Everest (and, indeed, other 8,000ers)

Top Tips and Handy Hints

Top tips and handy hints and things to consider for expeditions

Q: How should I prepare myself for high altitude mountaineering?

A: These trips are on BIG mountains. They are massive.

You are going to be spending a lot of time sitting around trying to acclimatise. For a lot of people this is just too much – they feel that because they have been running and climbing in preparation that they should be able to start getting high earlier and are itching to get up there and invest time in sleeping at the next camp.

It’s not quite how it works.

Fitness is undoubtedly very important but it won’t get you up very far to start with. Your body needs to acclimatise to the extreme altitude before you can start forays up and down the mountain without being at risk of High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACE).

This is the mountain of a lifetime and it’s going to cost a L O T of money so make sure that you are adequately prepared.

A good grounding in Scottish winter climbing and mountaineering will go a long way to getting you ready for long arduous days on the hill (a friend of mine even described Everest as ‘good training for Scottish winter’!). The weather can turn pretty nasty pretty quickly up there so if you are in the habit of being out in ALL conditions then you will be able to cope with whatever the mountain throws at you. Remember that losing a glove up there is a potentially life threatening situation (for your pals as well as you) and will undoubtedly jeopardise your summit bid. That is an expensive glove. Have a look at the recommended skills required for Everest expeditions.

Previous experience at altitude has got to be a good investment for any 8,000ers. Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Manaslu, Gasherbrum II and Broad Peakhave both become benchmark 8,000m peaks for people to try prior to their Everest attempt. Alternatively a technical lower peak may be the answer and many folk see Ama Dablam as a benchmark.

You should also become totally acquainted with your gear and technical equipment so that everything is second nature. Get used to your clothing and where the adjusters are. Practice putting on your harness with big gloves or mitts on. Have a system for where stuff is in your rucksack so that it minimises the time taken to find things. Every time you are standing still you are getting cold. If you have to remove your mitts you are immediately prone to frostbite so it may take 3 or 4 attempts for you to complete putting your crampons on. You may have to take your mitts off (liner gloves HIGHLY recommended), start threading the buckle, start getting cold fingers, mitts on again, shake arm vigorously, mitt off, continue with buckle etc. Repeat as necessary. Have a look at this handy article about how to avoid getting cold hands.

Before going on the first of my Everest expeditions I spent hours at home wearing stuff that I was going to use on the mountain, trying things on, using totally over specked stuff when out on the hills in the UK – so I had a few funny glances from folk but then they didn’t know what I was gearing up for.

I even went to the length of using my expedition sleeping bags a few times at home and in Kathmandu so that I knew how they adjusted, what the features were, where the toggles were etc (and managed to poop myself in one of them during a night of food poisoning d and v. Needless to say the supplier who I was testing the bag for didn’t want it back!)

Q: So what kind of technical gear do I need?

A: See the relevant kit lists at Ama Dablam Kit List and Everest Kit list

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for base camp?

A: Just regular trekking clothing will usually do the trick here. Most days you’ll be wearing a wicky t shirt, a synthetic insulated top (Macpac Mercury jacket, Rab Photon, TNF Redpoint or similar) for when it’s a bit breezey and then a down jacket for when the sun goes down. Legs-wise a decent pair of trekking or climbing pants will do the trick which are great for knocking around in as well as acclimatisation walks. I spend most of my time around camp in approach shoes although a pair of something like the La Sportiva Trango S comes in handy for walks and when going up to ABC or C1 on Ama Dablam. And lastly you’ll need a hat – I personally found the Macpac Maverick – but basically you need a beanie style hat that is comfortable, with no awkward poppers or seams that will make it unbearably uncomfortable when you are trying to sleep.

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for ABC?

A: It’s going to be a tad colder up there and it’s time to get the thermals out. Go for the best that you can buy and invest in Icebreaker or Smartwool. There are plenty of other wicky thermals out there (and some have silver ions in there to stop the pong) but you won’t go wrong with soft natural fibres. Both companies do thin and thick tops and bottoms and I’d recommend a selection of all of them.

Again it’s down jacket time for when the sun goes down and you’ll be needing hats and gloves for warmth and comfort. You are going to be at ABC for quite a while and it is a desolate spot so make sure that it doesn’t become too much of an arduous environment for you.

Q: What sort of sleeping bag?

A: I would advise you to take two top[ of the range sleeping bags. I usually have a 3/4 season bag that I leave down at base camp for when I go down for a rest – that way I am carrying minimal gear up and down the route.

For on the mountain itself I would recommend using a Solar Flare Endurance by The North Face or The Wraith SL by Mountain Hardwear. Both of these bags are excellent and I highly recommend them. If you are a cold person then I would opt for the warmer The North Face Inferno Endurance or Mountain Hardwear Ghost SL bag which both go down to –40! (personally I think that the North Face bags have better hoods but the Mountain Hardwear bags are good too)

You are there for a long time and so a silk liner is pretty much a necessity and will stop your bags getting soiled as well as adding warmth. A bivvy bag is an optional extra (go for the Rab Survival zone).

