Your passport doesn’t have to say Reinhold Messner to have ambitions in high altitude mountaineering. These expeditions are no crazy feats performed by modern supermen. No, I’m no superman myself, but just a regular guy who had the ambition of climbing. Here’s some advice before you go on your first high altitude mountaineering expedition.
Danger: Acute Mountain Sickness
Participating a high altitude mountaineering expedition means I’ll be risking getting disorientated, being hypothermic, lose a toe or two or even worse, right? Not necessarily. The real threat of spending lots of time in thin air is Acute Mountain Sickness.
The higher you get, the less oxygen there is in the air. The effects of this range from:
- Making any effort feel twice as hard.
- Bad headaches.
- Reduced appetite.
- Interrupted sleep.
Right up to:
- Loss of rational thought
- Nausea, vomiting
- Fluid on the brains or lungs (known as cerebral and pulmonary oedemas respectively) which can result in death.
Your body can slowly adapt to the lack of oxygen but circumstances can limit the amount of time to do so and some people simply do not adapt well.
How to adapt to thin air?
Some symptoms – like shortness of breath and a mild headache – are common but should pass. Here are a few tips on how to make sure these symptoms are not worsening.
- Climb High, Sleep Low
A basic rule of thumb for climbing above 3,000-metres is to end each day no more than 300-metres higher than where you started and to take a day off for every 900m you ascend. It’s also best to climb a bit higher than the altitude you intend to stay. This accelerates the acclimatization process.
- Train Hard
While suffering mountain sickness has nothing to do with your fitness level, training hard at sea level may train your heart and lungs train for altitude.
- Go slow
No climber with a lack of fitness performs well on high altitude. Train hard at home and don’t be a macho when in the mountains. Mountaineering is not a race but it’s a marathon. Underexercise while climbing to avoid losing too much energy.
- Drink a lot!
Drinking lots of water is one of the best ways to avoid mountain sickness. Cold water might not be your favorite thing when climbing, so drinking lots of tea is a good option. Avoid drinking alcohol since this is a diuretic.
In case it goes wrong
If symptoms are showing, you should be careful about proceeding your expedition. While having a headache might be caused by not being adjusted to thin air yet, you shouldn’t get higher up the mountain untill it has disappeared. If symptoms are persisting or worsening, you should descend immediately. In most cases, symptoms are disappearing when descending 300-600 meters.
In case of loss of rational thoughts and fluid on the brain and lungs, evacuation by descending the mountain should happen as fast as possible. Make sure you have an evacuation plan ready before this situation occurs.
The Death Zone basically is a term used for anything higher than 8000 meters. This is the zone where humans can’t survive for a long time because there is not enough air to breath. On top of Everest there is only 30% of the oxygen we normally breath at sea level. For this reason most people use oxygen bottles from this stage.
Camping at high altitude
Camping at high altitude is not like camping near a lake. The conditions high up on the mountain are quite tough and can be life-threatening if you are unexperienced.
- Tent pegs are useless
If the ground is frozen solid, there is not much use of tent pegs, right? I don’t even carry them with me anymore when going on a mountain expedition. The alternative is to use rocks as a way to anchor your tent. Or use a snow anchor.
- Get yourself a good sense of humor
Bad weather might get you tentbound for days or even weeks. Sitting in your small tent on a high altitude camp with your climbing partner on nearly four square meters is not quite comfortable. So be sure you’ve got yourself a good sense of humor to overcome the difficulties.
High winds are common, so when putting up your tent, be sure to choose a good spot. Make sure no wind can get under your tent, since this is how tents fly. If you’re camping on snow, you can build a wall.
- Allow longer times for boiling water because of decreased air pressure
Do you have some more tips when going on a high altitude mountain expedition? Feel free to share them in the comments.