As spring takes hold, a bunch of us from the flatlands are having dreams of alpine vistas and Rocky Mountain summits. But we often forget that there is a lot that goes into being ready for the challenges that come with altitude.
I live at less than 800 feet. So every time I think about heading west, I know there are things I need to do before marching to the top of a high peak.
So that’s what this is about. It’s not like I’m a pro or anything, but I’ve spent the last 13 years bagging peaks in the Colorado and New Mexico high country from late spring to early fall. I’ve learned a bit — mostly through trial and error, and from my mistakes. So that’s what I want to pass along to you.
BEFORE THE TRIP
People who live at higher elevations have an advantage over the rest of us because they have more red blood cells — the agents that carry oxygen to the rest of the body — flowing through their bodies than us. And unless you plan on spending several weeks at altitude, your body won’t be able to match that red blood cell production in time to fit inside your vacation plans. You can acclimate some, but not that fast. So extra care has to be taken in terms of physical preparation. With that in mind…
Get yourself in shape. There are a lot of ways to do this, but I’d suggest a few basics. Plan and complete some big hikes, preferably in hilly areas. On some of these hikes, carry a backpack that will be the same size and weight as the one you plan to use in the mountains. Break in those boots if they’re new. Plan on hikes that will last as long (in number of hours) as you think it will take on your trip. I’d also recommend doing some regular cardio at least four times a week — running, cycling, swimming, stairmaster — yes to any or all of that. And sprinkle in some strength training. A rugged frame and a strong heart/set of lungs will go a long way toward helping you enjoy your alpine adventures rather than just suffer through them. Ideally, these are things you should be doing at least a few months out from your planned trip. If you want more information on that, check out this post I wrote last year.
Test your gear. Wear and use the clothes, footwear and backpack you plan to use, and make sure the fit is good. Same goes with any tents, stoves, electronics or anything else you might use or depend on. Be familiar with how everything works, and adjust accordingly if something’s not right. Having a gear failure on the trail because of your unfamiliarity with it is a potential disaster that is entirely preventable.
Ask for advice. Got any friends who are knowledgeable about the high country? Hit ’em up. You can also find good information in online forums and through social media. People are willing to help. A question you have that goes unasked is a mystery you might not be able to afford when you’re in the backcountry.
Plan and study your routes. Again, there is a lot of information online about trails, forests, peaks, etc. Plenty of guide books, too. You don’t have to kill all spontaneity, but you should be familiar with the places you’re going, the distances you’ll travel, and the type of terrain, obstacles and hazards you’ll face. And let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.
WHEN YOU’RE THERE
Give yourself some time. I’ve done the thing where you drive in one day, and then a day later go hit a 14,000-foot peak. It can be done, but I don’t advise it. Rather, spend a few days at a lower elevation town or city and do some practice hikes on smaller hills. After a couple of days, head into the high country, and give yourself another day or so, embarking in acclimatization hikes. After a few days, your body will be more prepared for the task at hand.
Drink plenty of water. The Rockies are fairly dry, and because your respiration will be at an increased rate, you’ll dehydrate much faster — even in a city like Denver, at 5,280 feet — than you do at home. It’s subtle at first, and you won’t realize you’re drying out… until it’s too late. So it’s not a bad thing to be sipping water regularly throughout the day, even if you’re just chilling out. When you’re on the trail, your hydration needs will increase. A 4-8 hour day hike might mean you take 2-3 liters of water with you, and try to drink as much of that as you can. Otherwise, you’ll get nasty headaches, and possibly the beginnings of altitude sickness.
Pack right. Make sure you have enough food for your hike, and then a little more. Bring the right supplies and tools in your pack, with special detail on what you might need in an emergency. If you’re wondering what that looks like, check this link for the 10 essentials. Make sure your clothing is designed to handle a variety of weather conditions your might face.
Even if you’re from another mountain state, do not underestimate what elevation does to a hike or climb. Plenty of peak baggers and hikers hail from states with mountains that have serious elevation profiles, but aren’t as high as the Rockies. An example: I hiked Mount LeConte in Tennessee, which at various trailheads will give you 3,000 feet of elevation gain or more. Many of the peaks in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming are similar in their base-to-summit profile. But I found the going much easier in the Appalachians than in the Rockies, even when approaching LeConte’s summit, solely because of how much thinner the air is in the Rockies. Remember that the trailheads at most peaks in the Rockies start at elevations higher the tops of any mountain on the East Coast, as well as most mountains in every western state except California (the Sierras pose their own challenges, as do some of the big ones in the Cascades). The level of exertion and complications from altitude will be much different than they are in the Smokies, the White Mountains, or just about anywhere else in the Lower 48.
Watch the weather. A bluebird day in the summer can turn into a nightmare of lighting, hail and wind in a hurry. Storms can form right over your head with little warning. Start your hikes early (pre-dawn is good, and even earlier if the route is long) and be heading down the mountain well before noon. Check forecasts closely, and don’t be surprised to see snowfall on the bookend weeks of the summer. Fall and spring hikes and climbs can be even more touch-and-go when it comes to snowstorms. Perfect conditions one day can give way to blizzards. On my early July attempt of Longs Peak last summer, snow high on the mountain fell the night before our ascent and turned route conditions into a mess of sloppy snow and ice, forcing us to abort the climb. Now imagine getting caught in the middle of that, while on exposed, steep terrain. Respect for high country weather changes is a must.
Respect the land and its permanent residents. Stay on the trail and don’t stomp all over delicate alpine tundra. If you bring a dog, keep it under control and don’t let it chase after wildlife. Camp 100 feet or more away from streams. If established fire pits are available, camp fires are fine — provided the conditions are not prone to forest fires and camp fires are allowed by park and/or forestry officials. Haul out your trash, and don’t burn it. Only use deadfall wood for fires, make sure all fires are completely extinguished before you leave a fire pit unattended. If you have any doubts at all about whether you are allowed (established wilderness areas do not permit camp fires) or should build a camp fire, skip it. Leave the trail and your campsite in as good or better condition than how you found it. And do not feed wildlife. Our food is not good for them, and feeding wild animals conditions them to see humans as a food source.
So those are some ideas. Good advice can be found at this link. And most of all, enjoy your time in the high country.