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Going higher: altitude, breathing and success

I was counting my steps as I went higher towards the 5000 metre Goeche-La Himalayan pass. I wasn’t walking that slowly but I found after 100 paces I had to stop. OK then, I would count 100 paces then rest and then keep going. After a short while I was down to 80 paces, then 60 before I had to rest. I wasn’t breathing that hard- altitude isn’t like that- your WHOLE body is starving for oxygen (even at this relatively ‘low’ altitude people feel it) but you just CAN’T go any faster- a leaden feeling in the legs is just as debilitating as the feeling of being puffed out. Your body knows there is enough air- so you’re not panting like a dog or someone who’s been holding their breath- what it doesn’t ‘know’, at first, is that this air is different and only has a third as much oxygen as usual. So it keeps on breathing as normal but registers the difference as headaches, nausea, odd body pains, yawning, increased flatulence- general system upsets. Over a few days the body (which is even dumber than the emotions) finally ‘get’s it’. The body’s systems realign. Your guts calm down. The lungs start breathing more deeply allowing the heart to stop beating so fast. More red blood cells are produced. It is this highly subtle interplay between heart, lungs, digestive and excretory systems that makes altitude such a hard one for modern medicine to pin down. Sometimes super fit young people are poleaxed by altitude while old unfit smokers have no problem. But if you look at the thing from a more general viewpoint certain things emerge:

Overweight people have a harder time than thin people

Fit people with mountain experience do better than fit people without mountain experience.

People with big packs do worse than people with no pack.

But the two key features of doing well at altitude are behavioural: don’t be a hero, and, act like a tortoise rather than a hare.

We all know the heroes on the hills; they carry massive rucksacks, often with other people’s gear in them too, just to show how strong they are. They do unnecessary excursions, wear heavy boots and crampons on flat snow and run downhill when they can. The heroes are often among the first victims of altitude sickness.

Heroes are also temperamentally unsuited to being a tortoise. It’s far more glamorous to being haring off ahead (and then getting that sneaky rest while the others catch up)- then haring off again. But as I was to find- the periods of haring get shorter and shorter- until you are resting as much as you are climbing or ascending.

Moving at altitude is fundamentally different to operating at sea level- you don’t recover quickly. You can’t have a quick rest and be good as new. You’re depleted every time you have to rest and won’t recover until the next day or even later. You have to be sly and cunning, husband ALL your resources and never waste any energy. And you have to be  tortoise.

Being a tortoise doesn’t mean you have to be super slow- though you may be. It simply means a 100% change in the way you approach moving at altitude. Forget pace, distance, time- forget all that usually motivates you in walking and running and think SOLELY of breath. The tortoise goes exactly as fast as he can without needing to stop, without his breath rate rising and his pain rate rising so much that he has to stop. You have to feel that the rate you are walking at you can carry on forever. In addition, when you get to a flat or downhill bit you have to resist the urge to hurry up, instead, you must act like someone who has switched out of gear on a hill, freewheeling to the bottom- going at a similar speed to other downhill drivers but not using any energy to go faster just because you can. Instead of wasting that downhill energy by running on ahead, maintain an only slightly increased pace and save energy.

I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about being ‘sly with the river’- how you have to use every advantage you have when ascending a fast river. The same is true about moving at altitude- carry the lightest pack you can, or better- a bum bag or no pack at all. Forget lugging tons of water- hydrate heavily at the start and end of each day. Leave the extra lenses behind. Don’t wear monster boots, use approach shoes. Some altitude experts use cleated shoes even on glaciers, waiting until the last possible moment to switch into big boots and crampons- remember Nanda Devi (2nd highest mountain in India, 23rd highest peak in the world) was climbed without crampons because the bag containing them was lost. The sly ones, who may look like speed merchants, carry less weight and save all the energy they can.

But the main thing, for a beginner like me, was learning the ‘tortoise pace’, learning to key everything into whether I thought I could continue forever at this pace or not. And slowing down even to a crawl the minute I felt my breathing and heart rate soaring- say on the very steep bits.

As I approached the pass I still hadn’t learned. I was resting and resting more and more often. But when I arrived the guide had some bad news- the real pass was about a half kilometre further ahead- down 200 metres, up another 300, down 200 more and up another 400. I was crushed, but when the guide suggested I wait here until the party returned some inner pigheadedness rebelled. Bugger it- I was going to get to 5000 metres like everyone else.

This time I fixated solely on breathing rate. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop and rest and I knew by now that those who kept going without rests always overtook the ‘resters’ sooner or later. I didn’t need to worry how slowly I was going as long as I never stopped. And sure enough, as the final pass emerged, I was right behind the guide- who had been stopping with the front runner (who needed rests).

In that final ascent I ‘pushed myself’ in the sense that I could feel my legs getting a muscle burn- but that didn’t matter as long as I maintained the breathing rate. The breath rate – as many meditation systems proclaim – is the key to the whole thing.

Days after this Himalayan excursion to a Sikkim pass, I read of a fascinating character in a book entitled Running for their Lives recommended by my good friend Ramsay Wood. Arthur Newton was an Englishman living in South Africa in the 1920s when he decided to take up distance running at the age of 40. Four years later he was the holder of every amateur running record from 29 miles to 100 miles. Mere marathons were too short for him. Newton’s secret was that he was tortoise. His average speed was often 7mph- which is why a marathon was too short for him- but not many people can keep up 7mph for 13 hours without a single break. Newton’s whole training method revolved around forgetting the opposition, forgetting speed and simply aiming for a pace that he could maintain hour after hour without a break. A pace that would enable him to climb any hill without stopping and walking, because in a very long race it is the breaks that ruin your overall time.

Newton smashed all the distance records of his time by approaching running from a completely different perspective. Instead of treating a long race as an extension of a short race he treated it as a completely different beast, one that required energy saving as a key factor. Just as formula one drivers must worry as much about fuel and tyres as overtaking- unlike a drag racer- so, too, Newton realised that maintaining pace, as long as it was the right pace, was way more important for conserving energy. And energy conservation- which is repaid as second, third and fourth 'winds' is more useful than speed the longer you go for, the higher you attempt to climb.

If you want to go higher or further then the message is simple: treat the enterprise as one of energy conservation, slyness, maintaining your breath rate as much as one of power, determination and fitness. Ask yourself of any enterprise; how can I structure this so that I can keep going forever? It may reveal some surprising answers. 


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