gauge of your ability, and climbers seek that out.”

This, for him, is why climbing is his metaphor of choice. “In life, you don’t know what’s coming but you keep going – you’ve got to commit in those situations.”

“The most mentally draining part of climbing is when you’ve got a project you’ve been working on for ages, and it starts to become a real mental battle.” This is what the climbing fraternity call red point pressure. “A red point route you do in one go, no rests – you climb from the bottom to the top,” explains Mohle. “It’s easier said than done – when you’re at your limits and you’ve invested so much time into it, there’s a lot of pressure you put on yourself because you really want it. But you have to have to learn to let go so you can climb your best.”

Mohle says that while a strong mental state is important for the top-end in all sports, it’s critical for all levels of climbing. “The mental side is there for everyone to overcome. It’s about pushing your own abilities and what you thought was impossible before.”

“If you want to get good at something, you’ve got to do a lot of it,” Joe says. “As a beginner, climb as much as you can.” But if you’re going to put the hours in, you’ve got to make it fun, he insists. “The days I climb best are the days when I really want to do something, but there’s no pressure. If you’re trying hard on a route, but if the motivation isn’t there, don’t force it – be patient and let it come.”

Getting used to the gear, the techniques and – most importantly – the heights of climbing doesn’t happen quickly. “In the beginning you need to take the time to make sure you’re comfortable in that place,” Mohle says. “Once you’re comfortable on the vertical wall, and you trust your ropes and your mates, then climbing opens up and it becomes a really different experience. If you take care of the risk and make things safely, you’ll learn good habits and you can really start to have fun.”

* By Ian McNaught Davis