The Roots of Uphill Athlete and Training for the New Alpinism
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 70s 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 skiing 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, Peter Metcalf.
During the late 70s and 80s 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 I 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 (link), 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 and 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 now, 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.
Steve lives in Ridgway, Colorado with his wife Eva and their son Franz, although they spend summers in Eva's homeland of Austria. He began climbing with his father as a child, and was introduced to alpine climbing in Slovenia after graduating high school in 1988.
Steve has been a professional mountain guide since 1992 and in 1999 he became the ninth American to achieve IFMGA certification. He has guided trips across the globe from Alaska to the Karakoram. He has a long list of first-guided ascents in Alaska: Ham and Eggs Couloir on the Moose’s Tooth, Peak 11,300 via the SW Ridge, the West Face Couloir of Mount Huntington, the Harvard Route of Mount Huntington, and the Moonflower Buttress of Mount Hunter. Steve was also the first non-European guide to lead ascents of the Eiger’s North Face (1938 Route) Grande Jorasses by the Croz Spur, Cima Grande’s North Face (Comici-Demai), Piz Badille’s North Face (Cassin Route), and Triglav’s North Face (Long German Route).
In addition to being an accomplished guide, Steve is a world-class climber. Steve’s most famous ascent may be the Central Pillar of the Rupal Face with Vince Anderson but he has compiled an impressive list of first ascents and new routes in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies, the Alps, and the Karakoram. Reinhold Messner has called him “The best high-altitude climber in the world.” Steve is an athlete-ambassador for Patagonia, Grivel, La Sportiva, GU Energy, and Zeal Optics.
Professional Awards and Citations
S., Ecology, The Evergreen State College (1995)
AMGA-IFMGA Certified Mountain Guide (1999)
Golden Piton-Alpine Climbing (2004)
Piolet d’Or (Golden Ice Axe) People’s Choice Award (2005)
Golden Piton-Alpine Climbing (2005)
American Mountain Guide Association Presidents Award (2005)
Pakistani Director-General of Sport, Olympic Award (2005)
Piolet d’Or (Golden Ice Axe) (2006)
Best Mountain Book, Banff Book Festival (2009) (Beyond the Mountain)
Boardman-Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature (2009) (Beyond the Mountain)
Jury’s Prize, Best Mountain Film, Kendal Mountain Film Festival, Kendal, England. (Ice, Anarchy, and the Pursuit of Madness)
American Alpine Club, Underhill Award for Lifetime Climbing Achievement (2014)
Evergreen State College Hall of Fame Inductee (2018)
“Steve took me from the lowest level of fitness ever and shaped me back into an athlete. A good coach… Read More”
COACH SAM NANEY
Sam grew up in the mountain paradise of the Methow Valley in Washington State. From a very young age he gravitated to cross-country skiing and racing and quickly rose in the regional and national ranks as a top junior competitor, garnering multiple podium finishes at Junior National Championships . He continued his ski racing career at Dartmouth College, where he earned a degree in History.
Following his collegiate racing career Sam moved back to the Methow Valley where Scott served as Sam’s coach for six years. During this time his successes as a professional cross-country skier included several wins on the domestic circuit and multiple top-10 finishes at US National Championships, including a sixth place finish at the 2014 US Olympic Team Trials.
With the birth of his first child in May 2014, Sam retired from the professional competitor ranks and together with his wife Alison moved to Seattle to begin coaching young cross-country skiers at the middle and high school level. At the same time they built a business of coaching adult endurance athletes for trail ultra-marathon running and similar endurance pursuits, focusing on an individualized approach and carefully-progressed training which mirrored Sam’s experiences with Scott.
After two seasons in Seattle the family felt the pull to return home, and in August of 2016 returned to the Methow Valley to continue building their family and broadening their coaching experience.
As a coach for Uphill Athlete Sam brings over a decade of first-hand experience with the training methods recorded in Training For the New Alpinism as both a former professional athlete and now a full-time professional endurance coach.
Sam began coaching for Uphill Athlete in 2016. He coaches mountaineers, SkiMo racers, and mountain runners.
Carolyn is a life-long climber and mountain guide who has made the successful transition into full time coaching work. Carolyn is founder and lead instructor at the Ripple Effect Gym in Carbondale, Colorado. Carolyn and Steve first met circa 1994 when they were both working as mountain guides in the North Cascades.
Carolyn’s personal pursuit of progress with her climbing led her to training. Training led her to Mark and Lisa Twight, and Gym Jones. In 2010 she earned her Gym Jones Certified Instructor credential. Carolyn can lead 5.12 rock, M8 mixed, and ski 50 degree couloirs. She has guided the famous Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route and the Italian Ortler Traverse. In 2001 she attempted to climb Makalu by a new route on the South Face with a small 4-person team. Most recently she has been competitive in mountain runs such as the Imogene Pass run, R2R2R Grand Canyon, Sandia Crossing, Four Pass Loop Elk Mountains, Power of Four Skimo Race.
