This is one of the questions we regularly get from clients here at The Altitude Centre – and it’s not surprising. For many of you, your first trip to altitude brings you into uncharted territory. You hear from friends, tour operators, colleagues and previous travellers that you need to be prepared for the altitude, but often don’t get the advice you need… how to prepare!

Travelling to altitude is often a new concept for many, and it can be hard to get your head around what to expect, and what you can do to prepare. If this sounds like you, then this blog series is here to lend a hand!

We’ll be posting weekly blogs explaining the process of preparing, training and acclimatising for your high altitude trip – check out each week’s post for the next step in your training explained. Just watch this space!

First up, in this blog we’ll discuss the best way to kick it all off:

The Mountaineering Consultation

So why is this the best place to start?

You will have definitely heard the phrase ‘Knowledge is Power’ – and the same is true when applied to altitude.

First and foremost, the consultation will provide you, and us, with an insight into how your body responds physiologically to simulated altitude. We will also educate you on altitude, and all that is related – what can you expect from altitude, what you can do to help cope with the altitude, as well as recognising and managing the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (altitude sickness, or AMS for short). You’ll also get the chance to quiz your Performance Specialist on their own high altitude trips, and gain first hand insight into what to expect.

All of this is designed to help to increase your chances of reaching that all-important summit. Sounds pretty important, right!?

The all important health checks*

So to kick-start this, we begin with three health checks relating to altitude. These health checks are important to note before you start your training as they can help you to understand where you are at the time of testing, and what you may need to do to get mountain ready.

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Everything is a little different at altitude, and these measures of general health are important – they can all be affected when you’re at altitude, and can potentially limit your performance at altitude as well. An example of this is an increase in blood pressure at altitude; when blood oxygen is lower (as it is at altitude), your heart has to work that little bit harder to get the same amount of oxygen round to your muscles, and your blood is often a little thicker, which can result in an increase in blood pressure at altitude.

Next up, the part that you’ve likely been looking forward to most…

The altitude tolerance testing

Starting with an AMS test, we reduce the oxygen you breathe down to 13% (from 20.9% in ambient sea level air), simulating an altitude of over 3800 m. During this test, we’ll measure how far your blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) falls. This is the percentage of your red blood cells fully saturated with oxygen, which is generally 95-100% at sea level. When you travel to altitude, and during the testing, you are exposed to a reduction in the partial pressure of oxygen (ppO2), which means that it is likely that your SpO2 will be reduced.

Why do we measure this? Research shows that the lower your SpO2 during this specific test, the more likely you are to be feeling the ill effects of altitude. Measuring how far your SpO2 falls during the AMS test can therefore be indicative of how susceptible you may be to AMS. It gives us a good understanding of exactly how your body responds to the stimulus of altitude, and allows us to make plans for your preparation.

If you thought 3800 m was going to be a challenge, the next test will take you to the next level . The oxygen percentage is reduced to 11% (just over 50% of the O2 available to you at sea level), bringing the simulated altitude up to around 5100 m.

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This test follows a similar structure, but with an added measure. After you remove the mask, we’ll time how long your SpO2 takes to return to resting levels (>95%). Measuring this re-saturation is important to indicate how quickly your lungs can re-supply the blood with oxygen. On the mountain, the quicker your SpO2 rises (for example, when you pause for a break and stop walking; your muscles will extract less oxygen from the blood, causing SpO2 to rise), the quicker you’ll recover, and the better you’re going to feel.

Exercise Performance at altitude

The first two tolerance tests are completed passively, in order to isolate the variables – we can be sure that any physiological response you show during the test is due to the lower oxygen percentage, rather than other confounding factors such as exercise (during exercise, your muscles extract oxygen from the blood, causing SpO2 to fall further).

However, this final test is an optional extra – it’s your chance to see how you fare when we take that altitude that you’ve just been breathing at, and add some exercise in as well. You’ll be walking on the treadmill at a similar speed and incline to what you’ll be doing during your trek, whilst we measure your responses to 2700 m, 3800 m, and 5100 m, using similar methods to the first two tests. This part is also incredibly useful for you personally, to gauge what it’s like to walk at those altitudes, and measure how you feel.

Knowledge is power

As mentioned earlier on, the importance of education cannot be overstated. There is so much information available on the internet, that is difficult to decipher what is important, what is factual, and what really matters for you and your trek!

That’s why the next part of the consultation involves taking you through everything you need to know ahead of your trip when it comes to altitude. This includes gold standard advice about AMS (such as how to recognise, manage, and avoid the symptoms), as well as other important factors for your trek, such as hydration, nutrition & training. We’ll also take you through our five steps to success, and our own top tips from our own personal experience of high altitude summits as well. This is your chance to ask all the burning questions you may have, and discuss the most beneficial method of training for you.

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But don’t panic if you forget to ask us anything on the day – we’ll be in touch soon after to send your report through. This includes all the results from the testing, with detailed descriptions of what your results mean, and how you can improve them prior to your trek.

When should I take the consultation?

When you start planning the training for your high-altitude trip, this consultation is the go-to option – from here, we can come up with the best combination of altitude training tailored to your results, availability, and trip itinerary.

It’s useful to undertake this initial testing as soon as you decide you’re heading to altitude – so whether you’ve got an impending trek coming up, or are planning one in the distant future, get your consultation booked in!

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*The Altitude Centre is not a medical facility, and does not provide medical advice. If we highlight a result in your report relating to your health checks, we recommend consulting your GP for medical guidance.