Midlife mountain with Matt Gumbrell
Midlife - love it or hate it, it just happens. The simple result of staying alive for longer than forty or so years. It is too often associated with the word “crisis”. I’ve decided that a more apt term is “mid-life focus”.
So, with my forties all but behind me, I allowed a little bubble of ambition to grow into a solid plan. I’ve always been one of those slightly trackresenting trampers, wanting to explore and push the envelope a little. Also, our son had moved to Wanaka and fallen in love with the mountains – spending every moment he could exploring and rock-climbing. The time seemed right to push beyond the limits of my tramping boundaries and do something altogether outside my comfort zone.
I decided to climb Mt Aspiring/Tititea, if my son would come too. What an epic adventure to share! “Heck yeah!” But we weren’t going to be stupid about it. We quickly found that Aspiring Guides in Wanaka had an eight-day course that included summiting Aspiring/Tititea, if conditions and skills allowed.
There are things you can control, and things you can’t. Fitness is one of the former. I received the suggested training schedule, and then, in my normal slightly obsessive way, decided that I was going to do much more - to exit my forties the fittest and strongest I’ve ever been. Ignoring the recommendation to start training two months before the climb, I started five months out. A Facebook search rewarded me with a group “Training for the New Alpinism”. Now I could ask advice of the super-human people who scale Himalayan death-monster peaks. Their holy text of the same name proved to be a 400-plus page book which enabled me to form my five-month plan to quite some detail. I couldn’t wait to get started.
I’ve always been a skinny guy. A friend once said, on seeing me in shorts “Matt, you’ve got lucky legs” Huh? “You’ll be lucky if they don’t snap off and go up your crack!”. Well, those legs were in for a shock – the rest of me as well.
Alpine fitness training involves many different elements, including “maximum strength training”. One exercise is the classic overhand pull-up. I could manage a few but started the program to improve. It involved adding more and more weight to my body as I did them. Over eight weeks, I strengthened until I could perform three pull-ups with a 30.5kg pack on my back. I was shocked. The same with weighted press-ups, leg raises, squats, everything. My shape changed. My pants started getting tight around my calves and thighs, but loose around my waist.
The other major part of the training was building my aerobic fitness. I bought a sport watch with heart rate monitoring and did the hateful “maximum heart-rate test” – basically sprinting up a hill until you taste blood and want to die. From this I calculated HR zones for training. I ran for long periods, ridiculously slow, keeping my HR down in the target zone. It felt stupid. But it was working. My pretraining “Alpine Combine” aerobic and strength test put me in the “poor” zone. The next test was “good”.
I was growing to love training. Midlife aches were receding as my core strength improved. The new strength made life in general easier. I was enjoying eating more and more to keep my weight up.
Then “muscle endurance training” started. It was November, two months to the climb, and it was the hottest November in memory. It’s all very well if you live near mountains – you can train in them. But I live in the humid, subtropical north. The highest local steep hill was only 150m elevation. I started the eight weeks doing 600m elevation-gain sessions, carrying 10kg up and down my 150m hill. Then gradually increasing up to 16kg and 1600m in a session. I would consume three litres of electrolytes, and still finish dehydrated. I had to hose the sweat out of my training pack. And then I started training in technical boots with rigid soles. A whole new hateful world.
It all worked. My resting HR was 55. Walking up a hill felt the same as flat ground. On my peak training day I carried 15kg (a generous climbing weight) 29 kilometres in seven hours on rough track with 1400m elevation gain - and happily could still walk the next day. I feared I had over-trained. Was it all just a bit silly?
As the date approached, my excitement grew. Gear was checked and rechecked. I obsessed about the weather forecast.
As instructed, I tapered my training 10 days before the course. It was nice not feeling as if I was always in recovery from the latest workout. Then after four days, my legs became restlessthey felt like they wanted to take themselves for a run up a steep hill. I wanted to GO!
Finally, I was in Wanaka and the first day of our course arrived. We quickly could see that Aspiring Guides were a great outfit. Our guide, Cristina was excellent but the weather was not. After a November and December of perfect conditions, a slow-moving trough sat in the Tasman and promised to pump a strong moist
ABOVE: Summit selfie - Image by Isaac Gumbrell