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for further up the mountain?

A: It’s even colder up there and it’s time to get the warm gear on. Again, go for the best that you can buy. For forays up and down to Camp 1 and Camp 2 you need to be ready for changeable conditions and you need a waterproof jacket and over trousers (Patagonia, TNF, Macpac and Arct’ryx all do lightweight but rugged and bombproof waterproof shells) as well as gloves, hat, wicky layers and maybe a synthetic insulating top (Macpac Mercury jacket, TNF Redpoint, Rab Photon)

Q: What kind of clothing do I need for summit day?

A: Partly it depends on what time of year, what the weather is like, how windy it is and what your circulation is like. If in doubt err on the side of caution.

For summit day on Everest I wear thin wicky top and bottoms by Icebreaker, heavier weight wicky top and bottoms by Smartwool and down salopettes and jacket by Mountain Hardwear (I also have 2 x ½ litre wide mouth Nalgene water bottles inside my jacket). I wear Scarpa 8,000ers with 2 pairs of fresh smartwool socks (liner and mountain socks) and some TNF down mitts which are less bulky than the Rab ones. I also have a Terra Nova powerstretch balaclava and powerstretch gloves for when I need to take my mitts off. I wear Julbo Enak goggles and have a Petzl Myo XP torch. I carry a 50 litre rucksack with 2 oxygen cylinders, a litre of boiled water in a wide mouth nalgene water bottle in thermal liner, spare goggles, spare down mitts, spare gloves and a spare synthetic jacket as well as lipsalve, suncream, spare film etc. I also have a radio for BC, a walkie talkie for communicating with my clients and a medical pack with high altitude medication in it (indeed each team member carries their own supply and we are probably the only team who do this – having also practised drawing up injections etc at BC as well as discussing the pros and cons of various protocols and what medication is required for various high altitude related problems that we might encounter).

So I would recommend a similar system for other 8,000ers. For Ama Dablam you’ll get away with less layers (and probably won’t need down salopettes) but it can still get pretty chilly up there, especially if there is a wind.

Q: What about food and water?

A: One key issue is to drink P L E N T Y. If you become dehydrated you will not only suffer a marked decrease in your performance but you will also be more susceptible to the affects of altitude and be more prone to frostbite. It’s high enough that people often suffer with being put off their food – but you must get in to the habit of forcing yourself to eat and drink even if you can’t be bothered. When at Base Camp you should chill out, rest, eat, drink, eat, drink and rest some more.

To try and aid acclimatisation on Everest I started using cellfood which apparently increases the oxygen levels in your blood. It is made from totally natural substances and has no performance enhancing properties. I am uncertain whether it made a difference or not, but of the three in our group who summitted two of us were using it. Apart from this I managed to be totally drug free (apart from antibiotics).

Q: How long will it take?

A: For Everest you are looking at around an 8 week trip. For Cho Oyu you are looking at a 6 week trip and for Ama Dablam 4 weeks. You shouldn’t really try them in less time unless you are fresh off another big peak. Even then you have to be careful you don’t get re-emergence HAPE (from going back to altitude after a rest of a week to 10 days).

Q: What kind of weather conditions will I experience?

A: This depends upon which mountain you are doing and what time of year.

On Ama Dablam generally temperatures can drop to -10C to -20C at night at base camp but by day it usually quite pleasant. At ABC it can get to -20C to -25C at night and daytime temperatures can be anything from bitterly cold to baking hot in the sun. As you go further up the mountain it gets colder with summit daytime temperatures perhaps as low as -20C to -30C.

On Everest it is colder still.

Q: What about altitude sickness?

A: AMS can be a problem when going over 3,500m (although some folk start to suffer at 2,500m!). When you consider that the Base Camps are at 5,200m then you have to be very careful that you don’t get there too quickly (particularly on the North where you drive there).

One of the key things at altitude is to move s_l_o_w_l_y and to drink PLENTY. If you have a headache – taken Paracetamol. If it doesn’t go away – don’t go any higher, maybe have some more paracetamol (no more than 8 in 24 hours), chill out and drink fluids. If it still doesn’t go away then descend. Have a good old rest and then go back again – s_l_o_w_l_y.

Diamox is often used by people to kick start the acclimatisation and for some it works really well. But if you find yourself reaching for Dexamethasone or Nifedipine then I would say that you have overexerted yourself, overextended your stay and potentially have a BIG problem. It is definitely time to go down. In fact why didn’t you go down earlier?

Q: What about High Altitude Cerebral Oedema (HACEand High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE)?

A: These will both kill you. You have got to avoid them both at all costs. And that means listening to your body and being sensible on the mountain. You should carry Dexamethasone or Nifedipine with you just in case but they are to get you down not to get you up the mountain. If you have injectable dex then you need to protect it from freezing.

