Understanding high altitude performance

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  • #35294

    Hi. I’ve done a few higher altitude (~6000m) peaks now but I’m not sure what to make of it and some insights would be helpful. My training background is I followed the 24 week program (twice) in 2018 where I trained very hard. In 2019 I had some personal issues so I only trained about twice per week on average the entire 2019.

    1) I just got back (December 2019) from Ecuador on a guided trip to the volcanoes. This is the first time I’ve tried Diamox. We had a big team so many people to compare with. I found the summit nights to Chimborazo and Cotopaxi relatively easy but then I never pushed myself and was so within AeT that I got bored and cold and thought about work emails (the people in my rope team were slow and out of breath and suffering: I felt I could move faster). Which I guess is a good sign. Coming down the mountains I was the only person in the large team that was not tired and my recovery was really good. Because I was paired with slower people (my guide apologized for this but thanked me for my patience) I typically reached the summits about 30 minutes later than the fastest groups. So not super slow pace. HOWEVER with that said: I noticed that at “lower” altitude (around 3-4500m) I could not at all keep up with the pace of my friends. They had no problem moving effortlessly (almost running) at these altitude on rest days and I felt I just got out of breath moving their pace.

    2) In December 2018 I was the best shape of my life. Got HAPE at Aconcagua base camp the second night sleeping at ~4200m. (I think because of the aggressive elevation gain on the approach where we always slept higher than the night before, sometimes +1000m)

    3) In July 2018 I did Elbrus from the northern(?) side where the summit push is almost 2000m. I was super strong until about 400m from the summit where I felt I got into some kind of mild hypoxic state (no headache, not really out of breath, could walk in a straight line, but felt I got IQ 50 and my legs were so tired). So was the strongest in the group initially but then last to reach the summit (reached the summit maybe 20 minutes after the fastest person, so not super slow)

    I “think” this story could be summed up as:

    1) I probably have good aerobic performance and recovery from endurance training and being fit
    2) Without Diamox I seem to handle altitude worse than average. (Not completely sure about this, but then again I got HAPE…)
    3) Behavioral change (also at lower altitude) by moving slowly works well for me.

    Any tips how I should reason about my “profile” for my next objective? I would like to do Denali and I have no doubt I am strong enough if I get back to my 2018 level of fitness. However this assumes a slow-and-steady pace is acceptable to deal with the altitude.

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    OwenFW on #35305

    My understanding of the research is that fitness and susceptibility to altitude sickness have no correlation other than that fit people tend to push too hard and fail to follow good acclimatization practices.

    Anonymous on #35445


    I’d say that your training paid off if you felt this strong on the summit climbs in this trip. Perhaps the diamox helped and you should try it next time. Steve and I have tried it and found the side effect so unpleasant we stopped using it.

    As for your friends being speedier on the low elevation days: Perhaps they were not so effortless as they appeared and were pushing too hard down low. I have no other explanation for that.

    How had your training been before Elbrus? As you cycle through your training program you will be fitter each time though it.

    Altitude is a funny thing and there are no great rules of thumb on how to interpret your performance.


    Steve House on #35663

    +1 what @OwenFW said, fitness does not correlate with incidence of altitude illness.

    We have more experience with this question than probably anyone in the world at this point and I think we can say with confidence that high aerobic capacity positively correlates to high rates of ascent/descent at even the most extreme altitudes.

    Fitness does not inoculate one against AMS/HAPE/HACE. But it does provide your body with more energy to address the needs of acclimatization because you’re not tired. Acclimatization is extraordinarily complex and we only understand a tiny portion, probably 1%, of what the body goes through in it’s adaptation to a new altitude.

    more info here:

    David Goettler and Ueli Steck Put Low-Intensity Training to the Test in the Khumbu


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    Raz on #35666

    Thanks for the link to the Khumbu article. That’s the best explanation I’ve come across of both why low-intensity training is beneficial and how the heart/lungs/muscles respond at altitude. Answered a lot of questions!

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