The purpose of this article is to stimulate some thought about enhancing your chances of success and even ‘enjoyment’ on multi-day expeditions to high altitude peaks. Many of the themes are as relevant to Mont Blanc or Mera Peak as they are to Denali or Everest.
To get to the heart of the matter let’s kick off with a negative! Why do folk often fail to reach the summit of their chosen peak? Well, aside from the obvious major factors of poor weather and conditions I would identify 3 major reasons and will look at perhaps the most complicated and important one first.
If I could identify one factor that contributed most to folk’s chances of success on expedition peaks it would not be fitness or acclimatisation rate but their level of motivation. We are all pretty highly motivated when looking at a pretty picture of our chosen peak in the living room or chatting about it down the pub. The problem is that fatigue, de-hydration, weight loss, sun-burn, not to mention boredom and food fantasies, all erode our motivation to climb. As in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (where satisfying basic physiological needs is at one end of a spectrum and self actualisation is at the other) you’re less likely to dig deep and go that extra mile if you’re cold, tired, thirsty and hungry. To keep your motivation high you need to really make the effort to look after yourself….
Attending to ‘basic needs’! Climbing big peaks is all about keeping the show on the road (or you on the hill and, ideally, going upwards). Drinking, eating and sleeping are the 3 essentials and miss out on any of those and you are likely to be rapidly running out of steam. Remember that thirst and hunger are poor indicators of hydration and calorie intake. Basically, make a big effort to drink and eat even if you don’t feel like it.
Expeditions are long enough for the cumulative to matter so what you do on the trek in and approach can effect how you might feel on summit day. Be meticulous about applying sun cream and lip barrier as well as getting your hat and shades on (especially when above the snow line when a good tip is to apply lip cream every time you lick your lips). Keep on top of hygiene with constant hand washing and various modern alcohol gels will help you with this. Make the effort to adjust your clothing so you don’t get too hot or cold during the day, preferably with lots of ‘on the go’ adjustments that don’t require you to take your pack off. Do stay positive if you’re not acclimatising so well or get a cold. Expeditions are long enough to recover and get back on track – and people regularly do just that.
The most effective acclimatisation takes place with reasonable, but not excessive, levels of respiration. So whilst lying in your sleeping bag on a rest day is not good, neither is charging about trying to gain height too quickly. The ideal is what I call ‘active pottering!’
Make sure that your expedition itinerary has sufficient time for rest days and a slow rate of ascent. Do this and you should be relaxed and confident that you will acclimatise well and may even enjoy your time spent high. Anxiety about your acclimatisation will not help, so be aware, but not ‘over-aware’, of any symptoms of AMS you may encounter.
Being relaxed, patient and adopting the slow pace of expedition life will also help. Take some good books and an MP3 player so you don’t lose the will to be hanging about base camp or staring at the top of your stormbound tent. Make the effort to get to know the local staff team with your expedition, (Sherpas, cooks and porters) and you will be unlocking the door to hours of good banter and fascinating cultural exchange.
Preparation and Fitness
People often talk about fitness not being directly related to acclimatisation. It may be true that fit people don’t always acclimatise well but it’s certainly true that unfit people are adding an extra strain on their process of acclimatising.
If you’re hauling a large sack up the stony paths of Aconcagua then multi-day, self-sufficient back-packing trips in the UK will help your body prepare for these strange demands. If you’re off to the steeper and more technical Ama Dablam then time spent working hard on exposed, difficult ground will pay dividends (as will practising using fixed ropes). On the other hand, if your chosen peak has lots of exposed snow slopes there’s no shortcut for time spent with axe and crampons on these in Scotland and the Alps.
Getting High & Coming Down. Hopefully some of these tips will help you to achieve your goals in the high mountains but as a final rider do remember that there are few things more tiring than a big day at altitude. Be aware that fatigue builds and AMS can have a time lag. The idea that you will suddenly feel good again when you return to thicker air lower down the mountain often just does not work out. Feeling exhausted and hypoxic whilst committed high on a mountain is not most peoples idea of a good ‘holiday’! So, do save a few ‘beans’ for the descent.
In summary – prepare well, train hard; relax, but look after yourself and good luck with the weather. Berg Heil!