Climbing the Seven Summits shot to the top of my bucket list a few years ago after reaching the top of Kilimanjaro. There is no feeling in the world quite like reaching the peak of a massive mountain after spending days or weeks pushing your physical and mental limits to reach the top! After two years of scheduling to climb Aconcagua and then the trip getting postponed due to the pandemic, this December it was finally booked. There are several routes up to the highest peak in the Americas that typically last around 21 days, but due to limited time off work I selected going on the fastest option which is a12 day route. To reduce the climbing time that significantly requires doing altitude training from home ahead of the expedition to minimize the total days necessary for acclimating on the mountain.
Doing altitude training is a great option for athletes wanting to adjust quicker and save time on an expedition or to gain the positive benefits of training high and competing low all from the comfort of home. The expedition company I booked for Aconcagua sent me the information about Hypoxico to get started on scheduling out my altitude training plan in the weeks leading up to the climb.
My Altitude Training Plan
After talking with the professionals at Hypoxico, they recommended doing a 6 week program leading up to Aconcagua with a mix of sleeping in one of their altitude tents and doing training with an altitude mask to prepare for the climb. The machine was shipped to the house and took about 15 min to set up and test out. It came with detailed instructions for how to safely use it to gradually increase the altitude inside the tent (for about 8 hours a night) all the way up to 13,000ft.
There are several tent styles that range from full tents, either the Portable Tent or Deluxe Tent, that cover the entire bed and can sleep up to two people or the smaller Head Bivy that is just for the upper body and is more portable and lightweight. I used the latter option as I was in the middle of a move and staying at a few friend's homes during the 6 week prep. It still provided plenty of space to move around in without feeling claustrophobic or limited on room inside at night.
Hypoxico offers 3 different types of altitude generators: the Sierra 100 which is a quality but affordable option for athletes that want to train on a budget, the Everest Summit II which is perfect for portability and comfort, and the HYP 123 which is great for home, commercial, and research applications and also supports training up to 18 continuous hours. I used the Everest Summit II which was great for transporting the equipment between home and the gym to use for both sleeping and workouts.
Over the weeks leading up to the climb, I gradually increased the altitude of the oxygen into my sleeping tent by one level (a few hundred feet) about every 3 days depending on my recovery. Each morning I used the pulse oximeter inside the tent and then immediately after going outside to ensure that I was maintaining safe oxygen levels and recovering quickly.
Hypoxico provided a great guide for different workouts which was very helpful in framing target goals for altitude and duration as I built out my plan. I incorporated 3-4 workouts a week that were a mix of cardio and HIIT (high-intensity interval training) style 20-30 min workouts. For 1-2 days per week I focused on light cardio, primarily using the stair stepper or doing intermittent running and walking on the treadmill, keeping the altitude around 8,000- 9,000ft which was more than enough of a challenge while preventing from getting over-winded. The other days I did a mix of light weights or body weight exercises in small circuits. Again, I kept the altitude around 9,000ft for the workouts and took frequent rest breaks. At the end of the workouts I monitored my oxygen level to ensure I wasn't dipping too low but was keeping the workouts adequately challenging.
Arriving to the expedition, one of the first questions the guide asked the group of four climbers was how many weeks we had used the tent and how consistent we had been. Doing the pre-acclimatized trip which shortened their normal climb from 21 days to 12 days (10 on the mountain plus the before and after days in Mendoza) was fairly new for the company and they were interested in tracking the amount of training that climbers did and correlating that with those who succeeded on the climb. My group's responses ranged from one individual who had completed 8 weeks of training and not missing a night in the tent to someone that had only done about 2-3 weeks right before the climb. At the end of the expedition only myself and the person who had done the more intense acclimatization work-up actually made the summit which made it very apparent just how effective altitude training can be if it is followed.
On the mountain, there were three key physical check-ups that we had to complete before being approved to continue on the aggressive timeline. The first check was at Confluencia, the first camp inside the park which was 3,400m/11,150ft high. The doctor took our blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels to confirm we were all recovering quickly at the lower altitude camp. The second check was with another doctor two days later at Base Camp (4,300m/14,100ft) following a carry day (hauling our expedition gear) up to Camp 1. The third and final check was conducted by our guide after reaching Camp 3 (5,980m/19,620ft) the night before our summit attempt. He only tested oxygen levels which ranged in the group from mid-60s to low 80s, mine was the highest of the group at 83%. Oxygen levels vary per individual though and guides are there to provide expert opinions on who is ready to make a summit attempt.
Overall I definitely noticed a difference from previous mountains in how quickly I adjusted to the altitude. Even cutting the trip into half the days of the average climb and the peak being nearly 3,500ft higher than Kilimanjaro, the summit climb felt nearly the same for me and I did not notice any drastic difference from the altitude. After seeing the results and how quickly my body was able to recover and adjust to the altitude, I am definitely convinced of the benefits of doing high altitude training before a climb and fully intend to do a similar plan to train for future mountains. On a mountain that has a summit rate of less than 30% like Aconcagua, having this edge clearly made a difference in reducing the climbing days required and increasing the chance for a successful summit.
If you have any questions that I did not answer, please drop them in the comments below or send me a message!