Ask Me: How Do We Flatlanders Train For High Altitudes?
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!
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.
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.
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:
This story took quite a while to write, so if you enjoyed it, please consider giving it a share using the buttons below. I’d really appreciate it.
I can help you plan the best backpacking, hiking, or family adventure of your life.
Got a question about hiking, backpacking, planning a family adventure, or any trip I’ve written about at The Big Outside? Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For just $75, I’ll answer your questions via email or in a phone call to help ensure your trip is a success. See my Ask Me page.