How to get prepared for high altitude?
There are several reasons that make mountaineering different from other sports. The most important among those could be said to be the lack of a generally accepted competition in this field. This may also be the reason behind the image of mountaineering as an adventure rather than a sport. However, despite all misbelieves; mountaineering is a sport that requires highly disciplined training.

Some of the parameters that affect a mountaineer’s performance can be listed as below:

  • Physical Performance: Physical ability composed of aerobic endurance and physical endurance/strength/strength endurance components is a fundamental requirement in mountaineering as in all other sports.
  • Technical Ability: In high altitudes, you may be required to apply several techniques from rock and ice climbing. Each and every one of these would require use of some technical tools and equipments. Being able to use those equipment in a practical way over the changing terrains throughout the climb constitutes one of the important legs for summit success.
  • Experience: Being able to make sound and fast decisions under hard conditions can become a natural reflex for experienced mountaineers. To apply the most appropriate decision is critical for both reducing the risk and guaranteeing the success of the climb.
  • Motivation: Although the absence of one of the above parameters can lead to the failure of the climb, there presence may not always result in success. In high altitudes where a summit can take for months, the ability to maintain motivation for an extended period of time becomes one of the very important factors for the success.

PHYSICAL PERFORMANCE

Unlike Olympic sports like athletics, swimming and so it is difficult to talk about some specialized training methods to improve performance in mountaineering. An athlete can train doing his/her branch of sport, however; for a mountaineer it is possible neither to go to the mountains all the time nor to provide a training media that can simulate it.

Regarding the training issue, another problem is the elements of physical performance that this is sport requires. For instance, for a 400-meter-runner it is pretty well known the proportion of aerobic and anaerobic endurance he/she will need, or the strength training that he/she would do is already formulized. However, for mountaineers these kinds of issues are still subject to discussion. The so called physical performance components tested under city conditions stay insufficient to predict performance during a climb. Until now, the necessary data to say which energy metabolisms are dominant in high altitude under low pressure and temperature conditions is not yet collected. Besides, even the factors that affect a sportsmen’s performance at high are yet to be discovered. Scientific studies conducted up today usually clarified part of the big picture. Since the mountaineering as a sport itself is not fully analyzed, the training that would guarantee physical performance is naturally not well known. However, today’s sportsmen do perform their physical preparations based on those points that won certainty to some extent:

  • Aerobic endurance is critical for high altitude mountaineering: Zone 2
  • Anaerobic endurance is important specially for the summit day where the climbers are asked to perform high for a long period of time: Zone 4-5
  • Endurance at both upper and lower body is crucial for weight carrying and fixed line ascending: strength training
  • To be able to reduce injury a mountaineer should be flexible: flexibility training

One can talk about several options for aerobic and anaerobic training. Running, cycling, rowing, Nordic skiing could be listed as some of them. What is important here is to decide at which intensity and duration these have to be performed. We may discuss the well known 5 zones here:

Zone 1: Below aerobic threshold, a training at a very slow pace. The basic aim is to make the body learn to burn fat.
Zone 2: A little above aerobic threshold, training at a relatively slow pace. The basic aim is to increase aerobic endurance.
Zone 3: At the middle of aerobic and anaerobic threshold, medium pace training. Basic aim is to increase intense endurance.
Zone 4: A little below anaerobic threshold, extended interval training. This aims to perform at high intensity for a certain period of time. This is the training where the anaerobic threshold can be increased, it results in increased heart rate where one can increase the ratio of fat burned.
Zone 5: Above anaerobic threshold, intensed interval training. The major aim is to learn to perform high for a short period of time.

The 5 of the zones above should be determined for every person. There has been so many methods applicable to many sport branches to find these zones personally. Before analyzing those methods it may be useful to clarify some concepts:

Resting heart rate: The heart rate measured in the morning right after you wake up.
 
