Training for a Sierra Nevada 14er

If climbing a 14,000-foot peak in the Sierra Nevada mountain range is on your bucket list, then you have 10 “peaks” to choose from.  The peaks range in difficulty from a Class 1 (easiest) to a Class 5 (most difficult), but all will require a good amount of physical conditioning, acclimatization and planning to improve your chances of a safe and successful adventure.

Alpine climbing requires a combination of cardiovascular endurance and muscular strength. Of course the best training for climbing a 14er like Mt. Whitney is to climb, but if you can’t, try an activity that gives the heart and lungs a continuous workout while working out the quads.

Cycling is probably the best way to establish a fitness base for climbing and a good schedule is to ride three times a week, beginning three months before your hike.  The type of terrain you cover isn’t as important as the intensity of your training. Plan on working to a cadence in excess of 90 revolutions per minute, with breaks to save the knees, while pushing the heart rate into the 160-range for 20 minutes or more. As cycling is mostly an upper-leg activity, make sure you exercise the lower-leg to strengthen calve muscles like low-weight/high-repetition calf raises.

On cycling off days, it’s a good idea to round out your conditioning with building up the abdomen, back, chest, and shoulders. Hiking and alpine climbing may be primarily a lower-body sport, but the upper body plays an important role in carrying your pack, balancing and swinging an ice ax.

For the first month of your three-month training, plan on spending a good amount of weekend time hiking with a pack and start with a few miles around the neighborhood each weekend, graduating to half-day hikes in hilly terrain. During the second and third months of your training, get up to your local mountains every other weekend and plan on hiking most of the day with a goal to get above 10,000 feet in elevation a few times during month three.

When you’ve chosen the mountain you wish to summit, make sure you learn as much as possible about your intended trail (and permits). And never attempt a route that is above your technical-climbing skills.  Don’t underestimate mundane skills either. Make sure you’re adept enough at cold-weather hiking and camping.

Physical condition is no substitute for proper acclimatization. Pulmonary or cerebral edema (which could be fatal) is a serious threat if you attempt to summit a peak in one day, especially if you have not acclimated 1-2 nights prior at an elevation of 8,000+.  Your training hikes (above 10,000 feet) will help, but it is very important to also spend at least one night before your hike at 8,000+ when attempting a 14,000 peak.  It’s best to spend a few days/nights up an elevation before you start your climb.

The “Ten” Sierra Nevada 14ers
Depending on your definition, there are ten “peaks” above 14,000 feet in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  There are also three other “sub-peaks” because their high-points are not accepted by the USGS due to the difference between the summit of the nearest high peak and the nearest saddle being less than 300 feet.

Rank        Mountain                  Height        Class
1.            Mt. Whitney             14,505           1
2.            Mt. Williamson         14,389           3
3.            North Palisade         14,248           4
4.            Mt. Sill                      14,159           2
5.            Mt. Russell               14,094           3
6.            Split Mountain          14,064           2
7.            Mt. Langley              14,032           1+
8.            Mt. Tyndall                14,025           3
9.            Middle Palisade        14,018           3
10.          Mt. Muir                    14,018           3

Sub-peaks: Starlight (14,180), Polemonium (14,080) and Thunderbolt (14,003)

Class Ratings   

Class 1
Easy hiking – usually on a good trail.

Class 2
More difficult hiking that may be off-trail.  You may also have to put your hands down occasionally to keep your balance.  May include easy snow climbs or hiking on talus/scree.

Class 3
Scrambling or un-roped climbing.  You must use your hands most of the time to hold the terrain or find your route.  This may be caused by a combination of steepness and extreme terrain (large rocks or steep snow).  Some Class 3 routes are better done with rope.

Class 4
Climbing.  Rope is often used on Class 4 routes because falls can be fatal.  The terrain is often steep and dangerous.  Some routes can be done without rope because the terrain is stable.

Class 5
Technical climbing.  The climbing involves the use of rope and belaying.
5.0-5.7:     Easy for experienced climbers; where most novices begin.
5.8-5.9:     Employs the specific skills of rock climbing.
5.10:          A dedicated weekend climber might attain this level.
5.11-5.15:  Experts only; requires extensive training and natural ability.

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