SKILLS: Acclimatising for the European Alps

by Jack Geldard - Consulting Editor Jun/2016
This article has been read 10,228 times

Arc'teryx Academy Banner, 25 kb

In the run up to the 2016 Arc'teryx Alpine Academy in Chamonix, France, we have a series of articles on some key skills in Alpine climbing. To kick us off UKC editor Jack Geldard gives us a run down on how he thinks you should acclimatise for the European Alps.


Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps at 4810m and one of the hardest aspects of climbing it is getting your acclimatisation right. If you can acclimatise for Mont Blanc, then you can acclimatise for any peak in the Alps following a similar (if slightly lower altitude) strategy.

Yes, it is true that people arrive in the Alps from sea-level, don’t acclimatise, and get straight on 4000m peaks. Some of them do well. Many of them don’t. A few of them get dangerously sick. My advice is to ignore these people and acclimatise properly. It isn’t a chore, it involves some brilliant climbing, and it makes your chances of success and level of enjoyment sky-rocket on any bigger objectives you may have.

photo
Climbers descending Bosses ridge of Mt. Blanc
© TonyM, Jul 2006

Take it slow

One reason for not zooming up thousands of vertical metres the day after arriving in the Alps from sea level is that you won’t be acclimatised and you could suffer from altitude sickness. The other reason is that you will be worn out before your main climb even starts!

Take it slow, plan your acclimatisation to fit in with any weather forecasts and don’t be afraid to take a rest day if fitness levels or weather aren’t quite what you hoped for.

Mont Blanc peak, looking west., 71 kbMont Blanc peak, looking west.
© Gordon Nudd, Aug 1981

Plan of attack

Altitude affects different people differently, and even if you are experienced at altitude sometimes your body just doesn't adjust well. Gaining not more than a thousand metres per day is a good basic strategy and gives you a chance to see how you are doing on this trip, so a rough plan of attack for acclimatising to 4800m (Mont Blanc) might go like this.

Day 1: Arrive in the Alps (valley level approximately 1000m) and get your kit sorted out, check the weather etc.

Day 2: Hike to roughly 2000m and stay at a refuge/hut or camp.

Day 3: Climb a mid-level route to around 3000m altitude and then return to the valley. There are hundreds of fantastic mid-level alpine rock climbs all over the Alps that are perfect for this. One of my favourites is Bienvenue au Georges V at the Envers hut (2523m). Make sure you rehydrate when you get back to the valley, and I don’t mean with just beer. Whilst not getting you up to a huge altitude, this day does start the acclimatisation roling, and gives you a good test of your current fitness level too. It's also fun!

Day 4: Hike or cable-car to mid-mountain level and then approach a higher-level hut at over 2000m. Spend the night there.

Day 5: Climb your chosen smaller objective up to around 4000m (for example a classic peak to bag before Mont Blanc is the Gran Paradiso - UKC Link). Either return to the hut or return to the valley. Remember Mont Blanc at 4800m might not sound that much higher than the Gran Paradiso at 4080m, but it will feel it!

Day 6: Rest day. Now you’ve done two Alpine routes you should be acclimatised fairly well, but the big one will still hurt. As well as being acclimatised, ticking off two lower-routes means that hopefully any Alpine-faff with have been dealt with, boots will have been worn in anger, crampons adjusted, gear trimmed-down and all of those ‘first route of the year’ mistakes should have been well and truly ironed out.

Day 7: Start your Mont Blanc or higher peak climb, usually by approaching a hut on this day to approx 2500/3000m.

Day 8: Summit day! Climb from your hut to the summit of your chosen 4000m peak and usually descend to the valley on the same day.

Day 9: Beer and pizza day. Oh yes, you’ve earned it!

Day 10: It’s time to capitalise on your mega fitness and acclimatisation and think about approaching your next objective - whatever that may be. Good luck!

It is perfectly possible to acclimatise more quickly than this plan, and many people do a similar strategy but cut out the initial mid-level climb. If you’re short on time then that is an option, but if you have the chance I think this strategy makes for a fun Alpine holiday plan.

Climbers in the Mont Blanc Range on a previous Arc'teryx Alpine Academy, 211 kbClimbers in the Mont Blanc Range on a previous Arc'teryx Alpine Academy
© Arc'teryx

Symptoms of Altitude Sickness (Acute Mountain Sickness - AMS)

There's good news and bad news to this bit. The good news is that symptoms of Altitude Sickness are similar to a bad hangover, and this is something that many climbers have been trained in dealing with!

The bad news is that you can't just have a cup of tea and a greasy breakfast and feel alright.

The most common symptom is a headache, and if the sickness gets beyond the initial headache stage then feeling sick and being sick are also common (also common is not being able to eat food, or only certain types of food being appealing). Also add in to the mix tiredness, lethargy, dizziness/loss of balance (not a good thing on an Alpine ridge) and poor sleep.

A useful too for diagnosing altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) is a self-assessment score sheet. If you have recently ascended to over 2500m, have a headache and your total score is 3 points or more on the score sheet, then you have acute mountain sickness.

Pills and potions

Whilst the Alps are low enough in general for most climbers to acclimatise naturally and fairly quickly, there are always a few people out the looking to pop a pill to speed up the process.

