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High Altitude Climbing - The Top 5 Mistakes Beginner Mountaineers Make

Updated on December 3, 2009
Not the place for mistakes
Not the place for mistakes

High Altitude Climbing

It's a difficult thing to get into. It is expensive, potentially dangerous, and there are only a few locations in the world that are high enough to qualify as High Altitude.

Despite this there is something about the greater ranges that strikes a chord in many people. Romance mixed with tragedy throughout a rich history of high adventure draws thousands of people each year to exotic locations such as Nepal and Tibet.

Unfortunately each new season also sees the death of many first time trekkers and climbers. Unlike those that occur in the elite climbers on 8000m peaks, where a certain amount risk must be accepted, the deaths of novices are nearly always preventable.

So where do they go wrong?

Top 5 Mistakes

1) People assume that a high level of fitness at sea level guarantees performance at altitude.

This is not the case. Being in good shape is not a bad thing, It is just a different part of our physiology. The body needs to acclimatize to the effects of altitude to function. Some people are naturally better at this than others. Unless you are of Nepali, Tibetan or maybe Bolivian descent, you won't know how good you are at acclimatizing until you reach altitude. To further confuse matters, there are so many variables at play that each time you acclimatize is different and past success is no guarantee of future good performance.

2) People frequently climb too fast.

This sounds too obvious but it is the primary reason there are fatalities. A novice assumes that because they are physically able to climb higher, it must be safe. Altitude is a battle of attrition. The body can make adaptions in the short term to gain sufficient oxygen. Over time, and with increasing altitude, these short term compensations reach their limit. This can lead to Altitude Sickness and possibly death. It is the medium term changes that allow us to climb to great heights. The body increases the amount of red blood cells to carry all available oxygen. Unfortunately this production takes time so patience and common sense are vital. Daily height gain should be no more than 1000 vertical feet. It should often be less and rest days are advised.

3) Beginners don't drink enough water

We need to drink much more water than usual at altitude to prevent dehydration. Due to the lower air pressure, there is less available oxygen. To make up for this, we breathe faster but this is not without side effects. The result is blowing off too much carbon dioxide which changes the pH of our blood. The kidneys step into to counteract this, resulting in an increased production of urine. You pee a lot. To add to the dehydration we breath out a lot of moisture into the cold, dry air. To replace this fluid we need to drink up to 5 litres a day. The effects of altitude are increased with dehydration.

4) Beginners frequently go to altitude without experienced companions.

Any guidelines and warnings are, by their nature, generalized. You can follow every recommendation and still get altitude sickness. It takes experience to spot the difference between a mild altitude headache and the onset of a more serious condition. Altitude is not the place to learn as you go or save a few dollars going with a poor quality expedition. Reputable operators have been in business for years with a good safety record. They also provide information on their expedition leaders and include their climbing experience portfolio.

5) Decision making suffers at altitude

Above 20,000ft (6000m) in particular, the brain function tends to suffer. This is due to lack of oxygen or hypoxia. At altitude we are required to make decisions that directly affect our safety. How is the weather, how are snow conditions, and how is our body handling the altitude? Understanding that you are not operating at 100% and experience in these situations all help to make better decisions. Beginners often lack the awareness and don't have the experience.

A Sobering Example of Altitude Sickness - This amount of assistance isn't possible at greater altitudes

Planning your trip?

There are a few simple things beginners can do to decrease their risk of experiencing problems during their first trip to altitude. If you don't have the opportunity of going with an experienced mountaineer, join a reputable commercial expedition and learn as much as you can from those who have made the mountains both their career and their home.

Drink, drink, drink. Avoid dehydration if you want to climb high.

Be prepared and be sensible. Before you set out get all the gear you need to be safe.  It should be the holiday and adventure of a lifetime, not the end of your lifetime.

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