training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering



Winter mountaineering in Scotland is a wonderful pursuit that demands the integration of many factors: mountain skills, the weather, snow conditions, equipment confidence and, of course, fitness and mental strength.
This article will help you prepare physically and mentally for the demanding nature of Scotland winter mountaineering. It will give you a variety of options and considerations, as there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’, and above all is realistic.
Read on if you: have young children and little spare time or energy; are nursing niggles or tweaks; work long hours in a busy job with a commute; have passion for the outdoors, but are precariously balancing the rest of life.
You might find I mention battling, fighting and overcoming a lot. This is because everyone underestimates winter when they start out, but don’t let that put you off – just go in with your eyes open.


I do not pretend to be a medical expert, but have read around the subject, consulted professionals and learned from bitter experience. If you are at all concerned about your health or abilities, please refer to your local doctor.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering



‘Mountaineering is a battle; it is draining psychically and psychologically, so train accordingly’ (Andy Kirkpatrick, ‘Binman Fitness’)

Winter mountaineering is a full-on blend of hard physical graft and mentally sapping activity. It involves earlier starts (= less sleep); shorter daylight hours (= more darkness); it’s colder, windier and wetter (= more tiring); and involves carrying more weight (= even more tiring).
The total combination of these factors is not just physical – you have to be able to cope mentally as well.
Ask yourself, how bright and breezy are you when you are cold, damp, buffeted by the wind and tired of post-holing? The better your stamina, the less you will be thinking about how tired you are, and so more able to enjoy your environment!
I remember a climbing day in Glencoe when I first started winter climbing. Our objective was Church Door Buttress on Stob Coire Nam Beith (1150m), one of the highest venues in Glencoe.
We set off around 6am, carrying full winter climbing equipment on top of personal gear, walked over 5km to the start of the climb, ascending at least 800m, all of which took the best part of three hours. The summit was a further 350m of climbing and then we had to walk back to the accommodation.
I was exhausted by the time we got to the base of the climb (which was out of winter condition), and relieved to continue on the Grade I ground without the further exertions of technical climbing.
This might all sound a bit depressing! And it is of course best to be under no illusions that winter mountaineering is a battle: you need to be ready and resilient, physically and mentally and your training needs to match these demands.
But, it’s not all bad news: part of the attraction is overcoming these obstacles so that you can be well prepared to enjoy the unique Scottish environment: views, light and vistas to die for.



Thankfully, there is no one optimum way to prepare, although you can definitely be smart about your training, factoring in time, energy, commitments and life.
Here are four key themes to consider when preparing:
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

1. Binman fitness

The term ‘Binman fitness’ was first coined by climber Andy Kirkpatrick in 2011. It refers to the non-conventional, unpredictable and uncompromising nature of mountaineering and how best to overcome that challenge.
The analogy is of a bin-man, -woman or -person who has to: ‘move fast, lifting, pushing, grabbing, grappling, climbing, bending and avoiding bin yuck every day (apart from weekends and Xmas).’
Bear in mind, this is not an hour’s aerobics class; this is repeated and sustained over a regular shift (so at least eight hours). This approach involves:

  • Training beyond what you expect to encounter, as conditions are inevitably worse than you anticipate
  • Focusing on the legs and stamina, as you are on your feet all day, with a load on your back and engaging upper body muscle groups
  • Avoiding the familiar: by keeping workouts varied, you gradually condition your mind to overcome the stress of the unknown as well as seeing more gain physically

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s classic article, ‘Binman fitness’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Functional fitness

Don’t fool yourself that because you are putting on muscle or losing weight that you are fighting fit for winter mountaineering.
Consider the following maxim that I have found helpful: ‘Appearance is a consequence of fitness’.
Muscle gain and weight loss are undoubtedly good outcomes, but without underlying fitness they are merely superficial and mask fundamental deficiencies. In other words, be specific and objective about your training – will hours on a rowing machine or exercise bike really prepare you?
Consider why mountaineers and alpinists are generally speaking (ok, maybe not Andy Kirkpatrick) slim, athletic and sinewy. It goes back to the battling – regularly encountering 60mph wind (classified as storm force); the long summit approach slopes; the rubbing of your rucksack straps.
It’s the ability and conditioning to push yourself when it starts to hurt, to negotiate snow covered boulders, and overcome knee- or perhaps thigh-deep snow.
Wherever you can and however you can, seek to replicate the reality of what you expect to find.
Further reading: the Mark Twight-Gym Jones ‘300’ method
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Exercise in the margins

