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.
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.
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.