Is acclimatising at home the future of Himalayan mountaineering?

A few weeks ago, I received the following email:

I read Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest and The Chomolungma Diaries and really loved both. It’s fantastic to have such a frank insight into the path to Everest without all the swank. I now feel like my own tentative ten year plan to get there myself may not be such a ridiculous idea after all. I’d be keen to hear your thoughts on high altitude centres and whether they are an effective tool / conditioning time saver?

It’s always nice to know that you’ve inspired someone to get out into the mountains, but I’m not very good at answering questions when they come in by email, because I don’t have much time in evenings or at weekends to write. It’s not easy to guess people’s motives, and crafting individual responses can be time-consuming. Sometimes I don’t understand the question, or it is anathema to me.

On these occasions I get impatient, and fire off a quick response. As I did this time.

I’m not really sure what you mean by high altitude centres, but if you mean the various artificial methods of simulating oxygen deprivation back home, so that you don’t have to spend so much time in the mountains (inhaling helium four times a day, sleeping with a plastic bag over your head, learning to play the bagpipes with a clothes peg on your nose, etc.) then unfortunately I’m not able to help as I don’t have any experience.

I much prefer acclimatising outdoors, in the mountains, so I always make sure my expeditions have enough time for acclimatisation. That would certainly be my recommended approach.

I received no response, which is probably fair enough. My reply was a little facetious, but if truth be told, I was upset by the question.

My book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest is all about my ten-year journey from hill walker to high-altitude mountaineer, and the peaks I climbed along the way. While reaching the goal was important to me, the emphasis was very much on the journey itself, inspired by a love for the mountains.

I ended the book with the following statement.

I hope I have also shown you that the end result isn’t so important: it’s only a tiny moment which passes. The important part is the journey, and even if you travel only a short distance along your chosen route, you will have memorable stories to tell.

I was upset, because it seemed to me that someone had read the book and not understood one of its principal themes. Shortening the journey by sleeping in an altitude tent wasn’t covered in the book, for reasons which I thought were obvious.

But I should not have been upset, because it was a fair question, and one that people are going to ask more and more often.

On Saturday, the American mountaineering couple Adrian Ballinger and Emily Harrington bagged what was claimed to be a record ‘speed ascent’ for an 8000m peak, when they reached the summit of 8201m Cho Oyu ten days after leaving their home in California.

With his company Alpenglow Expeditions, Adrian Ballinger has been pioneering a new approach to Himalayan mountaineering, which involves spending less time on the mountain, and more time acclimatising at home using artificial techniques to simulate the effects of high altitude.

Altitude training has long been a recognised technique for training athletes for major events ever since the pioneering work of Griffith Pugh prior to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. More recently places like The Altitude Centre in London have expanded their services beyond athletes to mountaineers training for expeditions. The idea is that you can pre-acclimatise by sleeping in a specially adapted tent or doing a half-hour workout in the gym under conditions that simulate the oxygen levels at 3000m.

An altitude tent, for those who prefer to do their acclimatising at home (Photo: Svíčková / Wikimedia Commons)
An altitude tent, for those who prefer to do their acclimatising at home (Photo: Svíčková / Wikimedia Commons)

At the moment, Alpenglow is targeting the luxury end of the market with their ‘Rapid Ascent’ 8000m peak expeditions. Both their Everest and Cho Oyu expeditions are two weeks shorter than average (42 and 30 days, respectively) and considerably more expensive. The Cho Oyu expedition is $31,000 (as opposed to $15-20K for other operators) while their Everest trip is an eye-watering $85,000 (most reputable operators charge in the range $45-65K).

This extra cost is easily explained. While Adrian and Emily were completing their speed ascent with a single Sherpa, their Rapid Ascent team also reached the summit. The team appeared to consist of a single client, two Sherpas and a western guide. Earlier in the year, it was a similar story on Everest. Two clients reached the summit along with two western guides and three Sherpas. At the same time Adrian was attempting an oxygenless ascent of his own with the climber Cory Richards and another Sherpa. Both Rapid Ascent teams had access to the services of an expedition doctor before their expedition.

It’s not difficult for Alpenglow’s clients to see where their money is going. Adrian Ballinger is widely known for his aggressive, high profile marketing and mountaineering ‘stunts’. He appeals to the predominantly young male readership of publications like Outside magazine and National Geographic, and garnered a staggering amount of publicity in the mainstream media for his Everest climb this year. Much of this coverage was comically hyperbolic. For example, the technology website Mashable even suggested his decision to document the climb on Snapchat was innovative.

