A collection of well known Everest guides are questioning the conventional wisdom around time spent acclimatizing on Everest. As a result, capsule they are reducing the time it takes to climb the big Hill by weeks. However there is a big ‘but’ to their trick.
One of the reasons an Everest expedition takes almost two months is the time required for multiple rotations up and down the mountain to help the body adjust to the thin air.
A typical Everest climber will spend 10 to 15 days sleeping high on the mountain above Base Camp before going on their summit attempt. They sleep at ever-increasing altitudes to trick the body into making the necessary physiological changes, especially with respect to respiration, the key to survival at extreme altitudes. This ‘climb high, sleep low’ program has been in place since modern-day explorers began climbing the large peaks.
Of note, of the 6,871 summits through February 2014, only 192 climbers summited without supplemental oxygen, about 2.8% according to the Himalayan Database.
The Oxygen Science
The air we breath has a mixture of gases including oxygen and nitrogen. The atmosphere contains about 21% oxygen at all altitudes. What changes as we go higher is the air pressure. Gravity pulls on gas molecules in the air. The closer to the Earth’s surface, the more pressure. At the summit of Everest, the pressure was measured in 1981 by the American Medical Research Expedition and later documented in a Nova movie at 253 mmHG. At sea level it is 760 mmHG.
The reason for the lower pressure is that there is less atmosphere pushing down from above. This reduced pressure allows the air molecules to scatter. This means that on Everest the air is not as dense or “thick”. In other words there is the same percentage of oxygen but the molecules are scattered thus the term “thin air”. So in each breath, there is less oxygen. To be precise about 66% less!
In looking at how the body reacts to this reduced oxygen level, Everest legend Tom Hornbein explained it to the American Lung Association this way:
The lower oxygen stimulates chemoreceptors that initiate an increase in breathing, resulting in a lowering of the partial pressure of CO2 and hence more alkaline blood pH. The kidneys begin to unload bicarbonate to compensate. Though this adaptation can take many days, up to 80% occurs just in the first 48 to 72 hours. There are many other physiologic changes going on, among them the stimulus of low oxygen to release the hormone, erythropoietin to stimulate more red blood cell production, a physiological and still acceptable form of blood doping that enhances endurance performance at low altitudes. Adaptive changes are not always good for one’s health. Some South American high altitude residents can have what’s called chronic mountain sickness, resulting from too many red blood cells; their blood can be up to 84-85% red blood cells. The increased blood viscosity and sometimes associated pulmonary hypertension can result in right heart failure.
Climb High, Sleep Low
The age old approach to acclimatizing is the climb high, sleep low technique. This animation I created shows the schedule many teams have used for years:
As this animation shows, climbers spend a lot of energy going up and down the mountain. In fact, they almost climb it twice! Thus many guides have looked at ways to shorten the time spent on the mountain to reduce risk and time away from family and work. Those few who climb without using supplemental oxygen will go to the South Col or near 8000m to sleep before their summit attempt.
Personally, I think spending time on the mountain is the reason for going in the first place, but not everyone has the luxury of time or shares my view.
As a method to jump start the acclimatization process, an emerging trend for mountain climbers is to use so called altitude tents where the oxygen level is reduced through introducing more nitrogen into the mix. Athletes have used this system for years and many claim great success.
In essence, you spend a significant amount of time living inside a clear canopy, aka tent, breathing this adjusted mixture. Your body reacts to this with a series of changes.
As if spending $50,000, and two months away from home was not enough to put a strain on any relationship, try asking your spouse to sleep in a tent with you for two months before you go!
Everest guide Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow, swears by the system and has many of his members use it before arriving in Kathmandu. Adrian offers Everest climbs for as short as one month, half of the standard schedule.
Because I have no personal experience with these systems, I reached out to world-renowned high altitude doctor, Peter Hackett who also runs the excellent site Institute for High Altitude Medicine and Brian Oestrike, CEO of Hypoxico, the industry leader, for his thoughts.
First up is Brian:
Q: What is the mix of your typical customer?
