Fitness Feature: Altitude- climbing mountains

Posted on May 23 2018 - 9:00am by Samantha Clark

Climbing a mountain is unlike any other endurance based programme. Although it requires much of the same training, there is one significant difference and arguably, it’s the most challenging aspect; dealing with altitude.

Even walking up a hill or hiking, you notice the difference; your muscles have to work harder which means all your organs need to work overtime to enable you to do it. So consider increasing that duration, increasing the incline and the effect that’ll have on your body; it utterly changes your physiology.

If you have a desire to climb a mountain don’t be put off. The challenge may be arduous but it’s do-able. It simply requires you to carry out training specifically to the trial; much like a marathon, you have to prepare.

Effects of altitude

As mentioned, when climbing, your body has to work hard to power the movement; the oxygen you’re consuming and the blood pumping around your body has to work faster to help you go farther.

As you get higher, the air becomes thinner meaning oxygen access decreases; this makes even normal body function more challenging without any additional strain of exercise.

When you reach around 7,000 feet (2,100 metres) above sea level (twice the size of Snowdon) the body’s ability to process and use the oxygen available rapidly decreases. As such, you may start to experience symptoms such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Irregular breathing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sickness/nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Challenge to stay asleep

As to when you’ll feel the effect of altitude, this will vary person to person; however, many start to feel the effects from about 2,000 metres. But that’s not to say you’ll not feel it on the smaller mountains.

How to prepare/train for altitude

Preparation is all about slow exposure and acclimatisation.

Clearly fitness is very important and ensure you follow other fitness guides on our website to ensure you’re in great shape and physical condition before even attempting anything like a mountain climb.

However in terms of the specifics, you’ll need guidance from an experienced climber before you go ahead and make attempts at traversing higher mountains, ultimately you need a good crew of supportive people around you to make sure you’re all safe and can take everything you need in one go.

Even for smaller mountains such as Snowdon of Ben Nevis preparation is key.

Please don’t think you’ll be able to stroll up these mountains in jeans and t-shirt, even UK based mountains are high enough to need proper walking and mountaineering specialist clothes that should be lightweight, waterproof and durable. The same clearly goes for a comfortable pair of boots, gloves and a hat. Even in the summer it can get cold at altitudes.

Don’t worry about any diets. Take calories, lots of calories and food stuffs that can give you both short bursts of energy (such as sweets and chocolate) and longer term carbs to burn. You’ll be working very hard and as the altitudes get higher, just moving and breathing will take a lot of effort, you’ll generally burn off anything you put in your body.

Water, water and water is vital. Feel free to add juice to it too, the sugars will help.

Make sure someone knows where you are too, there’s lots of good online resources with checklists for things to take, but depending on the challenge don’t forget that taking someone who’s familiar with the territory and terrain is the best and safest way to achieve your goals.

There is a reason all those motivational posters have a picture of a man on top of a mountain and talk about how things are achieved “one step at a time”, it’s because the best preparation you can make when doing this sort of thing is to break it down in to manageable chunks, setting goals and slowly increasing and stretching those targets in a comfortable and controlled way. If you do that, you should be ready to go.

In terms of tactic, leap frogging your way up the mountain is the best way to help you acclimatise to the difference. You’ll make your way up to one camp and then traverse down to the one below to sleep helping to force your body into the next extreme environment but allowing it a little time to adjust. Additionally, sleeping at altitude has been shown to have the same effect on the body as being active at 2,000 feet, the leap frog tactic will help with the adjustment.

What to do if you’re feeling ill.

Stop!

Stop wherever you are and take time to acclimatise to the climate and air pressure. Despite the impacts mentioned above, the human body is extremely resilient and can usually adapt to the environments around it if not pushed too far. Ultimately this is where all the altitude training comes in handy.

If you still don’t feel any better, slowly make your way down to a lower altitude until you start to feel the effects wear off.

There are no prizes for getting up a mountain first, and the main goal is for you and your party to achieve your goals safely and together. It’s a common tool for experienced climbers to climb a mountain by climbing two base camps and coming down one to sleep and acclimatise effectively pogoing up the mountain, it makes the journey longer, but it’s much safer and if it’s good enough for the pros, it should be good enough for you.

Climbing is dangerous, use your instincts and if you don’t feel well then don’t continue.  Listen to the people around you and note that it’s always better to come back to conquer a mountain later than to push ahead and suffer long lasting effects.

Best of luck

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