Scott Johnston and the Roots of Uphill Athlete

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– by Scott Johnston

I got my start in climbing in high school, while growing up in Boulder, Colorado, in the late 60’s and 70’s. Boulder was one of the hot beds for rock climbing at the time. I had many heroes: Layton Kor, Duncan Ferguson, Jim Erikson, to name just a few to look up to and try to emulate. I was also part of a group of young swimmers selected to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. After a failed attempt to make the ’72 Olympic team I decided to use my swimming talents to pay for my college education. And so I found myself in the early 70’s earning a degree in Mechanical Engineering with a minor in Mathematics at the University of Colorado, competing in swimming at a division one level, and climbing with whatever free time I could find.

By this time, I had already developed a pretty extensive background in organized training at a very high level, and had been fortunate enough to know and work with incredibly knowledgeable coaches. But where training had been merely a fascination of mine in high school, it began to develop into something of a disciplined study during my college years, and shortly after. The more I participated in these endurance sports, the more curious I became about the physiology and methodology behind the training I had been doing for so many years.

After college, my focus shifted from swimming to cross country ski racing. Meanwhile, I was still heavily motivated by alpine climbing objectives. And while I didn’t bring the same sort of training mentality to the table in climbing as I did in swimming or skiing, I did notice how much my general fitness aided me on all my alpine climbs (while other partners less-well trained in endurance often faltered). The seed for my later work with Steve House was already being planted.

My basic fitness from years of training for swimming allowed me to reach a fairly high level in cross country skiing, and I ended up competing for a couple seasons on the World Cup circuit with the US Ski Team. Training for skiing piqued my interest in the science and application of endurance training even more, and prompted me to seek answers and practicable skills, which I could apply broadly to all the sports I participated in. I found myself in a self-perpetuating loop: the more knowledge I acquired, the more curious I became.

As I continued to learn and teach myself about the intellectual framework surrounding training, my climbing and skiing careers progressed in parallel. When I wasn’t skiing, I was out in the mountains climbing. The better I got at climbing, the more I found myself seeking out challenging mountain goals. I devoured most of the classic climbing books and dreamed of repeating the feats of my alpine heroes, like Messner and Bonatti. I was consumed with a passion that drove me to partner with some of the best American climbers of the era: Charlie Fowler, Jon Krakauer, Pete Athans, Alex Lowe, and Peter Metcalf.

During the late 70’s and 80’s I progressed from the mountains in Colorado where I built my foundation for alpine climbing, to the Tetons, the Canadian Rockies, the Alps and Alaska. In 1978 I was badly injured while soloing a route in the Alaska Range. After a protracted recovery, I went on to climb routes in the Himalaya and Karakoram ranges. But this accident caused a major reset of my alpine dreams, and by the mid eighties it was clear to me that I was not going to become the next Bonatti.

And yet, in spite of my accident and my revised climbing goals, my years of experience in alpine climbing proved to be the key to me eventually working with Steve, as he did strive to become the next Bonatti. While I was never more than a second tier climber I had been plenty good enough to relate to exactly what Steve was doing and with my understanding of training theory I could help him in his quest.

In 1999, I sold the engineering firm I had started in Colorado, and moved to Mazama, Washington to give up the hectic life of a businessman, and return to my roots as a climber and skier. Mazama, which is situated at the foot of Washington Pass in the North Cascades, is an idyllic hamlet of 300 people, many of whom are climbers and backcountry skiers. It is also home to the largest system of groomed cross-country ski trails in the US. With great climbing a mile from home, and the ability to literally ski out my door, I was in heaven.

It was in Mazama I first met Steve House. He was living and working there as a climbing and heli-skiing guide. Steve had already made a name for himself by then, so I knew him by reputation. A mutual friend introduced us, and we hit it off really well. Our shared background in climbing and mutual interests made us a really good fit—so we began to climb together in 1999.

We made some ice and rock climbing trips to the Canadian Rockies together, and the Bugaboos, and then, in 2001, we made our first trip together to the Himalaya. While we were in Tibet, conversations between Steve and me began to really focus on training for alpine climbers, acclimatization ideas, and all the facets that I had been so interested in for such a long time.

I wasn’t coaching Steve at the time, per se, as he was seeking out training advice from another coach. But I was sharing a lot of my insight into training, and Steve was really taking note of everything I had to say, always asking questions, always trying to learn more. The more time we spent together, the more we developed not just a friendship, but a mutual fascination with how we could use my training knowledge to improve Steve’s abilities as a climber.

At that time I was coaching the local junior cross-country ski team, a group of 120 junior kids from six to eighteen years old. During the seven years I was the coach we produced several national junior champions, some of whom have gone on now to compete on the World Cup circuit and Olympics.