A: We’re fortunate to work with a wide range of athletes, mountaineers, researchers, and members of the armed forces. Historically the bulk of our business came from endurance athletes, specifically runners, cyclists and triathletes. This still holds true but we have seen a big uptick in interest from ultrarunners, many of whom are competing at high altitudes, as well as families using the equipment prior to their high-altitude climbs and vacations. In addition, new research has confirmed that short interval hypoxic training can be used to enhance performance in sprint-based sports such as basketball and football, so we have been working with different NBA and NFL teams more recently.
Q: Have you seen an increase in Everest climbers over that past few years and what results did they report?
A: We’ve definitely seen a steady increase in Everest climbers pre-acclimatizing with our equipment over the past few years. What’s more exciting is that we’re seeing more climbers utilizing our equipment to add flexibility to their itinerary and specifically reduce trekking times to Base Camp.
In fact, we had at least 8 members complete Everest last year in less than 35 days. In general we’ve seen more interest in pre-acclimatization from climbers on smaller, less challenging mountains. A stat that we’re especially proud of is that our summit success rate for Kilimanjaro climbers is roughly 98%, which involves hundreds of climbers over the last 5 years. I think that stat is more telling than on the more hardcore mountains because it involves a large sample size, weather is less of a factor in summit success rate, and because the members are generally relative novices at altitude.
Q: What is your recommendation for duration of using the system before an Everest climb?
A: For an Everest climber looking to maximize the potential of the equipment we generally advise at least 8 weeks of both tent and mask-based training. The suggested altitudes will vary based on the on-mountain itinerary and how the athlete responds to the altitude. We suggest trying to get 8-10 hours of time in the tent each day and ideally three to five, one hour exercise altitude workouts per week.
We utilize a pulse oximeter during training and target blood oxygen saturations around 90% for sleeping and typically the low 80’s for active training; by sleeping and training at progressively higher altitudes, the body continues to adjust and becomes more tolerant to hypoxia.
Q: Do you recommend any other training changes for Everest climbers who use your system?
A: We’ve found that many of our Everest members choose to equipment at least 6 months prior so they are normally working with a longer training plan in mind. We suggest to use the equipment to increase fitness levels and to build a more thorough acclimatization base leading into the final 8 weeks.
Then depending on the specific itinerary and response from the athlete we tweak the training to focus as much as possible on creating a resistance to hypoxia; we often do this by increasing the amount of IHT (intermittent hypoxic training) which involves sitting with a mask on at 9% o2 or roughly 21,000ft. To mimic the stresses of altitude experienced on the mountain we recommend increasing the total volume and intensity of active training and IHT sessions.
Q: Do you have third party analytical proof the Hypoxico system accelerates high altitude acclimatization
A: Individuals and outfitters are using the equipment to dramatically cut itinerary times, and we receive a huge number of testimonials from successful summits and high altitude endurance events and really these serve as the third party proof that our equipment accelerates acclimatization. While the mechanisms behind AMS are still being studied, we believe that there is no other way to gain resistance to hypoxia while at sea-level.
And although oxygen saturation is only one of several factors, we believe that having higher o2 saturations on the mountain (and as a result more oxygen available in the blood) is a good indicator of resistance to altitude. By progressively sleeping at higher altitudes, and training at lower oxygen saturations we gradually see that each individual builds a tolerance to hypoxia. In our experience this resistance is at least part of the story as to why our member do not have the same challenges at altitude.
Q: What is you reaction to the Outside Magazine article saying the Hypoxico system does not increase red blood cell count because it uses nitrogen to replace part of the oxygen mix which is different than the reduced pressure that disperses oxygen molecules at high altitude?
A: In general we’ve found that many studies don’t use high enough altitude or sufficient exposure times to induce RBC changes in the blood. Research has shown that an elevated RBC count doesn’t always correlate to a high level of acclimatization.
While the hypoxic effect of being at real altitude is slightly stronger than being inside one of our tents (because of the pressure factor), the system does lower the bodies oxygen saturation level sufficient to create new RBC. Furthermore, we regularly receive blood work from our members that consistently show substantial increases in RBC, hemoglobin mass and hematocrit.
