I'VE STOOD ATOP 8,000-meter summits26,247 feet above sea level or higher20 times, and it's always a challenge. You need to be physically prepared, of course, but at that altitude climbing becomes mostly a mind game. You're pushing your body where it was never meant to go. However, the payoff is unmatched. At the summit, the sky seems almost black, and the view is amazing: All those 20,000-foot peaks you walked past in the valley look like tiny bumps from 26,000 feet. Any 8,000-meter peak requires a huge commitment of time and money: six to seven weeks minimum to climb and at least $12,000 for a guide up an easier peaklike Cho Oyu, in Tibet. For Everest, plan on ten weeks and about $35,000.
SKILLS & TIPS: Don't rush your apprenticeship. If you really want to be smart and safe, you've got to work your way up the ladder. Try a mountaineering seminar on 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, in Washington State. Move on to one of Mexico's volcanoes, like El Pico de Orizaba or Iztaccihuatl (18,700 and 17,342 feet, respectively), then hit 22,834-foot Aconcagua, in Argentina, and finally Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet. This could take you three to five yearsyou'll need it. Even on a guided expedition, don't expect to have your hand held every step of the way. You need to know things like how to climb with ropes and crampons, the basics of crevasse rescue, and how to put up a tent in extreme conditions.
TRAINING: If you can exercise for one or two hours a day, you'll get where you need to be and stay strong throughout your time on the mountain. To build endurance, I run about seven miles a day, going up and down hills, trying to maintain a steady push the whole time. I know successful climbers who do stairs in an office buildingup and down, up and down.
When you're climbing an unstable talus field or a snow slope with a load on your back, you rely on your abs and back for balance as much as you work your legs. In the gym, you want to simulate those movements made in the mountains. Stand on one leg or balance on an unstable wobble board while doing squats or curls. Do forward and backward lunges carrying up to 40 pounds in each hand. Carry 30-pound dumbbells, stepping up onto a bench and off the other side. Do pull-ups using every possible hand position. Do three to four sets of each exercise, with eight to 12 reps, four times a week. Afterwards, run or do an hour on a StairMaster with a 50-pound pack on your back. These gym sessions hurt, but not as much as having to walk away from a climb because you weren't fit enough.
As told to Dougald MacDonald