Simulated Altitude Training for Aconcagua
Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas at 6962m Altitude.
Freezing cold high winds are common place on the upper reaches of Aconcagua. The high altitude also offers an enormous challenge for those who try to summit. Indeed, the company I am going with, Elite Himalayan Adventures, use Aconcagua as a preparatory mountain for those wishing to take on Everest.
My expedition is now two weeks away. I have been training hard and immersing myself totally in preparation of my body and mind.
One of the things I have done differently this time is engaging in regular exposure to simulated altitude.
I am very fortunate to be connected with Para-Monte – The Adam Savory Memorial Fund – Altitude Awareness Charity and also Brighton University.
Through their support I started using the Extreme Environments Lab located in Brighton University in Eastbourne on 6th November. 8 weeks out from when I leave for the mountain.
In addition I also had an Altitude Tent and Hypoxic Generator delivered to my home on 25th November from the Altitude Centre to be used in the 5 weeks before I leave.
I am going all out this time having learned from last. My goal is to be far further down the acclimatisation path compared to my experience 2 years ago when I was ill prepared and naive.
Being a Lab Endurance Rat
With my previous trips this year to the Tour du Mont Blanc and Mount Toubkal I already knew my body could handle some altitude relatively comfortably.
I have now completed over 30 hours in the lab at Brighton University under the watchful eye of Gregor and Bobbi in the form of 1-3 sessions per week at simulated altitude of 4500m.
I have opted for each session to be active. That means walking on a treadmill within the chamber on various inclines.
The reason for this is partly to maximise my training exposure time and partly to break in the 8000m Scarpa Phantom summit boots in the hope of avoiding the awful blisters I developed last time on ascent from Base Camp upwards.
In addition I have been wearing a rucksack loaded to between 15kg and 21kg and walking on inclines of 10 to 25%. This provides the most realistic experience possible given what I have available.
Bobbi has taken a number of Gas samples during my exposure visits and conducted some tests on substrate fuel use and approximate calorific output numbers. These have been a useful guide in terms of the amount and type of calories I will best need on the mountain to fuel the expedition.
Interestingly walking at around 1.6km per hour on a 20-25% incline in the summit boots with 18kg on my back equates to around 500 – 600kcal per hour. The key thing being that this total represents a calorie expenditure in the form of carbohydrates greater than my body can likely absorb each hour. This translates to a calorie deficit and likely body weight loss.
Last time I lost 7kg in 12 days. My performance undoubtedly suffered due to this.
This time I am taking more in the way of easily accessible carbs so that even if I feel nauseous due to altitude I can squeeze in some gels and energy jelly’s.
The sessions have ranged from 90 minutes to 3 hours. As time has passed I have felt my body adapt. The light headedness I experienced at the start at simulated altitude of 4500m has long gone and I now feel comfortable in the chamber for long hours and even some higher paced intervals.
It has been incredibly useful and I am hugely grateful to the team at Brighton University for the support they have provided.
Altitude Life at Home.
To complement the lab exposure training I have had an altitude tent set up in my bedroom for the last few weeks.
The tent fits on the bed frame and houses my king size double mattress. There are a series of zips, tubes, valves and a Hypoxic Generator completes the kit. Instructions are provided.
The goal is to sleep in the tent, sealed, at night with the generator ran to create a simulated altitude set at your desired level.
You start low and gradually ramp up the simulated altitude as your body adapts.
A few things you should know about this process.
The generator is noisy. Like having a building site in your bedroom. A pump “whooshes” the modified air into the tent, pulsing like a person with a bellows. The generator produces heat and so leaving off the heating is vital, while keeping all windows open. Inside the tent you sleep and take your oxygen saturation and heart rate in the morning to see what levels you are at. This is done with a pulse oximeter.
I started at 2200m and am currently up to 3800m. The rate of gain must be respected. Too hard too soon and difficultly sleeping becomes a problem.
I have been using the tent on average 5 nights per week. I have found on occasion that when I have been in the lab for a few hours and then use the tent at night, it can be simply impossible to sleep. In these instances I have persevered for around 5 hours and then found myself frustratingly turning off the generator at 4am to try and get some sleep.
A big part of the problem is the sheer amount of noise. That was until my mate Rob suggested putting the generator outside my bedroom door!
It’s often the simple solutions that are the best!
I have also been using gel ear plugs at night and these I would say are essential.
Largely my sleep is better. There have been some days when I have felt all “altituded out” and have simply felt I have needed a break from it. I listen then act. Always listening to what I feel I need.
One of the benefits I have noticed is that my energy levels seem to be higher. I rarely feel tired despite the sometimes disturbed sleep. My recovery between training sessions feels better and on the whole, I am feeling very well and very fit. I had a head cold for a few days but it didn’t last long and has now left me.
Over the next 10 days I will be continuing to sleep in the tent for 3-4 nights on the trot.
Getting my Gimp On.
One of the ways in which the home equipment can be used is for Intermittent Hypoxic Exposure Training sessions. This is basically sitting with a face mask on with tube attached to the generator. It’s an interesting set up.
The altitude setting is higher than that which you sleep at. So far I have gone up 5500m. The procedure is, breathe with the mask on for 5 minutes. Rest for 5 minutes. Repeat for 60-90 minutes.
I have completed a number of these sessions on non-training days and find them oddly enjoyable. I have never really been into being a gimp and it’s safe to say I am still not that way inclined!
However, what I have felt is that the process is relaxing and meditative. Focusing in breathing deeply and paying attention to how my head and body feel while monitoring oxygen saturation at the end of each 5 minute exposure period.
So why put myself through all of this?
Each altitude exposure creates a signal to the body to produce more red blood cells.
The more red blood cells you have, the greater the oxygen carrying capacity of your blood. If you can carry more oxygen, when oxygen levels decrease, you are in a better position than in having fewer.
At least that’s the theory. But altitude is a complex creature and it’s effect on the body is not fully understood.
But, I have done everything I can and in doing so leave fewer stones un-turned. If nothing else I am heading out to Argentina in a much more confident mind-set than last time. That in and of itself is a massive edge.
The entire process has been informative, educational, at times, relentless, sometimes frustrating, especially when sleep seems simply impossible.
But it is all good training. All of these things have served to remind me of what it was like at Altitude last time on Aconcagua and I know I am already hugely better prepared than I was last time.
2 weeks and counting before I head out to take on Aconcagua Again and I am relishing the challenge that lies ahead.