There are no permanent human settlements in history above 16,500’. And as mountaineers, that should be a major red flag and deserves our attention. Even aboriginal people knew something that is critical we know too.
Climbing High Mountains
As we ascend, the amount of oxygen in the air rapidly diminishes and that’s why we acclimatize. But at a certain point, the body just can’t catch up. And that magical point is somewhere around 16,500’. Above that, even though we are acclimatizing, we’re also slowly deteriorating. Higher up, in the infamous “death zone,” we deteriorate rapidly. As we “deteriorate,” among other things we lose muscle mass – its not uncommon for climbers to lose 10% of their body weight. On a recent expedition on an 8000 metre peak, one of my teammates lost 18%!
Lessons Learned Mountaineering – Training for High Mountains
All of this should have a huge bearing on your training. I spent half of last year climbing in Nepal and Tibet and you can benefit from my mistakes and experience. Here are some critically important lessons that I learned and am surprised I’ve never seen or read anywhere else:
- Don’t expect your fitness to improve on a big mountain. You’ll be acclimatizing but it’s everything your body can do to keep up with just that. You need to show up with all the fitness you’re going to need. Don’t expect to train up while you’re on the mountain.
- Pack on extra muscle in your training because you’re going to lose some. And lost muscle = lost power. You need a combination of endurance AND power to get you to the summit.
- Make sure you include power training in your regime. I use www.crossfit.com or equivalent 3X/wk. They call it functional strength training. I also use Olympic power lifting like dead lifts and squats. Because of the loss of oxygen at high altitude, your muscles will feel like they don’t have a lot of power and you’re going to be carrying weight. This is how I compensate.
- Make sure your aerobic training is primarily spinal loading activities where your feet are hitting the ground. There’s nothing that replaces hiking a steep incline with a weighted pack. When I was living in Dallas (flat), I did it in Pizza Hut stadium before they threw me out. I found out the hard way that using cycling as my primary fitness training activity doesn’t cut it.
- There’s a huge difference between climbing a 20,000’ (6000 metres) peak and a 27,000’ peak (8000 metres). This is especially relevant for you Seven Summit’ers. On a 20,000’ peak you can get up and down in 2-3 days (once acclimatized) depending on the difficulty of the route (Kili, Elbrus, Aconcagua). You don’t take a fitness hit and your body recovers well. A 27,000’+ peak (Big E) is a campaign and you spend a lot of time well above 16,500’ – deteriorating bit by bit the entire time.
- I bring protein powder when I climb to limit muscle loss. Traditional diets in the countries where we climb high mountains tend to be more vegetable and starch based. Dial in your nutrition during training. At 20,000’ you still have a healthy appetite. Higher up, it disappears. I’ve got strategies for that.
- Show up early. I don’t think any of the companies give enough time to acclimatize. There’s nothing like spending a week or two training at 12,000’ to 14,000’ to really jack your red blood count and a spur a host of other physiological changes. If you’re lucky enough to live in a place with peaks that high, spend the night up there. Get up in the morning and jump rope.
Climbing Seven Summits and Beyond
These strategies make a world of difference on big mountains and I hope they’re a great help to you on your summit bids.
Safe climbing, Ridlon Kiphart aka Sharkman