The only drug out there that is effective in preventing AMS (that we know of) is Diamox (Acetazolamide). I'm no doctor, but here is what the website Thetraveldoctor.co.uk says:

"This is the most tried and tested drug for altitude sickness prevention and treatment. Unlike dexamethasone this drug does not mask the symptoms but actually treats the problem. It seems to works by increasing the amount of alkali (bicarbonate) excreted in the urine, making the blood more acidic. Acidifying the blood drives the ventilation, which is the cornerstone of acclimatisation.

For prevention, 125 to 250mg twice daily starting one or two days before and continuing for three days once the highest altitude is reached, is effective. Blood concentrations of acetazolamide peak between one to four hours after administration of the tablets."

The UIAA document Drug use and Misuse in Mountaineering has a lot of interesting info in it including a section on Diamox:

"Despite it being used for many years nobody is exactly sure how this mild diuretic carbonic anhydrase inhibitor works in AMS prevention."

And: "a dose of 125mg twice a day, ideally started 24 hours prior to ascent, is now recommended."

Dexamethasone is another drug that you hear a lot about in mountaineering, but we won't go in to it here as it is not used for prevention, but rather to cure symptoms of AMS. You can read more about it in both of the links above.

Gouter Refuge in the afternoon, 125 kbGouter Refuge in the afternoon
© Ben Tibbetts

What to do in the event of Altitude Sickness

Go down immediately. If you or your climbing partner, or a climber that you come across is showing signs of bad altitude sickness then it is time to turn around and descend. Pushing on upwards will only make the condition worse.

You might find that only a few hundred metres of descent will make a huge difference to how the sufferer is feeling.

One thing worth bearing in mind is that for routes on which you are planning to acclimatise, it is worth knowing any possible escape routes, even if that means just turning around and 'escaping' back down the way you came!

For those venturing to the Greater Ranges then a knowledge of Diamox and Dexamethasone will be essential, but are not usually carried in the European Alps.

Climbers in the Mont Blanc Range on a previous Arc'teryx Alpine Academy, 195 kbClimbers in the Mont Blanc Range on a previous Arc'teryx Alpine Academy
© Arc'teryx

Sleep High, Sleep Low?

Which is best, to climb high and then sleep low, or to sleep high? To go up high and just lounge around? I’m not entirely sure which is scientifically proven to be the most effective method of acclimatising, and also everyone is different, and even the same people acclimatise differently on different occasions, but here’s what I would recommend, and this works for me and most people I know.

Climb high. Doing some exercise (climbing / walking) at increasing altitudes gets the body used to working up high and also gives you an indication of how much you are ‘feeling the altitude’. This for me is much better than just getting a lift up as high as you can and sunbathing on a terrace.

Sleep high-ish. Sleeping in some huts will increase your amount of time at altitude and will increase your acclimatisation. However trying to spend the night in a high hut when you are not that well acclimatised can have a negative impact on your next day’s climbing (and if this next day’s climbing is your big objective, then a bad night in a hut can really scupper your chances or at least make you have a tougher day than is necessary) . This is because you might not sleep well (or at all) and you could get dehydrated and feel mild effects of altitude sickness instead of acclimatisation. Being knackered and a bit sick is not the best way to start a big day!

If you are unsure then a good technique is to climb high and descend a fair way to sleep at the start of your acclimatisation strategy and try out a night or two at increasingly high huts as you progress.

photo
Climbers in the Mont Blanc Range on a previous Arc'teryx Alpine Academy
© Arc'teryx


Arc'teryx Academy Banner, 84 kb

After four extremely successful editions, the popular alpine educational event Arc'teryx Alpine Academy is taking place in Chamonix-Mont-Blanc again. On June 16-19th, Arc´teryx will unite alpine enthusiasts, mountain guides and professional athletes aiming to create a space where beginners and experts alike can gain alpine knowledge through top-notch clinics, experience sharing and respect for the alpine environment.

More info on chamonix.arcteryxacademy.com

The four-day-event will start on Thursday with the big Mountain Clean-up. Participants can join certified mountains guides and over 20 international Arc´teryx athletes to collect rubbish on the mountain. This initiative is a collaboration between the Arc'teryx Alpine Academy and the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc (CMB) with the goal to help keep our mountains pure.

The Mountain Clean-up is followed by three clinic days on the mountain and side program like seminars, movie night and academy dinner. All workshops are led by professional mountain guides from the ‘Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix’, the ‘British Mountain Guides’ (BMG), Chamex Guides and Arc´teryx Pro Athletes like Ines Papert, Luka Lindič, Stian Hagen and many more.

Nina Caprez will lead the advanced rock climbing course `7+ climbing` with the target to improve the sport climbing technique of her students. Another new clinic down in the valley of Chamonix is bouldering held by Mina-Leslie Wujastyk. She will help to improve climbing and movement skills by looking at various techniques and methods.

After adding alpine skiing in 2015 to the list of clinics, winter sport fans can now also go and improve their skills for splitboarding. Arc´teryx athlete José Carron will lead this course and give experienced snowboarders insights into various techniques how to perform in steep skiing environments.

Forums ( Read more )

Staff Picks

Jan 2011

thumb Mick Ward takes us through a brief history of training for climbing. Who were the pioneers? How have standards... Read more

What's Hot Right Now

19 Jun 2017

thumb Andy Pollitt passes the microphone to one of Britain's biggest climbing legends - 'Big' Ron Fawcett. Read more

Top Spot: Climbing Destination

Jun 2010

thumb Gritstone local and professional photographer Adam Long takes us on a quick tour of Stanage - the queen of grit. We get route... Read more