Controversial Big Mountain Acclimatisation Method
As a trained physiologist specialising in the effects of low oxygen and cold environments, a very recent article published by Bloomberg focusing on a relatively modern technique to dramatically cut down time spent on big mountains piqued my interest:
The hypothesis is simple; pre-acclimatise in an altitude tent/chamber at home, allowing you to partake in normal life activities, and then at the optimal time, go and attack the mountain in a single fast strike; clearly something of a paradigm shift from the days of laying siege to a big mountain.
Does it work?
In short, yes. Prior to Everest and other big mountains, I spent time in an altitude chamber, and regardless of the time of day you are exposed to a lower concentration of oxygen, you will invariably end up with a greater number of red blood cells. This is acclimatisation’s number one effect. Other responses are a change in respiratory rate, changes to metabolism and a range of other physiological factors. But the key point is, to climb big mountains, you need more red blood cells than you can get at sea level. In the article, they mention “Climb High, Sleep Low” and point to that as being the best method for acclimatisation. This however is simply not true. The opposite hypothesis of sleeping high has also been studied, and the results of which is best are still relatively inconclusive, and also depend largely on the activity you are doing, be that training for the Tour de France, or acclimatising for a big mountain.
Of course, sleeping in a chamber is limited to the effective altitude the pump will maintain, but if the chamber can reach 5,000m which is the rough height of Everest base camp, you’ve already removed all the acclimatisation time required on the walk in to the mountain. After a couple of weeks in an altitude tent, you could quite easily helicopter straight to basecamp and then climb to camp 1 at 4am the next morning.
So remember, any reference to altitude tents or chambers not working is simply untrue. Olympic athletes train in chambers to prepare for sport at higher altitudes, and there is no reason not to bring this technology to climbing; isn’t there?
So why is this method controversial? Climbing ethics of course! As is always the case with climbing, there are purists who debate passionately the way in which climbing should be done; whether that is trad climbing, or as in this case, high altitude climbing.
Climbing as a sport is unique. It maintains a huge amount of prestige through the maintenance of ethics where style is everything; not bolting the The North Face of Ben Nevis being an obvious example.
But in this particular case, there’s no particular substance to the controversial aspects of pre-acclimatisation. Comments by Simon Lowe, (managing director of Jagged Globe), “complete bloody hogwash,” and the respected Russell Brice “it’s snake oil”, give you a flavour of the sentiment towards a modern way to climb big mountains.
To debate the extra costs that are reported in the Bloomberg article, you have to first consider the golden rule of economics: something is only worth as much as people are willing to pay. So lets (if possible coming from a more scientific and rational perspective) look at why you would choose to pay extra for something the old dogs of the hill don’t much rate.
I must at this point confess; I see no reasons against the use of this tactic. If you have the money, it really is logical, and so whilst I can’t remove that element of bias, it is key to understand that this is not bolting, an act which can’t easily be undone. It is a process which if done well has minimal effect on other climbers, leaves no additional trace on the hill than other teams, and still allows the traditionalists to spend as much time as they please in the high mountains.
Reason one: Less time in the danger zone.
This is a no-brainer. A typical Hypoxico generator can simulate an altitude of up to 6,400m. Base Camp on Everest is 5,300m whilst Camp 1 is up at 5,900m. This means with pre-acclimatisation, you can pass through the most dangerous part of the Nepalese route, the Khumbu Icefall, much faster than the traditional approach, having previously spent 14 days trekking up the Khumbu valley to get acclimatised. 6,400m is also the height of Camp 2 on Everest, so after say 3 or 4 weeks of sitting in a tent at night in your comfy bed at home, you could then go straight up to the base of the Lhotse face relatively unscathed by the altitude. But the key element here is speed. Passing through the Khumbu Icefall is simply Russian Roulette. At some point, a gigantic serac will collapse, or an avalanche will wash down the route, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be stood there when the event happens, you will probably die. So the aim of the game is to minimise the risk, and the best way to do this in the big mountains is to move fast, minimising your exposure time and the probability of getting hit. You can’t move fast if you’re unacclimatised, so this pre-acclimatisation strategy is a move to making climbing big mountains ever so slightly safer. Going against the grain of the so-called ruffy-tuffies, making big mountains safer isn’t a bad thing. Whilst you can legitimately argue this point, in my view it doesn’t make the achievement any less, and at a simplistic level, whilst, this tactic increases the length of time you are able to enjoy being in the mountains, counterintuitively.
Less Crowded Mountains
As many climbers and non-climbers alike will remember, the last years on Everest have been crowded. Every team manager with his or her eye on the forecast will send their team up to the South Col in preparation to attack the summit. This clearly means cues form, and slow climbers simply exacerbate this problem. There are usually multiple weather windows each season on Everest which the pre-acclimatisation method can take advantage of, but crucially, think back to 2012 when the fastest guy on the hill, Ueli Steck went up with the Sherpas. He was moving fast and light, avoiding the queues which would come the following day, and doing it safely; i.e. minimising his time on the mountain and avoiding the need to pass through bottle necks with too many other climbers.