So in 2002, after his previous coaching arrangement didn’t work out well, and he ended up very over trained and sick, Steve asked me if I could give him some help with his training. I began to assist him in a more official capacity as his trainer shortly thereafter.

Over the next several years Steve engaged in the type of training program I would apply to an elite level skier. Of course, the methods of training had to be adjusted to account for the difference in the sports—but the underlying philosophy was the same: In short, Steve and I applied training in the same way as I would to any conventional endurance athlete. Although Steve had incredible skills as a climber, and a very solid background in all the technical aspects of high-end alpinism, he really didn’t have a great understanding of the kind of endurance training I had been practicing and coaching for so many years.

Over the next few years, Steve went on an incredible streak of big climbs and new routes all over the world. We worked together closely during that period, applying the techniques and training programs I had been developing for more conventional sports to the world of alpine climbing.

Then, in 2010, Steve had a terribly bad accident on Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies. He was lucky to even survive, and suffers from his injuries to this day. The next winter, while I was in Norway with one of my World Cup skiers at some races, I got a call from Steve, who was struggling just to regain his health. His first book, Beyond the Mountain, had been well received, and he had finished touring around, giving slideshows, and talking to people about the book. He told me on the phone that the question he got most often was, “What did you do to train for these climbs?” And because there just wasn’t an easy answer to that question, Steve had developed a stock answer of “well, I could tell you, but I’d have to write a book to do it.”

That moment was sort of like someone switching on a light bulb for both of us. We decided then and there to just go ahead and try to write some of this stuff down. The timing made a lot of sense for Steve, since he had such a long road to physical recovery ahead of him, and needed a project to occupy his time and energy. It was a good time for me because I was seeing some significant success with several of my skiers using some of the principles I had developed working with Steve. So, some dots were getting connected. Having never written a book before, and with very little understanding of the scope of this project, I happily agreed. I got started writing on what would become Training for the New Alpinism before I even left Norway.

At the time, of course, we had no idea how well received and influential that book would become. We didn’t even know what it might look like! Personally, I had envisioned something like a 100 page pamphlet that we’d give to a few friends and acquaintances. I told Steve we’d be lucky to sell a thousand copies. Our aspirations for the book from the start were really just to share what we had learned through our experiment with Steve. We knew we had a successful system for training for alpine climbing that could be replicated by another motivated climber, so it was natural for us to want to share what we had discovered.

Of course, I vastly underestimated this project on all levels. On the one hand, I was slightly overwhelmed by the scope of the work involved after it became clear what we had undertaken. On the other, the payoff was much larger than I could have ever imagined. Not in terms of dollars, but in terms of the enormous amount of interest that poured out from both climbers, and other athletes in a wide range of both conventional and nonconventional sports all over the world. By 2016, the book has sold over 50,000 copies—exponentially exceeding even the wildest guess I would have volunteered at the time we began the project.

Shortly after the book went on sale we started to get feedback from other mountain athletes who understood that the principles we were getting at in the book were really just generalized techniques that could be applied to participants of basically any sport where endurance is a factor. Which is, actually, exactly what we want people to take away from this. It’s not like Steve and I came up with something new, ours are time-tested principles that are understood and practiced in every other mainstream sport.

The interesting thing about climbers—and one of the things I like about them— is that they don’t often think of themselves as athletes. They carry a certain disdain for the notion of calling their activity a sport. We don’t have stopwatches. We don’t have lane lines. Alpine climbing, and an individual’s motivations for doing it, is incredibly complex from a psychological perspective, and not the same as something like swimming or cross-country skiing at all. Both Steve and I understand, and appreciate that. We both come from a background in which climbing is a “way of life”, so we had some hesitance to share this information for precisely that reason. We were afraid of the backlash from folks saying “that’s not what climbing is about.”

We also knew, however, that the application of these conventional sport training ideas to climbing would produce great results for those seeking out their own personal next-best. Individual challenge and exploration will always be central to Alpinism, and that’s exactly how it should be. Our methods are tools that any alpinist can use to push themselves forwards. And we believe these efforts will prove to be much more important than the next evolution in ice axe design, or the newest crampon technology.

What originally inspired us to write this book, and what inspires us to continue to share the things we’ve discovered, is that there was an information void when it came to specialized training for endurance mountain sports. We have successfully demonstrated a more systematic approach, using proven principles, to help you improve both your chances of achieving your goals, and your long-term fitness and safety in whatever sport you are practicing. That’s what Training for the New Alpinism is all about, and what we hope to achieve here at Uphill Athlete, as well.


 

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