Four cycles of the Custom 8-week Training Plans primed amateur alpinist Simone Lombardi for a hugely successful 2017 climbing season. The Italian sound engineer schlepped a weighted pack up a London hospital stairwell, and he put in some serious hours on the climbing gym auto-belay. But the tick list of classic climbs in the Alps that resulted doesn’t paint the full nuanced picture; this isn’t a linear story of hard work reaps big-peak rewards. His true journey is more complicated, bottled up in the post-send question of “What next?” It’s about wanting more, overreaching, then pulling back.
By Uphill Athlete Simone Lombardi
The journey—it’s made of successes and failures and reflections and strengths and weaknesses. The journey, as opposed to the objective, is always a big source of discussion for climbers: What do you get when you’ve completed the objective? I’m not going to be the one to answer that difficult question, but I ask it and I feel it.
I started climbing seriously in 2013, when I joined the Italian Alpine Club. I live in Turin in the western Alps, and my aspiration is to be the best all-around technical alpinist I can be—proficient on as many terrains as possible, with a focus on alpine rock. I have no expectations of beating any clock or world record. I’m very much aware that I’m an amateur climber and the journey is a personal one. I’m not a natural; I really have to work for it. The challenge is purely with myself.
In 2014 I bought Mark Twight’s Extreme Alpinism, which at the time was the only book of its kind about training for the big hills. I tried the training outlined in it that season, and it made a difference. Then Training for the New Alpinism came out, and I spent a couple seasons self-administering that. I was able to absorb a larger training volume and do a lot more climbing in the mountains. The tick list increased.
But I was also plagued by injury. In 2013 a shoulder injury knocked me out for a year and a half, then in 2016 I tweaked my shoulder again while ice climbing and was out for another three months. It looked like I was getting something wrong in the loading—in loading my body to prepare it for the alpine season. I was concerned about longevity. It also frustrated me that the gains I made each season were quite volatile, and I would lose form quickly in the off-season.
In the interest of minimizing injury and maximizing performance, I reached out to Uphill Athlete Master Coach Steve House, and he started me on my first cycle of the custom 8-week training plan.
I went with the custom 8-week option because I was already used to self-administering with the book. Using TrainingPeaks, I followed Steve’s lead, but could also move sessions here and there according to my lifestyle, my full-time job, and other commitments. Steve was quite kind at the beginning of each cycle to clear up any questions over email. Then after the first couple of weeks, once I got a sense of what was required, I was able to self-administer the rest.
We did an ice climbing cycle in November and December, then we started to introduce rock, and by the fourth cycle, when summer came and the objectives started to turn toward the big mountains, we introduced weighted climbs. I ended up doing some pretty bonkers routines.
I’m a sound engineer in London, which is a very flat city. Steve and I had to think creatively in terms of designing exercises to simulate what I was going to do in the mountains. I found a 30-story staircase at a public hospital, and I would go up the stairs and then take the lift down, with nurses looking at me and stretchers coming in and out of the lift. At the beginning it was actually a pleasant workout: the staircase has windows and overlooks Big Ben. Then Steve had the brilliant idea of adding weight to the pack, which made the climbing pretty strenuous. I looked like a lunatic with gym weights in a mountain pack going to a hospital and hiking stairs, but by the end of the progression I was able to do an hour with 30 kilos on my back.
To improve my endurance for sustained multipitch routes, Steve had me do continuous auto-belay sessions. I’d climb nonstop for an hour and a half, up and down, basically exploring the limit of pump.
Toward the end of my fourth 8-week cycle, in May and June, I was doing in excess of 15 hours of moving time—of actual training—a week. For an amateur climber, that’s a serious load.
That’s also when it became clear that the training was working. In June, in the middle of the loading period, I managed to do a high grade for my level, completely free, on a day with a 2 a.m. start and a 2 a.m. return—22 hours of moving time with 15 hours of vertical granite climbing in between. When I told Steve that I was able to improve my personal best on such a big day, from car park to car park, we knew we were in the right ballpark.
Starting in July, the alpine game was on. I went into tapering mode and decided to take a month off work to tick as many routes as I could. I didn’t have any one objective; I was basically free-roaming in the Alps, looking for weather breaks and climbing partners and trying to churn out as many iconic routes at my level as I could.
For my first big climb of the season, I set off with one of the guys from the club to do the Trois Dents du Pelvoux in the Écrins range. It didn’t start well: literally the first hold of the season that I grabbed broke off. I was unroped at the time, so I fell backward a good 50 or 60 feet and cracked a rib. That’s when I was reminded that no training can prepare you for a wild climb. But what the training does, as Mark Twight says, is it makes you tougher to kill. A little armor of muscle helps. I picked up the pieces and continued on with the climb, completing it in 15 hours. We’d wanted to simul the route, but we had to slow down because obviously I was in pain. I got my ass beaten on day one.
But I was committed to a month off work and was fresh off eight months of grueling training, so I jumped back on the horse and carried on with what I had planned. I took the train to the Dolomites and started to target some classic routes there—exactly what we’d trained for: long, vertical, technical climbs with a lot of moving time and a lot of hard pitches in between. The peak performance of my season was sending the North Face of Cima Grande—of Tre Cime di Lavaredo—almost all free. It’s the most iconic peak in the Dolomites, perhaps the most elegant face, and probably the most classic route. Moving on 600 meters of traditional Dolomites rock, pulling just a couple of pegs—that was pretty good for me. I was pretty chuffed with that.
