California Institute of Technology


Mountaineering Tips

This page was created for the trip to Mt. Whitney in February 2007, but much of the material applies to general purpose mountaineering.

Before the trip

Common sense applies: get plenty of sleep, don't tire yourself out too much the day before. For the two weeks prior, practice hiking with a full backpack and use your boots. If you have a caffeine habit, I recommend either stopping the habit a week or more before the trip, or else taking caffeine along on the trip. Just a bit of caffeine (half a caffeine pill or some black tea or chocolate-covered coffee beens) will help prevent caffeine headaches.

Food and gear

For food, take a lot of high-calorie stuff. Many people have reduced appetite at altitude. Food is the most-efficient way to stay warm; taking the time and fuel to boil a cup of tea is less effective than a tasty slice of brie cheese. During the day, you might want to have many small, light snacks. These are more easily digestible than heavy meals, and it's warmer to eat lunch over several brief stops rather than getting cold and eating a large meal all at once. Small snacks low in fat might help with altitude sickness. In fact, Houston reports that AMS is greatly reduced if you eat a diet of zero-fat; however, in practice, Houston says it is impractical to have such a diet, as even a small amount of fat reduces the effect. In winter, fatty food before bedtime will help keep you warm.

In the morning, it is quickest if you have food that does not require cooking. This is contrary to what many backpackers do, but since we'll be waking up at 3 AM or so, it's better to have the extra sleep rather than waiting for water to boil.

Dried fruit makes great snacks. I recommend the dried mangos and dried pineapple at Lake Produce Center (752 N. Lake Ave).

If you wear contacts, you should be OK at high altitude, although expect very dry air. Contacts are nicer than glasses because you can easily wear sunglasses and goggles. If you wear glasses, you need either a good UV coating or attachable shades (or preferably both).

For large group trips, or for technical climbs (i.e. with belayed pitches), the good-old "dress in layers" does not exactly apply. A large group can't stop everytime one person needs to take off or put on a layer. It isn't unreasonable to make some stops as a group, but you can't expect the timing of the group's stops to coincide perfectly with your need for a stop.

The generally accepted replacement for "dress in layers" is to use a warm down jacket that you only wear when you're not moving. Underneath the jacket you wear only a few layers, few enough that you won't sweat heavily after 20 minutes of hard hiking or climbing. This might mean that you're a bit cold when you first start hiking. When you stop for any reason (or when you belay), you wear the down jacket. This system is best for technical climbing, when you have long periods of belaying followed by intense periods of climbing (in cold temperatures, many climbers lead in blocks to minimize this effect). For hiking in groups, you don't need to follow this system as rigidly, but it's something to keep in mind.

Altitude

Mt. Whitney is over 14,000', which means that for most people, some mild symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) are likely, while High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) and High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) are possible, although unlikely. AMS by itself is usually not a concern, although it may cause discomfort.

AMS

What is AMS? AMS is part of a spectrum of illness, with HACE at the extreme end (HAPE and HACE often coincide, but are not caused by the same mechanism). AMS usually refers to the mild spectrum of AMS/HACE. Here is a table of common symptoms of AMS (taken from [Houston]):

Symptom/Sign Frequency of occurrence in AMS sufferer
Mild Headache54%
Easy Fatigue28%
Shortness of Breath21%
Dizziness21%
Loss of Appetite11%
Sleep Disturbance10%
Severe Headache8%
Vomiting3%
Retinal Hemmorhagesvery rare

In the table, the percentages are how likely someone with AMS will experience that particular sign or symptom; it does not mean that is the likelihood that an average person at altitude will experience that sign or symptom. Most of the signs and symptoms are not serious (of course, dizziness and fatigue affect your climbing), and normal medication can be taken (Houston says ibuprofen is a bit more affective that aspirin for altitude headaches).

Treatment

For most AMS, there's not much to do other than take something for the headache. Resting, hydrating and slow ascent rates help prevent and reduce AMS. Of course acclimitizing will help alleviate AMS, but this is often impractical on weekend trips to the Sierras. The drug Acetazolamide (aka Diamox) will help with AMS, but it requires a prescription. Houston suggests taking 125 mg once a day before bed; larger doses (such as 250 mg twice a day) are often recommended, but Houston's opinion is that those doses are only necessary if the lower dose fails to work. Diamox is a diuretic and a strong medicine; some people report strong, vivid dreams at night and numbness in the lips, and it also makes carbonated beverages taste weird. Houston suggests that most of these side effects (most importantly, the diuretic effect) are not as important at the lower 125 mg/day dose.

Dexamethasone (aka Decadron) is a steroid that is also preventative, but not recommended as often as Diamox. As of the late 90s, only Diamox was FDA approved expressly for the treatment of altitude sickness, although your doctor may prescribe Dex.

Nifedipine (aka Adalat, Procardia) is used as a treatment for HAPE. You do not want to take it unless you are seriously ill with HAPE. Nitric Oxide has been used as a treatment for HAPE, but is not practical in our situation. Nitroglycerine tablets under the tongue have been used before for treatment of HAPE, but are no longer recommended. Ammonium Chloride to acidify the blood (and allow you to hyperventilate) hadn't been studied much when Houston's book was published. Sildenafil (aka Viagra) has been used before; Houston doesn't mention it in his text; it is similar to nifedipine but more potent. Here's a Los Angeles Times article on sildenafil.

People at higher risk for AMS

If you fall into any of the following categories, it does not mean you will have worse AMS symptoms than the average pereson, but it does mean that you might want to do some research and perhaps contact your doctor before venturing to high altitudes (especially if you haven't been to high altitudes before).

  • People with upper resipiratory track infection
  • Women on the contraceptive pill
  • People with migraine
  • People with glaucoma
  • People with high blood pressure
  • People with heart disease
  • People with sickle cell trait or thalessemia
  • People on tricyclic antidepressants
  • Diabetics
Again, if you are in one of the above categories, it is not necessarily a contraindication to high altitude, but you might want to do some research.

Sources

Going Higher: Oxygen, Man, and Mountains, Charles Houston, M.D., 4th ed., 1998, The Mountaineers.