Expeditions Peaks

What every aspiring high altitude climber should know

Jyotsna Ramani
Written by Jyotsna Ramani

High Altitude Climbing

Mountain climbing or mountaineering is a profession for some and a hobby for others. Every year, thousands of men and women go for high altitude climbing in heavy snow. One needs technical knowledge and experience along with athletic ability to survive amongst those towering mountains. High altitude mountain climbing is the pinnacle of the climbing world. Before you attempt these peaks, remember that you may be extremely fit at sea level and extremely unfit at high altitudes. If you’ve trained at sea level all your life, you may be a marathon runner or a star athlete, but high altitude is a totally different ball game.

What is high altitude for climbing?
High Altitude can range from anywhere between 8,000 to 13,000 feet. But very high altitudes can range from 13,000 to 18,000 feet. Extremely high altitudes are well above 18,000 feet.

What makes high altitude climbing difficult?
High altitude climbing is not to be taken lightly, since people have died and continue to die while scaling monumental peaks. It’s a dangerous endeavor, so physical fitness is a must. Most people climbing high altitude peaks may not have had sufficient experience before, so being in shape and completing extensive training is key.

•    Low oxygen
The air pressure gets lesser as you climb up and that means lesser oxygen for your body. Some people start feeling the effects of altitude sickness at 7000 feet. Give your body time to adjust. As you gain altitude, consider spending 2-5 days at basecamp to acclimatize. Don’t push your body beyond 1000 feet a day.

•    Snow
Weather and snow conditions can make the climbing difficult. What makes it even more treacherous is the unpredictability and the unreliability of weather reports. Many a mountaineer has started a climb based on a weather report only to be faced with completely unexpected conditions. And avalanches remain one of the most common causes of death for high altitude climbers.

•    Glaciers
Glaciers are difficult to navigate and treacherous terrain for any mountaineer, no matter how experienced. Practice your glacier climbing skills on less dangerous terrain before attempting a high altitude climb. Make sure your equipment is sufficient to handle glacier climbing.

Preparation before high altitude climbing
It is very essential to condition your body and mind before attempting a high climb. Aerobic exercise demands much more from your body at lower oxygen pressures. Your aerobic capacity can be measured by your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can consume in a given time. At high altitudes, low oxygen pressures are going to decrease your VO2 max, which means that oxygen delivery to your body is compromised and your tolerance is going to decrease.

At low altitudes, there are several things you should start doing to maximize your capacity. If you haven’t been training, chances are your VO2 max is not at its peak level and has room for improvement. Start with medium intensity aerobic exercises like jogging and running that stress your heart and slowly increase them in intensity. Practice skills you’ll need on the climb. For example, running upstairs with a heavy backpack or hiking on the treadmill at a steep incline carrying weights will help simulate the situations you may have to face on the climb.

Safety and Equipment
Remember that not every climb is successful. Be prepared to turn back if conditions are unsuitable. Remember that brain function is compromised at low oxygen levels (especially above 20000 feet) and your decision making may not be at its best. Thus, travel with experienced climbers and make no foolish mistakes. Remember to pace yourself. If your ascent to the summit is taking longer than expected, consider putting it off. A common mistake is arriving at the summit too late and having to face late afternoon storms in the dark while you’re attempting to descend.

Some basic equipment should be in every climber’s backpack. Sunscreen and sunglasses are critical to get protection from the sun rays that seem to get harsher with height. Snow blindness and sunburn are common and are real problems on the mountain. Extra clothing is always advisable. Carry your own oxygen and water supply as these essentials are extremely dear at high altitudes. An avalanche transceiver is essential to carry that will help to locate them under worst scenario. Helmet and headlamp are a must and proper water and rations should be carried along.

Dealing with health problems at height
If you try to go fast, or hike too high, you may have to deal with Altitude Sickness and Acute Mountain Sickness. The problem is that hikers are in a hurry to achieve their target and forget that they need to give their body some rest. About 75% of people hiking over 10,000 feet experience these problems. Those mild symptoms can get worse if the hikers continue to go on. Fatigue and dehydration are extremely common. The body throws out water at high altitudes, so try and drink at least 5L a day to prevent dehydration, a common rookie mistake. Slow down your pace as you gain height.

Another issue can be High Altitude Pulmonary Edema where excess fluid gets in the lungs, thus reducing the breathing capacity of the lungs. The climber may experience weakness, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest.

Some of the best places for high altitude climbing
There are many peaks well over 14,000 feet that have trails all the way to the top. One such good example is Colorado. Other popular spots amongst mountaineers are Mexico volcanoes, Caucasus, Carpathian Mountains, Tatra Moun, the Cascades, Sierra Nevada of California, Saint Elias Mountains and Alaska Range.


About the author

Jyotsna Ramani

Jyotsna Ramani

Jyotsna Ramani is a passionate writer and an avid globetrotter. She had a knack for writing since her early years, though that was mostly letters to her penpals and jotting her thoughts down in her "Dear Diary".
Over the years, she realized how her hobby could turn into a full time career and she started writing web content, books and pieces for local magazines. There has been no looking back ever since.

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