Mick Conefrey| |
How do you prepare yourself for high altitude?
I recently interviewed the British mountain guide Kenton Cool for an article that I'm writing on Britain and Everest. He has the distinction of being the first Brit to climb Everest ten times, having worked as a commercial guide on Everest since 2004. We were discussing how fast you could get up and down the mountain these days, when he mentioned the Altitude Centre in London, pioneers of pre-expedition training.
In 1952 and 1953 the Swiss and British teams took over a fortnight to walk in all the way from Kathmandu to Everest. Since the airport was built at Lukla in the 1970s, most trekkers and climbers have taken about a week. Walking in and gradually increasing altitude is one of the best ways to acclimatise, but what do you do if don't want to spend the extra week? The answer is you helicopter in to a landing strip close to Base Camp, having prepared yourself by sleeping in a low oxygen tent and working out in a low oxygen gym at somewhere like the Altitude Centre.
As any climber knows, high altitude is not good for you. A variety of conditions from a relatively mild dose of mountain sickness to a potentially fatal pulmonary or cerebral oedema, awaits anyone who goes into the mountains. The higher you go, the more risky it is. In 1952 the Swiss climber Edouard Wyss Dunant coined the phrase 'la zone fatale' or the 'death zone' in modern parlance to describe the area above 26,000 ft. On Everest this marks the South Col, the jumping off point for the summit, for anyone climbing the traditional route.
The problem with altitude is that it's unpredictable- some people people can cope reasonably well, others cannot. There's no real test that you can do in advance to assess your altitude fitness, and to make matters worse, it can change from year to year. In recent decades some climbers have advocated using Diamox prophylactically for anyone going to high altitude, but the doctors I've talked to are uncomfortable with this. Diamox can be used to treat the symptoms of altitude sickness, they say, but there are too many potential side-effects and too many unknowns to take it in advance.
The advantage of the oxygen tent route is that there seem to be fewer side effects, though like everything this approach does depend on professional advice and it seems to work best when done over a rather long period of time. It can help you acclimatise up to 6000m but beyond that its effects are more limited. In truth, the science of high altitude is still relatively speaking in its infancy and there is much that remains unknown.
Looking to the future, it seems inevitable that more people will be helicoptering in to Everest or one of the villages close by. However, the cost will probably still put most people off. And there's another thing to be said for the walk in to Everest or any big mountain- it's fun, surprisingly beautiful and it allows you to come across a lot of ordinary Nepalis, who you're never going to encounter if you spend all your time on planes and choppers. The walk in, getting to know the landscape and the local people, has always been one of the joys of big expeditions - it would be a shame if modern day time pressures mean there's no time for this.
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