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On Getting High

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On Getting High

What’s the highest you’ve ever been?  Altitude-wise I mean.  

For me it’s just a little bit shy of 7,000m or 23,000ft.  I grew up at a low elevation, in the middle of Germany, and even though I spent plenty of time in the foothills of the Alps as a kid hiking and skiing I never once approached the 14,000ft mark until shortly after my 25th birthday.  But that’s a different story (which you can read on REI’s Coop Journal here).  

The reason I want to talk about altitude is because of the experience that Kat and Tara and I had on our Mera Peak climb last month.  We had a fantastic expedition all in all, but our first summit attempt was cut short by an altitude scare.  Take a look below for the brief summary of what happened as I described it on Instagram a little while ago.  

The woman, the myth, the legend - Kathy Parsons aka @mountainkat10

Yes, altitude struck.  Kat knew what she might be in for, because she had had a similar experience in Ecuador on her 4-day Cotopaxi trip.  I knew what we might be in for, too, because Kat had told me of the Cotopaxi incident; and yet, after listening to her story and understanding the parameters of her Ecuador experience I still encouraged her to attempt Mera: because slow and gradual acclimatization can make all the difference.  

And it did: after ten days of gradual ascent Kat, 60 years old but in absolutely killer cardio shape, breezed through her Ecuadorian highpoint to upwards of 20,000ft.  Yet just a couple hundred feet shy of the summit - literally some 10 minutes below the top - things changed.  Within a matter of minutes Kat went from climbing strong to temporarily not being able to walk. Here are a few thoughts I want to share for all of us who spend time at altitude (or are planning to do so) to mull over: 

  • Fitness and training have very little, if any, impact on your susceptibility to altitude sickness. If they did, Kat would not have had to turn around at 21,000ft
  • Proper acclimatization does make a big difference: acclimatize slowly and thoroughly, and you may be able to climb safely to altitudes that may have seemed out of reach previously.  That said… this is very important:  
    • Acclimatization cannot be rushed. To acclimatize fully to extreme altitude (commonly thought of above 5,500m or 18,000ft) requires more than three weeks! Which is a much longer period of time than most climbers budget.  Expeditions with 10-14 days of trail time to 20,000ft are quite typical for Himalayan and Andean mountaineering. Seven-day trips up Kilimanjaro (19,341ft) are considered standard.  As such, even on trips with “relaxed” acclimatization schedules many of us will pursue high summits on suboptimal acclimatization.  Don’t short-change yourself by trying to save time and move up faster
    • Recognize that, unless you are spending months in the high mountains, you will not be fully acclimatized during most high altitude adventures.  Adjust your pace accordingly; don’t be tempted to push too hard  
  • Kat’s condition changed rapidly.  Leading up to 21,000ft she had - by her own account - no headache, no nausea, and only the occasional mild bout of dizziness.  Then, from one minute to the next, she was slurring her speech and had to sit down. She was lucid enough, and the whole team knew enough of her history with altitude, that we were all clear she had to descend immediately. Thanks to Kat’s tremendous physical and mental strength she managed to descend on her own to feet with assistance from her daughter Tara, Mingma Sherpa, and myself.  While fitness and training may not impact your susceptibility to altitude, they sure do help in extricating yourself from bad situations! 
  • As on all my high-altitude expeditions, I carried Diamox and Dexamethasone on Mera Peak
    • I typically advise against the prophylactic use of Diamox - as I did this time, counseling Kat to not take Diamox ahead of summit day.  My argument is that slow climbing and gradual acclimatization should enable your summit, rather than drug-altered chemistry.  In retrospect, and in a case like Kat’s (i.e. for someone with a history of issues at altitude) this may have been the wrong call; prophylactic Diamox for the final day or two to the summit might have helped prevent Kat’s symptoms at 21,000ft
    • Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid which can be used to reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, though it does not improve acclimatization. While in the mountains, I consider Dex a rescue drug: take in case of emergency, and descend immediately - which is how it was used on this climb
  • Be aware that everyone's symptoms of altitude sickness are different.  HAPE and HACE manifest themselves differently, and not everyone who develops HAPE or HACE may show all of the common symptoms.  Both conditions are extremely serious with fatal consequences if left untreated  
    • HACE symptoms: severe headache, vomiting, slurred speech, confusion, unsteadiness, drowsiness and loss of consciousness
    • HAPE symptoms: shortness of breath, headache, heart palpitations, difficulty walking uphill, cough potentially with frothy sputum tinged with blood, chest discomfort

Prior experiences with acute mountain sickness are the biggest predictor for future episodes; everyone’s ability to acclimatize and function at altitude is different, and seems to be largely driven by your DNA (Example: I have a super fit ultra-running friend who can run a hundred miler no problem, but develops acute mountain sickness as soon as he ascends above 10,000ft). There is only so much you can do in terms of acclimatization schedule, climbing strategy and emergency preparedness. 

Even if you haven’t yet found your limits at altitude, be aware that they do exist - be it at 14,000ft or at 20,000ft or maybe even at the summit of Everest, who knows.  But we all have a limit on how high we can go; if you find yours, make sure you and your team know how to respond - and get back down safely, quickly.  

Kat and myself at 15,000ft a few short days after our Mera Peak adventure.  Photo: @tarebear22

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Moving Up

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Moving Up

The team in front of Mera Peak (L-R Kat, Geljen, Antarwu, Gishnagiri, Tara; missing Sunny and Mingma)

The team has made it to Khare, our last teahouse settlement below Mera Peak.  From here on out it’s all tents and snow camping and brutally cold temperatures - the meat of high altitude mountaineering.  We had a wonderful acclimatization hike on our rest day in Tangang on Sunday, which offered fantastic views of Mera La (basecamp), Mera’s triple summits, and the surrounding peaks.  We also got to go over skills to practice basics of glacier travel and crevasse rescue, putting to use the awesome lightweight gear that CAMP USA set the team up with; life is good. 

