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High-altitude training camp
By:  Edward McCarthy   (2008/03/03)

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Those of you who religiously read the articles Tom writes while pretending that he works at a real job will have gathered that some of our weekend training time has been overtaken by backcountry time. Really, though, I'm not sure that's such a bad thing - we've exchanged 3-hour distance workouts with light racing gear for 7-hour days with heavy telemark gear and packs. Trust me, it's not that hard to get - and stay - in zone 1 on skins. With nothing but the myriad training benefits in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to have a mid-winter training camp on this heavy gear; preferably, it should be at high altitude, to maximize the training benefits.

One of the joys of being a student is "Reading" Week. It turns out that this year UBC, U of Calgary, and Carleton shared a Reading Week. This meant that both former XC Ottawa and Carleton racer Gavin Hamilton and our old Carleton teammate Chris Mamen, with his wonderful wife's blessing, were able to come along and make sure that no one was slacking on their training programs. After careful consideration of the pros and cons of various venues for our training camp - principally student budgets and likelihood of death by avalanche - we settled on a trip in to stay for four nights and five days, February 16-20, at the Naiset Huts run by, and right beside, Mt Assiniboine lodge near Canmore. These are budget huts with a well-appointed cookshelter; there is very little to distract from disciplined training. In addition, there would be a 28km ski both in and out to be done with our full packs (and telemark gear). Despite my guilt at leaving Tom with no one to buy groceries for a week, training had to come first.

After the usual comedy of errors that seems to follow Gavin, Chris, and myself around, we met at the trailhead at Mt Shark and set off with most of the necessary equipment; we did our best, but couldn't dissuade Gavin from trying out a novel technique he'd heard of involving using only one and a half poles. Though it is common practice to grip wax telemark skis for long flat traverses, such as the one we were doing, we spurned this in favour of the improved resistance training and hip flexor strengthening gotten by using skins for the full distance. It's kind of like the theory behind slow classic rollerskis. Despite our single-minded focus on training, the beautiful valley views of the Rockies occasionally caught our attention, and made our 7.5 hour trek up to our camp altitude of around 2200 metres virtually fly by.


Skinning in. Note Gavin's special right pole.


Mt Assiniboine pass - 2180 metres. If it's altitude, it's training, right?

We woke up to bluebird skies and balmy temperatures. After a nutritious breakfast, as always, we were off for more long zone 1 training (it's a mid-season racing gap, we need to build blood volume, right?) The snow was perfect, about a foot of ungroomed (so inconsiderate) powder over a kind of crust layer. We spent the day exploring the valley, acclimatizing ourselves to the altitude, and making fun of Chris' early 90's MEC powder suit. Every once in a while, of course, we practiced some tele turns, but we had to go down the hills in order to come back up them, right?


Mt Assiniboine in the morning. We were told this is a rare sight.


Chris, powder, and the powder suit.

The third day, another filled with perfect weather, the training started in earnest. We'd heard of a promising hill for repeats up the valley, and took the trek across an open alpine meadow to get there. We did a few laps up through beautiful open trees up to just above the treeline - we didn't want to extend our uphills any higher due to avalanche danger - and surprise, our training plans allowed for some turns on the way down, too! Our afternoon took us on a tour around that ridge, crossing the Continental Divide from BC back to Alberta, and then back again on the way home.


Long distance classic training.


Passable snow conditions.

The fourth day, only slightly more beautiful than the two before, our training camp was joined by two kindred spirits, former Edmonton Nordic racer Gerry Heacock and biathlete Dan Robb. Turns out these guys had an even bigger thirst for big hills than we did! The addition of some more eyes allowed us to do some serious technique work, something necessary for any training camp. There was a special emphasis on descending technique this day, as well as an earnest discussion of the proper lines to take on downhills; tactics such as these are of paramount racing importance. Gavin finished the day with the traditional breakage of equipment, and the fine folks at Mt Assiniboine lodge were kind enough to lend him a ski to go with his loaner poles (oddly, he gave up his one-and-a-half pole technique after the first day) for the way out.


Lunch stop.


Gavin and Dan working on technique.


Me picking proper downhill lines.

To make sure we didn't overtrain, we decided to do the trek out with wax instead of skins. This doubled as good training for the final 20km of the upcoming Nationals 50km classic, when we will have worn off all our wax screaming around the corners at Callaghan Valley. Packs and flexy poles add a whole new dimension to double-poling. Finally, to our friends' and loved ones' collective chagrin, we made it out alive and generally unharmed, about 35 hours of training richer. Many thanks to the Assiniboine guides and Linnaea Kershaw, staff extraordinaire and Ontario skier, for the tips and the company.


Still alive and speaking to one another.

Photo credits: Gavin Hamilton, Chris Mamen, Gerry Heacock
 
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