Saturday, February 21, 2009


I reached a milestone of sorts this past Sunday morning, a personal best time hiking to the top of Camelback Mountain from the Echo Canyon trailhead: 24:27. (As a point of comparison, the best I could muster last year, just before the Chinese pulled the plug on all Everest expeditions planning to climb the mountain from the Tibet side, was 24:59.) Now I'm wondering just how much faster I can go. As it is, I have to run all of the traverses. I use my Sunday morning jaunt up Camelback as an unerringly honest gauge of how effective my training is. The mountain simply doesn't lie. A lower time means that my cardio-vascular workouts in combination with sleeping in my altitude tent are paying off. Yes, there are world-class athletes who could probably still kick my butt climbing Camelback, but I've said many times that you're in great shape if you can climb Camelback in as many minutes as your age. What does it mean that I can climb Camelback in less than half as many minutes as my age? I suppose I should feel ecstatic, but the reality is that I wonder if it's even close to being enough for a challenge as big as Everest. Yesterday, I climbed Camelback with my pack filled with over six gallons of water. The total pack weight was around 70-75 pounds. It took me an agonizing 55 minutes to reach the top. To save my knees on the way down, my plan was to dump the water out at the top, but not wanting it to go to waste I first offered it to anyone at the summit who wanted to top off their water bottles. A line of about two dozen people quickly formed, all thankful for the water, and all probably quite convinced that I was crazy. I look forward to Sunday morning, when I will once again see if I can lower my (unladed) personal best time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Flat Iron

For training this past weekend I climbed to the top of Flat Iron in the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. There is slightly more than a 3,000 foot elevation gain to the top, so with a purposefully heavy pack it was a good summit day simulation--or it would have been if I'd been breathing through a narrow straw and only one lung was functioning. I imagine that's what it will feel like to breathe on the summit ridge of Everest at 29,000 feet.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Cheyne-Stokes respiration and the Potala

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 49. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 14,500 feet. Today's training: 60 high-intensity minutes on the elliptical machine, 60 high-intensity minutes on the step climber, and four sets of 10 leg presses @ 400 pounds.

One of the many things that makes high-altitude mountaineering dangerous is Cheyne-Stokes respiration , an abnormal pattern of breathing characterized by oscillation of ventilation between apnea and tachypnea, to compensate for changing serum partial pressures of oxygen and carbon dioxide. The condition was named after John Cheyne and William Stokes, the physicians who first described it in the 19th century. This abnormal pattern of breathing, in which breathing is rapid for a period and then absent for a period, can be seen in patients with heart failure, strokes, traumatic brain injuries, and brain tumors. In some instances, it can occur in otherwise normal people during sleep at high altitudes. Maybe it's because I've had more than my fair share of traumatic brain injuries, concussions too numerous to catalog, but in this case I'm pretty sure the culprit is high altitude. Suffice it to say that I'm very familiar with Cheyne-Stokes respiration, because that's what I do when I ascend too rapidly on a mountain-climbing expedition. I got hit with it pretty bad last night, having adjusted the simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator from 12, 100 feet to 14,500 feet. I hardly slept at all. The physiology is complex, but the basic idea is that there are two ways in which the human brain regulates autonomic breathing. One, the more primitive version, makes us breathe when the partial pressure of oxygen is too low. The other, a more advanced, finely tuned adaptation, regulates our breathing as a function of the partial pressure of carbon dioxide. What happens at extreme altitude is that the body is fooled by the partial pressure of carbon dioxide into thinking that it has enough oxygen, which is decidedly not true, but you stop breathing anyway until the more primitive regulatory function--the one that works on the basis of whether there is enough oxygen--basically says "What the bleep?" What results is a disturbed pattern of breathing in which you stop breathing for a while, gasp for air, stop breathing again, gasp for more air, ad infinitum. The problem is that you typically wake yourself up every time you gasp for air, so when you finally get up after a fitful night's sleep, you feel completely exhausted. One of the benefits of my previous high-altitude mountaineering experience is that I've learned how my body responds to high altitude. That's why it is so essential for me to acclimatize with my hypoxic breathing generator well in advance of leaving for Everest. It's very rough every time I increase the altitude, but my body does get used to it, and by the end of the 8-day cycle I'm using to stage altitude increases, I'm sleeping reasonably well through the night and feeling more rested in the morning. Why go through all of this? I get to climb Everest! And on the way there I get to stop in Lhasa, Tibet and see the Potala, the palace of His Holiness the Dalai Lama before his exile 50 years ago.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Grand Design

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 52. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: 60 high-intensity minutes on the elliptical machine, 60 high-intensity minutes on the step climber, and four sets of 10 leg presses @ 400 pounds.

My expedition leader is Alex Abramov, a well-known and well-regarded Russian climber who's had good success leading expeditions on the Tibet side of Everest. I need to be in Kathmandu, Nepal to meet with him and the other members of the expedition on April 1, which will necessitate leaving Arizona no later than March 30. We plan to fly to Lhasa, Tibet on April 4 and then take 10-12 days making our way to Everest Base Camp, visiting lamaseries along the way and taking our time to get used to the altitude. After arriving at base camp in mid-April, we'll begin the arduous task of moving literally tons of supplies up the mountain, establishing the higher camps and fixing safety ropes along the more dangerous parts of the route. Most of that work will be done by Sherpa, and I fully intend to give credit where credit is due for their tireless, uncomplaining work in the excruciating conditions of high altitude mountaineering. I had the good fortune to climb the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, Aconcagua in Argentina, in the company of Lahkpa Rita Sherpa, who has reached the summit of Everest no less than 10 times! My chances of success on Everest are dramatically higher than they would be if I were to attempt the highest mountain in the world without the help of a personal high-altitude Sherpa.