One thing that is unavoidable is that modern life is busier than ever with work, family and extra curricular activities.
The fittest I have ever been was when I was at school: I played a 2nd XV rugby match every Saturday; trained four times a week; and found time for competitive water polo twice a week on top of all of that.
Unsurprisingly, those days are long gone: one hour plus sessions have shrunk to 15 minutes; injuries have forced me to include stretching; weekends are more about family. In short, exercise has been pushed to the margins: unless I revert to being a pupil or student, that free time I once had is very unlikely to materialise.
An important milestone for me was the article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’. It’s essentially about accepting the inevitable in life and adapting to that change. Life changes, so why is it that you are so resistant to change?
Some key points here are:

  • Lower your expectations – if you aim too high initially or for a previous ideal, you will only succeed in repetitive failure
  • Write off one week a month – remember all those other things you are doing? They need to happen too. Anticipate and plan for them so they do not become obstructions
  • Enjoy exercise – if you hate doing something it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – you’ll probably give up. Why continue doing something you detest?

Further reading: Harvard Business Review article, ‘Find exercise in life’s margins’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

4. D.F.Y.U.

Not everyone is wired like a street fighter and each person has different motivations for winter mountaineering. However, one thing we all have in common is that we do not want to get injured.
In the words of Andy Kirkpatrick again, DFYU: don’t f**k yourself up.
Sustainable approaches to fitness and training are now well established and proven by sports science, so with a little bit of research you have no excuse to trash yourself!
In particular, alpinist Steve House and coach Scott Johnston have helped raise the bar among mountaineers, climbers and alpinists. In the words of House:

‘The human body has an amazing capacity to adapt to physical stress. But it does this best if that stress is applied in a constructive, consistent and progressive manner.’

By repeatedly stressing the body and allowing it to recover, the result is a higher level of fitness, if well coordinated.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? Perhaps not, but it is helpful to be aware of these principles that cause the effect known as super-compensation.
The four core elements of not destroying yourself are thus:
Continuity: stay motivated and keep training regularly. Interruptions will happen, but do your best to minimise them
Graduality: be realistic about increasing the intensity and duration of training over time. An erratic approach (e.g. after New Year or illness) will lead to injury or poor results
Modulation: you cannot put your body in a permanent crisis state – otherwise known as overtraining. Regular rest will enable you to increase training loads with a long-term rise in fitness
Specificity: matching the demands of the activity in training will yield the best results
Although mountaineering is fairly general there are things you can focus on or avoid. House has the following advice to give:

‘To improve your endurance give priority to weight-bearing exercise. This means running or hiking, especially uphill, which are more specific.
Cycling is a great general exercise, but bikes are very efficient modes of transportation and this makes them less effective training tools. You do not have to support your full body weight, which greatly reduces the energy cost of the exercise and the muscle mass used to propel yourself. It also limits the range of motion, the coordination, balance, and variability of the footing required while climbing.
You should not rely solely on cycling as a training mode. 
Swimming is another great exercise that has little carryover to alpine climbing. The prone position means that the heart has to work much less to pump the blood. The water also keeps the body cool, leaving more blood available for the working muscles.
If this is beginning to sound like running and hiking should be emphasized in your basic preparation time, then you are getting the picture.’

Further reading: Andy Kirkpatrick’s nugget, ‘D.F.Y.U’ and ‘The Training Effect’, Steve House and Scott Johnston

My top three fitness recommendations

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


    1. Kettlebells


A kettlebell is a lump of iron with a handle that originated as a tool for farmers in Russia. It quickly became a means to measure strength, and is now a popular sport and training tool. Its beauty is that its centre of gravity is offset, unlike a dumb- or barbell, and it can be grasped in a variety of ways..
Core exercises include squatting (while holding the kettlebell), pressing (lifting it above the head), swinging and snatching (lifting it off the ground).
Because of the offset centre of gravity, any given movement requires attention to form and draws on core strength. The cumulative effect of all these elements is significant, particularly as you adapt to the constantly moving centre of gravity.
If wielded properly, a workout can take a matter of minutes, such is the intensity. This is ideal for fitting in during a lunch break or around other commitments.
Once you get into kettlebells, you can unlock flows and complexes which are multiple movements that flow naturally into one another. Technically you can do an unlimited number without putting the kettlebell down. This is a great way to replicate ‘binman fitness’.
Like the sound of it?

