In the final part of our four-part series on acclimatisation, Jamie Macdonald (high altitude physiologist at Bangor University) and Calum Muskett (professional climber and mountaineering instructor), return to the issue of fitness discussed in article one, and here provide some guidance on how to get yourself physically and mentally prepared for high-altitude mountaineering.
For many years, alpine mountaineering books and self-help manuals have concentrated on the hard-skills of mountaineering. The rope management, planning and safety elements that are crucial to achieving safe and efficient days out in the mountains. These 'hard-skills' are fundamental to safely enjoying time spent in the complex and often dangerous high mountain environment. What these books failed to capture was the holistic approach required to maximise performance and reduce risk. When preparing for our alpine or Himalayan objectives, goal-setting should be considered using the TTPP model to understand our strengths and weaknesses in the Technical, Tactical, Physiological and Psychological aspects.
Whilst we hope this article series will help you understand where you are at with physiological preparation, the technical and psychological elements are no less important and often more nuanced. If you can, we recommend identifying these strengths and weaknesses with a climbing partner or coach.
When high altitude mountaineering, we should be operating within a high margin for error and this means practising skills in relatively safe and controlled areas such as climbing walls and sport climbing crags – an anathema to many alpinists. If you're tackling an ED rock or mixed route in the Alps you may come across climbing up to Scottish grade V or E1. If you find these grades simple and can climb them quickly at sea level, then your chances of success will be greatly increased and the time it takes for you to climb should be shorter and subsequently give you a shorter exposure to danger and fatigue. The knock-on effect of this approach is a positive experience which feeds greater confidence.
Whilst you can make quick improvements to your performance through physical training, psychological training is more nuanced and the gains are more slowly achieved. Many of us will have tried to overcome our (rather sensible) fear of falling at a climbing wall with fall practice – where you consciously let go of the holds in order to accustom yourself to the art of flight. Whilst this does, to a certain extent, make people feel more comfortable with falling, it often doesn't translate to climbing to absolute failure on an outdoor sport crag. Why? Because of the controlled environment of practise and the conscious decision to let go, rather than accepting the more difficult to achieve rational that your equipment is good, your fall zone is safe and you have a good belayer which means you can push on regardless of the level of control you'd like.
Whilst physical training can be fast tracked at the risk of over training and injury, psychological training requires volume and sustained exposure to risk. Whilst we'd like to believe Alex Honnold has freak genetics that have given him an underactive amygdala (emotional response processor in the brain), the more logical conclusion is that he has exposed himself to more technical soloing than anybody else and this has culminated in him pushing the standards of free soloing.
In plainer terms, our psychological capacity to deal with alpinism can be improved by reflecting on positive experiences. These positive experiences come from being well prepared physically, technically and tactically whilst pushing your alpine objectives in a progressive manner that is unlikely to produce 'epics'. Having a flexible approach, plan B's and slick ropework skills that can get you out of complex situations can change epic retreats into positive experiences where you have overcome adversity.
Different coping strategies can be applied, from breathing exercises to visualisation, but these are often difficult to apply 'in the moment' and come into play after an adverse experience where you have been experiencing your panic zone. A more effective approach is to beforehand remember the six P's: Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.
One of Britain's most renowned and successful high-altitude mountaineers is Mick Fowler, known for his careful preparation and tactics on Himalayan expeditions. Fowler's high success rate in the mountains can be partly attributed to his self-confessed "heavy and slow" tactics of alpine style mountaineering. Rather than trying to race up mountains with minimal food and equipment, Fowler and his climbing partners cover relatively small amounts of ground each day but with a consistency akin to an incoming tide. This approach helps avoid over-exertion, minimal daily height gains to aid acclimatisation, and includes a buffer zone of contingency time to account for bad weather days.
In stark contrast to Fowler, you had the swift ascents of the "Swiss machine" Ueli Steck. He would typically spend more time acclimatising and preparing before a rapid ascent of his set objective. A riskier strategy requiring a very high level of fitness and a smaller margin for error that for the majority of us is not achievable. With that in mind, these rapid alpine style ascents, waiting for the perfect conditions, weather and optimising on time, have certainly began to become popular in the European Alps where many teams are packing light and strapping themselves in to the killer faces. This can often lead to bigger successes and bigger failures.