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Mingma! This guy has stood atop Everest four times and also has summits of Manaslu, Makalu and K2 to his name. And he's stoked on his new CAMP crampons that we brought over from the US :) 

On Monday we hiked from Tangnag to Khare, a small hamlet with half a dozen tea houses nestled high in the Hinku Valley just about two hours below Mera’s glaciated north shoulder. At almost 16,000ft it’s a battle to stay warm and sleep well, but as of now everybody is handling the altitude well.  Today (Tuesday) saw us walk up to the glacier for more acclimatization and skills practice.  

Tomorrow we leave the comforts of teahouse lodging behind us and move onto the glacier.  Rather than staying at basecamp we’ll head straight to high camp at 19,000ft and launch or summit bid that same night after just a few hours of rest.  If all goes well and the weather remains stable we should be on the summit around sunrise on Thursday, and back down in Khare by dinner time! 

One last acclimatization session on the glacier - tomorrow the real climbing starts!

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Update from 12,000ft

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Update from 12,000ft

Day 5! The team is doing great.  We are currently in Kote, a small village in the Hinku Valley.  Yesterday was a long, long day - nearly nine hours of walking with 10,000ft of vert (6,000ft up & 4,000ft down).  Tara and Cat crushed it and were ahead of the group for a big part of the day. 

Tara and Cat during one of the trek's early days

In addition to enjoying beautiful (steep!) trails and a bit of wildlife - monkeys and a deadly snake - we also got to distribute a few small gifts to local families that we've met along the trail.  Cat and Tara have been carrying toys and coloring books to give to the kids, and I brought along a few solar lights from LuminAid - all of which have been a huge hit.  It's amazing to see the joy that these small gifts can bring, and a privilege being in a position to give.  

Mingma explaining how LuminAid's solar rechargable lanterns work

We are now about five days from being in position for a summit bid, and are enjoying our last couple days of teahouse lodging and home cooked meals before we move into our tents and break into the freeze dried rations from Backpacker's Pantry that we brought along.  If things continue as they started, we look all set for a smooth climb on summit day: everybody is moving well and excited to be out here.  The weather has been decent, and we're all keen to get on the mountain!

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Mera Peak: the route

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Mera Peak: the route

"Wow, really?  You are really going to climb MERA?" - that's a reaction that I get a lot these days.  Now I agree that Mera Peak is a big objective (it's 21,247ft tall after all!), but I also know that most folks hear Mera and think I am talking about Meru, subject of a powerful mountain film by the same name that came out in 2015 after Conrad, Jimmy and Renan completed their badass route up the Shark's Fin.  

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

So, yes, we're going to climb Mera and, no, it's not the same as Meru nor does it have anything to do with sleeping on a portaledge at 20,000ft or climbing terrifying mixed pitches that are disintegrating as you're moving up them.  

Mera Peak is a beautiful mountain with an imposing rock face on its east side which is how it first presents itself during the approach trek.  To climb Mera, however, we will pass under the steep East Face and access the mountain from Mera La on the glaciated and less forbidding north side. 

Below the east face

Below the east face

There are two common ways to start out the trek from Kathmandu: either by flying into Lukla and crossing a 14,000ft pass on the very next day, or by driving by jeep to Salleri and approaching on a more gradual, longer foot journey - which is what we are doing.  

The approach from Salleri to basecamp at Mera La meanders through valleys, across ridges and passes for roughly ten days, which allows plenty of time for acclimatization.  

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The last teahouse settlement below Mera La is Khare at ~16,000ft.  From there on out the route heads onto the glacier, with two camps established on the way to the summit.  All in all, the trek clocks in at somewhere around 50 miles (one way) with 30,000ft of ascent - though GPS in these mountains is notoriously unreliable, so everyone's measurements are different.  But that's part of the fun of being out here! 

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'tis the season...

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'tis the season...

.... to go climb something!  It's October, and that means that this year's big mountain expeditions to Nepal and the Andes are about to kick off.  In just a couple days, we (myself, Tara Miranda and Kathy Parsons) are off for an all-female climb of 21,247ft Mera Peak in the Solokhumbu district of Nepal.  

Nepal is one of my favorite places in the world, and I can't wait to share it with Tara and Kathy, an ultra-running, peak-bagging mother-daughter team from California.  We're leaving the US later this week and are set to convene in Kathmandu on Sunday, October 22.   Per the usual, I'll be posting blog updates and photos here while there is connectivity, and also maintain our live GPS track once we're on the trail; in addition, my our lovely basecamp manager (aka boyfriend extraordinaire) Paul will keep my Instagram updated as regularly as is feasible.  

High up on Kusum Kangru, a technical peak just across the valley from Mera Peak

I'm particularly excited about this trip not just because it's Nepal and because I get to climb with two generations of the same family (which I just love: my own mom came to Kilimanjaro with me last year and it was a phenomenal experience for both of us), but also because we get to make a small contribution to the local Sherpa community as well: we've got two dozen solar lanterns from LuminAid and four sets of sweet glacier travel gear from CAMP USA on board, all of which we are going to gift to local climbing Sherpa and teahouse families out in the mountains. It may be a small gesture within the grand scheme of things but I'm super excited that we get to contribute beyond the dollars that we're spending as visitors in this amazing country. 

Now, if you're itching to get out there yourself... ;) How'd you like to go climb Aconcagua after Christmas! One spot is still open, just putting it out there.  In the meantime though, wish us good weather and happy trails - and I'll check in as I can.  

Kathmandu's Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple)

A little high altitude jog (ha...) in front of magnificent Mera Peak

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