5 stepping stones on the path to high altitude

Are you keen to branch out and develop the skills to climb higher peaks? Here are five objectives that should be on your to-do list.

It took me ten years to progress from being a regular UK hill walker to being a competent mountaineer with the skills and experience needed to reach the summit of Everest, a journey I documented in my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest.

Here is a series of mountains further afield that more experienced hikers should visit if you are interested in reaching a challenging altitude.

1. Jebel Toubkal, Morocco

Jebel Toubkal: a good opportunity for a hill walker to get used to high altitude, without having to learn any of the technical skills you would need to reach a similar altitude in the Alps
Jebel Toubkal: a good opportunity for a hill walker to get used to high altitude, without having to learn any of the technical skills you would need to reach a similar altitude in the Alps

We have different reasons for getting out into the hills – whether it’s for physical exercise, to camp under the stars, to escape the rat race, or to feel at one with nature – but we all do it because we enjoy it. Climbing to high altitude should be no different. There’s no reason it needs to be an ordeal, even when it’s challenging.

My best advice to anyone who dreams of climbing a big mountain is to do it in small steps, one mountain at a time. As with anything in life, it gets easier the more you do it. So start small and work your way up gradually. Always remember that the journey is more important than the destination.

At 4,167m, Jebel Toubkal in Morocco’s High Atlas mountains is the highest peak in North Africa. It provides a good opportunity for a hill walker to get used to high altitude, without having to learn any of the technical skills you would need to reach a similar altitude in the Alps. It also has Marrakesh as its base, a city which is as vibrant and colourful a place to relax as anywhere in the world (though you need to be careful you don’t end up buying a carpet).

In the summer, Toubkal is an easy (if thirsty) trek on a good trail. It can be done in three days (two days to the refuge and back, and one day for the ascent), though it’s a good idea to extend your trek by two or three days to acclimatise to the altitude. The ascent itself is a 5-7 hour hike up and down from the refuge at 3,200m.

If you’re an experienced winter hill walker who is familiar with ice and axe crampons, then you can avoid the sweltering heat of summer by climbing Toubkal in winter instead, when there is always snow, but nothing very technical.

2. Everest Base Camp, Nepal

The Everest Base Camp trek takes you through many climate zones as you climb from 2,800m in Lukla to 5,643m at Kala Patthar
The Everest Base Camp trek takes you through many climate zones as you climb from 2,800m in Lukla to 5,643m at Kala Patthar

Nepal is a land of amazing contrasts, from lowland plains, jungle and wetlands in the south, to the lush forested hillsides and deep valleys of the mid-lands, to the vast snowcaps of the Himalayas in the north, containing the highest mountains on Earth.

It’s a place that has fascinated hikers and mountaineers ever since it opened its borders to tourism in the 1950s. It is the country where the concept of fully supported trekking was invented, and it’s well set up for multi-day hikes that can be completed in a variety of styles, depending on your budget and preference.

It’s the best place to go to get experience of spending long periods at a very high altitude, and the cold temperatures that go with it. The scenery will live long in the memory and leave you yearning for more.

The Everest Base Camp trek is completed ‘teahouse style’, in cosy lodges that provide hot meals and basic accommodation. It starts in Lukla at the comparatively low altitude of 2,800m, and takes you through many different climate zones in the course of its journey to the viewpoint of Kala Patthar at 5,643m. Starting off in farmland, you pass through colourful rhododendron forest, alpine conifer forest, grassy moorland of dwarf rhododendron and juniper, and finally the ice and boulder fields of the Khumbu Glacier.

You need a minimum of two weeks to complete the trek safely and comfortably, but trekking in Nepal is always more fulfilling if you give yourself three weeks to visit some of the quieter places. A longer version of the Everest Base Camp trek will allow you to explore the lakes of the Gokyo Valley and take you over the high passes of the Cho La and Renzo La. The Gokyo Valley was also the location of a famous yeti sighting in the 1970s, though you need to be lucky to see one.

3. Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

Kilimanjaro: the next logical step after Jebel Toubkal and Everest Base Camp
Kilimanjaro: the next logical step after Jebel Toubkal and Everest Base Camp

For many hill walkers, the idea of climbing the highest mountain in Africa sounds incredibly daunting and something they will need to train hard for, but if you’ve climbed Toubkal and trekked to Everest Base Camp, there’s no reason it needs to be. In fact, it’s the next logical step up.

Some people approach 5,895m Kilimanjaro as a tough physical challenge, a tick in the box to say they’ve done it; some do it to raise money for charity. Many are so exhausted by the time they reach the top that they can’t even remember what it was like up there; it’s no fun, and they have no intention of doing anything like it ever again. It doesn’t have to be like that. It’s nice if a charity can benefit from your climb, but it’s not compulsory, and you don’t have to do it in a rhino outfit.