Maximum heart rate: This has been measured by several means:

  • There is a generally accepted easy to use measure, MHR can be calculated as 226-age for women / 220-age for men. This rough calculation may result in a difference with reality by 20 beats per minute.
  • MHR can be determined in a more accurate manner by following a series of running. After a good warm up rum for 3 minutes, rest actively for 2 min and then repeat 3 min run and the heart rate measured as the highest during these 3 min runs can be said to be MHR.
  • Another method is to make 100-50-100-50 meter runs with 5 min complete rest between. MHR could be measured as the highest number of beats in a minute.

Aerobic threshold:
It defines the HR where aerobic energy system takes place. It may be roughly calculated as the average of resting and maximum heart rate.
 
Lactate threshold: This is the heart rate at which the lactate concentration in the blood reaches a certain value. In the studies conducted until now it is said that the lactate in the blood results in the fatigue of the body and that the fatigue level of a person can tell the intensity of the training one would do. According to this, during performance tests the person is subject to run at increasing speeds while his/her blood is taken for lactate measurements. When these measurements are plotted with respect to speed, 2.5-5mMol/L values would correspond to different training intensities described as training zones.
 
Anaerobic threshold: There are two energy mechanisms in the body. Energy is produced via aerobic and anaerobic respiration in the cells. Another parameter to be used to determine the intensity of the training is the anaerobic threshold and is described as the heart rate at which the body begins to gain energy from anaerobic mechanisms. This point can be determined through several methods:

  • Conconi test: The person is subject to run at increasing speeds while his/her HR is recorded. The result is plotted as HR versus speed. The point where the graph deviates from linearity to a flat curve is determined to be the anaerobic threshold.
  • Lactate count: The person is subject to run at increasing speeds while his/her lactate concentration in the blood is measured. The result is plotted as Lactate concentration versus hert rate and the HR that corresponds to 4mMol/L lactate value is said to be the anaerobic threshold.
  • TT: The person runs for 30-60 minute as fast as possible. The average heart rate during this whole period is determined as the anaerobic threshold.
  • Measurement through distance: This is roughly determined as the average heart rate recorded during a half marathon, a little below the average of a 15km run or 10 beat below the average of a 10km run.

DISCUSSION ON VARIOUS MEASUREMENT TECHNIQUES

Besides being a complicated area, much research has been done on training physiology. To obtain knowledge based upon the sport we are dealing with, it’s quite a wrong approach to simplify things and may cause to access incorrect information.

One of the important topics in exercise physiology is the relationship between lactate and fatigue.  The well-known information up to date is that the rate of lactate in the blood is a measure of fatigue and from this point of view; it’s been thought that the most important factor in determining the exercise intensities mentioned above have been the lactate rate in the blood. Lactate measurements have also been used to assess the physical performance of the athletes. But the research has shown that there is no reason-consequence relationship between lactate and performance, on the contrary the rise of inorganic phosphate rate in the blood and the decrease in the level of potassium in the muscles causes the fatigue. So what is the so called lactate? For Benjamin Miller from the Copenhagen Institute of Sport Medicine, lactate is:

1) is a good source of energy for the working and non working muscles and for the brain.
2) is the most important quantitative source for production of  glucose
3) is a fuel whose consumption efficiency can be increased by training.

All these data are on the opposite side of the belief that lactate is an unwanted substance and show us that we have to evaluate lactate in some other way in training and performance measurements.

Another method used to determine the training program and the performance is to use the athlete’s anaerobic threshold. The anaerobic threshold defined generally as the heart rate at which the body passes from breathing with oxygen to breathing without oxygen is usually misused with this definition. The aerobic breathing continues how much the exercise increases. It can be said that there are parts of the body where aerobic breathing decreases compared to anaerobic breathing. Starting from this point of view it is not possible to say that the most beneficial training program can be achieved from taking the anaerobic threshold for determining the training zones.

So, how can a program be determined for an athlete? What points have to be considered?

The deficiency of the methods mentioned above is that they ignore the special needs of the sport and the individual differences of the athletes. Components like the endurance required by the sport, the lactate production/consumption of the athlete, the lactate toleration rate of the individual requires special training program based on both the individual and the sport. In this situation the way to be followed should be forming models based on monitoring the athlete performing the sport and forming models based on the sport and individual athlete, rather than combining the tests results of the athlete with generally accepted models. Otherwise, the athlete either will have to either do training much under his performance level and this will cause very little improvement, or do training much above his performance level and this cause a lot of strain on the athlete’s body.