Carolyn is sponsored by Julbo, Lalo Tactical, Trango equipment, and guides for Chicks Climbing.
She joins Uphill Athlete in 2018 as an Elite Coach.
Maya has been a competitive cross-country skier for the past 13 years racing on the local and national circuits. For the last six of those years she trained under Scott Johnston. Maya has lived and breathed the Uphill Athlete training methods and theory as both an athlete and a coach. She has worked for Uphill Athlete as a coach since 2016 and was the Uphill Athlete’s first employee. She works with clients of all levels, from Everest to helping people get back to training after injury or long lay-offs. Maya is personable, detail-oriented, and fun to work with.
"I began my apprenticeship as a coach under Scott Johnston in 2015 and began coaching my own Uphill Athletes in 2018. I work with alpine and rock climbers as well as skiers and runners. I have trained athletes across the spectrum from full-time mountain guides to big-city-dwelling business folks on tight schedules.
Serious climbing joined running as a passion of mine in 2007 while I was studying for my Bachelor of Science in biology at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Technical rock and ice climbing became my primary loves, but I also enjoy long ridge traverses and skiing to and from volcano summits. During a trip to the Canadian Rockies, I logged over 22,000 vertical feet and 55 miles in less than five days. At Castle Crags in California, I completed a linkup of three remote spires, totaling over eight miles and 7,000 vertical feet of technical climbing. My dedication to endurance training’s fundamental principles is why I experience consistent energy and distinct lack of fatigue during such outings.
Similarly, my training knowledge and creativity broadened during my personal experience with serious injury and recovery. During the spring of 2017, while rehabilitating a fractured heel, I worked with excellent physical therapists, learned from a community of athletes with history of injury, and pored over literature on injury and recovery. In order to achieve lasting and minimally painful gains I had to be creative, patient, and deliberate in my training. Modulation and continuity were crucial to the process. Early that summer I begun running, and a short time later I was climbing 5.12 again. I came back a better athlete and a wiser coach, with a renewed appreciation for the core principles of training."
"John’s fitness background is built on a foundation of years of being an actual athlete, a common thread at Uphill Athlete. As a climber John has amassed 10 First Ascents across the state of Alaska in six years including new, independent lines on Mount Dickey and Mount Wake, as well as the First Winter Ascent of the French Ridge of Mount Huntington among others. Since his first trip to Alaska in 2009 John has made 18 separate trips to and completed 16 different routes to a summit. Nearly all of these were completed as a father of two and working full-time job as a manager at Intel in Portland, Oregon.
John’s desire to be the best climber he could be within the constraints of his career and family has exposed him to a variety of training programs and coaches including CrossFit, Mountain Athlete, Dan John, and Steve Maxwell among others. In January of 2009, John began working with Mark Twight of, at the time, Gym Jones. In 2012 John became the first person to earn Full Certification from Gym Jones. His 10 years as a coach are defined by John's dynamic approach and professionalism which help him ensure a superior experience and results his athletes value.John founded the Portland Ice Festival in 2006 which, grew into the Portland Alpine Festival; one of the largest climbing festivals in the United States. John is a graduate of Oregon State University."
ROCK CLIMBING TRAINING PLANS AUTHOR - JOSH WHARTON
"I grew up in southern New Hampshire, biking, fishing, and exploring the woods. In my teens I fell in love with climbing, and life has never been the same. Although I'm best known for my alpine climbs, I truly love all genres of climbing; and gain motivation from the unique challenges and opportunities that each discipline provides. I've done a bit of everything; from onsight free soloing the Eiger North Face, to first free ascents of some of Colorado's hardest multi-pitch rock routes, to 5.14s and V11s, to scary Canadian alpine routes, to winning the Ouray Ice Festival mixed climbing competition three consecutive years, to big routes in the Himalaya. This high level of understanding, experience, and accomplishment in every climbing discipline makes me somewhat unique, especially in North America, where our geography and climbing culture tends to lead climbers down a path of specialization.
"In addition to coaching, I currently work as an Alpine Climbing Ambassador for Patagonia. A job which gives me ample time to climb, train, and help test some of the best climbing clothing available. My wife, daughter, and I live in Estes Park, Colorado; a beautiful mountain town that's among the best places in North America to access quality climbing of every variety.
"My love of training and coaching has grown organically over more than two decades of climbing. In my youth I was an avid bike and ski racer, which fostered a respect, and basic understanding of training. Of course in many ways my early climbing experiences were an escape from formal training, yet as my skill and ambition grew, I realized I would need a more thoughtful approach in order to progress. The Ouray Ice Festival Mixed climbing competition provided a surprising catalyst into the world of organized, progressive training for climbing; fear of embarrassment, and the chance of paying for another alpine trip were strong motivators! Training for Ouray taught me not only how to truly work hard, but to do so in a mindful way. It also helped me embrace a fundamental principle of climbing training that’s often over looked: the need to sacrifice short term climbing performance in order to achieve success in a long term goal. As I began to apply what I’d learned while training for Ouray, to all aspects of my climbing, my ability in every disciple grew dramatically.