Summit day on Kilimanjaro is a long day. Starting from 4,650m at midnight, you climb through the night and hopefully reach the summit shortly after dawn. Most people then descend to one of the lower camps such as Horombo (3,700m) or Millennium (3,800m), reaching it some time in the afternoon.

If you’re a fit hill walker who does regular exercise, and you know you can push yourself on long days, and if you’ve been to Everest Base Camp and can cope with the hardship (headaches, nausea, etc.) that sometimes go with high altitude, then you have nothing to fear from Kilimanjaro, and the whole experience should be fun.

Ascents of Kilimanjaro involve climbing through primeval jungle and cloud forest to the bare, high plateau that surrounds the mountain at around 3,500m. Walking days are short, and with the right trekking company, the camping will be comfortable, with tasty food and good service.

Summit day is an unforgettable experience, with the sun rising from behind the jagged peak of Mawenzi to reveal a sea of cloud far beneath you. As with all high-altitude trekking, it’s easier and more enjoyable the more time you give yourself to acclimatise. A good option on Kilimanjaro is to start by climbing nearby Mount Meru (4,566m), which is surrounded by a wildlife reserve where you’re sure to see some interesting animals, including giraffes and buffalo.

4. Mera Peak, Nepal

Mera Peak is a good beginner’s peak on which to improve your snow skills
Mera Peak is a good beginner’s peak on which to improve your snow skills

All of the above treks will take you to a high altitude without having to learn any technical skills. They are essentially just treks that can be completed by any fit hill walker. But if you want to continue your progression to higher altitudes, sooner or later you’re going to need to pick up some climbing skills – nothing too much, but just enough to get you over the tricky sections.

Mera Peak is a mountain in Nepal that is classified as a ‘trekking peak’, but this is a misnomer. Mountaineering in Nepal is famous for its impenetrable bureaucracy. The process of applying for a permit to climb an ‘expedition peak’ can make Brexit seem quite straightforward to untangle (if you’re sensible, you find a reliable trekking agent to do this bit for you). By contrast, climbing a trekking peak is supposed to involve little more than buying a trekking permit.

Don’t be deceived though. To get up onto Mera Peak’s 6,461m central summit, you have to climb a 30m ice wall by front-pointing with your crampons and hauling yourself up a fixed rope using a jumar. Before you get that far, you need to ascend for two days up a glacier.

On the plus side, Mera Peak is a good beginner’s peak on which to improve your snow skills. It’s a good idea to have some experience of using an ice axe and crampons before climbing it, but you don’t need much, and many people improve those skills when they are there. Mera Peak also provides experience of sleeping at extremely high altitudes, with two camps over 5,000m and the highest at 5,800m. For many people, this is one of the most challenging parts.

Reaching Mera Peak involves a fantastic three-week trek over high passes on high clifftop trails, in a region that is quieter and more remote than the Everest Base Camp trail. On a good day, from the summit you can see five of the six highest mountains in the world, with Everest centre stage.

5. Aconcagua, Argentina

While non-technical in nature, Aconcagua is not a trek, but a proper mountaineering expedition
While non-technical in nature, Aconcagua is not a trek, but a proper mountaineering expedition

Aconcagua (6,959m) has a reputation for being the highest mountain in the world that you can just walk up. In some ways this is true, but this fact causes many people to underestimate it. While non-technical in nature, Aconcagua is not a trek, but a proper mountaineering expedition. It’s a logical progression from Mera Peak, but it’s a huge step up from Kilimanjaro.

The scenery is stark. It lies in a desert region of the High Andes. There are very few trees, and just a few high-altitude plants such as the yellow-flowered leña amarilla providing a splash of colour. But it’s mainly just rocks, sand and scree.

It’s not just the altitude that makes Aconcagua challenging, but the load carrying. Porters are relatively inexpensive in Tanzania and Nepal, so on both Kilimanjaro and Mera Peak, you never need to carry more than a day pack, and the porters will carry the rest. Not so on Aconcagua, where you must carry all of your equipment for summit day and the camps in between, including tents and food. Climbers acclimatise with a series of load carries, carrying a 20-25kg pack up to the next camp to leave some equipment, then descending again to sleep.

There are no glaciers on Aconcagua’s two main routes, the Normal and False Polish, but there is usually some snow, so crampons and ice axe are necessary. The mountain can get some pretty nasty weather, and the real show stopper is the wind, which can make a summit day blisteringly cold with frostbite a serious risk.

