Wednesday, October 16, 2013

High-Altitude Alpine Mountaineering

cramponing exercise (Nepal 2003)
  (repost from old blog)

Alpine Mountaineering! This is going beyond the greenery of Philippine tropical paradise, and a step beyond our known mountain limits. This sport has attracted a few Filipinos who wanted to raise their bar of mountaineering by a few notches. Or, who all wanted something different, or something more…

Alpine mountaineering, as the name suggests, is a climb in an alpine environment. A climber would normally see majestic snow-capped mountains, picture-perfect sunrise and sunsets, unique wildlife, and of course, stunning views from the summits! It’s nothing like the beautiful mountains of Philippines, where one would normally see greens and blues. Alpine mountaineering offers a whole new experience, a different mountain flavor, an alien world of climbing.

But of course, in this environment, one would experience freezing temperature, cold-biting wind, wet snow and slippery ice, dangerous glacier, and unforgiving blizzard. The key challenges are surviving thin air (at high altitudes) and wintery condition, while cranking your way up the summit.

Climbing at high altitudes (say beyond 12,000ft) has its own set of awe, as well as challenges. Few living things can survive beyond 20,000ft, a good number can survive and thrive between 12 to 20,000ft. But don’t expect lush forest and leafy greens, nor herds and herds of grazing animals. Other than the beauty of the quiet peaks of rock and snow, a lucky traveler may find him/herself catching a glimpse of the unique wildlife say a Himalayan Thar (goat), Deer, wild Yaks, even Leopards or, simply be amazed by the thick shrubs that can survive the punishing winter wind.

The primary challenge of high-altitude mountaineering is thin air. AMS, or Acute Mountain Sickness had caused several hundreds of deaths in the mountains. The human body is designed to live in “thick air”/ rich O2 environment. At higher altitudes, air pressure decreases and hence the O2 intake (say at ~18,000ft, we only breathe 50% air). At around 26,000ft+, there’s almost only 1/3rd of normal air – the border for human survival.

The body has to adjust to this change by producing more O2-carrying fluids (among other things). If the body fails to acclimatize properly, physiological process is disrupted causing HACE (High-altitude Cerebral Edema), or HAPE (High-altitude Pulmonary Edema) - -i.e., excess fluids in lungs or skull. Both severe forms of AMS could lead to death. Many climbers have aborted climbs (the only cure and option) due to AMS. Obviously, this 'thin air' is the first challenge that must be hurdled by climbers.

There are proper ways of acclimatizing - generally, a climb of 1000ft altitude gain per day, with rest days every 3000-ft altitude gain are generally helpful ways for the body to adjust properly. A faster ascent rate would mean risk of acquiring AMS, and a risk of spoiling that much talked-about vacation plan.

Climbing at high altitudes also means labored breathing and hard cardiovascular activity, as one can only breathe meager quantities of oxygen. Even a well-acclimatized person will find it hard to sustain long up-hill climbs.

Personal Gears, Tools and Weaponries

(I posted a Gear Guide specifically for 8000m peaks here.
Another post on shoes/boots here).

To survive cold weather, you’d need tons of clothing. Although normally, a few thermals, 2 fleece jackets of varying thickness, 1 Down-filled jacket (filling made of goose down), and a shell jacket (waterproof and breathable, ex. Goretex) are enough to survive sub-zero temperature. Of course a temp of -20C and below will require you to have better rated Down jacket with Shell. I can normally survive a -10C with a thermal, a 2 fleece-layer and shell while trekking, and a Down jacket when camped. If it gets really cold, say a very early morning summit ascent, I normally put on my fleece and Down and Shell for trekking (- -expect to steam out a lot as the temperature gets warmer, though). The key word is ‘layering’. It’s easier to adjust to varying temperature (warmer when trekking up-hills, colder at stops and relatively easier downhill trails) with easily removable layers of clothing compared to, a thick -10C rated Down-jacket, for example.

Trouser is easier, a Shell, a fleece, probably a thermal undy. Trekking with just light trekking pants and even with shell at zero-C is not uncomfortable. I just wore fleece plants at camp. Well, unless you’re expecting below -10C.

Sleeping bag! Can’t leave (and live) without it. Die if you lose it. Down-fill of course, rating could be -5C to -25C depending on where you plan to go. 8000m peaks or a trip in Alaska or Antarctica will obviously necessitate -40C rated bags.

