One of the most frequently asked questions I get from new climbers eyeing Mount Rainier is about altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is one of those things that looms over most new climbers before their first big climbs. Rainier also happens to be many budding alpinists’ first big climb.
First thing’s first, short of trying to sleep in the crater, the average healthy individual should not get altitude sickness on a 14,000′ peak. However, many of us have heard stories about people getting sick at Camp Muir or maybe up on the Disappointment Cleaver. Maybe even some of us have actually been those sick people. Most climbers on Rainier are significantly more physically fit than the “average healthy individual”, so what’s up?
The question for today is, how are people getting sick, and how can it be prevented?
Eating and (not) drinking
The most common thing I hear from people who got sick during their climb is that they drank alcohol prior to heading up the mountain. Going off to a climb is kind of a celebratory thing, so it’s a pretty normal thing to do! Probably like going on a big hunt back in the day! Many folks fly from out of town leaving their friends and family behind. Even folks who live in the area my be trying to squeeze in that one last outing before going off the grid for a few days. I certainly fall into that boat myself.
I find that falling to altitude sickness after a few drinks during the preceding days to have been a particularly big one for me personally. Best case, my performance takes a hit. Worst case, like on my 2014 Antisana climb, I began lightly hallucinating at 5500m. The drinking does not really need to be substantial either, and it would certainly not be noticed if I were just to do a 5k workout instead. On the other hand, I drink a lot of water before the climb. My rule of thumb is that if my pee isn’t clear enough to drink (jkjk), I need more water.
When it comes to eating, the couple days before the climb I basically allow myself to eat the way I always want to but never let myself do. I usually go more carb and salt heavy rather than protein and fat heavy though. Last May, my baby half-sister was born the day before a planned Rainier climb. I spent a lot of the day and evening in the hospital and ended up not eating. I was totally toasted for the climb, and if it were my first time ever, I may have said I was “sick”.
Let’s just start with the assumption that we are all exercising in a reasonable manner that trains us for big climbs. I’m not going to try to drive home the importance of cardio, strength training, or anything like that.
“it doesn’t really matter what you did for 3 months before the climb, it matters what you did for 3 years before the climb”
What is important to talk about is when this exercise is being done. My favorite saying about training is from my buddy Phil Crampton (I think), that “it doesn’t really matter what you did for 3 months before the climb, it matters what you did for 3 years before the climb”. Phil is talking about climbing BIG peaks in this statement, but I believe the sentiment is still correct. I have run into plenty of people on hikes around the Seattle or Snoqualmie area prepping for Rainier. Get those hikes in early, not the week before. In fact, I personally back off on working out altogether the few days before a climb.
I’ve run into plenty of people on Mailbox Peak or Mount Si with huge backpacks and brand new La Sportiva boots telling me that there about to climb Baker or Rainier later that week. I’m always encouraging in person, but what I really want to tell them is to go home, relax, and eat.
Eating on the mountain
Eating on the mountain is a big deal. Our bodies are machines, and they need fuel. Getting the fuel into the machine can be a bit of a problem though. A lot of new mountain climbers, which may include seasoned rock climbers, get in their head that certain things will be good “power foods”. Nuts, jerkies, granola, Snickers bars. They sound logical enough, and Mountain Guides often recommend them!
I did that the first time I climbed a “real mountain”, and my body had a news flash for me. After a few hours of strenuous activity, the last thing it wanted to do was to break down a bunch of dried meat and nuts. It reminded me of my brief attempt at a long distance running career after college where my stomach would feel like letting loose after a couple of hours into a run. The difference in running is that you can stop and chill. You can’t really just stop in the middle of a climb and call a taxi home because your tummy feels bad.
The food that I find the absolute easiest to eat are the well studied power foods. Bonk Breaker bars are awesome. Honey Stinger Waffles are awesome on (and off) the mountain. I am a big fan of Gu products all around. I’ll usually have a few of their gels just for when my stomach really does not want to digest things.
Over time, I found that my body has somewhat adapted to be able to eat more hearty snacks during a climb. First it started with a bit of dried fruit, then cheeses, then dried meats. How did I know that my stomach was ready for it? Well, it started craving it. That just goes to show that if you want it, you should have it.
Take care of yourself, even if it sucks
Finally, take care of yourself, even if it totally sucks. So many people get so exhausted that they feel like they have no energy to take care of themselves. Don’t allow that to happen. Even if your will to dig through your pack for your Nalgene and bite of food is nil, do it anyways. Pop a caffeinated gel or block if you need to. Remember, it’s all in your mind.