If some of this sounds off-putting, then it’s worth knowing that Mendoza, the gateway city for Aconcagua, lies in the heart of one of Argentina’s main wine-growing regions. You are likely to get better Malbec in base camp at Plaza de Mulas than anything you can pick up in Sainsbury’s.

In any case, a bit of hardship is inevitable the higher you climb, and if you make it to the top of Aconcagua, you can call yourself a true mountaineer.

If you want to learn more about my own experiences on these and other mountains on my way to the summit of Everest, then my book Seven Steps from Snowdon to Everest is available as an ebook or paperback.

This blog post first appeared on TGO Online under the title Five treks and climbs to take you to a challenging altitude.

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6 thoughts on “5 stepping stones on the path to high altitude

  • August 22, 2018 at 5:58 pm
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    Thanks for a great informative article, yet again sprinkled with humour. I would love to enter the realms of high altitude mountaineering but unfortunately life always seems to have other plans! I’ve done a winter ascent of Toubkal and it is as you say a brilliant place to start and I found the Everest Base Camp Trek an amazing experience so I guess this means that Kilimanjaro should be next on my list! Having said this I’m still enjoying the lower stuff having done the Cosmiques Arête a couple of years ago and the Marmolada in the Dolomites recently, unfortunately missing out on seeing Reinhold Messner as he was signing books at the foot of the mountain we were climbing that day! I just wanted to say that for the average, non superhuman like myself your blogs and books inspire me to always look to try that next step each time we plan a trip away as I know with enough effort it’s possible.

  • August 22, 2018 at 5:59 pm
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    Hey
    I would also recommend Lenin peak. I just was there. You can book easily and the organisation was great. You summit 3 peaks normally. Uhin peak 5130ms and on the way up to camp 3 peak Razhdelnaya, 6148ms before You climb Lenin peak 7134ms. Technically not difficult and You can stop anytime if the altitude is to much. Basecamp at 3600ms and C1 at 4400ms.

  • August 22, 2018 at 7:14 pm
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    Hey indeed.

    I’d put Peak Lenin a step beyond Aconcagua – 6 to 6½ on this list at least. The reasons for this are many and varied, but the first few paragraphs of my Peak Lenin trip report summarise them:

    Peak Lenin in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan has been on my radar for many years. It’s one of those mountains like Aconcagua in Argentina (“the highest mountain you can just walk up”) that is known for being very big, but technically straightforward.

    But technically straightforward isn’t the same as easy. The Tour de France is technically straightforward: you just have to keep pedalling (on downhill sections you don’t even have to do that – you can take your feet off the pedals and go weeeeeeee). 7134m Peak Lenin has one of the longest summit days of any mountain I’ve climbed at such a high altitude. From high camp to the summit is 5km horizontally and 1200m vertically, all above 6000m in altitude. It’s also necessary to start the day by descending 100m, which of course means you have to go back up again at the end of the day.

    Nor does technically straightforward mean the mountain isn’t dangerous. In an earlier post I described how Peak Lenin had experienced two of the biggest disasters in mountaineering history. The vast snow slope between 4400m and 5400m on its standard route is riddled with hidden crevasses and loaded with avalanche danger. Frequently we found ourselves climbing through recent avalanche debris, and rarely have I climbed a mountain which has seen so many huge avalanches fall across the route while people have been climbing it.

    You can read the full trip report here:
    https://www.markhorrell.com/blog/2015/hell-or-high-water-an-epic-on-peak-lenin/

  • August 23, 2018 at 9:43 am
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    Hi Mark,
    love reading your posts as always, it shows the accessible side to mountaineering. Same as Bruno, I have been thinking about Peak Lenin, however I am undecided. I have summitted Aconcagua this January, following on from a journey including Toubkal, Kili, Illinizas, Cayambe and Chimborazo. I would like to break the magic 7000 m barrier on a peak, which would you recommend? I am unsure about Lenin due to the very reasons you say here but also Ive heard it is very crowded.
    Thanks

  • August 24, 2018 at 2:22 am
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    Hey Mark, excellent read as always! Last year after making the transition from a practicing to non-practicing alcoholic I set myself a 10 year target to climb Everest. I had also planned to write about it and retire from office life with the inevitable riches that would come my way. Ahem. I then read 7 steps and realised you beat me to it by quite some way!

    Anyways, I’m looking for an interim step between the UK mountains and these. Is there anywhere you’d recommend? I was considering Corno Grande based on a previous blog post of yours. Is there any others around that level? Ideally near an airport serviced by Ryanair! I need an interim step physically and financially. (By year 5 or 6 I had intended to start working as a contractor so it was encouraging to read that this approach has worked so well for you. In year 2, I’m still on the permanent salary so on a peasant salary compared to you high roller mercenaries! 🙂 )

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