You can rent an altitude system starting at $700 per month but typically Brain say most members go with a 6-8 week rentals. The price for a sleeping set-up starts at $3350. They allow members to put part of the rental towards a .
For further reading, this is the link the Outside Magazine article and this article by Nick Grantham goes into detail on the science.
The Doctor’s Thoughts
In discussions with Dr. Hackett, he advised that the science is still unproven although there does seem to be evidence that altitude tents help some athletes but not necessarily high altitude climbers. He would like to see a well done, objective study, “using a control group that does the same amount and type of training, same nutrition, same sleep and recovery, etc but in a non-hypoxic environment to establish whether short-term hypoxia really confers any advantage.”
He told me that spending 7 to 8 hours a day in an altitude tent does help jump start the acclimatization process by:
… raises hemoglobin (or RBC’s) and that is definitely associated with increased performance at low altitude. BUT, the reason to use it for pre-acclimatization is different, kick-start the acclimatization process, which involves much more than increasing hemoglobin. AND, increased hemoglobin at altitude does not translate into increased performance like it does at low altitude.
And this is the key, according to Dr. Hackett:
What is more important is the oxygen saturation of the blood. People who pre-acclimatize will have higher SpO2, less mountain sickness, and many cellular advantages. It is not that different than spending time at high altitude prior to going on an expedition. But of course, 24 hrs a day of hypoxic exposure is even better than 8 hrs a day.
He goes on to say:
Physical performance has not been studied much, nor acclimatization except as using AMS as a marker of acclimatization. That is, if the technique prevents AMS on rapid ascent to high altitude, then it is considered successful. Using this criterion, artificial hypoxia works if it is used for a minimum of one week and 7 hrs per day, and the altitude in the field is not more than 1500-2000 m above the artificial altitude.
The short-term techniques have been shown to have either a very slight effect or no effect, even when exercising in hypoxia.
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. The “altitude” should be gradually raised as tolerated, to reach about 1500-2000 m below maximum sleeping altitude. Not everyone will respond to this, but most people will.
Thus acclimatizing at home to say, 14,000 feet will adjust your body for sleeping at perhaps 20,000 feet meaning you still need to do acclimatization rotations on Everest where you sleep at 26,300 feet and go on to 29,035 feet even with supplemental oxygen.
A Climber’s Experience
If you are going to a South American 18,000 foot peak then the tent technique probably works well, a statement supported by climber Kent Stewart:
As far as the altitude tents, all I can attest to is how they worked for me. I just returned from Ecuador where I summited Rucu Pichincha, Illiniza Sur and Cotopaxi in a 5 day accelerated program. Prior to the trip, I spent 27 nights in the hypoxic tent eventually sleeping at an “altitude” of 13,000 feet. Again, I am not a strong climber nor am I a super athlete but I went from basically sea level here in Birmingham, Alabama to the summit of Rucu Pichinacha (15,700’) in less than 24 hours with zero side effects.
By comparison, the last two trips I made to Colorado, I was crushed tying to go from sea level to the summit of any 14er. The only time I felt the altitude the entire time in Ecuador was the last 300’ or so on Cotopaxi which was over 19,000’. In my opinion, there is no way I could have done that without the use of the tent. I know that everyone is different but it sure seems the tent is working for me which is great news.
By the way, Kent is going to Everest this spring with Alpenglow and is currently enjoying his nights in the tent at home.
To inject my own opinion here, I have seen teammates who used altitude tents on Everest and on other high altitude mountains; they did well. But also, they trained incredibly hard before coming, both mentally and physically, and did the same set of rotations I did and I did not use an altitude tent. In many ways, making the investment in an altitude tent is a proxy for your desire to reach the summit and to what end you are willing to make sacrifices to reach your goal.
The O Factor!
So moving on to the old fashion way of climbing Everest, training hard at home and then using supplemental oxygen, this is changing as well.