Mashable embarrassed themselves even more with this line, which suggests they’re not familiar with solar panels:

While it’s not totally clear how the men are charging their phones (Snapchat is a notorious battery guzzler), we can assume they have a collection of extra battery packs to keep devices working for the duration of the trip.

I’m digressing again, I know. Sorry. My point is that at the moment Alpenglow are an edge case, but that’s not going to be true for long. While Tweeting, Snapchatting, Facebooking or blogging your way up a mountain been done once or twice before, Alpenglow’s approach to running a high-altitude expedition is genuinely innovative. While at the moment it’s built firmly on marketing, and affordable to only a handful of people for whom money is no object, others will follow their example for sure.

There is no doubt that a lot of potential clients will find the idea of climbing Cho Oyu in a month instead of six weeks appealing. I believe it won’t be long before cheaper operators adopt Alpenglow’s ideas and follow suit with shorter expeditions of their own, cutting out many of Alpenglow’s overheads.

Is this a bad thing? Perhaps, but it’s probably inevitable and nothing more than the unstoppable march of progress. In the old days it took several months to travel to India by boat, then several weeks to march up to the Himalayas. Himalayan expeditions of the past took months, not weeks. These explorers would doubtless baulk at the thought of flying to Kathmandu then catching a short mountain flight to the airport at Lukla.

There are dangers of shortening the acclimatisation. If these expeditions are not done properly, then there will be an increased chance of clients getting altitude sickness. But as long as they are carried out responsibly, then there is no reason why improvements in medical science can’t enable people to acclimatise before they leave home. And if this means more people can reach places that are currently only open to those of us with the patience and opportunity to take longer trips, then maybe it’s even a good thing.

I’m partly playing devil’s advocate here, and I would be interested to hear from any of you who passionately agree or disagree.

Why open your tent to find yourself staring at your bedroom wall, when you can wake up to this?
Why open your tent to find yourself staring at your bedroom wall, when you can wake up to this?

If you study the Everest expeditions of the 1920s, you will realise that climbers like George Mallory and Howard Somervell were super performers at high altitude, even though they had never been to the Himalayas before. It’s possible this was partly due to nature, and partly due to their lifestyles before they left home. But I believe that a lot of it was down to the weeks they spent trekking across Tibet from Darjeeling. By the time they reached Everest, they were already super-acclimatised. They had also experienced a memorable few weeks to boot, one they would carry with them wherever they went.

Sure, you can pay the Altitude Centre for high-altitude workouts, or rent a high-altitude tent. You can play the bagpipes with a clothes peg on your nose, but there are also more enjoyable ways of doing it.

I firmly believe that the best way still, is to build enough time into your itinerary for your body to adapt to the conditions. You take it easy and ascend slowly, climbing high and sleeping low. This is the old-fashioned approach, but it has one major benefit: it allows you to spend more time in the mountains, which for many of us is the be-all and end-all of mountaineering.

Instead of unzipping my tent in the morning to find myself staring at my bedroom wall, I’m able to feel a cool breath of mountain air on my skin. I can watch the sun rise above the clouds in the valley below, as I stare across an amazing panorama. In some parts of Nepal I will even have a piping hot mug of tea in my hand, because one of the kitchen boys has woken me up with bed tea. These things are part of the experience, and I wouldn’t swap them for anything.

This old-fashioned approach has always worked for me. It hasn’t even occurred to me to fork out extra money to acclimatise while I’m still at home.

I hope you will do the same, but I would also be interested to hear from any of you who would prefer to bomb it up to the top.

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15 thoughts on “Is acclimatising at home the future of Himalayan mountaineering?

  • October 5, 2016 at 5:53 pm

    My initial reaction was nooooo but I can see a place for it alongside your training but not REPLACING time spent on the mountains
    Now my highest achievements are only Kilimanjaro some four years ago and Everest Base Camp this year but surly it’s not just the acclimatisation to the altitude it’s your body acclimatising to the environment,the pushing a tad to much one day and resting the next, the scraping the ice off the tent and the “living” of it. The accumulated years of training coming together.
    I loved your book, as a keen Snowdon walker and often dream that a lottery win would give me the time and money to train for Everest. Unlikely I know but that would be my 10 year plan on winning- not a big car or a house but the time and funds to complete the 10 years to attempting my goal. If I had the money and was told sit in a chamber and you can do it in three years I wouldn’t take the option

  • October 5, 2016 at 6:44 pm

    Well said, Ann, and thank you! I’m glad you liked the book.

