By “Sensei” Dave Staeheli (aka Minister of Silly Walks)
My passion and avocation is mountain guiding, specifically in this case, on Denali. After 30-plus years, I’ve guided a lot of clients to the top of North America, and one of the important tools I use to get them there will inevitably be the “rest step.” Usually at least one, two or three climbers per trip tell me at some point that they would not have made it if they hadn’t learned to use the rest step. Why this highly effective method of climbing isn’t better known is a mystery to me.
What is the rest step? Simply put, the rest step is speed control. While climbing at altitude, on steep slopes, with a baby whale strapped to the back, it’s difficult to go slow enough to maintain an efficient and aerobic pace. At several points you will probably hear your guides put a lot of stress in going steady, keeping the breathing under control, and maintaining that efficient mountaineer’s pace that makes it possible for us mere mortals to climb one of the world’s great mountains like Denali. And one of the keys to that efficient pace is the rest step.
“Go slow, you say? Anyone can do that, right?” Well, there are a couple of bad ways to do that, and then there is the rest step. The worst way—and we see this quite often on Denali—is something we call “dash and crash” or “jack-rabbiting.”
This is to move at a normal and natural pace, completely ignoring the oxygenation requirements until the climber is overcome by a lack of oxygen. The climber then has to stop to catch their breath. When they have their breath under control, they then start the process over. This is called going into an anaerobic state, where the muscles and other body tissues are starved of oxygen and lactic acid is produced. Is this climbing efficiently? I think not!
Another way to go slow enough to match your physical output to oxygenation needs is to take “baby steps.” This requires taking shorter and shorter steps in order to keep the pace down. Well this works, but it’s not the most efficient way to travel. In order to maintain such a slow pace, with small steps, the leg muscles need to keep working as the climber slowly passes one leg out in front of the other. There is a better way to climb, and that is, of course, the rest step.
So what is it?
Simply put, the rest step is moving from one resting position to another. Imagine yourself standing on a steep slope and at rest. What is your body position? Probably you are standing with one leg downhill and balanced on the knee joint. Your other leg is uphill with a slightly bent knee and muscles relaxed. Your downhill leg, and consequently your bones, holds most of the weight and the uphill leg helps maintain balance. Now you take one step uphill to another resting position. Wow, you are already doing the rest step! Sounds easy, right?
Unfortunately, this is a lot harder to put into practice than it sounds. There is a whole lifetime of muscle memory to fight. The most natural thing to do once the leg moves forward is to make a weight shift to the uphill leg and continue walking. In the rest step, we rest or pause between each step. There is a delayed weight shift. We hang out on that back leg for awhile, from a fraction of a second to time enough to take two, three, or even four breaths as we grind our way up Profanity Hill to the Summit Ridge. This delayed weight shift, the “rest”, is the most difficult part of learning the rest step.
Where should you learn to rest step? The best place to learn is on a steep-ish slope or perhaps a set of stairs. This technique is difficult to learn on flat terrain. On the mountain, I usually wait until we are on the slopes around Kahiltna Corner or up at 11,200′ Camp (mostly because my clients think I’m nuts when I try to teach them a new way to walk at a lower elevation). Even though I’ve been doing the rest step since Ski Hill, I usually have to wait until the mountain has spanked them a bit and are now receptive to a technique that will make their lives easier. The rest step can be learned on a flat slope, but it isn’t easy. When you get good, it’s possible to rest step over flat ground. I can do it even downhill. Or backwards! One guide I know says he uses it to get up the steps to the bar after a hard day of ski guiding. While I discourage this location to learn to rest step, I suppose it is possible.
We know that the rest step is moving from one resting position to another. I encourage you to start slow, going totally into the resting position before taking another step. As we pick up the pace it becomes more dynamic, yet there is still that pause before we make the weight shift. Put that front leg out there. Slap it down, get a good crampon bite. This is not a slow motion walk. When you put the front leg out there, move it out at a good clip. Just don’t make the weight shift. After the pause, which, as I said can be so short as to be nearly undetectable, make the weight shift. We are learning a whole new muscle memory now, so concentrate on what you are doing until the muscles begin to remember the sequence.
The rest step has some advantages to normal walking. First, it’s often advantageous to lock the breathing in with the walking. This is a big help at altitude to keep properly oxygenated. On rough ground this may not be possible, but the rest step still works. We can take a longer pause before or after a big step, and a shorter pause before or after an easy step. Working our way through variable terrain, our pace may not appear to be steady, but by adjusting our pauses to the terrain our breathing stays steady and under control. In addition, the rest step really works well when trail breaking if you ever get stuck out at the sharp end in deep snow.
Some common mistakes are to take short steps, like baby steps, or to take the rest on the front leg. Once you practiced at the rest step, you may find your stride lengthens! This can help make up for the fact you are taking a tiny break between steps. The other common mistake is to stride out, weight the front leg, but leave the back leg behind, sort of standing on tip-toe on the back leg. Bones need little energy to carry weight, while muscles need a lot. The whole point of resting on the back leg is to let the bones carry the weight. Rest on the back leg, not the front.
Pace, breathing, efficiency, rest step. In my mind these are the keys to making a successful Denali climb. Nowhere in this article have I said going fast is important. But with keeping the first factors working, we can’t help but move efficiently and smoothly, leaving other teams in our dust as they hack away with their inefficient techniques. The turtles win again!
One step at a time …