I recently spoke with one Everest guide who mentioned that he no longer takes members to spend a night at Camp 3 on the Lhotse Face at 23, 500′. He felt that the effort to climb to C3 outweighed the acclimatization benefits. In conversations with another he had similar thoughts but still takes his members to at least 7000m or to tag C3.
This seems to be more common as climbing the Lhotse Face has become more dangerous recently with rock fall. Many guides now try to avoid it by acclimatizing on nearby trekking peaks thus hopefully only making one climb up the Lhotse Face during the final summit push.
But the wild card for some of these teams is that they begin using supplemental oxygen lower than in previous years. Some will start from Camp 2 instead of the more traditional Camp 3. This gives the climbers a huge benefit even running at a relatively low flow rate of 1.5 liters per minute (lpm). Most climbers today climb at 4 lpm from the South Col to the summit, twice as much as 10 years ago.
The risk of starting oxygen too low is that if the climber runs out of oxygen or has a system failure, the chance of edemas or altitude sickness is high as the body is not acclimatized to those extreme altitudes thus many guides insist on not using supplemental oxygen below 8000m or 26,246 feet. Also, more oxygen means more work, and danger, for the Sherpas to ferry canister up and down the mountain thus more expense for the members.
As an aside, this is one of the reason some operators are looking to use helicopters to stage gear at Camp 2 in the Western Cwm thereby avoiding multiple trips through the Icefall for their Sherpas.
The O Debate
This additional oxygen is dramatically increasing summit rates in my view. Of course, critics of supplemental oxygen cry foul saying it is equivalent to doping aka Lance Armstrong. A study posted on National Geographic states that using supplemental oxygen on Everest effectively lowers the altitude by 1000 meters or 3,000 feet.
Using supplemental oxygen is the way to avoid frostbite because it keeps the body’s core warm thus allowing blood to flow to the extremities. But to be clear, it is not a panacea. Many people who use O’s still do not summit. See this article where I go into detail on the systems used on Everest for 2014.
Shortcuts to the Top?
Ed Viesturs’s book No Shortcuts to the Top described how he climbed all the 8000 meter mountains without using supplemental oxygen. He argued that you had to put the work in to earn the summit. Well, not everyone has his physiology and can climb without using supplemental oxygen. But everyone has the option to put the work in on the mountain.
My opinion is that Everest is a climb to be savored and enjoyed, not rushed. But that is just me and my opinion. I was on one climb where a teammate was so obsessed with speed that he didn’t even take a summit picture because he wanted to get back down. He returned the next year to slow down and enjoy the experience.
Everest is a milestone in every sense and not a climb to be ticked off a list – at least that is my view. I think the argument of shortening the climb to avoid dangers is a bit overblown as most deaths are due to climber error and natural causes. Statistically, Everest is one of the safest 8000 meter mountains to climb.
I fully get the point that time advances and we don’t need to climb like Mallory in the 1920’s sailing to India and walking for months just to reach Base Camp. However with so many new options available to shorten a climb, where do you draw the line? Why not helicopter to C2 and use O’s from there up and fly off from C2 back to Kathmandu? At some point aids become counter to the spirit of climbing. I’m just not for rushing it for the sake of rushing.
In summary, Everest has become more accessible to regular people based on altitude tents, an abundance of supplemental oxygen, improved gear, helicopters, weather forecasting plus reducing the unknowns by using standard routes and commercial guides. No, it is not the same as climbing 50 years ago but neither is flying in an airplane.
Memories are Everything
I guess the Willie Benegas facebook post is right, you have to blend with the culture you are interacting, doesn’t matter where and what mountain are you climbing and enjoy the people are you climbing with and also not at least enjoy the mountain itself with all he has to offer to you..
Once again I appear to have lost the comment I wrote so rather than spell it all out again I will just say thanks again for another interesting article. I also enjoyed the many diverse comments. I understand where Emily is coming from but I think she is missing the emotional joy of being high on our planet with the surrounding views. She literally could be just climbing anywhere. Cheers Kate
I summitted Everest in 2012 and thus I do feel like I understand that emotional joy you’re speaking of. In fact, I loved it so much I returned to Nepal in 2013 to climb Ama Dablam. My only point was to be open to change, that shorter trips do not necessarily mean that the experience will be any less significant for a climber. As far as safety goes, maybe it is safer and better for everyone involved. There is only one way to figure that out though and that is to try it. Everest expeditions have evolved several times since the days of Norgay and Hillary, maybe this is that next phase of change. Maybe it’s not. Again, people are willing to give a shot, so we’ll just have to wait and see…..
