A busy person’s guide to pain free acclimatisation

Di Westaway | CEO Wild Women On Top and Sydney Coastrek

Puff, puff, puff.


Puff, puff, puff.

Step, puff puff, puff.

Step, puff, puff, puff. Breatheeeeeeee

“Who are they?” I managed to ask Tenzing Sherpa as a group raced up the mountain past us before disappearing into the massive rock fall that marked our route towards the summit.

We were trudging slowly up to Camp One on Ama Dablam, Nepal, 6,800m, after acclimatising for over 3 weeks. We’d trekked around the Himalaya, climbed Lobouche East, 6,000m and hung out at Ama Dablam Base Camp to relax and prepare for our summit bid.

Each step was still followed by a gasping pause.

 “Alpenglow” he answers from a few meters ahead as my stressed out lungs rested again.

“What are they on?, breathless.

“Six weeks in an altitude tent”.  

Twenty four hours later, while we were still shuffling up to Camp Two, this uber-fit group of climbers came bounding down, high on the ecstasy of summit success.

I was super jealous. They looked fresh as a daisy.

Fast forward two years, and I am standing on the summit of Mt Vallunaraju, 5,600m. Actually, I am upside down, standing on my gloved hands; crampons dangled overhead, as I complete the world’s highest walking handstand, feeling fab.

I had slept in an altitude tent for five weeks. And it worked.

An altitude tent is a clear plastic tent shaped structure that sits, rather unromantically, on top of your bed. You zip yourself inside and turn on a pump, which is linked by a hose to the tent. The pump pushes air, with less oxygen and more nitrogen, into the tent. This allows you to spend your sleeping hours in an oxygen deprived environment, so your body adapts to less oxygen.

While your family will think you’re nuts and your pets will be totally freaked out, this clever device can aid in preparing you for altitude when you can’t spare the time or expense of acclimatizing in the mountains.

I have climbed Mt Kilimanjaro, 5,983m, Mt Aconcagua, 6,978m, Mt Ama Dablam, 6,890m, and to Advanced Base Camp on Everest, 6,400m. Every time I’ve been to altitudes above 4,000m, I’ve suffered from headaches. On Everest I also experienced the frightening effects of Cheyanne Stroke Breathing – waking up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath, too frightened to sleep again. The camp doctor told me I should have had more Diamox, measured my O2 saturation, and sent me straight down.

So, I was keen to try something different. After preparing in an altitude tent, I trekked In the Andes Mountains of Peru, climbed easily to 5,600m without any Diamox, and felt great the whole time. No headaches in the early days when we trekked from sea level to 3,500m, or when we made the big jump over high passes at 4,800m, jumping 1,000 vertical meters in a day.

While those around me were popping the Panadol, Nurofen and Diamox, I was completely pain and drug free for the entire month. For me, sleeping in an altitude tent was a winner.

According to Altitude Australia, “sleeping in an altitude tent is great way to get prolonged exposure to hypoxia at night in preparation for a trek at altitude. This prolonged passive exposure can lead to significant gains in red blood cell count, haemoglobin and enhanced oxygen carrying capacity.” 

An alternative to the tent, is to undertake intermittent hypoxic training sessions 2 to 3 times a week in an altitude chamber or gym where the whole room is low in oxygen and you exercise on bikes, rowers or stair machines for an hour or so. Some of my clients have reported benefits from this training too.

Altitude Australia says, “Intermittent hypoxic training has been scientifically proven to improve oxygen efficiency and is a cheap and effective way to pre-acclimatise’.

The benefits include:

  • Improved recovery times
  • Ability to sustain maximum and repeat efforts
  • Ability to train harder for longer
  • Less soreness and muscle fatigue
  • Increase in energy levels
  • Higher Vo2max
  • Increased lactic buffering
  • More power
  • Enhanced weight loss

Altitude tents were first designed and patented by Hypoxico, Inc. in the mid 1990's. The system of pumping a lower concentration of oxygen into a tent is a different to what happens in real high altitude environments where the pressure change is what causes the hypoxia.

Normal air contains 20.9% oxygen independent of altitude. But the air in an altitude tent contains as little as 12% oxygen, the rest is nitrogen.

But, it works.

Everest guide Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow, swears by the system and has many of his clients use it before arriving in Kathmandu. Adrian offers Everest climbs in one month, which is only possible if you pre-acclimatize in an altitude tent; it usually takes climbers three months to climb Everest.   

Brian Oestrike, CEO of Hypoxico, the industry leader, says “we’re seeing more climbers utilizing our equipment to add flexibility to their itinerary and specifically reduce trekking times to Base Camp.” 

He says most of the interest in his altitude tents comes from climbers who are climbing 5,000 -7,000m peaks. “Our summit success rate for Kilimanjaro climbers is roughly 98%, which involves hundreds of climbers over the last 5 years”.

Brian says this is a high quality result because it involves a large sample size on a popular mountain where weather is less of a factor in summit success rate, and clients are generally relative novices at altitude.

According to world-renowned high altitude doctor, Peter Hackett, more research is needed but many climbers do experience benefits from sleeping in an altitude tent to pre-acclimatize. “People who pre-acclimatize will have higher SpO2, less mountain sickness, and many cellular advantages.”

Dr Hackett says “Bottom line: if you want to acclimatize with sea-level hypoxia, you need to be hypoxic for 7-8 hrs per day, which practically speaking, means sleeping in a hypoxic tent.”

So, if you can’t afford the time or the money to spend an extra few weeks acclimatizing around Base Camp, and you want to actually enjoy your trek to Everest Base Camp or Machu Picchu, or your climb of Mt Kilimanjaro, I recommend sleeping in altitude tent and going drug and pain free.

Just be careful not to scare the cat!

For more tips on preparing for World Class Treks, go to www.WildWomenOnTop.com

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