Fitness, Altitude, Tech Skills & Behavior | Mountain Gurus

The Four-Legged Stool

By April 20, 2018 June 1st, 2018 Articles, Travel Tips

We often get questions regarding which trip is the best fit for a climber. The inevitable answer is, “It depends.” In the mountains, as in life, variables are constantly changing, and we adapt appropriately. However, over here at Mountain Gurus we like to use the “4-Legged Stool” analogy for selecting the perfect trek or climb. How many legs must a stool have to support itself? Having four legs is ideal, but is it possible to get away with only three? Below we will discuss what we consider the foundational “legs” that help climbers excel and enjoy their time in the mountains.

Fitness – First Leg

The first and most basic question, “are you fit enough for this climb?” Pride can be a dangerous thing, so knowing your abilities and how far you can push yourself go miles (literal and metaphorically)! Not being prepared for the rigors of a trip not only impact your enjoyment of the climb, but also the group.

The best training for climbing, is of course climbing. However, this may not be possible in your home town or state. Fear not! There are many ways to train your body and mind for the mountain environment.


Having a good cardiovascular base level will pay dividends on your climb. Activities like running, jogging, swimming, cycling, and even walking can help lower your resting heart rate and increase oxygen profusion to the muscles. Try to maintain these activities to lower your resting heart rate.


Start by slowly building strength in the muscle groups needed for the climb. Solid leg and core muscles will help on the approach and climb.


Carrying a heavy pack on uneven terrain can affect balance. Focus on core exercises to help with balance and think about practicing yoga.


The mental aspect of climbing can limit even those who are physically well conditioned. Get outside and train in the real world. If the weather is not great think of it as a mental exercise. You will rarely encounter perfect weather in the mountains.

Here are some links to great resources:

Altitude – Second Leg

Most objectives we climb are considered high altitude (above 6000 ft). Some peaks may reach more than 20,000 ft if you are climbing in South America or the Himalaya. Everyone will experience altitude differently, as such be aware of it before you go.

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, due to the lower air pressures as we ascend those air molecules are fewer and farther apart. Our bodies must work harder at altitude to get the same O2 saturation in our bloodstream. The overall effect is a slower pace and increased respiration.

Everyone will experience what is called Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) at some point in the mountains. The symptoms include headaches, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, and sometimes vomiting. Do not be alarmed! All of these can be treated with rest, hydration, and of course breathing. If the symptoms get worse as you ascend then descend or spend more days at an altitude that suits you. Most altitude related illness can be cured by simply walking downhill.

There are number of prescription drugs on the market that help with altitude, such as Diamox. However, the side effects can sometimes outweigh the benefits. They often increase the respiratory rate, which means better oxygenation of the blood but increased loss of water due to respiration. Dehydration is not good in the mountains. Never use these medications prophylactically, and make sure to consult a guide or high-altitude doctor before use.

More severe forms of altitude illness include High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Both illnesses require advanced medical care.

It is better to start with smaller objectives to see how your body will function at altitude. After this, you will be able to confidently take on higher climbs.

Here are a few tips for dealing with altitude:

  • If you have time and resources spend additional time above 5000 ft prior to your trip or, use a portable hyperbolic chamber.
  • Pressure breathing – this helps regulate the amount of oxygen you are taking in and reminds you to breath.
  • Stay hydrated! Simply drinking more water can lessen the effects of AMS.
  • Eaters are summiteers. You may lose your appetite at altitude so bring foods you enjoy and can eat at every rest stop.
  • Climb high / sleep low. Making forays into higher elevations helps build red blood cells but sleeping lower on the mountain helps the body to recover.
  • If you have a headache take Ibuprofen or Aspirin.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Technical Skills – Third Leg

This leg of the stool becomes more and more important as the objective becomes more difficult. For instance, climbing Mount Everest requires more technical knowledge and skill than a climb of Mount Fuji. Often courses or schools are a great way to develop technical skills while still being in the mountains. This also sets you up for a safer and more enjoyable experience on those bucket list climbs. Below is a quick metric of what to expect in terms of technical ability, as well as a list of our climbs best suited to those abilities.


No previous experience. Physically in good condition and willing to learn.


Has basic climbing experience: climbing commands, tying into a rope, equipment, etc.


Experience on rock and snow. Able to complete more complex tasks such as belaying, fixed rope ascension, removing fixed protection, etc.

* Climbing Grade Table

Expedition Behavior – Fourth Leg

Being able to take care of yourself on a climb or expedition is often the hardest leg of the stool. This category is a catch all for the micro efficiencies built on experience in the backcountry and willingness to learn.

Because you may be climbing with a group of people you just met it may be wise to hold your opinions and judgements to yourself.

Take this little survey below to see if you are ready for a climb:

  1. Do other people snoring effect your sleep?
  2. Are you comfortable defecating in a plastic bag or urinating in close proximity to others?

If you answered Yes to these questions you may need to work on a few things. The ability to be self-sufficient in the mountains turns someone that is a liability into an asset. Work on having an open mind and realize that everyone brings different skills to the group. Make sure to have self-care and group dynamics dialed.

  • Voice your expectations so they can be met.
  • Take care of yourself – sunscreen, layering, hydration, eating, etc.
  • Be part of the team, do not be afraid to pitch in and help.
  • Personal and emotional awareness. Understand that this may be a growth period for not only you but other members of the group.
  • Do not let external or internal stresses control your actions or words. Take a deep breath and work through it.
  • If you make a mistake own it. We often learn better from direct feedback loops.
  • Do not sweat the small stuff. If your tent mate snores just put some earplugs in instead of resenting it. We all have unique quirks.

Choosing the Right Trip

Ok, now that we know what the four legs are we can start planning a trip. Let’s look at some case studies below.

Mount Kilimanjaro

  • Fitness – Good physical condition
  • Altitude – No experience
  • Technical Skill – No experience
  • Expedition Behavior – Some experience

Mount Elbrus

  • Fitness – Good physical condition
  • Altitude – Previous experience recommended.
  • Technical Skill – Basic climbing experience recommended.
  • Expedition Behavior – Some Experience

Mount Everest

  • Fitness – Excellent physical condition required.
  • Altitude – Experience over 6000m required.
  • Technical Skill – Advanced experience required.
  • Expedition Behavior – High amount of experience required.

As you can see some of those legs do not need to be as sturdy for beginner climbs as they are for more advanced climbs. Be honest with your abilities and select the trip that best suits your experience level at any given time.