In this situation what is important to know is not what the numbers tell to us, but to know what the athlete can do. For this, forming training programs based on a concept called performance threshold will be much appropriate. This value can be calculated by the athlete’s +/-3 of the average heart rate in a training lesson of 30 minute maximum performance run. As can be understood from its name, since this value measures the actual performance rather than estimating the approximate performance, it provides us realistic results for scaling different trainings.

About the performance threshold what is lacking is that the 30 minute workout’s being appropriate for every sport or not. This number can be formed very differently for special sports like high altitude mountaineering. Another variable in the equation is the factor that affects the process of the athlete’s adaptation to low pressure and whether this adaptation level can be increased with training. All the answers to these questions are unknowns varying in several fields, from genetics to exercise physiology. To solve this unknown, some of the genetic and performance tests have to be performed at high altitude. One of the aims of the Everest team during the climb is to perform some measurements which will form a base for a model like this. The team believes that such work to form a model for high altitude model will be an important building stone and the team continues the studies toward this target.

TECHNICAL SUFFICIENCY

Technical sufficiency at high altitude is a very important heading. In this heading, besides the secure climbing on different terrain like ice, rock, glacier at altitude, it would also be a “must” to evaluate items like camping that is considered non-technical. Generally it is not believed that a successful climb requires sufficiency in camping. However, to pitch the tent that you will spend most of your time during the climb very strongly, or to pitch it in every condition requires technical knowledge.

After a day of hard climbing, showing the like performance of the day before depends on the rest, the food and drink you consume. To achieve all of this depends on the camping training you took before.

What is mentioned by the mountaineering training is not the techniques of climbing and camping learned right before the expedition.  First of all everything it must not be forgotten that technical ignorance at the mountain causes serious problems and according to this required trainings should be learned from the authorized institutions and practiced. University mountaineering clubs are the leading institutions to get these training in the proper way. They are the centers with years of experience that give training of technical climbing and camping that spread to several years. All the members of the Everest Team are athletes that got the mountaineering trainings from Middle East Technical University Mountaineering and Winter Sports Club and that transferred these trainings to the coming generations afterwards.

EXPERIENCE

As mentioned above, to be trained in areas like technical climbing and camping are necessary factors for an individual to be self sufficient. But the success at high altitude passes from taking advantage of the techniques obtained afterwards these trainings as an instinct at very severe conditions.  For example you have to comfortable as you have united with ice axe and crampon while you are passing an ice stage. Using all the equipment on you even when your eyes are closed or tying the knot correctly, gives you the provides you to climb securely while your tackling with the affects of high altitude. This is only achieved by using these techniques as many times as possible, which is possible only by experience.

Besides climbing in various regions and situations, one of the most important means of gaining experience is transferring knowledge. A way to consolidate the techniques learnt is to teach them to new mountaineers. University clubs again deserve to be called the pioneers about this subject. A system comprised of one gaining the knowledge, teaching the new comers has been the foundation of such a sound system which ensures the continuity and the consolidation.

MOTIVATION

Like many other sport branches, motivation plays an important role for mountaineering and especially in high altitude mountaineering. Leaving the weather conditions out of the equation, you may have high level of physical performance and technical skills and may have the required experience, but you may not be able to reach the summit unless you are motivated enough to carry your motivation. High altitude mountaineering is a very different sport. Since a summit attempt can last for 1-2 months, it requires a continuous concentration and involves a lot of stress. For that reason, what you are living in the mountain is a very concentrated version of what you are experiencing in life. Hesitations, happiness, tensions, exuberance, fear are all emotions that climbers encounter during the climb. It is really very hard to keep the motivation together when all these emotions are mixed together. During the climb, all the factors that dissuade individuals increase. Each athlete has found his/her own way to cope with these factors. To divide the summit target into smaller daily targets is a method generally used. The method varies from individual to individual with varying personality attributes.

                       
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