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Starting at Ground Zero – Sea Level

February 9, 2012

Climber Bill Haynor takes in the altitude. Photo by Colin Stapp.

Training to climb a mountain is just that…training.  Living at sea level, it doesn’t take much effort to go from here to there, up a few flights of stairs or down.  Add in some altitude and you’ll need serious attitude to get there.  This is because of the effects of altitude and how it affects your body.

The air is composed of 21% oxygen, no matter what altitude you are hanging out at.  Living at sea level, the barometric pressure allows our bodies to have a normal oxygen level.  Barometric pressure allows our lungs to exchange air in and out with ease (baring intrinsic lung problems) which results in an oxygen saturation between 98 and 100%.  As one ascends, the barometric pressure drops; resulting in less pressure available to force oxygen into our bodies.  This will result in a lower partial pressure of oxygen in our bodies giving us a lower oxygen saturation.  Other things also affect this such as anemia but hopefully none of us are anemic.   This is why climbers will do “pressure breathing”.  This is a technique of exhaling in which you purse your lips while breathing out to create a backpressure of sorts.  That pressure will help keep air in the tiny sacs of your lungs at the end of your breath which then forcefully pushes more oxygen into your blood stream.  This becomes more important the higher in altitude you ascend.  Less barometric pressure = less force pushing oxygen into your lungs = you create the force to push more oxygen into your bloodstream.  Easy, right?

An acute (fast) lowering of oxygen saturation can lead to problems such as altitude sickness.  Even with an illness such as pneumonia where congestion interferes with gas exchange in our lungs will give us problems, even at sea level.  This is why mountaineers on an expedition such as Denali work hard at acclimatization when ascending to high elevations; which is defined as 5000 feet or higher.   When living in a high altitude environment, our bodies will work hard to make more red blood cells, which carry oxygen.  The more red blood cells, the easier it is for our body to carry whatever oxygen there is….and that results in higher (over time) oxygen saturation.  Most people don’t have much in the way of difficulty until hitting 10,000 feet or so, but altitude illness can start as low as 9000 feet.

Ascending Denali. Photo by Sarah Olson.

So, how does one combat this issue?  First of all, getting your body in shape to sustain the rigors of climbing is first on the list.  Climbers need endurance as well as strength.  Climbing a mountain is like working out on an outdoor stair master—you just go up and up and up.  If you’re in Nepal, you go up and up and down and down and up and up.  If you don’t have hiking trails in your area with altitude gains, then find stairs.   Figure out what you have in your locale, and make it work for you.  Go on long “hikes” in the city carrying a backpack with added weight. That will help you train for endurance.  A book I recommend is Fit By Nature, a book that tells you how to use the outdoors as your gym.  Alpine Ascents International also has a great training program to help you jumpstart your fitness.

Being physically prepared for climbing will only lead to a fun climbing experience as opposed to an arduous O M G-what-am-I-doing experience.  It is a physical and mental challenge that anyone can do if they put their mind, and body, to the challenge.  Weather willing, the summit awaits you!  So, prepare for that most amazing moment, start now, work hard, seek out challenges for your fitness and I’ll see you at the top!

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 3, 2013 12:03 am

    I’d like to license the use of your photo: Ascending Denali. Photo by Sarah Olson.

    Please contact me:

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