The whole array of safety device is similar to rock climbing: seat harness, karabiners, slings, ropes, ascenders, prussic, etc. In addition, snow and ice hardware items are used, such ice screws (for bolting anchors in ice), snow stakes. Trekking aids such as general-purpose ice axe, or ski poles are at time indispensable. The so-called ‘technical’ ice axe is normally shorter, lighter in weight and has a slightly different curve and minor features that would cater an ice climber (the one normally used for climbing vertical ice-walls). But a mid-sized straight-shaft design would normally suffice a general mountaineering activity.

Plastic boots are indispensable for prolonged walk on snow. This is a very sturdy piece of gear, provides very good insulation as you are wearing ‘inside boots’, crampon-compatible, but cumbersome to use as it’s heavy and rigid. Well, we don’t want frostbites, so heavy or not, it’s a must have. For extreme weather challenges typical of 8000m peaks, a triple layer system such as Millet Everest and One Sport would be highly recommended.

Crampons are also indispensable especially on icy or iced terrain. You will need the ‘claws’ to grip for your dear life. And of course, it’s a must for ice climbing as you will rely heavily on the front points for foothold.

The Question of Technical Climbing

Not all tall peaks are “technical”. There are many big mountains that do not require complex technical procedure to climb. I climbed Kilimanjaro (19,300ft) in Africa with a mere old hiking boots, few layers of winter clothing, a weak and sick body, a sprained but hopeful soul. No ropes, no crampons, no rock scrambling, just pure walk. Mt Aconcagua at ~23,000ft (highest in South America), is almost purely non-technical as you would also need to walk your way up the summit (with the exception of the last ridge section – the Canaleta, which required crampons. Even some really huge mountains (the 8000-meter peak family, those beyond 26,000ft), like Cho Oyu in Nepal – 6th highest mountain, is friendly enough to allow a walk-in approach with a little vertical section (called the yellow band) where climbing skills and gears will be put to good use. Of course one would need to cling on fixed lines for safety, but at least it doesn’t require super technical skills and upper-body climbing endurance.

Ice climbing is a totally different. It’s like “rock climbing” on ice. Obviously, both rock and ice climbing are technical sports, requiring special climbing skills/endurance and safety or aid tools. Some people have mistaken that alpine mountaineering equals ice climbing. Well, some gears are probably common, and some alpine mountains have some tough section that may require a bit of ice climbing, but generally these are very different discipline. As an analogy, hiking and climbing a mountain (say Mt Banahaw, or Apo) is a totally different discipline from rock climbing (say climbing the rock walls of Montalban. To add further sub-classification, rock climbing is also different from ‘sports climbing’ / wall climbing, the one that you normally see in Power Up gym. Sports climbing have event competitions on speed or difficulty among other varieties. On the other hand, rock climbing would require one to have very good skills on anchoring, rope use and general safety, more than just the actual climb activity.

Not all mountaineers do ice or rock climbing, and vice versa; I know a few rock climbers who actually hated climbing mountains.

Most snow-and-ice environment may require “semi-technical” skills and tools. Probably the minimum is the use of crampons (normally with plastic boots) and ice axe, and likewise, the proper use of rope system for protection (usually on highly crevassed site, or dangerous ridge). Some peaks are “semi-technical” in nature, in the sense that, it will require some skills and gears (rope-works, safety procedures, extra gears), but not so much to have a need to sweat out climbing vertical for days and days on end. Everest is a good example of a semi-technical peak requiring a lot of safety procedure (ex, the trek thru the treacherous Khumbu Ice fall), and some minimal vertical climbing (ex. 40-ft vertical climb of Hillary step, and some parts of the Lhotse wall).

The question of going technical then depends on the climber’s interest, and so much on the requirement of the peak that he/she is planning to summit. Unless you plan to climb K2 (2nd highest), or Trango Tower, or a peak like Ama Dablam, you probably would not need to invest a lot of time and effort in vertical climbing. You can actually climb a relatively shorter technical peak on fixed ropes (ex. Ama Dablam in Nepal). Some outfitters actually offer a climbing trip on a technically challenging peak but using this procedure. Of course that would still require you to have the necessary skills and endurance (ex. use of ascender, how to rope-transfer)- -except that the harder and more dangerous task, of ‘leading’ a climb (putting anchors and ropes), is done by a professional guide. Succeeding climbers simply use the ‘fixed’/anchored rope, for climbing or for protection-only using a rope-ascending device like jumar.

Where to Climb

To go higher? Or to go technical? Should I climb the highest peak of a continent? Should I aim for an 8000m peak mountain?

