Trekkers en route to the Thorung-La pass on the Annapurna Circuit, Nepal.

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

In Ask Me, Hiking, International Adventures, Skills   |   Tagged , , , ,   |   4 Comments

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 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.

 


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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 it also is a diuretic and will cause you to urinate more, which can dehydrate you. 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.

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.

 

Got a trip coming up? See my reviews of the best gear duffles and luggage and 6 favorite daypacks.

 

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. You might find these stories at The Big Outside helpful:

12 Pro Tips For Staying Warm Outdoors in Winter
10 Smarter Ways to Think About Your Layering System
Review: 6 Super Versatile Layering Pieces
Gear Review: The 5 Best Headlamps

Best,
Michael

 

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

  1. MichaelALanza   |  January 19, 2016 at 9:50 am

    Thanks for sharing those details, Chris. I may try it out when I attempt Mount Whitney with my son in April.

  2. Chris   |  January 19, 2016 at 9:27 am

    Michaellanza, I read an article years ago about how ginkgo helps the body in absorbing oxygen and I have used it countless times in climbing peaks and found it to make a big difference. I do not claim it will eliminate the possibility of altitude sickness, but I have found that the dizzyness that I have experienced without it goes away along with being easier to breathe.

    I climbed Mt. Hood without it probably 20 years ago and I had to stop every 15 steps or so on the last 1000′ as I was getting extremely dizzy (I live in Portland, so nearly sea level). A couple years later, just as fit, I climbed Mt Adams (which is 1000′ higher) and I marched right up with no issues while taking ginkgo several days prior and on the day of the climb. I have countless other times that I have seen similar & consistent results.

  3. michaellanza   |  January 19, 2016 at 8:59 am

    Hi Chris, I certainly agree with your suggestion about fitness and running hills. I’m not aware of any data suggesting that ginkgo biloba aids in reducing the symptoms of altitude sickness; are you? I’ve seen some articles online about ginkgo biloba in general, including this one: http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-333-ginkgo.aspx?activeingredientid=333&activeingredientname=ginkgo. But none mention its use in dealing with altitude sickness.

  4. Chris   |  January 19, 2016 at 8:04 am

    I have found that along with being fit (running hills helps) taking ginkgo biloba helps a tremendous amount. Start several days before, taking 1 high quality pill (I use Oregon’s Wild Harvest) 3x a day through your trip. I found they help my body absorb oxygen. I have done climbs with and without and notice a big difference. Have a great trip!

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