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Backpacker Magazine – May 2008

Climb Higher

With the right preparation–and a little help from a half-dozen friends, two exotic techno-gadgets, and one very sweaty hypoxic chamber–can a sea-level-dwelling rookie climb the highest peak in Colorado?

by: Jim Thornton

Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
Photos by Tomas Zuccareno
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author simulates 12,000 feet on a queen size.
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
The author tests his blood oxygen level...
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
...A lower saturation, common at altitude, can hurt.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.
No false summiteer: The author atop Elbert.

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

The Kili Cure
The same attractions that make 19,341-foot Mt. Kilimanjaro a life-list peak (highest mountain in Africa, nontechnical hike) make it a haven for altitude sickness (plenty high, easy to rush). Here, experienced guides share their secrets for getting everyone to the top.

Slow down "I'm amazed at the number of people who start out like a gunshot cougar," says Peter Whittaker, owner of Rainier Mountaineering, Inc. and a 13-time Kili vet. Guideline: If you're too breathless to gab, you're going way too fast.

Take breaks "It's important to take a break every hour for five or 10 minutes," says Todd Burleson, president of Alpine Ascents. "It might take a half hour longer to make camp on a 6-hour day, but those are the people who make the summit."

Breathe In thin air, you need to learn pressure breathing: Inhale deeply, purse your lips, and slowly blow out as if you're inflating a balloon. "The back pressure in your lungs helps push oxygen from the alveoli into the bloodstream," says Whittaker.

Rest You can even conserve energy while walking: Use the rest step. As you walk up a steep grade, straighten your lower leg, "locking" at the knee. Your upper leg is bent, letting you rest your weight on your bones, not muscles. Pause for a few beats between steps.

Hydrate High-altitude trekkers lose moisture to the sweat of exertion, the "insensible perspiration" of water vapor exhaled through hyperventilation, and increased urination triggered by blood turned alkaline by hypoxia. Translation: "Drink 4 to 5 liters a day," says Burleson.

Eat often "We have a saying that lunch starts after breakfast and finishes right before dinner," says Whittaker. A sustained endurance climb requires serious fuel.

Sleep well Besides the obvious (warm bag, level tent site), ask your doctor about a temporary supply of Ambien, says guide Gavin Attwood. This sleep aid can also prevent Cheyne Stokes respirations–an apnea-like breathing pattern common at very high altitude.

Allow extra time "We build in an extra rest day at 14,000 feet," says Darsie Culbeck, director of Alaska Mountain Guides, "because in our experience its lets an extra 10% of our clients summit."

From Sea Level to Summit | You, At Altitude | The Kili Cure | How to Reach Your Peak

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 10, 2014

Great article. It was entertaining, informative, and very well written.

Mr. Meowington
Jun 27, 2012

I thought rapid breathing (Hyper-Ventilation) decreases O2 in the body because of dead space. I thought the best way to optimize O2 intake is to take deep more efficient breaths.

Aug 19, 2008

Why was a man using using personal o2 sensors, writing for a backpacking magazine, committing the ultimate sin of wearing cotton socks, in the winter no less? Not another 10 bucks in the budget for wool?

Jun 07, 2008

Interesting article.

Would like to know a bit on were to purchase the unit, thus wish that had been a web link inserted into the article.


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