Climbing has its start- interest, personal challenge, whatever. Overtime, one will probably develop a personal goal. Most will probably just “try” once or twice, then the interest will wear off, then with other personal interest or life challenges, may force one to abandon the glorious out-of-the-country outdoor life. A few will pursue, and will have this Great Grand Plan!

Deciding on where to go could be difficult without this ‘grand plan’. Whereas a plan-path can be easily and neatly laid out if you know the end in mind. An Everest attempt will probably ‘dictate’ you to climb several ‘test’ peaks of 15-20,000ft, then, a course on technical alpine climbing to primarily develop skills on safety, and a bit of vertical climbing, then higher altitudes from 20-25,000ft, and if all went well, the final attempt to climb Everest. This will probably cover a period of 3-4 years.

A plan of climbing Alaska’s Denali (20,320ft), for example, may cut the ‘Everest program’ by more than half and could probably be accomplished by climbing 3-4 preparatory peaks (ranging from 14,000 to 18,000ft), finishing an alpine mountaineering course, a sturdy body, and a lot of luck.

Some brief guide-tips in deciding where to climb;
1. Gaining Altitude. Summit objective between 10,000 and 20,000ft is easier to plan, as you can go almost anywhere in the world to find a good mountain. Most people choose to climb the popular summits as ‘preparatory’ climb. Examples are +18,000-ft Mt Elbrus, highest in Europe, and +19,000-ft Mt Kilimanjaro, highest in Africa. Others would choose to visit Nepal to climb an 18-21,000-ft peak (relatively easy peak but are actually higher than most mountains outside Asia).  A climber would probably shy away from peaks of the same altitude range but with a more extreme condition (Ex. Vinzon Massif of Antarctica, or technical Mt Cook in NZ)

2. Gaining alpine skills. Some outfitters and training institution offer technical training on moderately high peaks. This is a two-fold program, learn, and then use what was learned in an actual climb. Examples are Month Blanc in France, or other areas of the Alps, or a low-altitude peak in New Zealand (ex. Mt Aspiring), the Cascades in the US (I heard from my guides in Seattle) and even some trekking peaks in Nepal.

3. Steep, vertical and dangerous. This could be the likes of Carstensz Pyramid (Papua), Mt Cook in NZ, I believe some 14,000ers in the US, Trango Towers in Pakistan, Eiger (Switz) among many others. Big wall climbing is like an advanced form of rock/ice climbing, where the walls are larger and a lot of rope pitches. Obviously, experience investment would be multi-pitch vertical climbing, may be even mixed routes (ice/rock), and sometimes with added challenge of high altitude. Aspiring K2 climbers would fall in this category.

4. More altitude. There are few mountains outside Asia that are above 20,000 ft. Examples are Alaska’s Mt Denali at 20,320ft (highest of North America), some mountains of the Andes range (Mt Aconcagua at 23,000 – highest of South America, others). Of course the entire range of Himalayas in Asia will offer more choices- - from the western part (Karakoram range of Pakistan), to the east (Nepal mountain ranges), and even southern-most part (Hindukush range, and Bhutan).

5. Really big mountains. Talk about 8000m peaks (>26,000ft)! Think Himalaya! Nepal, Pakistan, and Tibet! Huge mountains are not uncommon in these countries. Climbing these mountains is a serious undertaking. Most aspiring 8000m mountaineers will probably tackle Cho Oyu first, before any other 8000m peaks. Shishapangma (Tibet) is also a popular ‘first-8000m’ peak. Lately, Manaslu (Nepal) is being offered as another alternative. As a tip - It pays to have an 8000m experience prior to climbing Mt Everest.

What’s Next

Climb a mountain, what else?! Taking climbing to the next level would mean, getting your passport renewed, getting whatever visa you’d need, spending a fortune for the airfare, and simply sweating your way up that big hill.

The Philippines has so many superb places to visit, but unfortunately a limited array of mountains to climb. Our highest is only 10,300ft (Mt Apo). We don’t even have a local opportunity to walk on snow, unlike Japan or Korea, or New Zealand, which all have small mountains but at least offered some interesting hikes and climbs on snow. To go higher, or to go wilder, we have to leave our comfort zone, to say our temporary good-byes to Mt Kanlaon, Halcon, Dulang Dulang, Guiting-Guiting, Banahaw, Mayon among many others, and visit remote places to have a taste of the great outdoors, a place beyond our tropical realm.

Stick to one tip - - “Just climb it”!

No comments: