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How to train for high altitude mountain climbing

Want to know what it takes to get to the top?

The top of the mountain, that is. If you’re interested in taking your mountain climbing to the next level, you may have considered a trek up one of the world’s most famous 8000+ meter summits. From North America’s Denali to Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the globe is filled with challenges for you to explore.

However, high altitude mountain climbing is unlike any other sport in that it demands a great level of basic fitness – and preparation – before you can begin. There is no “couch to Denali” plan and you aren’t going to be able to summit Annapurna without some serious preparation.

Knowing how to train for high altitude mountain climbing will not only equip you with the skills necessary to have an enjoyable trip – but to survive the trek, too.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Understand the Basics and the Risks 

If you’ve never hiked beyond 6000 feet, know that high altitude hiking is a different beast altogether. For every inch you creep higher above the surface of the ocean, the air has less and less oxygen. These changes appear incrementally as you hike upwards, but they have a compounding and significant effect on your aerobic functioning. 

Although you may have been a medaling marathoner when you were exercising at sea level, you’re likely to struggle walking up a slight incline once you reach 10000 feet. Add to that the fact that you’re probably going to be carrying a heavy backpack, and you’re definitely going to feel the burn in both your legs and lungs. 

High altitude mountain climbing is not for the faint of heart. You probably already know this, but it’s important to familiarize yourself with the very specific risks of the hike before you get out on the trails. Remember, Dr. Google probably isn’t going to be able to help you when you’re at 9,000 feet and suffering from severe symptoms. 

Know what a sick person at altitude looks like and familiarize yourself with the steps you should take if you or a member of your group becomes ill. 

The most common type of altitude sickness is acute mountain sickness. It feels a lot like a hangover and may cause symptoms like exhaustion, nausea, or headaches. While this is not a severe condition, it needs to be treated and addressed with haste because it can precede a more serious condition, like high altitude pulmonary edema or high altitude cerebral edema.

High altitude pulmonary edema is when liquid seeps into the lungs and causes severe exhaustion and trouble breathing. The most telltale sign of this sickness is a cough that produces frothy foam. If you or a member of your group develop this condition, it is not the time to push through it and soldier on – it’s time to turn around and head home as quickly as possible.

Another condition that warrants an immediate descent is high altitude cerebral edema. This sickness can be more difficult to diagnose, but it causes incoordination and confusion. Usually, you’ll notice it if one of your group members begins to exhibit slurred speech or starts stumbling as he walks. 

This is a very severe condition and indicates that death is near, so again, immediate descent and seeking emergency medical attention are imperative. 

Now, remember, these conditions don’t strike everyone, and these guidelines aren’t meant to scare you. However, it’s important to be aware of the risks of high altitude hiking so that you can take the appropriate steps to prevent and treat any issues that arise. 

Start Hitting the Gym…A Lot

High altitude mountain climbing is not for the faint of heart – nor is it for couch potatoes. Now is the time to get in the best shape of your life. You are going to need to balance mental preparation with physical training. A combination of strength training, conditioning hikes, cardiovascular workouts, stretching, and circuit training are what you need to be successful. 

When we say hit the gym, that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean that your exercises should be limited to an indoor setting, either. There are all kinds of ways you can improve your physical fitness and some of the best will happen outside. The very best way to prepare your body for high altitude hiking is to improve your VO2 max.

VO2 max is the very top level of oxygen that your body can consume. The better your VO2 max, the more oxygen your body can absorb and the more efficient you will be when hiking at high altitudes. 

Boost your fitness by running, swimming, or cycling. Maintain a solid pace and minimize rest breaks, which will help improve your cardiopulmonary system. Remember – it’s supposed to be hard. 

Do Some Trial Runs and Simulations

One of the best ways to train for high altitude mountain climbing is to put yourself in your future shoes…or pack. Remember, carrying 40 lbs at sea level might feel like a cinch, but once you get to 10,000 feet, it’s going to feel like you’re carrying twice as much weight. 

While you can do your best to minimize the gear you take with you on the trails, the reality is that the necessities need to stay with you. So you’ll be carrying a pack that is going to get significantly heavier as you ascend the mountain. The best way to train for this heft is to start training with some weight while you’re at home. 

Add some weights or even some gallon jugs of water to your backpack. Do your workouts wearing the backpack. Again, it’s going to be a challenge, but you’ll feel much more prepared once you hit the trails. 

Find Some Hills

The best way to prepare for high altitude hiking is to start hiking mountains. The reality, however, is that most people aren’t lucky enough to live close enough to a mountain range where 6000 feet hikes are possible every weekend. 

Unless you live in the Rockies,  it’s probably going to be tough for you to find large mountains to hike on a regular basis to prepare for your high-altitude hike. However, even the littlest bump in elevation can help improve your aerobic fitness. Try to add 1000 feet each training weekend and remember that even small mountains count. Doing aerobic workouts even above just 3000 feet can help train your body at becoming more efficient with less oxygen in the blood. 

The higher the better, but any hill will do. Find a steep hill land run, bike, or hike up it regularly. Try to incorporate hill workouts into your training at least three times a week. 

If you live in the city or a total flatland environment, work with what the urban gods have given you – run up a tall set of stairs! You can even frequent the Stairmaster at the gym – ideally set at the highest setting. 

The key is to work yourself to exhaustion, however, to better prepare your lungs and muscles for the high altitude hike. 

Fuel Properly 

Any kind of exercise demands the proper fuel, but it’s especially true when you are mountain climbing. You’re going to be eating and drinking a lot more than usual, so now is not the time to cut calories. Not only will your body be burning energy more quickly, but you’re going to need more water, calories, and nutrients just in order to function. 

That’s compounded if you’re hiking in a very cold environment, too. Fill up your pack with plenty of carbohydrate-, protein-, and sugar-loaded snacks. Candy bars, jerky, and nuts are great choices. The average person burns around 2500 calories on a normal day. Add a pack of 50 pounds when hiking over level terrain, and you’re going to burn 4000 to 5000 calories. 

Throw in some elevation, and that total is going to nearly double. You may not be used to eating that many calories, so it’s smart to acquaint your body with the bump up in nutrition during your training. This can prevent digestive upsets when you get out on the trail. 

Prepare for the Elements

Do some research into the climate of the area in which you will be hiking. Although there are some similarities between the most popular peaks, not all high altitude ranges are the same. Mount Everest, for example, is known for being windy and cold. 

While summer is considered the best time to hike some peaks, like Mount Denali, it’s not ideal when it comes to Everest, as humidity is nearly 100% during the summer monsoon season. Other mountains, like K2, are almost impossible to climb without being caught at least once in life-threatening weather. 

Hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Make sure you have plenty of SPF, even if it seems cloudy. The sun’s rays will be much more potent when you’re at a higher altitude. All conditions, from wind to precipitation to temperature, will reach their extremes when you’re up that high.

Make sure you have enough gear to protect your entire body, including clothing that is both wind- and waterproof, along with extra hand warmers, wool socks, and thermal gloves. 

Don’t Forget Hydration

Once you start hiking into a high alpine zone, you may not think about hydration quite as often. Just because you’re not sweating buckets, though, doesn’t mean you should ignore your hydration. 

On the contrary, in fact. Once you start reaching higher altitudes, you will need to urinate more often. This is a natural biological response to being high in the air. As the air gets drier, the moisture will leave your body more quickly. 

Therefore, it’s important that you not only hydrate well during your hike, but also during your training. This will get you in the habit of hydrating so it’s easier when you’re focused on that summit. Consider investing in some hiking gear that’s designed specifically for hydration to make the task more convenient when you’re on the trail. 

Learn Basic First Aid 

In addition to recognizing the signs of altitude sickness that we mentioned above, it’s also important that you familiarize yourself with the basics of first aid – especially as first aid applies to high altitude mountain climbing.

You have no way to predict how your body will be impacted by the change in altitude. Bring an altitude aid like Diamox, which is a medication meant to be taken when you are hiking above 8000 feet. This can help reduce symptoms and make the hike a little bit easier on your body. 

You should also bring along first aid staples like cough drops, digestive aids, bandages, and ibuprofen. Before you head out on your trip, make sure you’ve brushed up on all basic first aid procedures, including treating and dressing a wound, CPR, and even splinting, if possible. There is no such thing as being too prepared when it comes to high latitude treks.

Recognize Your Limits 

The reality is that high altitude mountain climbing is not for everyone. You have no way of knowing whether you will make it to the summit – and back home – alive unless you have already succeeded in doing so. There are too many variables that can come into play. 

However, you can improve your odds by making sure your body is physically prepared for the challenge. Visit your doctor before you begin your hike and make sure you don’t have any conditions or illnesses that could interfere with your trip. Once you head out on the trails, don’t be afraid of turning around if you don’t feel well.

Sure, it can be disappointing to not make it all the way to the top. However, being able to make that decision is one that could save your life. Something as simple as a lingering headache could be your body’s way of trying to tell you that continuing on is a fatal mistake. 

Start Slow and Breathe in Deep

You’ve spent so long preparing for the hike – so why rush it? Instead of pushing yourself to get to the top as quickly as you can, take things slowly. You’re probably only going to do this once, so try to enjoy it. Not only are you going to feel slower when you’re hiking at high altitude, but there’s no benefit to pushing your body more when it’s already maxed out. 

Don’t rush things. Take frequent breaks, take deep breaths, and stop to enjoy the scenery. This is a once in a lifetime experience, and you’ve worked hard for the right to enjoy it – so make sure you do.