The list of climbs I did in 2017 (see below) speaks for itself. I climbed the hardest ice I ever climbed in February. I climbed the hardest alpine rock route in June, and I sent one of the most iconic north faces in the Alps in August. It’s a zone I didn’t expect to be in.
But I felt quite empty after Cima Grande. Once you achieve a goal, you feel all the exhaustion. At the same time, when you’re in that climbing zone, you want more; it’s like you’re always reaching for something else.
Toward the end of my time off, frustrated with not having done enough, I decided to go by myself onto Mont Blanc with the idea of soloing the Arête du Diable. This was clearly outside what I was able to do at the time, and I set out without saying anything to anyone.
Completely knackered, running on fumes, I struggled to cross the glacier, got lost on the Aiguille d’Entrèves traverse, rappelled down the wrong face, jumped over some crazy crevasses, and dragged myself—gasping—to the bottom of the arête. It was only when I looked up at the access gully—a guaranteed suicide, completely dry and out of condition—that I finally realized I had gone too far. I was never going to make it. Feeling drained and stupid and deflated, I turned around and took the cable car down.
I’m Italian, so I’m an emotional soul. I looked at myself in the mirror and reflected back on the year—at the successes, but also at the darker elements like the broken rib. In the spring I lost two friends under an avalanche, and four days after I climbed a difficult icefall, it collapsed and killed four. A tiny microcam stopped a massive backward whipper, then there was the solo attempt. All of that weighed heavily. Starting in September I took a break for a couple of months. I had given everything I could in the last 12 months, and it was time to look back at it all and be satisfied. The list was long enough, and my wife was relieved to have me home. The story of falling backward unroped hadn’t gone down very well.
I’m still taking it easy, but I’ve started climbing again with a light heart. When I was back in Italy in December, I went ice climbing with my friends, and it relit the fire in my belly. After two months as a complete couch potato, I led and sent WI5—the same as my previous personal best, but with a fraction of the preparation. It was a complete surprise to add another tick to the list at the eleventh hour. The form carried on, a testament to the volume I did last year.
If I’ve learned anything beyond the value of structured training, it’s that the mountains are not just a sport. We all have a different journey inside ourselves, and with each journey of exploration, sometimes you go beyond what you thought was your limit and you forget your responsibilities. You forget the fact that you are made of flesh and bone and the rock is pretty hard.
Simone’s 2017 tick list
- Cima Grande di Lavaredo, Via Comici-Dimai (TD+, VII+), free up to VI+ with some A0, alternate lead
- Monte Castello, Aldebaran (ED 6b+), free, alternate lead (some A0 seconding)
- Cima Piccola di Lavaredo, Spigolo Giallo (TD, VI+), all free, alternate lead
- Spiz di Mezzo, Miotto-Bee-Gianeselli (TD+, VI+), free up to VI, alternate lead
- II Torre del Sella, Via Leila (Diedro Nord) (VI), alternate lead
- Cima dei Lastei, via Perla Nera (VI), all free, alternate lead
- Sergent, Nautilus (TD-, 5c/6a), all free, one A0 move, alternate lead
- Caporal, Itaca Nel Sole + Tempi Moderni (6c), free up to 6a,alternate lead
- Bric Pianarella, Mio Nome (6b+), free, alternate lead (one rest)
- Bric Pianarella, Grimonett (6b), all free, alternate lead
- Bric Pianarella, Via I.N.P.S. (6b), free, alternate lead (one rest)
- Spiz de Mondeval, Re Artù (6b), all free, alternate lead
- Trois Dents du Pelvoux (3683 m), Cresta NE (D, V), moving together (with a broken rib)
- Valeille, Lillaz Gully (D+, II, WI4, M4+), leading
- Gressoney-Saint-Jean, Bonne Année (I, WI5), leading
- Val Varaita, Pineta Nord DX(I, WI5), leading
- Gressoney-Saint-Jean, Cascata del Ciampa (II, WI4+), leading
- Valeille, Chandelle Levure (III, WI4+), leading
- Noasca, Balma Fiorant (I, WI4+), leading
- La Grave, Les Moulins (III, WI6), integral, seconding the crux pitch
- Valnontey, Repentance Super (III, WI5+), seconding
- Valtournenche, Brinata Turchese (III, WI4+), alternate lead
- Gressoney-la-Trinitè, Proboscide del Quaternario (II, WI4), alternate lead
- Gressoney-la-Trinitè, Cascata di Punta Jolanda (II, WI4), alternate lead
- Gressoney-la-Trinitè, Cascata della Nicchia (II, WI3+), alternate lead
- Caporal, Orecchio del Pachiderma (E2, 5C or 6b), onsight personal best!
- Tremadog, The Plum (E1, 5B), onsight
- Tremadog, The Barbarian (E1, 5B), onsight
- Tremadog, Scratch Arete (HVS, 5a), onsight
- Dinas Cromlech, Sabre Cut (VS, 4C), onsight