These rapid ascents are the zone of 'facebook alpinism' that has become popular in recent years. Social media posts showing that the Jorasses, the Eiger or the Matterhorn are in condition produce a frenzied race to take advantage of the pristine conditions. In good conditions a one-day ascent of a climb as hallowed as the 1938 route on the north face of the Eiger is a reasonable proposition – but this should not be considered to be normal for that route and failure to succeed on a lightweight ascent leads to at best a cold bivi and at worst an embarrassing rescue, hypothermia or death.
Your tactics have to be right for the team and should always leave a margin for error. Careful planning taking into account glacial retreat, getting numerous topos to corroborate with each other and making sure that the conditions are right for the route create a blueprint for success. That is why alpinists like Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden have climbed so many technical first ascents in the notoriously ephemeral conditions of the Himalaya. They have been self-sufficient, had the resources to adapt to unplanned additional nights on the mountain, made careful plans and used their prodigious skills in the mountain setting. Having a margin for error doesn't mean packing heavy bags for comfortable unplanned bivouacs, but it does require enough food, drink and warm gear to avoid you calling the air taxi.
Climbing is often regarded as a lifestyle sport and lifestyle sports have, in the main, been slow to adapt to training programmes more normally associated with competitive sports. This can largely be attributed to the development of climbing as an 'extreme' sport, where psychological and technical elements had to be mastered due to the rudimentary safety net of traditional climbing equipment. Over the last forty years, as bouldering, sport climbing and climbing competitions have developed, so too has our understanding of specific physiological training. With ardent proponents of training over these decades from John Gill and Wolfgang Gullich to Alex Megos and Shauna Coxsey, it is now the 'new normal' to have a climbing coach or training programme where only ten years ago the idea was unusual.
Alpinism, however, still holds on to the romantic allure of a lifestyle sport. Perhaps this is because of the higher element of danger involved and the greater the technical demands and limitations of weather and altitude. It wasn't until 2014 that the first mainstream publication interrogating the world of physical training for alpinism was distributed with 'Training for the New Alpinism' by Steve House and Scott Johnston. The book describes, in some detail, how to physically train for alpine climbing covering general conditioning to preparing more specific training programmes. If you have objectives ranging from Mont Blanc to the Matterhorn or Denali to Everest, then this book is a veritable gold mine of advice.
If there are two salient points that we hope you can take away from this article series, then they are the advantages of taking your time to successfully acclimatise and being physically fit for your goals at altitude. Two simple, but often over-looked ideas. The first three articles have delved into how the body acclimatises, how to plan our trips to altitude and the advantages (or not) of aids to this process.
The leading cause of failure to summit (outside of weather and conditions in the mountains) is fatigue. Fatigue forces people to turn around, make easily avoided mistakes and if we're honest, we often scapegoat the weather, conditions or altitude for failure when the real cause could be lack of physical fitness. The same goes for trekking peaks. If you struggle to climb 1,500m of ascent at a low altitude, then doing this at a high altitude with boots and crampons strapped to your feet is going to hurt!
There are some basic principles we should adhere to when planning our training programmes:
In this article series, we have tried to provide a scientifically justified but pragmatic approach to high altitude travel. We first explored the role of physical fitness on mountaineering success. In the second article we discussed the acclimatisation process and explored how we can best plan our trips to the high mountains in order to reap the rewards of successful acclimatisation. In the third we delved into the complex and controversial world of rapid acclimatisation to see whether 'quick fixes' can replace or assist the classical slow ascent acclimatisation profiles. In the final article we returned to the issue of fitness and provided some guidance on how to get yourself physically and mentally prepared for high-altitude mountaineering. Perhaps the key take-home message would be to step back and reflect on your build up plan to your mountaineering trip. Can you and your mountaineering partner(s) consider the issues discussed herein and change your build up plan or approach accordingly to allow you to be better prepared? At the very least, you might be more confident, enjoy your trip more, and at the very most, you will be safer and have an increased likelihood of success….. See you out there, Jamie and Calum.