Travel:An altitude trekkers guide to success

During my late mountaineering days I started to notice a few important things about myself, my fellow trekkers or mountaineers, my environment, my equipment or tools. Here is just a few:
1. I was achieving more in the Himalaya than the Alps ….. strange!
2. My general suffering from fatigue, headaches, minor ailments was reducing.
3. I was slowing down and deliberately planning longer schedules.
4. Many first time trekkers ignored general advice from local guides.
5. Daily altitude gain is a more important factor than distance gain.
These were all observations from trekking to Everest Base Camp EIGHT times, trekking 3 times to Annapurna Base Camp in the Annapurna Sanctuary and once deep into Langtang Region for a couple of peaks. I also stood on top of SIX Himalayan peaks above 18,000ft, three above 20,000ft as well as numerous French and Swiss Alps summits above 13,000ft. Lots of experiences to learn from, provided we reflect and change, and now to distil and pass on to others.

Two different items are basically an altitude trekkers best friends: the metal Sigg bottle x 2 @1.5 litres for water, and the humble spud when boiled as a rapid source of glucose due to its high glycaemic index. But let’s put them in context first with some golden rules.
1. Once you are above about 8000ft never trek and sleep at an altitude more than 1000ft higher than the previous day. If unavoidable, sleep for two nights at the new altitude to average out the gain over two days instead of one. As an example the altitude gain between Phakding and Namche on the Everest trail is about 2600ft and this is why guides insist on two nights sleeping here. Calling it a “rest day” is not entirely accurate and tempts too many young trekkers to think they don’t need a rest and to carry on. Really it’s an acclimatisation day and is allowing your body to adapt to the new altitude and less oxygen availability. The really difficult day for the inexperienced trekker to understand is trekking from Pheriche/Dingboche to Dughla only rather than going on to Lobuche. This is where many trekkers fail, because the altitude gain is 800ft vs 2000ft, but it only takes a couple of hours to reach Dughla and to now be over 15,000ft! The only thing waiting for you at Lobuche is a big headache and potential failure! Slow down, relax, enjoy the magnificent and majestic peaks around you, especially Cholatse.
2. Drink SIX litres of water per day! I’ll repeat that …..drink SIX litres of water per day! Sounds crazy but is based on the fact that most altitude headaches are NOT altitude sickness as HAPE or HACE but are caused by dehydration. Think of the worst hangover you’ve ever had …….. dehydration. To achieve so much fluid intake you will need two 1.5litre metal Sigg bottles and a disciplined schedule roughly as follows. At the end of your first day trekking drink as much tea, juice, water as you can. Fill both Siggs with boiling water, put a sock over each and use as bed warmers. Next morning when cooled add a little powdered flavouring to taste and store in your rucksack. At breakfast, morning break, lunch and afternoon break drink tea or juice at the lodge or rest stop. As you trek drink from your bottles too. On arrival at your nights destination make sure you have drunk ALL the liquid from your Siggs. During the evening drink more juice or tea too, add it all up and you should be 5+ litres. Now before you go to bed, repeat the schedule.
3. Use the humble potato, boiled in their skins, as a rapid source of energy to feed your tired limbs and rejuvenate yourself. To understand this you need to read a little about the glycaemic index, a scale of 1-100 indicating the speed at which a particular food releases glucose into the bloodstream. The higher the score of a food the faster it releases energy. So, at the end of a days trekking fast energy is needed and a readily available source is boiled potato with a GI of 80+. Conversely at breakfast a food of a low GI is best as you want something that releases glucose slowly as you trek, and …….. porridge fits the bill with a GI of 46. Now, you may not need or feel like having boiled spuds every day, and that’s fine. But if you have a bad day and need a boost remember the humble spud.

Many people are now venturing into altitude trekking as part of their bucket lists, Everest Base Camp, Kilimanjaro, Machu Picchu to name a few. Sadly not all will make it because they are underprepared for some of the simple realities including the human body adapting to altitude at a rate to suit itself, the altitude literally sucking the fluids out of you mostly from increased breathing rates rather than sweating, and the body’s need for glycogen at varying rates of supply. Understand these issues and follow these golden rules and you will increase your chances of success dramatically. Good luck and do share your own experiences here too.

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