  • October 5, 2016 at 7:08 pm

    For me, it’s the whole experience of being ‘there amongest the mountains’ than just the climb.

    Mount Everest Facts

  • October 5, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    I guess it is each to their own, but for me it is definitely being out on adventures as long as physically possible, I spent far too long in the office compared to outside, so it is a no brainer!!

    Loved your book by the way, inspired me to get out on a trip (it’s been too long!), all booked for 3 peaks, 3 passes trip in Nepal next year.

    Cheer, keep up the good work!

  • October 6, 2016 at 12:43 am

    Time is money, Alpenglow is right. They should go further: Offer the Everest climb with 360 degrees goggle (Samsung Gear VR, very good) displaying the route through your Nintendo or Playstation, the howling wind on your earphones and obviously, you will be in full 8000m gear (recommendation: cut the central heating) with a mask to deprive you of the precious air of your Manhattan penthouse. I am sure that we can design a step system attached to the boots which would simulate the climbing on ice. No need to go to Everest, no need for sherpas, no need for guides and no risk. Just the virtual reality. Isn’t it a wonderful world???

  • October 6, 2016 at 6:40 am

    Thanks, Denis. Nice to see you’re still getting a chance to spend time on the Playstation. 😉

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  • October 6, 2016 at 8:34 am

    Tashi delek, dear Bravemark, hunccha, “the march of progress…”. In German, the word for progress, “Fortschritt” (from the verb “fortschreiten”), means to “walk [schreiten] away [fort]” from something – both literally, and figuratively. Mr Balls-in-Gel does that: Walk away from respecting the mountain, spend time with her – for the sake of the Green Buck. Fast, faster, fastest; summit once, twice, thrice; spend 1, 2, 3 nights on the summit; etc. Those who do not have time, those who only climb because they have the money, those who are not qualified or have enough experience at very high altitude, those who are competent, but need to please their sponsors, and their ego, doing stupid stunts, they are the real parasites on the mountain. And I don’t mean absolute exceptions like Messner, Kukuczka, Steck, Andrew Lock, who have achieved incredible feats, without disrespect. Who belongs there in the 21st century? Well, seminally, we must remember that the Sherpa community (the people and their main valley, the Khumbu), which is the fastest :-)) developping in terms of revenues, in Nepal, is now almost entirely relying on the climbing and trekking industry. So, who should be there? People with passion, pros and amateurs, but dedicated, competent and experienced enough (amateurs who have climbed at high altitude, even if only with helping Sherpas, are qualified – because virtually nobody, except professional total exceptions like Reinhold Messner or Andrew Lock, can climb the giants alone); deal with the mountain, deal with what you are actually on the expedition for (… dealing with the mountain, not with FB e.g.), and not for what comes after the summit – the bragging, the media exposure. Btw, how many media-stunt-pros are complaining about commercial teams (like you and I are part of) on 8.000 m peaks, but will pick up their sat-phones or 2-way-radio to call bigger teams for help when tey are in trouble. Ask Russell (Brice – Himalayan Experience) or Phil (Crampton – Altitude Junkies) about it… Or help themselves to the fixed lines (although they climb the mountain “all by themselves”, use other people’s oxygen or tents, etc.? Yes, there is “evolution” in the high mountains, and it is not always “nice”. There is no measure for passion, but it seems there definitely is one for disrespect. On my 2 Everest expeditions (the both infamous Everest years, 2014 [remember, we met at EBC] and 2015), I joined a team composed of young people from Malaysia and Singapore. I will only tell this: What a difference from the 2013 Altitude Junkies Manaslu expedition I was part of! Bollywood movies, social media and silly games, vs. passionate discussions at “happy hour” in AJ’s mess tent, with visiting Russell Brice or Tunc Findik, and Alan Arnette (team mate), and others, about the mountains, the history of climbing, as well as other pertinent topics! I have written about this passion in my book on “The Holy Mountains of Nepal” (2014, Kathmandu: Vajra), and I’m now working on a documentary (shooting should take place on Everest in 2018) for the big screen and TV, which should include Andrew Lock, which will dealy with exactly this: Who should be there? No, Benjamin Franklin was not right when he said: “Time is money”. Life is time, rather… And, what a better way, if you love the mountains, than spend it in the… mountains? But maybe, as Denis puts it (above): “No need to go to Everest […] Just the virtual reality. Isn’t it a wonderful world???”. Hajur, parasites, like giardia and ameoba, stay away from us!