Want something more advanced?

  • Use a tabata or HIIT timer app to structure and develop your workouts (see below)
  • Get inspiration for workouts and kettlebell flows and complexes from Eric Leija or Marcus Martinez on Instagram

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

2. Tabata

Tabata, which is a variation of high intensity interval training (HIIT), follows a simple premise: maximum effort followed by rest, and repeat.
It was developed by a Japanese scientist to train Olympic athletes in the 1990s and is brutally effective: 20 seconds work per exercise, 10 seconds rest, and then repeat. Typically, you will work through multiple sets of six exercises and if you are working hard you will be knackered after two or three sets.
As with kettlebells, tabata is beautifully simple. It requires minimum equipment, using mostly body weight exercises; a full-on full body workout can be achieved in 20 minutes and you can do it anywhere.
Be aware that you will need to build up your endurance gradually, so start slowly and without weights.
Like the sound of it?

  • Read more about the Tabata protocol
  • Look up the classic moves: burpees, press-ups, lunges (any variation), sit-ups, squats, mountain climbers, renegade rows
  • Get ideas for beginner’s workouts from Jordan Yeoh on Facebook
  • Download an interval timer such as Interval Timer for your smartphone

Want something more advanced?

  • Focus on a single muscle group, e.g: a variety of squats, lunges, jumps and burpees (seriously painful)
  • Use compound bodyweight exercises, e.,g: burpee into pull up (burp-ups)

training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

3. Circuit training

When I lived in Oxford I used to run around South Park – an amazing expanse of grass and trees overlooking the dreaming spires. The great thing about South Park was that it had exercise equipment at regular intervals around its perimeter, which allowed me to build up a decent workout.
A run at an average pace of the circuit of the park took about 10 minutes and I added in things like:

  • Press-ups
  • Sit ups
  • Star jumps
  • Step ups
  • Monkey bar traverse
  • Tricep dips
  • Pull ups

When this became a little familiar, I made up a pyramid loosely based on something I did in the Army:

  • 10 x pull ups (run to next station)
  • 10 x dips (run to next station)
  • 10 x chin ups (run to first station)
  • 9 x [and so on and so forth…]

The principle is: by all means go for a run, but see how you a mix it up and integrate exercises that make it more of a full body workout.
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering

The final word

Some sage advice from legendary ice climber and coach, Will Gadd:

  1. Keep moving; it doesn’t matter what movement!
  2. A little and often = progress
  3. Do what you enjoy to stay engaged
  4. Understand why you are moving and how that helps you train
  5. Fitness is health: don’t sacrifice what is important

Adapted slightly from ‘Gadd’s Truth: Five Fitness Commandments to Live By’
training and fitness for scotland winter mountaineering


Will Gadd’s blog on training and climbing:
Andy Kirkpatrick’s eccentric blog with plenty of down to earth advice and wisdom:
‘Training for the New Alpinism’, Steve House and Scott Jonhston: a critical review from Ice Climbing Japan and a more everyday one from Gear and Mountains

Categories: Blog, Mountaineering, Training
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


6 Responses to Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering

  1. 30 July 2017 at 6:42 pm | Permalink

    Just like to say thanks for this great website I found it very helpful, in finding the information I was looking for, and I would definitely recommend it to others, a big thank you to the author.

  2. 8 September 2017 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Just like to say thanks for this great website I found it very helpful, in finding the information I was looking for, and I would definitely recommend it to others, a big thank you to the author for this fantastic website, keep up the great work thanks again.

  3. 13 January 2018 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    It seems like diet sabotage is everywhere you look this season. But it’s not just about sugary office treats and endless holiday party spreads; some of the most common Winter foods actually help, not hurt, your waistline.

  4. Ana says:
    30 May 2020 at 9:57 am | Permalink

    When a guy keeps looking at you at the gym(and you do to), are you able to talk to him?

  5. 7 January 2021 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Love this! Thank you for sharing such an insightful article!

  6. Simon Cox says:
    9 January 2017 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the repost, Heavy!

One Trackback

  1. […] Source: Training and fitness for Scotland winter mountaineering – the mountain people […]

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>