Leave the Tent at Base Camp - High Altitude Strategies Based on Personal Experience

Leave the Tent at Base Camp - High Altitude Strategies Based on Personal Experience

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Activities Activities: Mountaineering

High Altitude Strategies

After returning from a very successful three week climbing trip in Bolivia from sea level (3 6000m peaks and over a dozen 5000m peaks), I feel extremely confident in a strategy that has worked well on some of the highest mountains in the world. 

There are two main strategies for climbing at altitude, which are very contrasting: 

Strategy 1: Climb the mountain while establishing camps up the mountain, leading to a 'shorter' summit day but increasing a climbers time spent on the mountain as well as their sleeping altitude. 

Strategy 2 (The classic Climb High, Sleep Low), which I am a strong proponent for, involves going from basecamp (or a low camp) to the summit and returning in a single day. This strategy generally skips established high camps, moving light and quick up the mountain. While this may seem like an impossible feat to someone who has some high altitude experience, I would argue that a well trained mountaineer/hiker will find it safer, more enjoyable, easier and give a team or individual a much higher chance of success.

Clearly these aren't the ONLY options and there are many variations to both of these strategies. However, I tend to build my climbing trips around strategy 2.

Personal Experience

I've been climbing high altitude mountains for over 5 years now. As a new mountaineer, I would travel with my friends to South America & Africa and we would always default to strategy 1. Why? Because that's what everyone else did. This involved establishing 1, 2, 3 or sometimes 4 camps up a mountain before our summit attempt. Even after factoring a few 'acclimitization' rest days in, someone would inevitably get sick from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or sometimes succumb to early symptoms of edema. Many attempts were aborted due to altitude sickness. On one particular climb, my friends were sick of being sick, and we decided on a speedy ascent of Mount Kenya (17,057'/5199m). We noticed we were always getting sick at a high camp, so we decided to change things up. On our quick ascent, I was blown away by how smooth things went for my team. The other teams on the mountain got sick at high camp or had worn themselves out with carrying heavy packs. Some teams missed the weather window, sandwiched in between two storms, while we timed our ascent to line up with the good weather day. This strategy allowed for greater flexibility, with less days spent establishing high camps.

Fast forward a few years, I was introduced to the sport of Ski Mountaineering. Ski mountaineers typically ascend a mountain (or several) in one day, light and fast from top to bottom. Foregoing overnight gear, most skiers will agree that skiing with a heavy pack is exponentially less fun than skiing with a featherweight pack. This same logic applies to walking and climbing. Soon, my friends and I were climbing well over 10,000'/3000m vertical in a day, something I could have never dreamed of in my starting days of mountaineering. I got so used to ascending mountains 'car-to-car' style, that I started experimenting with this strategy on bigger peaks. Peaks that normally require 2-4 days were shortened to just a half-day and the occassional long day. While the single day pushes are indeed tough, I found I could shorten my trips and have more success, timing weather windows and seeing more terrain. It's never the goal to minimize time in the mountains, it's simply that I don't have unlimited time. Plus, I found that I enjoyed climbing much more when I wasn't carrying so much overnight gear (weird, huh?). Disclaimer: I was using skis to descend slopes in 30 minutes that took hours to ascend, but this still applies to walking and climbing mountains with moderate technical difficulty. The more technical a peak becomes, the less likely this strategy will be feasible. 

Eventually, I took this strategy to Denali and also into the Karakoram & Himalayas. As it turns out, even the highest mountains in the world do not require more than 12,000' of gain in a day (a few exceptions). Climbing 12,000' vertical feet to the summit of an Alaskan or Himalayan giant in a day is not feasible, for nearly anyone, minus a few mutants. However, I do believe that reducing the amount of camps above basecamp is still a far better solution than a high camp from hell. 


Running to Everest Basecamp

Sleep Acclimitization

Anyone who has slept at high altitude can attest to the difficulties. Sleeping at altitude is not pleasant. It doesn't matter how great the sunset is from a beautiful perch, nothing is worse than waking up from Cheyne-Stokes (Gasping for a breath), vommitting, splitting headaches or worse (HAPE & HACE). Besides weather, sleeping at high altitude is usually the downfall of most high altitude climbs. As the altitude increases, it becomes much more difficult to adjust. The more time spent above an altitude in which your body is not adjusted, the less chance for success. Dealing with the cold and often windy conditions high on a mountain make for an even more unpleasant experience. I haven't ALWAYS had a bad time at high camps, but it's typically the case.... Maybe I am just a weenie. A low camp to summit approach certainly requires an earlier start time than the camping one, however, one night of only a few hours of sleep will not make-or-break your summit attempt...  While awake, you can also regulate your breathing to mitigate the effects of the thin air. While sleeping, this is not possible and the poor climber is at the mercy of their subconscious.

The Benefits of Climb High, Sleep Low

A few benefits from the basecamp-summit approach:

-Minimize time spent high on the mountain, meaning less exposure to cold exposure, thin air and hazards of bad weather & avalanches.

-Improved sleep and safety, less succeptable to AMS, HAPE, HACE

-Carrying a lighter pack up & down the mountain

-Timing summit day to coincide with a perfect weather window

-You actually spend LESS time at high altitude with this strategy, high camp to base camp will take less time than the alternative.

-Additional time to explore other (lower) peaks to further acclimate.


Most people will find this method a bit unnerving, but I strongly encourage high altitude climbers to give it a shot and try for yourself. First I would suggest to train your body & mind with bigger ascent days at low altitudes (10,000'/3000m) elevation gain days. It'll make you a stronger climber and also open up what you can do in a single day. Instead of arriving to a country or mountain and going straight to camp 1, it is much better to spend a few days being a tourist, or even better... climbing smaller peaks! This will ensure success to adjust to the sleeping altitude of basecamp. If you cannot afford this luxury, then it's better to just go from basecamp to higher points on the mountain and back, until you feel ready for summit day. It will still take less time and effort to reach the summit this way. I still use this strategy instead of moving my tent to the highest possible camp, as it hasn't failed me yet.

More Disclaimers

Please do not attempt this if you are not well trained for big days in the mountains. Obviously everyone's body is different and this is all based on personal experience. I think most folks are capable of bigger ascent days than they give themselves credit for. Maybe I'm just EXTREMELY lucky and blessed with the genetics of a Sherpa. Likely not, and I've still managed to get my sorry ass up a bunch of 7000m and an 8000m peak without any oxygen or support. Take your time when climbing high altitude peaks, even if it means sitting in basecamp or burning days to drive to high places or climb lower peaks. Another note, I base this strategy off relatively non-technical peaks and a few moderately technical ones. If I were scaling big walls in the Karakoram, this would likely be a foolish strategy, as you don't allow yourself the margin of safety with an established camp to rest only a few thousand feet below you. Obviously, use your best judgement and do what works best for your body :) 


If I could go back in time, every expedition would be from a low camp to the summit and back. I'm glad I have spent time experimenting with both methods, as I have learned a lot. I wish I had been introduced to the REAL concept of Climb High, Sleep Low in the starting days of my climbing... Which is why I decided to write this. I'm sure this may not be a very novel concept for experienced mountaineers, but I hope it changes the way someone approaches the taller peaks. My wife and I went to Bolivia and it was her first time above 5000m. She does not always do very well at altitudes of even 4000m, yet she performed flawlessly on every peak, without getting sick or even missing a summit. No matter how technically easy, climbing a peak above 5000m is difficult for everyone... Despite this, I think the experience can be a much more pleasant one by reducing the time spent at extreme altitudes. Climb smarter, not harder! :) 


Sleeping Altitude Study


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