Take your time! High altitude hiking

Over the years, I have heard many tips and theories about preparation for high altitude. I have heard as well many misconceptions about the topic. Before I was lucky to get advice form experienced mountaineers I had experience the consequences of not doing it the right way. I can say now, I learned about the altitude the hard way.

The first ‘real’ high altitude holiday was in Iran in 2016. Our aim was to climb Mt Damavand. The highest peak in Middle East, the highest volcano in Asia, trekkable 5671masl. In the first year (yes, there was year two) we followed advice of taking it easy and slowly and we will be OK. I had strong doubts about this method, but as it was advice of our guide for the climb, we took it. Small disclaimer here: as we live at the sea level, every time we start acclimatization, we start practically from zero.

For the start we spent few days in Tehran, which is at 1148masl at average. Afterwards we traveled to the start of the trek at 3020masl. After leaving our luggage with porters, we started walking up the mountains. Slowly. Very slowly even. And as the walk progressed, we got even slower. We took many breaks, to help acclimatization, or maybe to keep us alive, not too sure now. Somehow we made to the base camp at 4200masl. Considering how sick I felt, I still think it was a small miracle, or maybe it was my stubbornness. Following two days we spent crawling around base camp, forcing ourselves to eat, taking very strong pain killers to stop headache, tossing and turning on rock hard beds for long sleepless nights. I was too disappointed to even feel sorry for myself. And I was so jealous of all the people, who made it to the summit. I seemed not to notice all of those, who were too sick to move anywhere. I did not make it, this was the most important thing, the source of bitter taste in my mouth. On the way down to the lowlands with air full of oxygen, I made an announcement, that we are coming the following year. I had this impression that none believed me.

In July 2017 we traveled to Almaty in Kazakhstan to start our preparation. Our destination were Tian Shan mountains. After few days at a camp at 2200masl and a hike to 3000masl we moved higher into the mountains. We flew by helicopter to a one of the base camps for Khan Tengri peak. The camp was at 4200 masl, surrounded by high peaks. First two days were brutal. Headaches, stomach upset, overwhelming tiredness. Still staying at 4200 was much easier this time, the gradual preparation already paying off. Day three was easy, unfortunately the following morning we were leaving.

Next two days we stayed at lower altitude in Almaty (850masl) and Tehran (1148masl). On spare day before traveling to Mt Damavand we walked to the top of Koloon Bastak (4156masl). An easy, very enjoyable, very relaxed day.

Next three days we were walking to and from Mt Damavand. Yes, we made to the top, yes it was hard, but it was a totally different experience than the previous year. In 2016 walk from starting point (3020masl) to base camp (4200masl) took us 8 hours. Moving from base floor to first floor of the shelter was causing huge headache and heart palpitation. In 2017 I was flying between the floors, wondering what was the problem? But the biggest difference was the walk up to the base camp. In 2017 we took our time too, talking, taking photos etc. and reaching the shelter in less than …. 3 hours. This very fact sent a powerful message to me. A stroll in the park compering to a zombie walk. What would you rather experience?

In our memories Mt Damavand is the mountain number one. Not only because it was the first we attempt to climb, but because it was an important learning curve. It was an experience which made us the hill walkers we are now. Does not matter how small, or big the mountains are, they still require planing and preparation. They require TIME.

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