High places -- altitudes of 2,500m and above -- demand special respect and preparation. However, with proper planning and the right training, almost anyone can experience the exhilaration of rarefied air. Here are some ideas to help you to prepare, train, stay well and reach altitudes you would never have believed possible in the tallest mountain ranges of the world.
It is often not
practical to prepare by actually spending time up high, but you can train your heart and lungs for altitude, even at sea level. Do at least four hour-long sessions per week of
full-effort aerobic exercise, such as running, biking or swimming. Find steep
hills to climb wherever you can. And if you will be carrying a load, include
this into your training regime.
If you will be flying or driving to altitude, the first thing you must do is rest.
Spend two or three days doing as little as possible and drinking plenty of
water – around four to six litres per day. Dehydration worsens altitude
problems, as does drinking alcohol.
You may lose your appetite when first at altitude, but it is important to keep
eating. You will burn more calories even at rest when up in the alpine cold: make
sure you eat plenty of high-carb, slow-burning energy foods.
Above 3,000m, if the geography allows, do not ascend more than 300m a day. If
you do, plan to sleep no more than 300m higher than you did the previous night
until you are well acclimatised. Acclimatisation takes one to three days for
any given altitude.
Nights may be tough at first. Breathing rate slows when you sleep and you may
wake frequently feeling short of breath. Propping yourself up with your
backpack to sleep half-sitting may help.
It is normal to
have some headaches when you are first above 2,500m. Rest, drink and medicate
as you would at sea level. Breathlessness is normal on exertion at altitude –
but above 3,000m, watch for breathlessness when resting. A cough; a severe,
persistent headache; nausea; loss of coordination or disorientation all are signs of Acute
Mountain Sickness (AMS). This potentially fatal
condition demands rapid descent.
Have a plan
AMS symptoms often improve with a descent of 300 to 600m. Make sure your
walking party has a plan of action for descent.
(and Western) remedies
Andeans have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years -- the alkaloids
released relieve altitude symptoms. In the Himalayas, dried yak cheese is said
to alleviate some altitude woes. Eating steak before arriving at altitude may
increase iron levels and help produce blood cells to transport oxygen. Or take
the pharmaceutical route: Acetazolamide
(Diamox) before and during ascent helps acclimatisation.
Now that you are prepared, here are five of the
most beautiful -- and challenging -- high altitude journeys:
Mt Kailash Kora, Tibet
The faithful (and fit) make the 52km circumambulation in one day, but most
trekkers take at least three days to circuit the mountain at altitudes of
between 4,570 and 5,790m. Be glad you are not prostrating at every step like
Kala Patthar - Cho La - Gokyo Lakes, Nepal
This classic circuit leads from fly-in Lukla to the best viewpoint over Mt
Everest, Kala Patthar (5,644m). It then heads over Cho La Pass (5,330m) to
Gokyo Valley. Stay hydrated with dudh chia (milk tea).
Trek from Shey Gompa to Phoksundo Lake in the land
of the snow leopard, and then on remote, ancient pathways to Jomsom. Altitudes range
between 4,000-5,000m – be thankful for your yaks.
Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru
The 12-day 170km circuit of the most easterly range
of the Andes is largely between 4,000 and 5,000m. Spectacular glacier-shrouded
peaks here soar to 6,635m.
Simien Mountains, Ethiopia
This primeval range is cut through by deep river
gorges and rises to the highest point in Ethiopia, 4,563m Ras Dejen. Approach
the summit on rural pathways threading between 20 peaks over 4,000m.
The article 'A guide to staying well at high altitude' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.