From Sir Edmund Hillary to the weekend warrior, we are always pushing our own personal limits by going farther, faster and of course higher than we have ever been before. Our quest to challenge ourselves is what is so fulfilling when climbing a peak, running a marathon or sailing a long-distance regatta. With all these challenges come risks, and none is more dangerous than that of high altitude. Altitude is generally associated with extreme conditions such as avalanche danger, hidden crevasses, freezing temperatures, remote locations and limited oxygen – and if not properly planned for it can cause serious consequences.
Whenever doing any hiking or climbing at altitude we must always prepare ourselves to have the highest chance of success, whether on Mt. Whitney at 14,505 feet or Aconcagua at 22,841 feet. When referring to preparation I am talking about your physical training, your gear requirements and your daily routine on the mountain (fluid intake, pulse oximeter readings, supplements, food consumption and understanding the signs and symptoms of altitude sickness), to optimize your chances of success.
First of all, what is high altitude? Altitude can be defined on the following scale: High (8,000-12,000 feet), Very High (12,000-18,000 feet), and Extremely High (18,000+ feet). There are no specific factors such as age, sex, or physical condition that correlate with susceptibility to altitude sickness. Some people get it and some people don’t, and some people are more susceptible than others. Most people can go up to 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) with minimal effect.
Your physical training is the foundation required for any mountain climbing experience regardless of overall elevation. If you want to give yourself the best chance of reaching the summit, specific training is essential. When training for altitude our programs follow those designed by Mark Twight, world-renowned fitness trainer, mountaineer and author of Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, Fast & High. We focus on distinct stages of preparation. The training program revolves around multiple stages with increased intensity aimed to peak at the appropriate time before departure. The goal of the program is to develop the strength and stamina for sustained physical ability over long periods of time as well as increasing your anaerobic threshold (AT) for improved performance at altitude.
Your stages of training include: foundation building; power training (PT); cardiovascular power endurance (CPE), or increasing your aerobic capacity; cardiovascular extensive endurance training and muscular endurance training (CEE) – long term endurance with a moderate level of physical output; tapering and rest; and peaking.
Examples of recommended activities include: PT – Squats, lunges, step ups. CPE – Mountain biking, hill climbs with pack weight, hypoxic swims. CEE – Distance running, 10+ mile hikes, cycling.
Proper gear and equipment is critical to your climbing success and overall experience. You can be the best conditional individual on the mountain, but without proper equipment you will never make it. Whether you are traveling alone or with an operator always ask for specific gear lists and be certain you have a good understanding of what each item is. I recommend creating a checklist for all items you will need, specific to your equipment, and use that as a guideline for packing. Your warmth is essential and even with the highest-rated down garments it is recommended to bring hand and feet warmers for summit pushes. Preparing your kit and making sure you have the right equipment, the proper pack weight and spare necessities (batteries, sunscreen, lip balm, patch kit, laces, hand-held scale, etc.) is all part of the preparation process. Know your terrain and consult your guide until you are comfortable with your equipment before departure.
Your daily routine on the mountain will make sure you continue to recognize how your body is adjusting to the altitude and provide early warning signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Your daily routine should include meals, hydration, supplements, planning and an altitude illness scorecard. Your diet plays a considerable role in your acclimatization process and the nutritional balance is essential to keep energy levels high.
Almost everyone going to altitude loses weight, both body fat and lean tissue, as a result of energy requirements increasing 15-50 percent coupled with a loss of appetite. Calorie intake should be up to 6,000 per day, consisting of 400 grams of carbohydrates.
Hydration is the key to reducing AMS symptoms and facilitates proper acclimatization. The body’s fluid requirements at altitude increase significantly – this is mainly caused by increased water losses from the lungs due to the increased ventilation of cold, dry air, physical exertion, as well as the diuretic effects of altitude alone. Four or five liters per day is the recommended daily intake. Remember to treat all water on the mountain to prevent Giardia and other bacterial infections.
Supplements, planning and understanding the symptoms of AMS will reduce anxiety on the mountain and enable preventative methods to be used as opposed to reactionary. Specifically, Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a prescription drug used to prevent altitude sickness and aid in the acclimatization process. Additional supplements include Ginkgo Biloba, an over-the-counter herbal extract which increases oxygenation and blood flow. Additionally, endurance supplements such as Cytomax and Endurox can assist in reducing muscle fatigue and soreness. Finally, understand the symptoms of AMS (nausea, headache, fatigue at rest, mild swelling in extremities, dizziness) and have a daily routine to reduce these symptoms. It is important to remember that most climbs include several days on the mountain and it is not a race to the top but rather a well-planned and disciplined process that begins when you make your commitment to conquering any peak.
Key Points to Remember When at Altitude
1. Drink four to six liters of water per day and at least one liter every three hours.
2. Climb high and sleep low – climb no more than 1,000 feet per day and incorporate a rest day for every 3,000 feet of gain.
3. Eat a high-carbohydrate diet (More than 70 percent of your calories come from carbohydrates) while at altitude. Suggested snacks are raisins and other dried fruits, yogurt-covered raisins, banana chips, fruit chews, jellybeans, gummy bears, red and black licorice, granola bars, bagels, toaster pastries and fig bars.
4. Eat at least one hot meal per day – potatoes, rice, couscous and noodles are typically easier to digest.
5. Do not drink unpurified water or melted snow because at altitude water boils before it reaches 212°F (100°C), the boiling temperature at sea level, it needs to be boiled longer than 10 minutes.
Kevin Jackson is the owner of The Southern Terrain, an elite adventure training and guiding organization in San Diego, California. To learn more about their global adventures or corporate development programs in San Diego, call 858-309-2311 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.