High-altitutude mountaineering is all about acclimatization. Our plan involves several forays up the mountain. The first time we will go as high as Camp I on the North Col before retreating all the way back to Base Camp to rest and recover. The second time up the mountain we will attempt to reach Camp II and once again retreat back to Base Camp. The third time we will establish ourselves at Advanced Base Camp and wait for the weather forecast to predict a 72-hour window of decent climbing weather. We will then move higher up the mountain as the weather allows, ultimately positioning ourselves at Camp IV in anticipation of a summit bid. Timing is everything, because we'll be using supplemental oxygen at that point, with only a limited supply available, and we'll be in the so-called Death Zone. Even with supplemental oxygen, the human body, no matter how well acclimatized, just isn't meant to function or even survive at extreme altitudes. Once you are above 26,000 feet, your body is dying, growing weaker and weaker with every passing moment, so if you are to climb Everest you must do so as quickly as possible and then retreat to the relative safety of lower altitudes. There's a reason there are no permanent human settlements higher than 14,000 to 16,000 feet. Our summit bid will be launched from Camp IV, probably around midnight, with the expectation that we will reach the summit by mid-morning. The most challenging part of the route will be the notorious Second Step, a nearly vertical rock face about half-way along the summit ridge. In the 1970s a Chinese climbing team placed an aluminum ladder at the Second Step, significantly simplifying the ascent from a technical standpoint, but even with the ladder in place the Second Step is a huge obstacle to overcome. Imagine climbing a ladder with only a third of the oxygen available at sea level and the consequences of a fall being near certain death. Wait a minute! Why am I doing this?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Moby Dick

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 53. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: two trips to the top of Camelback Mountain, a total elevation gain of over 2,400 feet. The first time up I was carrying a pack containing a six gallon plastic jug filled with water. I offered the water to other hikers who needed water and then poured out the rest to save my knees on the descent. The second time up I only filled the jug about a third full. I'm exhausted!

How do I respond when friends and family ask why I would climb a particular mountain? Everest pioneer George Mallory already took the now-famous best answer, "Because it's there," so I've had to look elsewhere for my inspiration. Here's a bit of wisdom from Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, filled with peace and joy, but encompassed by all of the horrors of the half-lived life." Climbing big mountains for me is just one more part of drinking as deeply as possible from the cup of life. It's just one of many things about which I'm passionate. The thing is, greater climbers than I--of which there are many--might be able to reach the fabled Seven Summits and descend safely with half-lived lives, for perhaps they are capable of that and so much more, but for me it will take absolutely everything I've got, and so in a very real sense climbing big mountains like Everest is just another part of my ongoing personal quest to turn my attention away from all of the horrors of the half-lived life and enjoy the tropical island paradise of the soul Melville describes.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 54. Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet. Today's training: 60 minutes at level 18 on the elliptical machine. It took me four minutes to get my heart rate up to 153 beats per minute, which is 90% of my theoretical maximum. I sustained 153-161 beats per minute for the remaining 56 minutes. Then I spent another hour doing aerobic training on the step climber. The aerobic mode allows me to push my heart rate to at least 90% of my theoretical maximum and then recover slightly before pushing it back to 90%. It's all about increasing my VO2 max, anaerobic threshold, and lactic acid threshold. I doubt very much if there has ever been a climber gasping for breath on the summit ridge of Everest at 29,000 feet who thought to himself, "You know, I think I overdid it on the training."

This was me on the summit of Elbrus in Russia at 29 degrees below zero in gale-force winds, displaying that superior power of misery which distinguishes the human being and places him or her at a proud distance from the most melancholy chimpanzee. Elbrus in Europe was the third mountain after Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua in South America on my quest to reach the highest point on each continent, the fabled Seven Summits.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"What?!? Are you crazy?!?"

Days remaining before I leave warm and sunny Arizona for the Himalayas: 55
Simulated altitude at which I am sleeping with my hypoxic generator: 12,100 feet

Everest here I come, but first I’ve got some explaining to do, so this is an open invitation—I’m begging really—for help from my fellow mountaineers. Please share your thoughts and feelings about what compels you to climb big mountains. You see, I’ve noticed something about high-altitude mountaineering. As long as I keep my plans to myself, I can remain blissfully deluded that I’m a veritable model of sanity, the sensible sort of man you can rely on to make rational decisions about what to do with his time, talents, and resources, but the moment I begin to articulate my mountain climbing ambitions out loud or in writing to friends and family, typical responses make it seem like I can keep whole teams of psychiatrists busy for years. Why do we do it? I know it all makes sense to my fellow climbers on big mountain-climbing expeditions, asylums for people who think this kind of thing is fun, but how am I supposed to explain to everyone else what is so appealing about spending the equivalent of the gross national product of several third world countries on technical climbing gear just so that I can voluntarily expose myself to howling gale-force winds, absurdly frigid temperatures, white-out blizzard conditions, and excruciating levels of physical and psychological fatigue, not to mention the very real possibility of dismemberment, disability, or death from falls, frostbite, hypothermia, AMS, HAPE, and HACE? Do you know what happens when a contemporaneous webcast of a big guided expedition reports that you had a brush with HACE almost 23,000 feet up in the high Andes? I do. Your friends and family Google “HACE” and freak out. It’s not enough that I’ve already put them through Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Denali, Carstensz, and Kosciuszko on my quest to reach the highest point on each continent. Now I’ve set my sights on Everest. Isn’t there a 12-step program for this? It’s sort of like what I’ve heard about flying from fellow pilots. It’s a disease for which there is no cure, only treatment. So, dear friends and family, this is me getting ready to check into yet another mountaineering rehab facility. This one is called Everest.