  • October 7, 2016 at 8:12 am

    What an intriguing idea. Since the point of mountaineering is to inflict horrible suffering on oneself and survive, why not dispense with the fun, inspiring parts altogether? Yes, now you can suffer all you want right at home and not bother with expensive, time-consuming mountains at all!
    Think of the possibilities – you could lock yourself into an oxygen deprivation tent, complete with refrigeration. And you don’t have to stop there. You can hire a trainer to beat you with a large heavy stick while you work out! Maybe he could slice off a finger or a toe every now and then.No need for mountains at all! Brilliant!

  • October 7, 2016 at 2:24 pm

    I think some of you are a little too cynical or maybe bitter. I personally know Adrian and believe me when I say that he is a total mountain person who spends virtually his entire existence outside in the mountains. I have also spent huge amounts of time with Phil Crampton and quite a bit with Russel Brice. All of them share a passion for climbing and make it possible for ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

    What is the “correct” length of time one should spend on a climb? Most of Europe’s and America’s peaks are done as a day trip. Are we supposed to believe that is an inadequate length of time and extend it to a week or a month or more? Why is six weeks on a big mountain the right way but four weeks is anathema? When Mark and I climbed Manaslu in 2011 we walked all the way from the road to the summit but did it in five weeks. It sounds like perhaps that shouldn’t count? Adrian and Emily did their climb in two weeks as a proof of concept more than as a plan to have clients repeat this.

    Much about 8,000 meter climbing is tedious boredom. You sit in camp for weeks on end having the same conversations with the same small group over and over. It feels like the movie Groundhog Day. I’d gladly turn 6-8 weeks of that into 4-6 weeks so I could spend the time with family if I was confident that the hypoxic tents could equal traditional acclimatising. Unfortunately I don’t think it works as well for me so I will continue to climb the old fashioned way.

    Apparently it can work for some people and I feel that is their business. Good for them if they can find a way to combine a busy life with its many serious time commitments with a love for high altitude climbing. Don’t be so quick to judge! Four to six weeks is still far longer than most ever spend on a climbing trip and is plenty of time to scrape ice off a tent and smell the frozen roses.

  • October 7, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Don’t EPO type drugs have the same effect as hypobaric training at a fraction of the cost and in much less time.

  • October 8, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    Mon ami Robert, you are right to ask “What is the “correct” length of time one should spend on a climb?” But I think the problem lies in a kind of red line that is being crossed here. Unless you want climbs to become like Hollywood movies, in which people do not shut doors, go to the toilet, or do any kind of boring things – unless they are diegetically motivated, relevant to the story that is (sorry to sound like a Ph.D! 😉 -, I think that “boredom” is part of a climb on peaks which need… time. The body is the measure; the time the body needs to acclimatize is, hence, the measure, together with the time needed for our Sherpa friends to put the ropes in place. But, is it really boring to talk to climbers from all over the world, soak in the majestic views, ponder about life and the stressfull life many of us call their “daily routine”? I would lie if I said that I have enjoyed every moment of the expeditions I have been on. But acclimatizing “at home” could lead to this: spend time on the mountain and BC ONLY when you are climbing. Acclimatize at home, than a couple of nights in KTM, then chop chop to EBC, than climb to C1, than down, and chop chop to KTM. Chop chop to EBC after 3-4 days, climb to C2, spend some time there, go down, and chop chop to KTM, and so on. The history of technology and the “easier life” (aren’t many of us in the mountains because this is exactly what suffocates them, in their daily life?) have showed that there is always a step further in the easiness, the comfort and the replacement of natural things by gadgets. And of course it’s also a matter of rupees, as always… Looking foward to sit around at BC again, Happy Hour! ;-))

  • October 18, 2016 at 5:14 pm

    I’m with you. The WHOLE is the experience.

    Let those that need to tick boxes at any cost get on with it. They are just gaining their satisfaction differntly.

    ps Thanks for mentioning Griffith Pugh 80)

  • October 27, 2016 at 12:54 am

    Mark I read 7 steps and enjoyed it more so then the many climbing books I have read. the next best being The will to climb. Living in Canada and also in rural area I have problems ordering books on line. I just returned from Nepal and could not find your books in a couple of book stores there. Is there a distributor or store in Canada that carries your work.

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