Q: What is the biggest problem most people face?

A: There are a few factors really. Staying healthy is difficult. Maintaining your enthusiasm is another difficulty and then making progress on the mountain when you feel like you are walking in treacle is just downright demoralising. Have a look at the article about why people fail on Everest and why people don’t summit Ama Dablam.

Q: Can I do it?

A: Ermm, maybe. It depends on which mountain you are planning to do and what your previous experience is. Lots of experience at altitude has got to be of benefit as well as total competence as a mountaineer.

Q: Anything else I should know?

A: Yes – consider the following top tips:

  • Elongate all your zippers and zip pulls so that you can use them with big mitts / gloves even when it’s windy
  • Take lots of AA lithium batteries as they are so much lighter and last so much longer than regular alkalis in cold temperatures.
  •  Down booties are a really nice luxury (if you have poor circulation then they are a necessity when higher up the mountain). I put duck tape on mine to protect the soles (good idea) and then nearly slid off down The North Col when I tramped around in them to go to the loo (bad idea). After that I slipped my big boot outers on over the top of them to go for loo breaks and this worked fine.
  • Practice putting your gear on and tweeking zips and Velcro tabs with big mitts on at home. If things become second nature then you’ll spend less time standing around and getting cold.
  • Computers and older style iPods don’t always work so well above 5,500m because of the drop in atmospheric pressure. Consider iTouch / iPhone and modern iPods if you’re taking music. Leave your laptop at Base Camp.
  • Take a lot of books and a few games because you’ll need to be able to occupy yourself for extended periods. If you are taking Scrabble then it’s worth taking a dictionary or the Scrabble word list book to prevent fisticuffs.
  • Multi vitamins are worth taking along so that even if you aren’t eating for a while at least you won’t be lowering your resistance to infections.
  • Take a pillow.
  • And a Thermarest inflatable cushion to sit on in the mess tent.
  • NAME EVERYTHING with marker pen to prevent temptation as you’ll be leaving heaps of stuff on the mountain.
  • Generally speaking a lot of the stuff sacs that come with down jackets, sleeping bags etc are all black which makes for confusing times when looking for specific items in your kitbag. Take LOADS of the exped stuffsacs (a variety of different sizes and colours) and label them with marker pen so you now what the contents are.
  • And whilst you are at it you may as well pop your name on them as well.
  • Get a Heatexchanger Balaclava by The North Face – it will protect your throat from the cold air when you are going up and down the mountain.
  • Take a goodie bag with a few luxury items that you know you’ll still want to eat even when you are at your lowest ebb. I’d go for savoury rather than sweet as you tend to go off chocolate after a while (impossible I hear you say but it’s true). We had gherkins, olives, cheese, pate, crunchy nut cornflakes, parmesan, liquorice allsorts etc etc for that bit of extra variety every so often.
  • Take a sponge to wash your bits.
  • And wetwipes to maintain some semblance of personal hygiene.
  • And anti bacterial hand gel to use after EVERY visit to the toilet so that you don’t pick up an infection and prevent spreading anything amongst the group.
  • And a small brush to make you feel human every so often.
  • And some cotton wool buds.
  • Take a pee bottle for higher up the mountain (you may want to use it lower down too) and make sure that you have practiced using one before using it for the first time in anger.
  • If you are taking a digital camera take plenty of memory and make sure you have a fresh card (and fresh battery) for summit day.
  • Take loads of non freezing(!) sunblock (or sleep with it in your bag at night. If it won’t squeeze out easily you won’t put enough of it on and you’ll burn real bad)
  • And lots of moisturizer and lipsalve (again with SPF).
  • And 2 pairs of goggles (Julbo Enak recommended as your main pair as they have Cat 4 lenses and a great field of view).
  • Also I would strongly advise that you carry a vial of Dexamethasone (providing you aren’t allergic to it) and a 2ml syringe in the event of getting (HACE – High Altitude Cerebral Oedema). This stuff saved a life when we were on Everest when one of the group collapsed at 8,600m – that’s higher than Kanchenjunga!! For it to be of any use you MUST make sure that it is in your jacket and defrosted for summit day (or any other time on the mountain) AND you must make sure that everyone (and I mean EVERYONE – and that includes the Climbing Sherpas) knows how to administer it. It would also be prudent to carry Nifedipine (for (HAPE – High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema) and perhaps Immodium just in case you have picked up a dose of something nasty. For all these drugs make sure that you are aware of the dosages, and contra indications and any potential side affects. And if you find yourself reaching for the Dex or Nifedipine this is not to assist you UP the mountain – it is time to go DOWN.

Also – don’t get too focused on the top because that’s when people start compromising their safety, and therefore the safety of those around them. One key factor is to have FUN. If you are with a group of people who don’t get on then even if you get to the top you won’t necessarily have fond memories of the trip. If you are with a great bunch of folk, and having a cool time, then the summit will just be the cherry on the icing on the cake.