I’m Joe Bonington, owner of Joe’s Basecamp Gym on Sydney’s Northern Beaches – a centre that specialises in training people for adventure sports. My background is that of a strength and conditioning coach, an outdoorsman and a trek leader, having led treks in various parts of Nepal and Bhutan.
My intention for this column is to provide a series of articles that deal with the best ways to train and prepare for a variety of adventures, regardless of your prior training, current fitness or age. Allow me to begin, however, by explaining a little more about who I am.
For the 16 years that I’ve been a strength and fitness coach, I’ve spent at least as much time in the gym as I have ‘out there’ in the wilderness. Unlike many other adventurers, I actually really enjoy the training aspect of what I do, because I believe that what I can achieve at the gym will yield rewards when I’m in the field.
No doubt my passion for wilderness adventure can be attributed to my upbringing. I grew up in the lake district in the UK, Britain’s biggest national park and the home of fell running (a specific type of trail running) as well as some of Britain’s best rock climbing. My father, Sir Chris Bonington, is generally considered one of the world’s eminent mountaineers, and while I’ve not quite followed in his footsteps to become a highly technical ice climber or high-altitude mountaineer, I still dabbled in these activities and fell in love with the wild places on earth, the distant cultures and nature in general. As a result, I have been lucky enough to complete my own Himalayan first ascent and stand on top of an unclimbed – albeit small – peak.
My love of the mountains and wild places has directed me to organise and lead commercial treks through various parts of Nepal and Bhutan. But now that I’ve made Australia my home, I’ve also been lucky enough to spend a lot of time on our own doorstep, undertaking outdoor projects for television in the Cockburn Ranges of the Northern Territory, and taking marginalised kids across the Kokoda.
Approaching my own half-century (I’m currently 48), I find myself spending more time on helping others to prepare their minds and bodies for the trials they will face in seeking their own adventures. In the modern world, this preparation entails the application of much effort at the gym. However, this wasn’t always the case.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when Dad and his compatriots were preparing for their big expeditions on Everest or Annapurna, training consisted of rock climbing weekends in Wales. Because it was Wales, these trips often ended with the climbers spending as much time tucked up in a pub, having been rained off, than they spent climbing. Any fitness was attained on the approach to the climb, and many of them smoked as well.
This paradigm didn’t really change until the ‘80s. In the states, the legendary alpinist Mark Twight (at the start of his career), realised that strength training could help with his performance. He didn’t know what to do, so he just began doing what everybody else in the gym was doing. In an era of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, this meant doing exercise designed to add muscle mass, with very little concern for endurance. Twight soon realised that the routines he was doing wouldn’t help him as the very nature of alpinism means you want no excess weight; as high a strength-to-bodyweight ratio as possible and a lot (and I mean a lot) of stamina. Twight would go on to be twice nominated for mountaineering’s Piolet D’or award), and inspired other top-level alpinists such as Steve House.
Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, strength training and conditioning for outdoor sports – from mountaineering to trail running – was still restricted for full-time athletes. Perhaps some of the more serious climbers had started conditioning with campus boards and other drills by then, but that was about it. As for your general public, well, the weekend trail runners ran, the trekkers trekked and the recreational climbers climbed. The majority of gyms were designed as health centres with lots of cardio equipment and geared towards weight loss.
Then the internet arrived and changed our world. All of a sudden we had instant access to all kinds of information. We heard about new places to explore; we also got to read and see the secrets of the professionals, the people who inspire us, the people we want to emulate. Many now dreamed of climbing and exploring in places that would have been unheard of when Dad started out. As a result, demand for personal training exploded alongside specialist gym facilities. People became aware of exercises that improve explosive power; they began including barefoot running in their training schedule, or dragging barrels and ropes. It was at this time that gyms started building climbing walls.
Over the last 30 years, our understanding of the science behind strength and conditioning has greatly advanced. Athletes of all disciplines have benefited from targeted strength and conditioning plans and the adventure sports are no different.
As our expendable income increases, access to wild and high places has improved and this has caused many people to seek out adventures that are higher, longer, faster and more remote.
It’s this combination of events, more access, more money and more info that have compounded our ability and need to train for adventure. The only problem is that now there is too much conflicting information available. In going online, you now have facts and advice coming from all sides, and this information can often be inappropriate or downright misleading. In today’s world of blogs and online marketing, any personal trainer can set themselves up as a specialist alpine trainer even though they may have only visit Everest Base Camp once.
What I hope that this column provides is a way for you to cut through all this noise. As someone who is registered with the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (among other qualifications), and who has actually spent a serious amount of time ‘out there’, I hope to help you to do the things you love most, to maximise your enjoyment in those things and to minimise your risk of injury while doing them.
I subscribe to the belief that, in everything in life, it’s not the destination but the journey that’s most important. But it’s also in undertaking the journey that one’s mettle is tested. Let me show you how to make that journey a memorable and satisfying process, even if it leads to areas previously unexplored.
This is the first ‘Base Camp’ column from Joe Bonington, featured in issue 151. This column aims to provide useful advice on nutrition, mobility and exercise for adventurers in training, so stay tuned for more.