You’ve got a murderous headache, nausea and you’ve lost your appetite. Your nose bleeds, and the dry air has opened up cracks in your skin. The cold hurts your lungs and even with two pairs of socks your toes are numb - but one look at the view burns your retinas and you wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else.
This is high altitude trekking, the next step many hikers take in their pursuit of adventure. So how do you prepare to make your high altitude trek more enjoyable?
While we are certainly not experts in this field, here’s what works for us. But firstly, let’s talk about altitude.
There is the common misconception that the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere at higher altitudes is lower, yet this couldn’t be further from the truth. Regardless of whether you are at sea level or on the summit of Mt Everest, the atmosphere still contains 20.93 percent oxygen. The reason you have difficulty breathing at altitude is because the barometric pressure in the air decreases as you ascend higher, meaning it’s more difficult for the air to enter your lungs. So while the percentage of oxygen available is the same, your lungs have to work a lot harder to get enough air in.
We are lucky that our GP is a mountain enthusiast who has done a lot of mountaineering, so we welcomed his knowledge and advice when it came to easier breathing techniques.
Because of the change in barometric pressure, your first instinct is to force air into your lungs by breathing harder and faster. We found however that breathing became far more easier the more we slowed down our breath and increased its depth, so kinda like breathing into your stomach. This is where Yoga breathing techniques come in handy. If you have never done Yoga before, enrolling in a few classes will not only teach you deep breathing techniques, but will also improve your flexibility - this will do wonders for your trek.
Another technique our GP gave to us was to practice what he called ‘Pressure Breathing’, which is to purse your lips and exhale a bit more forcefully. While it felt a bit weird, this technique apparently enables an easier oxygen exchange in your lungs.
It’s all in your head
Everyone thinks that high altitude trekking is all about physical fitness, and while you do need to be super fit to sustain an extended period trekking at high altitude, your mental fitness is just as important.
Trekking at altitude is both physically and mentally challenging. It pushes the body in a way that few other sports do.
Take this scenario: You wake each day after sleeping on a hard surface in a small tent, often on the snow. You don’t feel particularly well, and you can’t wash like you would at home. Maybe you can manage a small bowl of water (if your lucky), but it’s far from that hot shower your dreaming of.
You put on the same layers of clothing everyday. You eat quite uninspiring meals, and each day can be a battle of altitude sickness, rocks, boulders and ice. This is your day - day after day after day - everyday, until your quest has been realised.
Maybe your quest is to climb a peak, maybe it’s to simply cross a high mountain pass, but regardless of what your striving to achieve, each day requires unwavering focus, determination, and of course ‘Clif’ bars!
You also have to be able to overcome failure, as not everyone may complete the trek, or make it to the summit.
So how do you become mentally fit? We found that the only way to get our head right was to get our bodies right. Being physically prepared will instil a confidence in your ability, therefore not allowing any demons of doubt to creep in. It’s also important to understand the environment you are going to, after all they say knowledge is power. Be sure to take everything one step at a time. Stay focussed, relax, and trust in the physical preparation you have done.
Because there are serious risks involved with high-altitude trekking , including altitude sickness, acute mountain syndrome and pulmonary edema, all of which can result in death, it’s really important to train your body to work effectively in a low oxygen environment.
When training for our first trip to the Himalaya we undertook a combination of high intensity interval training at the gym, self sufficient ‘hilly’ overnight hiking carrying a full pack, and two x 2-hour high intensity interval training sessions per week in the altitude training chamber at our local gym.
Interval training is believed to help your cardiovascular system manage the stress of of limited oxygen levels at higher altitudes. We particularly liked our gyms high intensity Circuit or HITT classes that combined a number of different exercises including cardio and strength building. These classes included everything from the treadmill, bike, weights, kettlebells, and medicine balls. You can also can train in the gym with your pack or a weighted vest to mimic the weight that you might be carrying during your trek.
We aimed for about 5 sessions of high intensity interval training per week, plus overnight hiking whenever we could. While the gym is great, the best thing you can really do to train is to do the activity you will be doing whilst on your trek. So carrying a pack up hill and being self sufficient is going to give you the best preparation both physically and mentally. Camping overnight in all weather conditions, having to carry everything you need also gives you that ‘discomfort training’ that the gym won’t. After all, it’s highly likely that you will be uncomfortable at times during your trek.
We started our training 6 months prior to our trip with the altitude chamber training taking place in the final 2 months.
The altitude chamber
So what does training in an altitude chamber actually do? According to our local gym Prosport, training at altitude:
“increases your red blood cell content (cells which carry oxygen to your muscles), metabolism, oxygen utilisation and keeps burning energy (calories) for a sustained period post altitude. All of this results in your body acclimatising to cope with a lower oxygen level”
While we were initially sceptical of how much this training would actually help our acclimatisation, it was proven whilst on our trek where we recorded oxygen saturation levels of 98 percent when above 5,000 meters!
Training in the altitude chamber also helped us get used to working hard in a low pressure environment, this helped both our physical and mental preparation.
Don’t worry if you don’t have access to an altitude chamber, just take your trek slowly enough to acclimatise properly by ascending no more than 400 meters per day, and always try to sleep lower than your highest altitude for that day.
We are off to to the Karakoram in Pakistan in a few months so are currently putting these tips into practice. With altitudes over 6,000 meters we’ll no doubt learn a lot more about our own bodies and fitness! Stay tuned.