Fitness, Altitude, Tech Skills & Behavior | Mountain Gurus

The Four-Legged Stool

By April 20, 2018April 24th, 2020Articles, Travel Tips

Our climbers often ask us which trip is the best fit for them. Our inevitable response is, “It depends.” It depends on the skills you possess, and the skills you want to develop. It depends on your fitness now, and how much you can train before your trip starts. In depends on the experience you’ve already gained, and the adventures you’re seeking.

In the mountains, as in life, these variables constantly change. So at Mountain Gurus we like to use the “Four-Legged Stool” analogy to help you choose your perfect trek or climb. How many legs does a stool need to support itself? Four legs are ideal, but if you lack some of the skills, strength or experience for an expedition, can you get away with only three? We come to the mountains to challenge ourselves, but how far can we push it without compromising our enjoyment and, more importantly, our safety?

The Four-Legged Stool analogy can help you make that call. Below, we discuss what we consider the four foundational “legs” that climbers should keep in mind if they want to excel and have a good time in the mountains.

Fitness – First Leg

Are you fit enough for this climb?

That’s the first question you should ask. Be honest with yourself because in the mountains, pride can be dangerous. If you’re not prepared for the rigors of a trip, you may be setting yourself up for extra suffering and you might undermine your group’s success. That said, it’s important to remember that a lot of the fun in climbing comes from the challenge. It’s important to predict how far and how high you can go – literally and metaphorically!

Keep in mind that different trips demand different kinds of strength. A trek into the Annapurna Sanctuary or to the top of Morocco’s Mount Toubkal will tap your endurance and cardiovascular fitness, while rock climbing at Smith Rock in Oregon requires more muscular, upper-body strength. For a big-mountain alpine route like Mount Baker’s North Ridge, you’ll need all of the above.

The best training for climbing is, of course, climbing. But climbing may not be possible in your hometown or even in your state. Fear not! There are many ways to prepare your body and mind for the mountain environment.

Cardio

If you put in the hard work to establish a solid foundation of cardiovascular fitness, you can reap big rewards while climbing. Aerobic activities like running, swimming, cycling and even walking will help lower your resting heart rate and increase your VO2 Max, or the amount of oxygen you can use while exercising.

Strength

In the mountains, most of our performance gains come from developing our lower-body endurance through long, low-intensity, aerobic workouts. But muscular power – the kind you get from going to the gym – is beneficial, too. We need powerful leg muscles for steep ascents and ski descents; solid core muscles for carrying backpacks and maintaining our balance; and strong fingers, arms and shoulders for steep rock, ice and snow. Find a workout plan that strikes the right balance for your objective and, if you’re new to weight training, remember to increase your weight slowly. Sprains and strains can be all too common in the gym.

Balance

This one’s important. Carrying a heavy pack across uneven terrain demands good balance. Core exercises and yoga are useful for this. Many top-notch climbers practice yoga regularly.

Mental

Without mental fortitude, physical fitness isn’t worth much. Climbers who know how to stay calm, collected and cheerful in even the most miserable and uncertain circumstances invariably perform better. So get outside and train in the real world. When the weather deteriorates or the terrain becomes intimidating, think of it as mental exercise. You will rarely encounter perfect weather and route conditions in the mountains.

NOTE: Be careful not to mistake recklessness for mental toughness. It’s critical that you learn how to assess risk and when to turn around. Those skills can only be developed through experience in the mountains, ideally with a good mentor or guide.

Here are some links to great resources:

Altitude – Second Leg

There is more oxygen at sea level than at altitude? True or False?

False! There is the exact same amount of oxygen (21%) in the air we breathe regardless of elevation. However, since barometric pressure declines as we ascend, our bodies must work harder to pull the same amount of oxygen out of the air to maintain O2 saturation in our bloodstream. As a result, we breathe more heavily, move more slowly, and can experience a variety of psychological and physical effects, ranging from feelings of euphoria to altitude illness.

Most of our expeditions take place at moderately high altitudes above 6,000 feet. Some of our climbs – in the Andes and the Himalayas, for example – take us to extreme heights above 18,000 feet. At all of these elevations, people may feel the effects of altitude and altitude illness, and as we go higher it becomes increasingly important for us to give our bodies time to adapt, or “acclimatize.” Since everyone experiences altitude differently, it’s important to be aware of it before you go.

At some point, every climber experiences a collection of symptoms called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and sometimes vomiting. Don’t be alarmed! Most cases of AMS can be treated with rest and hydration. If symptoms get worse as you ascend, then descend or spend more days at an altitude that suits you. Most altitude illness can be cured by simply walking downhill.

A number of prescription drugs can help with altitude, including Acetazolamide, widely known by the brand name Diamox. However, the side effects of these drugs must be weighed against the benefits. For example, Diamox increases blood oxygen saturation by stimulating increased respiration. But faster breathing results in more water loss, and of course, dehydration is not good in the mountains. Before using these drugs, consult a guide or a doctor trained in high altitude medicine.

More severe forms of altitude illness include High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Both are rare below 10,000 feet, and both require advanced medical care.

Climbing at altitude can be challenging and uncomfortable. But if you learn to do it safely, you open the door to some of the most spectacular and rewarding terrain on the planet. If you aspire to climb the world’s biggest peaks, it’s best to test how your body responds to altitude on smaller objectives. Then you can more confidently undertake higher climbs.