Hi Emily, I think I missed the point you were trying to make. You are a far, far better mountaineer than I ever was with many experiences under your belt. You gave the impression that it was arrive,summit, down and out. I can now appreciate you were saying that the new gadgets would help to minimise the hanging about at camps which can be tedious at the best of times and allow you to get on and do the climb. On that note I wish you all the best with your enjoyment on the mountains and stay safe. Cheers Kate
If someone is interested in climbing than what he/she should do before climbing.I am being the citizen of Nepal (student) i would like to say that it is really a high amount to climb Everest.If one poor boy want to do it,I think he will not be able to make it (MONEY problem).So i think always that …………………………..
Please say my reply ……………………….(MY FRIENDS & WELL KNOWN PERSON from everest supporters)
Appreciate the article Alan.
Quite an interesting debate. I have my own personal perspective and opinion of the Hypoxico systems. Based on real research I’ve performed during my own climbs. In Ecuador, Argentina, U.S., Nepal, etc.
I’ve seen personal benefits and have experience to back it, yet that is based on me and my body composition. Unfortunately, even with what I feel is extensive testing I’ve performed, it would be hard to claim the same positive benefits could be seen by all. The variables are different in most cases. Different altitudes, body types, fitness levels, etc. all play a factor.
I actually have a system I’m considering selling. Not because I’m not happy with it or it doesn’t work, but because I feel I’ve developed a new understanding of my capabilities in the mountains and no longer require it.
I would however recommend everyone to be open minded about this topic if attempting a significant high altitude challenge along the principles that it can only help success. Also, just as a bonus, what is a placebo effect worth in a sport that is mostly mental?
If anyone has any specific questions about my system or personal experiences with high altitude tents and/or training mask systems let me know.
Very good article indeed, Alan…
Hello, Shawn! Have you used your altitude training system for an 8000er? How did you train for such a peak using the system? Was it worth it? One of the main concerns about high altitude expeditions is that your body is losing its health (deteriorating) as time goes by on such environments…
Another interesting comment from Paul Dev on FB:
I live in an Altitude House at University of Limerick in Ireland where the entire 7-bed house is effectively one large altitude tent where each bedroom can be adjusted separately up to 5100m. I have been living here since July 2013 with a break to climb Vinson in January, so i have spent 136 days and nights at altitude and am currently living and sleeping at 4400m as we build up to 5100m ahead of Everest. I am using this as an added element of training, spending approx 16 hours per day at altitude. We do bloodwork here every 6 weeks so i can see the RBC count increasing all the time. We also do Altitude Gym work at a nearby Altitude Gym twice weekly to add in effort at altitude. The Altitude House gives me a good foundation for Everest, but it will be no substitute for time spent on the mountain once i get there, so it compliments rather than replaces! Hence i am still on the 55-60 day expedition this Spring
Another great article Alan. Perhaps there is another perspective to gaining this advantage – safety. If some of us decide to use all these tools to still savor the climb but in a way that is safer, I see no difference than living at 10,000 feet and sleeping at 14,000. Some of us are unfortunate enough to live at sea level and work long hours to afford our climbs. I use the hypoxico device – tent and mask – because they make high climbs safer for me. They give me the opportunity to enjoy each climb and come back for more in the future. I have no intention of running up the hill or reducing my expedition length; I just want to be able to climb in more places, meet interesting people, and enjoy the mountains for years to come. These advantages enable me to meet those goals.
Thanks again Alan.
I live and train hard at nearly 10,000′ in Colorado and for me that makes a lot of the acclimatization days on a regular expedition just an outing with the gang, since I don’t really need it. I do have the option of sleeping on top of 14ers if I feel like I need more. Is that an unfair advantage roughly equivalent to the Hypoxico equipment? I can’t make that call. For the most part if it can be correlated with less deaths and higher success rates, then it can’t be completely bad.