"Obviously as my climbing improved, friends approached me for advice on improving their own climbing, and I happily obliged, quickly realizing how much I enjoyed helping people improve their climbing and achieve their goals. I even earned the nickname “Coach,” perhaps because I was occasionally a bit too eager to offer advice. Since that time I’ve helped lots of people, from a simple redpointing tip, to more elaborate long term training plans. My work with Uphill Athlete is a natural extension of that work, and I look forward to being able to share my knowledge and skill with more people, and hopefully help them get more out of their climbing."
Rebecca’s career so far spans over 16 years in health and sport. Her journey starting from the 9-5 path of working for the NHS in the UK, during which time she studied for an MSc in sports nutrition. From there, her career has taken several turns, including heading into the mountains of Chamonix to work with enthusiastic young ski racers at the British Ski Academy. This led her becoming a performance nutritionist at the high performance epicentre, Sport Scotland Institute of Sport (SIS), and the buzz of working with national and Olympic athletes (including the GB curling teams, winter sport athletes and paralympic athletes). In 2010 Rebecca fulfilled a career ambition by supporting athletes towards the Vancouver Winter Olympics. During her time at the SIS Rebecca gained a sports nutrition diploma with the International Olympic Committee. Filled with enthusiasm and drive, she moved on to set up her own business. Recognising the deficiency of sound science based nutrition practices in mountain sports, she has managed to combine her own love of adventure, to work with those who partake in uphill sports. Clients to date have included:
A Red Bull sponsored, world cup winning, female climber
Competition ice climbers
The GB climbing team
A world cup winning, ultra distance, runner
Individual mountaineers and expedition clients
She has also contributed nutrition content to outdoor magazines and brands i.e. Climb Magazine, Arc’teryx Alpine Academy, The North Face Europe, Merrell, The British Mountaineering Council, and Jagged Globe, a mountaineering expedition company.
Rebecca brings to Uphill Athlete, a wealth of experience working within high performance teams, delivering nutrition strategies to help optimise performance and maximise potential. She also continues to work at the forefront of health and sport nutrition and prides herself on remaining up to date with the latest nutrition science and applied nutrition strategies. She is able to cut through all of the mis-information out there, giving informed, clear and easy to understand advice.
Rebecca is currently based in Chamonix in the French Alps.
Qualifications and Accreditations:
BSc Applied Human Nutrition (Dietetics) - University of Wales Institute of Cardiff, UK
MSc Sport Nutrition - Loughborough University, UK
Sports Nutrition Diploma - International Olympic Committee
Level 1 ISAK anthropometrist for body composition assessment - The International Society for the Advancement of Kinathropometry
Registered with the Health and Care Professions Council and a member of the British Dietetic Association
Scott Semple’s climbing life began in 1999, when he moved into his Honda Civic in the Canadian Rockies.. He started out bumbling and slow, but ended up climbing hard and fast. That transformation was thanks to a lot of people with a lot more know-how than he had.
Steve House and Scott Johnston are responsible for the bulk of his endurance education. He first started pestering Steve for training advice in 2005, and Steve introduced him to Scott Johnston. Johnston generously answered his questions, suggested workouts, and told him what books to read. Among other things, Scott used what he called "Johnston Intervals" for several years while he was alpine climbing.
In December 2014, in search of a more family-friendly sport, Scott started skimo racing. He got back in touch with Johnston, who offered to consult on his training via email. That led to an ongoing, mutually rewarding dialogue. Three years and over 1,200 emails later, Scott has a thorough knowledge of mountain endurance.
His current project is to shape his general knowledge into race-specific training.
Scott has climbed rock up to 5.13c, ice to WI6, and mixed to M10. In the alpine, he completed several speed and first ascents, including Ham and Eggs on the Moose’s Tooth in 4 hours and 30 minutes, Howse of Cards (VI WI6X M7-), and Spinstone (V M7R). As a skimo racer, Scott regularly places in the top ten in Canadian races and won his age group at Canadian Nationals in 2016.
Laura is a writer and editor whose career has taken her from outdoor publishing to celebrity gossip and back to outdoor publishing. After graduating from Dartmouth College in 2006 (where she majored in history and minored in sport climbing at Rumney), she landed a job at Seattle-based Mountaineers Books, helping to launch its conservation imprint, Braided River. Upon earning her Certificate in Editing from the University of Washington's Professional & Continuing Education program in 2008, she transitioned into a project editor role, and in 2010, she started as an editor at a small company called Wetpaint. There, she dove into the head-spinning world of TV and celebrity "news."
Laura and her husband relocated from her hometown of Seattle to the Methow Valley in November 2011, with the celebrity news gig in tow. She managed to ditch the Kardashians in 2013, and today she splits her time between proofreading how-to and where-to guides for Mountaineers Books, writing for Uphill Athlete, and trying to keep up with her dog on the local trails. He deserves a lot of the credit for her two 50-mile and six 50k finishes since 2015.