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Climbing at Altitude for the First Time - 5 Lessons Learnt

Climbing at Altitude for the First Time - 5 Lessons Learnt

James Collins has been exposed to outdoor adventures for a long time. He’s an experienced and avid rock climber, hiker, ultra distance runner, backcountry skier and highliner. Although up until 2023 he hadn’t been to high altitude. This article focuses on the transition of doing what he was already comfortable and experienced in, but applying it at altitude. It doesn’t go into specifics around training, acclimatising techniques or specific methods of layering but rather presents an overview of 5 key elements on which you can base your approach to going to altitude on.

Climbing at altitude for the first time - 5 lessons learnt

Across Sep & Oct 2023, I spent a month overseas climbing in Nepal. While I had previously been up to approximately 5,500m, this trip would be the first time doing any technical climbing at a higher altitude. The objective was to ascend Lobuche East (6,119m) as part of our acclimatisation. Then to climb Ama Dablam (6,812m), a stunning peak in the Eastern Himalayan Range that features a variety of more technical climbing. The trip was ultimately a success, but not without its challenges along the way. Since returning, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on the trip as a whole; the following are 5 key lessons I learnt, all of which would be thoroughly worthwhile working through if you are intending on a climbing or hiking trip to altitude.

 

 

Altitude is no joke - it demands your respect


    Altitude is not just a number; it is a formidable force that can humble even the fittest of climbers or trekkers. The stories of well-trained individuals succumbing to its challenges are a testament to its power and at times, it definitely feels like a manifestation of the childhood fable ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’. What do I mean by that? 


    Even being what I would consider a reasonably patient person, it felt weird having to hold back and pace ourselves, especially at lower altitudes. It takes time to acclimatise, everyone has their own pace and, as I discovered, certain people struggle at particular altitudes more than others for no apparent reason - it's not necessarily a linear or exponential progression of difficulty. For example, I had a particularly rough experience around 3500/4000m, showing some symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), however when my body had finally adapted at this height, I found it easier to acclimatise at higher altitudes. While there are obviously a variety of factors that could have impacted this, from talking with others, it seems these inconsistencies with acclimatising are not uncommon.


    Further to this, as with any outdoor adventure, things inevitably go wrong. It's often at these times that things become more difficult and the real adventure begins (cliche I know!). But, add on top of this the additional fatigue association with being at altitude and you have a recipe for spirits being broken. Thus, giving the fact you’re at altitude the respect it deserves, being invested in the process of acclimatising properly and remaining open to the possibility of hiccups along the way was probably my greatest takeaway from the trip. Sticking to an itinerary can be counterproductive if it's going to run you into the ground.

    Climbing at altitude for the first time - 5 lessons learnt

     

     

    Layering appropriately is definitely appropriate


      Altitude increases, even compounds the, seriousness of the consequences of the same problems or challenges you experience climbing at lower altitudes. I came to appreciate this in two main ways over the course of my time in Nepal.


      Firstly, staying dry is vital. Becoming wet or having your layers wet-through is sometimes just not an option depending on the situation and environment you are in. Typically the higher altitude you are at, the harsher the weather conditions will be. This results in a situation where you require more technical/warm/waterproof clothing, while also intensifying the consequences of not being prepared regarding these demands. Being in Nepal with someone who had previously experienced serious frostbite, the dangers of getting cold or wet were certainly in the forefront of my mind. Pushing through a blizzard during our summit bid on Ama Dablam and having my gloves wet through was both surprising and also impactful, requiring me to stop every 15 minutes to warm my hands up inside my down jacket. Fortunately this was manageable, but it did threaten the prospect of bailing and brought with it its own subsequent consequence - having to stop.


      This brings us to our second point. It sounds obvious but staying warm is a lot easier when you're moving. Surprise, surprise, this is only exacerbated at altitude and here lies the challenge; layering for cold temperatures without becoming a human sauna! The saying “be bold, start cold” definitely still applies to alpine environments, perhaps even more so due to the greater disparity between the temperature outside and that of which your body will inevitably reach. However, as a result of the increased exertion at altitude (whether perceived or actual), having layers which are breathable becomes even more important.


      While the superior warmth capabilities of down almost necessitate its use at high altitudes, I found having the option of a lightweight grid fleece and a synthetic mid layer really useful in being able to adjust the layers I used each day. Having the option to add or remove various layers was definitely useful.

      Climbing at altitude for the first time 5 lessons learnt

       

       

      Who’s in your crew really does matter


        As much as the physical/mental challenge associated with climbing at altitude is largely individual at times, being surrounded by people who support and uplift you can really make a difference when things turn pear shaped. Let’s not kid ourselves, being at altitude for long periods of time feels like crap. You can’t sleep, you feel nauseous, you don’t really want to eat. So having partners who have a good sense of humour and can stay positive in or even make light of situations where things inevitably don’t go to plan is immensely helpful. While I remember having a conversation about this with a family friend, significantly more experienced than me, in the leadup to the trip, I don’t think I quite appreciated the impact this would have.


        Further to this, given the time it takes to acclimatise, we ended up spending a lot of time sitting around, especially toward the beginning of the trip. Not being much of a reader, it was mucking around with other members of the team that kept me occupied and entertained most afternoons! That, alongside keeping a journal, which, as an aside, I would highly recommend.

        climbing at altitude for the first time 5 lessons learnt

         

         

        Variety is your friend regarding food/drink


          Given the additional stress altitude puts on your body, you inevitably end up needing to eat more calories and rehydrate more often than you otherwise would (at a lower altitude). Depending on the nature of your trip (i.e. whether you’ve booked a full-service package through a commercial operator, organised base camp support through a local company or are taking care of all the logistics yourself) the degree to which you will be responsible for the food/drink you consume will vary - as will the quality and variety!


          In our case we had organised to have local Nepalese staff shadow us on our approach into base camp (BC), cooking us food, but we remained responsible for all our own food while climbing above BC. Due to our desire to save weight, the quality/variety of food worsened once we began eating into the supplies we’d brought from home: This correlated with a reduction in the amount of food we actually ate (likely also contributed to by the fact we were at higher altitudes), which obviously had consequences. It's no secret that altitude impacts your appetite and so bringing over food and drink that you think you’ll enjoy is an awesome starting point. However, I quickly discovered you get sick of eating the same snacks and drinking the same type of tea day after day, after day, after day! At times I was surprised by the sorts of food/drink I felt like (expect the unexpected!) and so I would definitely bring over a larger variety of snacks next time.


          Due to the climate at higher altitudes and water quality concerns, we boiled almost the entirety of the water we drank. As a result, we drank a lot of hot drinks, which was awesome (warming you up) but also meant I got pretty sick of the single variety of tea I brought over with me! It was a huge morale boost when another member of the team pulled out a tin of Milo and, at a later stage, a container of Sustigen. Even something as simple as having different flavours of electrolyte tablets makes a huge difference up there! I’ll definitely be bringing a larger variety of teas, soup sachets, hot chocolate powders, etc. next time.

          climbing at altitude for the first time 5 lessons learnt

           

           

          The Himalayas will knock your freakin socks off


            The Himalayas are not just a backdrop for adventure; they are an ecosystem with their own unique set of challenges. Having been to Nepal multiple times, I still find it difficult to describe just how stunning these mountains truly are! That being said, it's actually the heartening culture and people that will be the reason I continue to return.

            climbing at altitude for the first time 5 lessons learnt