If it makes the climb safer it’s better.
Two key factors in an Everest attempt is plenty of time and money. Most people are short one, or both. Hypoxic training expands the market by reducing the time. While I’m not using it this year, anything that makes you feel more confident and secure (and more acclimatized!) on the mountain is positive.
Willie Bengas posted this over on Facebook on the post and I thought it was worth reposting here:
Thanks Alan, My toughs on this are simple, yes it helps on the initial acclimatization process, but cutting days is a Russian Roulette. It is not enough data to support that it really works. The most important part of the expedition is the camaraderie, being part of the Sherpa culture. Spending time on the Lodges during the trekking in. This idea of cutting the trip in half,will miss the purity of way to climb Everest.
Your adventure: your approach. I can’t see the issue of using current technology to bag the achievement of the world’s highest peak in a way that’s safer, faster, cheaper, and more family and work friendly. Even Hillary used his day’s technology/oxygen and rarely do the purists knock him.
Nice article, super interesting stuff. I don’t agree though that people on accelerated trips are missing out, or rushing the climb – I actually think it’s quite the opposite. When I go climbing, I like to do just that – climb. I love having big days, moving well, and trying hard. Most of the time I’d rather go climb something in a day than break it up into several, because it’s just more fun that way. I don’t feel like I’m rushing with this approach, but rather I’ve figured out that I like climbing and dislike the downtime in between. From my understanding the faster programs on Everest allow a climber to do just that – climb more and rest/acclimatize/trek less and thus the trip is shorter, which is good as well I guess for people with families, job restraints, etc. I was at Everest basecamp for nearly 2 months in 2012 and honestly I could have done with less time, and I still feel like I would have felt the same joy and satisfaction from the trip. But that’s just me. In my opinion the people signing up for these trips are not necessarily racing to bag Everest, and I don’t think it’s accurate to believe that their experience will be less enjoyable or valuable to them. It’s just different.
Thanks for your perspective Emily. Appreciate it.
I feel sorry for these people. There’s a fantastic amount of detail here, Alan, but the wisest advice of all was the bit you didn’t need to research: “Everest is a climb to be savored and enjoyed, not rushed”.
Why lie indoors in a tiny capsule when you could be out exploring the Himalayas? Climbing Everest is about the whole experience of being in the mountains, not just reaching the summit and spending as little time there as you can. That’s a bit like injecting alcohol into your veins to get legless instead of enjoying a glass of wine.
Thanks for yet another thought-provoking post!
Yes, very interesting. Just wonder if this equipment will become a part of every training room now. Maybe we should some stock in the company.
I find it sad that climbers just want to bag the peak in as short a time as possible and get home. If they are just climbing to put a notch on their belt, then they are missing what could be the most amazing experience of their lives. I would think savoring the hardships and pure beauty of this mountain is worth more than actually summiting. But I’m not a climber and this is just my opinion.
Nice article Alan and I agree. I do it for the love of the mountains and not just bagging peaks
Really interesting article, Alan, and not entirely new technology. Charlie Houston did acclimitzation research back in the 50’s and found that acclimitization could be sped up by exercising. Subjects who used a workout bike in the hyperbolic chamber did better. I would think you’d need to spend far more time in terms of weeks in the tent sleeping than you would trekking to Base Camp and doing acclimitization climbs. And I agree you would certainly miss out on the scenery. That being said, for people willing to spend more than I make in a year to climb Everest, an additional $700 a week before they go to increase their odds of making the summit and increasing their safety likely does not seem unreasonable.
Now I’m wondering if some people will get one and put a stairmaster in it to see if that worked even better. Might be a decent investment for a professional climber prior to launching a new route.
Thanks Bob. Hypoxico sells a masks people use while exercising on treadmills, stairmasters, stationery bikes, etc. to simulate higher altitudes.
Thanks for sharing, Alan. Very interesting!
Great article. Thanks Alan.