The objectivity of vertical gain

Objective data for evaluating hiking and backpacking performance is a useful thing to have.  Day to day and year to year your perception of speed and exertion can change, often significantly, but fast is fast and when heading towards a tough trip confirmation of progress can help formulate realistic expectations.

When hiking there are two ways to go fast, vertically and horizontally.  Significantly, they need to be trained independently.  I’ve found that when running is taken out of picture, the point of diminishing returns comes quickly with respect to horizontal speed.  On anything other than exceptionally smooth terrain cultivating speeds beyond 3.8 miles per hour is for me a waste of energy.  Working to accelerate cadence in rougher terrain is productive, but for rough trail and especially off trail hiking I put most of my time into going up faster.

I’ve owned a Suunto Observer watch for almost a decade, and found its elevation logging feature invaluable.  The log will give cumulative gain and loss over a given period of time, as well as average rate of climb and descent.  It also gives in-the-moment rate of vertical gain, which resets as an average every 10 seconds or so.  Aside from early (pre-blog!) efforts like my first Grand Canyon double crossing (Dec 2005) or first White Rim in a Day (March 2005) I’ve worn the Suunto for every major endurance outing of my adult life.  I don’t write anything down, but I have an extensive mental log of vertical gain rates, for hiking, backpacking, mountain biking, and skiing, and can draw upon them when I want to know where I am at a given moment, physically.  GPS allows one to do this, as does the low-tech option of using a chronograph and consulting a topo map and calculator after the fact.  I recommend using this method, at least occasionally, to everyone.

For me, things start getting interesting at 10 vertical meters/minute (m/min), which is a little less than 33 feet a minute, or a hair under 2000 vertical feet an hour.  On trails this is a minimal acceptable speed for being in shape, sorta.  It’s a rate of gain I like to exceed over extended periods of time, and on scrambling and off trail routes.

18 m/min equates to 3600 feet an hour, and as of today is the fastest rate of climb I’ve ever been able to sustain over an extended period of time.  I hit it for 20+ minutes at a stretch during the final climb of the 2011 Wilderness Classic, for instance, which was a true pinch-me moment.  This is the benchmark I strive to achieve, insofar as genuinely being in shape.

22 m/min is 4300 feet an hour, and is my ceiling thus far.  I’ve never seen the watch go higher for more than 30 seconds at a time.

This summer I’d like to change these last two statistics.  Folks who win local skimo races, for example, can sustain close to 20 m/min for close to an hour.  According to this analysis top skimo and mountain runners average 23-24 m/min for a 30-35 minute race, which with a personal point of reference is amazing to contemplate.  The internet tells us that the vertical kilo world record, set over 1.9 horizontal kilometers, is 29 minutes 42 seconds (Urban Zemmer, 2014), a mind-bending average of nearly 34 m/min.  I don’t have the genetics for that level, but 20 m/min for an hour ought to be doable; a little under 4000 vertical feet in an hour.

Making this happen will be simple and difficult; threshold work, and loosing weight.  Recent research has confirmed the remarkable extent to which our metabolism adapts to stress, and therefore how ineffective increased exercise is as a method of loosing weight.  Sadly, for most of us adding something, especially something fun, is more palatable than taking things away.  I’ve always been fond of beer, ice cream, pizza, and most especially eating just a bit more than I need to.  Getting older and having Little Bear, along with the closing schedule that has involved, has made it abundantly clear that stopping the adipose creep towards middle age will demand significant and permanent diet changes.  I gave up sugar for all of Jan and Feb, which remarkably did nothing to blunt the addictive response to it come March.

I was able to touch 18 and 19 m/min this morning, without undue strain.  I’m hoping to keep my current fitness and weight as a basement, never straying to far, and most of the time in the better direction.


9 responses to “The objectivity of vertical gain”

  1. I find it interesting that you don’t take grade or terrain into account with this statistic. I realize you’ve removed running from your assessments, but I find I tend to gain the most altitude per hour on grades I consider runnable, versus hikes. For example, I’ve climbed 2,558 feet in 53 minutes at my best effort on a five-mile trail in California. Yesterday I hiked a trail in Boulder called Fern Canyon that gains 2,096 feet in 1.2 miles, taking 57 minutes of what I considered a harder effort than this five-mile trail run. Not all things are equal of course, altitude being one, but that’s my point. Rocky terrain and steep grades make ascents a lot slower, and vertical gains take longer at similar efforts and levels of fitness.

    Now I’m curious what my best rate of ascent has been.

    1. Taking running out certainly narrows the variables and possibilities considerably. I’m also drawing on a limited selection of moments I bother to remember. That said, I haven’t found gradient or terrain to make nearly as much difference as one might casually suppose. One of the things I like about the Suunto is being able to confirm that I am indeed not sucking, even if the terrain makes it seem like my pace is quite slow.

  2. You got me curious as well, so did a little math on my hill repeats- the ascent is right at 1000′ in .75 miles and it takes me 15-17 minutes to ascend- so close to 4000m/hour- not sure how far I could sustain that pace though- I either take a 1.5 mile route back to the bottom and repeat- usually three times or lately I’ve been going right back down the way I came- this tends to be much more brutal! :) The repeats are rough enough for me it’s a one time a week only gig.

    1. Sounds like you’re ready for a long walk in a few weeks.

  3. My “hill” is a powerline right-of-way that goes 500′ in half a mile. TBH I haven’t bothered timing because I’m working on my joints. When I can do a couple repeats without my knees slowing me down on the downs, I’ll pay more attention to my watch.

  4. Meant to add, re: diet: the single thing that helps me the most is just cutting down overall intake. Cutting things out has never made me stop wanting them. Cutting down and making the “good stuff” worth it (real butter, real sugar, no crappy junk food) is what keeps me satisfied and able to stick with dietary changes.

  5. I always thought that hill climbing would make a great Olympic sport. It is a bit different than every race. Speed isn’t essential, so that makes it different than the sprints. Stamina and endurance matter, but the race won’t necessarily take hours, like a marathon. Likewise,efficiency of stride matters little. My guess is middle distance runners would do the best, but with shorter runners being more competitive than long legged runners are at that distance. Who knows, you might get a lot of hikers who would do surprisingly well, since the sport is very similar.

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