Being at high altitude – expert advice

by on 1st August, 2014

Being at high altitude – expert advice

This week Tara Guerin and Georgia Upjohn, performance specialists at the Altitude Centre, share their expert advice with us on going up high.


Altitude: Be the tortoise, not the hare.

As a mountaineering destination, The Andes offers no end of attractions. The scenery is peerless, and with Mount Aconcagua at 6,962m one of a myriad of mountaineering peaks, it’s an awe-inspiring challenge.

And challenging it is. Aconcagua takes you through a brutal climb from base camp (Plaza de Mulas) at 4,370m through to just shy of 7000m.

In altitude terms, you start at 12 per cent oxygen (compared to 21 per cent at sea level), and as you ascend, summiting at just 8.7 per cent oxygen.

Simon Calder, Senior Travel Editor of The Independent and Altitude Centre client, said of his trip to Aconcagua: “It was distressing to see how many climbers did not make it. One of the main reasons seemed to be the impatience.

“We took 16 days to summit and any less, I don’t think we would have made it”.


Camp 3 on vacas valley Route Aconcagua Argentina

Camp onVacas Valley Route, Aconcagua, Argentina


Tara said: “High altitude environments are hypoxic: ‘hypo’ from the Greek ‘below’ or ‘under’, and the rest of the word, well, meaning oxygen.

“The higher you go, the less oxygen available: Air gets thinner, and with every lungful, your supply of oxygen diminishes. The body starts to struggle to maintain the supply of oxygen it’s used to (at sea level) and this is where problems can start with Acute Mountain Sickness.”

Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) normally starts from 2400m, with differing of severity. Some experience a mild headache and queasiness. For others, the life-threatening condition High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE) can occur.


Know before you go

How predisposed you are to AMS or HACE is genetic, and the only way to find out how you cope with low oxygen levels is to be tested at altitude (real or simulated).

Georgia said: “Traditionally, mountaineers used to spend weeks to months ahead of summiting at base camp to normalise their response to altitude. Acclimatisation – getting used to hypoxic environments – is one way to manage sensitivity to altitude.”

The Altitude Centre’s Mountaineering Consultations are geared around ensuring you know as much as possible before you go about how you’ll react in hypoxic environments.

Pre-acclimatisation stimulates the physiological adaptations necessary to ensure an increased oxygen carrying capacity within the body.


Tortoises win

Georgia continued: “Training in our chamber ranging from (approx.) 2,700m-3,000m, with the option of ‘going higher’ to (approx.) 5,000-6,000m with passive (resting) Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure (IHE) set-up helps you understand the challenges of hypoxic environments. Our home rental hypoxic systems offer the same service for those who can’t make it to our London centre.”

Preparing at simulated altitude before you travel will offset the risk of AMS and HACE, ensuring your trip is safer and much more enjoyable.

Tara said: “It may be boring, but the motto ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’ applies to acclimatising for altitude. Deciding to head out to The Andes requires physical preparation beyond breaking in your walking boots. Ascending slowly is hugely important, as it gives your body time to acclimatise.

“Be the tortoise, not the hare.”

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