Here are a few tips for dealing with altitude:

  • Forget your pride. Altitude affects everyone differently, regardless of age, physical fitness or other factors.
  • Stay hydrated! Simply drinking enough water can greatly help you acclimatize.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. They dehydrate you.
  • Ascend slowly. Try to find a pace that doesn’t leave you fighting to catch your breath.
  • Climb high, sleep low. Forays to higher elevations help build red blood cells, while sleeping lower on the mountain helps your body recover.
  • Get enough sleep.
  • If you have a headache, monitor it and take Ibuprofen or Aspirin.
  • Pressure breathing: This helps ensure that you take in enough oxygen, and reminds you to breathe steadily and deeply.
  • Eaters are summiteers. You may lose your appetite at altitude. So bring foods you enjoy, and try to eat at every rest stop.
  • If you have the time and resources, get a jump on your acclimatization by spending time above 5,000 feet before your trip. You may also sleep in a portable altitude tent.

Technical Skills – Third Leg

This leg of the stool becomes more critical as your objective becomes more difficult. For instance, climbing Mount Everest requires more technical knowledge and skill than an ascent of Mount Fuji.

Guided courses and schools are a great way to develop your technical skills while still enjoying time outside in the mountains. Such training programs set you up for a safer, more enjoyable experience the next time you take on one of your bucket list climbs. Below is a quick metric listing some of our climbs and the level of technical expertise needed to safely enjoy them:

Beginner

REQUIREMENTS: No previous experience. Good physical fitness and a willingness to learn.

Intermediate

REQUIREMENTS: Basic climbing experience. Familiarity with climbing commands, tying into a rope, basic mountain gear, etc. 

Advanced

REQUIREMENTS: Experience on steep rock and snow. Able to complete more complex tasks such as belaying, ascending fixed ropes, removing climbing protection, etc.

* Climbing Grade Table

Expedition Living – Fourth Leg

How well can you take care of yourself in the mountains? This is the most difficult leg of the stool to perfect. It’s also one of the most important. It’s a catch-all for the micro efficiencies that we accumulate – if we’re willing to learn! – as we spend more and more time in the backcountry.

The Expedition Living leg includes best practices that are important even on short trips, such as avoiding sunburn and snow blindness; eating and drinking enough; and keeping your personal gear organized while climbing and camping.

It also includes skills that are essential if you want to survive and thrive on longer expeditions. When you spend weeks or months in the wilderness, tasks that might be second nature at home become more difficult and more critical. Such tasks include contributing around camp, maintaining basic hygiene, staying on good terms with your teammates, and avoiding respiratory, gastrointestinal and other ailments.

Your ability to be self-contained and flexible in the mountains can determine whether you are a liability or an asset for your team.

Here’s a little survey to help you gauge your Expedition Living skills:

  1. Are you confident that you can take care of all of your basic needs on a daily basis in the mountains?
  2. Do you know how to pack efficiently, whether you’re heading out for a day of rock climbing, or waking up at midnight on a glacier to move to a higher camp? Can you easily keep your gear organized in camp and while climbing?
  3. Do you know how to set up and maintain a backcountry camp? What about on snow and ice?
  4. Do you know how to sleep when people are snoring nearby?
  5. Are you comfortable defecating in a plastic bag or urinating in close proximity to others?
  6. Can you live with a group of strangers for days or weeks at a time, including in difficult conditions?

Did you answer “no” to any of these questions? To which ones? Keep your answers in mind when you’re choosing your next trip. Sometimes easier climbs actually require stronger Expedition Living skills. For example, the rocky trails of Kilimanjaro are easier to climb than the glaciers of Mount Elbrus, but on Elbrus we spend every night sleeping in hotels and comfortable mountain huts. On Kilimanjaro, we sleep in tents for the entire week-long ascent.

Here are a few tips for thriving on any expedition:

  • Take care of your basic needs every day: sunscreen, layering, hydration, eating, sleeping etc.
  • Maintain basic hygiene, especially around food.
  • Learn how to use group gear and look for opportunities to pitch in around camp and while climbing.
  • Cold, dry, dusty mountain air can cause bronchitis, sinus infections and other problems. Consider breathing through a buff or handkerchief.
  • Remember to rest and recharge. A device with music, movies and e-books can be helpful.
  • If you need help, ask for it. Remember that this may be a growth period for you and your teammates.
  • Try not to let stress control your words or actions. Take a deep breath. On guided trips, we often travel with people we just met. So it can be wise to keep our advice and opinions to ourselves.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff. If your tent mate snores, put in some earplugs. We all have our little quirks.

Choosing the Right Trip

OK, now that we understand the four legs, we can start thinking about our next adventure. To identify expeditions that are a good fit for you, you should ask which legs of the stool you’ve already developed, and which legs you want to work on. Let’s look at requirements for some of our trips:

Mount Kilimanjaro

  • Fitness – Good physical fitness required
  • Altitude – No experience required
  • Technical Skill – No experience required
  • Expedition Living – Moderate experience recommended

Mount Baker

  • Fitness – Good physical fitness required
  • Altitude – No experience required
  • Technical Skill – No experience required
  • Expedition Living – Moderate experience recommended

Mount Elbrus

  • Fitness – Good physical fitness required
  • Altitude – Previous experience recommended
  • Technical Skill – Basic climbing experience recommended
  • Expedition Living – Basic experience recommended

Mount Everest

  • Fitness – Excellent physical fitness required
  • Altitude – Experience above 6,000 meters required
  • Technical Skill – Advanced experience required
  • Expedition Living – Extensive experience required

As you can see, for beginner climbs, every leg of the stool doesn’t have to be as sturdy as for advanced climbs. Some beginner and intermediate climbs can offer great opportunities to work on your weaknesses. Be honest with your abilities and select the trip that best suits your goals and experience level at any given time.

Everybody must start somewhere. If your still not sure where to begin? Contact us, we would be happy to help plan your next adventure!