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Ask Me: How Do We Flatlanders Train For High Altitudes?

Posted On January 19, 2016 at 11:23 am by / Comments Off on Ask Me: How Do We Flatlanders Train For High Altitudes?

Hi Michael,

I hope this finds you well! At the end of the year I am hoping to join my friends on an adventure to Argentina to climb Aconcagua. We are not taking the technical routes, so no ropes or glacier travel. My question is this: what is the best way to train for high altitude? I live at sea level in Portland, Maine, so access to high peaks is not really an option.

We are building into our plan several days at the different camps to help acclimate on the way. The plan is somewhat fluid but we are expecting to take about two weeks on the mountain. Is there anything that I can do from a training perspective over the next months to make it less uncomfortable? Should I really focus on my fitness and conditioning? More strength and endurance?

Appreciate any thoughts that you have. It’s a once-in-a-life trip for us and I want to try and be as prepared as possible!

Many thanks!

Chris
Portland, ME

Hi Chris,

Congrats on your plans to climb Aconcaqua. Your question points out a challenge many climbers face, of course. My experience with elevation has been limited to U.S. peaks over 14,000 feet and trekking Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit, where the Thorung-La pass is at nearly 18,000 feet. So not nearly as high as you may go if all goes well for you. But I’ll share my experience and what I know.

Trekkers en route to the Thorung-La pass, at nearly 18,000 feet, on Nepal's Annapurna Circuit.

Trekkers en route to the Thorung-La pass, at nearly 18,000 feet, on Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit.

We took 10 days to walk up a valley to the Thorung-La, which was the recommended amount of time to gradually acclimate to increasingly higher elevations. So we did fine hiking over the pass, but I certainly didn’t feel great—I felt lethargic and had a headache, which isn’t too bad, considering, but I’d never before felt that way on a 14er. I can tell you that once we reached a town at 12,000 feet (a few hours after we crossed the pass), I felt fantastic, like I could sprint down the streets.

While everyone’s reaction to elevation differs and is basically genetic, there is evidence that going into the climb in peak physical condition will help you. This article elaborates on that in more detail. This article also provides some good background information. At the least, I think being in poor shape would only compound how badly you feel if you’re feeling the effects of high elevation.

I have seen people get sick at elevations that had never bothered them on previous trips or climbs. So never assume that if you’ve felt well at a given elevation once that you will feel just as good the next time.

In Nepal, we carried the drug Diamox with us to combat symptoms of altitude sickness, and it helped. But ultimately, if your symptoms do not go away quickly, you should descend until you feel better, before the symptoms escalate into a life-threatening situation.

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Lastly, taking good care of yourself matters: staying well hydrated before, during and after your climb, eating well, and sleeping enough. High elevations can upset your G.I. system and diminish your appetite, but it’s important to try to consume enough to fuel your body.

I’m not sure I’ve offered you any information that you haven’t already read elsewhere or heard from others in your group or from mountain guides. I don’t think there are any great secrets to dealing with high elevations; but arriving there in really good physical condition, especially training beforehand to increase your body’s VO2 max, can only help you.

Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.

Best,
Michael

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