Clearly this is one of the weaker arguments for pre-acclimatisation, since sleeping in an altitude tent will not make you Ueli Steck no matter how many times you listen to Welcome Home by Radical Face. That said, pre-acclimatisation will almost certainly make you faster up to Camp 2, and this gives more potential time for acclimatising higher on the mountain, getting you up the Lhotse Face and putting you in a better position to go for the summit with the Sherpa rope fixing team.
The pre-acclimatisation approach isn’t just for rich people walking up Everest; it has a place in tackling some of the world’s more technical challenging lines. Take for example some of the high altitude faces such as the South Face of Annapurna which Ueli Steck soloed. Being acclimatised allows you to concentrate on the technicality of the climbing as opposed to being overcome by the immense oppression of the invisible force of high altitude. Where the pre-acclimatisation comes into its own on such climbs however is when the challenge is as much finding a weather window as climbing into the thin air; otherwise known as the Off the Sofa strategy.
Off the Sofa Strategy
This is a strategy which has so many benefits if done correctly. If you live in Europe, alpine climbs really can be completed off the sofa, but for Himalayan prospects, the sofa analogy needs to be slightly stretched.
Take for example that climb up the South Face of Annapurna. There are a number of challenges to be overcome. The main challenges are the altitude, the weather, the relative inaccessibility, and the technical nature of the climbing, to name but a few.
Using the Off the Sofa strategy for such climbs, you would pre-acclimatise in a tent at home just as Alpenglow do. If you’re not a professional sponsored climber like Ueli Steck, then this has the added benefit of allowing you to do your day job, spend time with the family and generally wait for improving weather conditions in the near vicinity of the climb. Once the conditions look on, you book last minute flights to Nepal or utilise your flexible tickets. You then complete the walk-in in a fraction of the time it would take most climbers since you’ve been sleeping at 6,400m for the past week. You are then able to capitalise on the good weather window without excessive trips up and down the mountain adding further risk through the Russian Roulette effect in which odds of survival are gradually turned against you the more times you step foot on the mountain. If you have camps to stock, you will of course need rotations, but you will be faster on the mountain and be able to lift more gear when carrying loads. Finally, you then have the required reserve to apply your technical aptitude and perhaps push some of the limits of ultra-high altitude technical climbing.
Climbing Amongst Guides
As a final point for the use of pre-acclimatisation, we have the guiding community. Have you noticed how elegantly guides manager to climb big mountains? Kenton Cool for example, he moves pretty damn fast up Everest (and Lhotse and Nuptse too for that matter). Ueli Steck is the same (even without supplemental oxygen), as is Conrad Anker and most of the guides I have climbed with. When I climbed Mera Peak as acclimatisation for Baruntse, a guide I was climbing with had to stop halfway to the summit; he descend back to the high camp, and then re-climbed the full route to the summit. He did all this, arriving only 30 minutes or so behind the group I was with. How was this possible? Was he fitter than all of us? Did he have some physiological advantage like a Sherpa? The answer to this is yes, he was fitter, but specifically. He had just returned from a high altitude trip only days prior to the start of our trip, so would still be carrying more red blood cells than the rest of the team, and thus had the distinct advantage that he was already partly acclimatised.
Most people simply do not have time to do back to back trips in order to acclimatise for their main objective, or equally, don’t want to spend precious money and time on a single trip only to find it took much longer than anticipated to acclimatise when trying to bridge a rogue 1,000m gap between high camps.
Guides hold this advantage simply by climbing as their day job, especially if these climbs are in the greater ranges or on Europe’s loftiest peaks. So again, pre-acclimatisation is a great solution, simply getting you to the action faster, which by its nature is safer and more fun.
The Training Argument
If climbers only did fast trips to the greater ranges, would they not be missing out on vital experience which is built over many years of long trips? This is a fair point and one which is easily argued. There is no way round the initial ground work if you want to be a good climber; you simply must put the time in. But it gets to a point where the rule of diminishing returns takes over. Let us suppose that it takes x hours to gain enough experience to be deemed a competent climber by the majority of the climbing community. Beyond x hours, it is argued that the experience gains are tiny, whereas the exposure to danger continues to rise as you spend more time in an inherently unstable environment.
So, yes, ensure you have the background training in order to deal with most known consequences when climbing goes wrong, but don’t be fooled that you can’t maintain this experience by brief but intense ‘top ups’ in the mountains. You can.
Putting this simply, if you are at the ‘correct level’ for a given mountain, the argument that pre-acclimatisation takes away some necessary exposure and you will therefore suffer is false. If you know how to crevasse rescue and find avalanche victims, putting yourself in avalanche terrain when not necessary is only increasing the probability that you will be the one needing the rescue. I guess the main point here is to climb smarter.
Is Pre-Acclimatisation The Way Forward?
Yes, simply. Once the demand goes up, prices will come down and make pre-acclimatisation more affordable which will open up bigger expeditions for climbers who have a limited time available to achieve their goals. Cutting down the time taken to trek to the mountain is a big aspect of pre-acclimatisation; there is however one valley which I would always spend maximum time in, and that is the Khumbu. For me, trekking through the Khumbu is as much a part of climbing Everest as the mountain itself. There is a definite magic up there in the high valley amongst the Sherpa people, but given the option of pre-acclimatisation, I would still opt for the technological approach, but then simply enjoy the walk-in more as the gradual reduction in available oxygen tries, but this time fails to hide the beauty of one of the world’s most stunning areas.