The high altitude slow plod

The importance of keeping a good pace and rhythm when walking up a mountain

During his expedition to Kamet in the Garhwal Himalaya, Northern India in 1931 – at the time the highest mountain that had ever been climbed – Frank Smythe looked up on summit day and couldn’t help comparing the strides of his two companions Lewa Sherpa and Eric Shipton, climbing the mountain ahead of him.

“Shipton, a born mountaineer, has acquired to perfection the art of climbing a snow slope with the minimum of effort. Lewa, on the other hand, is so constituted that he tends to expend more of his magnificent energy than is necessary. So much fire and dash is his to command that he cannot properly control its tumultuous outflow, and his eager jerky movements contrasted oddly with the almost leisurely rhythm of Shipton.” Frank Smythe, Kamet Conquered.

The inference is clear enough. While both men had enough stamina to climb the mountain, and Lewa, a Sherpa who had been born and raised at high altitude unlike the Englishman Shipton, probably possessed more, one of them was finding it hard work while the other found it easy.

Plodding slowly up the scree slope to Camp 1 on Cho Oyu
Plodding slowly up the scree slope to Camp 1 on Cho Oyu

Earlier in the expedition Smythe had already noted the importance of rhythm in high altitude mountaineering. “Over 20,500 feet we found that if we were to conserve our strength and proceed with minimum expenditure of energy, we must consciously adopt a rhythm of breathing to stepping,” he had said. Few paragraphs in mountain literature can illustrate this more clearly than his later observation about his companions as they set off for Kamet’s summit.

I was thinking about this the other day. I’m currently in the process of typing up my diaries from my expedition to Manaslu last autumn, and a couple of passages caught my attention. I’m not the best climber in the world, and to paraphrase the cricketer James Ormond’s remark to Mark Waugh during an Ashes test match, I’m not even the best climber in my family, but one thing I do feel I can do quite well is walk. At high altitude that is (some people who have watched me walk home after a night out in Central London may think otherwise).

The benefits of taking it slowly

The key is not just rhythm but speed, what I like to call the slow plod. The two prime causes of altitude sickness are over-exertion and dehydration. One leads to the other, and while it’s important to keep drinking water, more than you think you need and preferably before you start feeling thirsty, it’s just as important to take it easy, and if possible avoid getting out of breath or working up a sweat. Smaller steps are also better than large ones. It’s hard at first; hill walkers are not used to walking so slowly when they’re rambling in the fells at low altitude, but once you find a rhythm that’s comfortable for you it becomes second nature.

Walking up to Base Camp on Manaslu, porters with 30 kg loads were able to keep up with me easily.
Walking up to Base Camp on Manaslu, porters with 30 kg loads were able to keep up with me easily.

The benefits of the high altitude slow plod are many: you can walk for longer, you don’t have to stop as often, you appreciate your surroundings more because you’re not struggling as much, and most importantly of all the risk of altitude sickness is greatly reduced. I’m so used to it now that I often find myself doing it without thinking when I’m hill walking back in the UK, and don’t notice till I start getting overtaken. Friends have sometimes remarked on this: I do expeditions to big mountains every year, and they expect me to be superfit and race up mountains back home, but it’s nothing to do with fitness, just habit. I don’t walk as slowly as I do at high altitude – it’s difficult to overstate how much the lack of oxygen slows you down – but I do drop to a pace that feels comfortable and I don’t feel out of breath. I recommend it at low altitude as well if you walk for enjoyment. Of course, if one of your reasons for hill walking is to keep fit then getting out of breath is necessary, but when you get to high altitude all your training should have been done, and the key then is to take things as easy as possible.

On Manaslu I scribbled in my diary that my aim was to complete the 1400m ascent from the village of Samagaon (3500m) to Base Camp (4900m) – a large altitude gain for a single day, and before I was properly acclimatised – by walking as slowly as it’s possible to walk without actually falling over. And I did just that. Porters with 30 kg loads, some of them elderly ladies, were able to keep up with me easily. I struggled during our first climb from Camp 1 to Camp 2, the steepest and most technical section of the mountain. It was impossible to build up any sort of rhythm and I frequently had to stop for long breaks as I gasped for breath. It gave me great encouragement when expedition leader Phil Crampton greeted me on my arrival at Camp 2 and told me that all the climbing was done. From then on it was just a walk. Now I like that, I thought to myself: the walking I can do, it’s the climbing I struggle with. And Phil was largely right, but for a short section of seracs. High altitude mountaineering generally involves a lot more plodding through snow than technical climbing.

The technique for summit days

Take pride in being slow, and you may even gain some followers. Here am I on Aconcagua's False Polish Glacier Route (Photo: Augusto Ortega).
Take pride in being slow, and you may even gain some followers. Here am I on Aconcagua’s False Polish Glacier Route (Photo: Augusto Ortega).

If the aim is to avoid getting out of breath, is it ever possible to walk too slowly? It’s good to avoid long days if you can while acclimatising, and give yourself plenty of recovery time. If you find yourself busy when you reach camp because you arrived late, then it’s worth upping the pace a little or stopping less frequently and for shorter periods if you’re able. Summit days are often long, and it’s therefore necessary to walk a little more quickly – but then altitude sickness isn’t such a problem because you’ll be coming down again afterwards. But even on summit days, up steeper terrain, there’s a special type of slow plod you can do which enables you to maintain that steady rhythm that’s so important.

It involves the following steps (if you’ll excuse the pun):

  1. Press down firmly with your right foot and take a step up with your left one;
  2. Pause to take a deep breath while your left foot is resting lightly in the snow;
  3. Press down firmly with your left foot and take a step with your right one;
  4. Take a deep breath while your right foot is resting lightly in the snow;
  5. Repeat the process for as long as the terrain allows.

I know it sounds obvious (he’ll be trying to teach us how to suck eggs next, I hear you say), but by repeating this process of taking a step followed by a deep breath, it’s possible to maintain a good steady rhythm on steep terrain at a very high altitude. If the going is really tough, you can take two deep breaths between steps, or even more; as long as you keep up good progress, using an altimeter to make a note of the altitude you’re gaining, and measure it against the time you have available, then you’ll be fine. It’s a technique I’ve used on the hardest of summit days, and it’s far more effective than dashing for a few paces then taking a rest.

Take pride in being patient!

I’m proud of my high altitude slow plod now, in a way that I’ll never be proud of my climbing. There have even been times on commercial trips when expedition leaders have bundled me to the front to slow everybody down, or I’ve been trekking slowly lost in thought and enjoying my surroundings, and I’ve looked round to see a line of people following along behind me. Legging it off in front at high altitude is for stupid people. There’s no need to try and show off how fit you are; this is the route to altitude sickness. It’s much better to show off your wisdom by slowing down. Give me the slow plod any day.

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