How to Get Ready for a High Altitude Mountain Climb

The following is a guest post by Suzanne K Nance, the first American woman to complete the Adventurer Grand Slam. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.

View of the Lhotse face
Lhotse, which is connected to Mt. Everest, is the 4th highest mountain on Earth (8,516m).

This week as I was trying to catch up on Facebook, I noticed a climber friend of mine reaching out for advice on what to pack on an expedition to Everest.  Of course I had to put in my two cents, and then followed along as others added more advice.  This dialogue caused me to reflect upon my own experience on the mountain.

I found myself asking, “What is really needed for Everest?”

Any high altitude mountain climb is an endeavor that is both physically and mentally demanding.  It requires top physical fitness, mental fortitude and patience, with both a strong sense of teamwork and independence. Climbing is indiscriminate of gender. Both success and failure happen no matter who you are.

It’s more imperative to know how to use the tools of the “trade”, and know how to get by with the bare essentials than it is so much a matter of what you have tossed into your bag.  Don’t get me wrong, what you pack is important, but what you have within yourself is really the key.  The question you really need to ask is, “Are you prepared?”

Here are 5 tips for the making of a fantastic expedition:

1.  Be Physically Prepared

Regardless of your height, weight, or gender, you will be required to carry the same load and face the same obstacles as all other members of your team.  Contrary to what you may think, pack weight is not determined by your height and weight. Rather, it is in discriminatory.  You must take this into consideration when preparing for your climb.

Not only do you need to train with enough weight in your backpack to account for your personal gear, you need to add an extra 10-15 lbs of ‘lee weight.’  It is good practice to add more weight to what you consider to be your top load: being physically at your best is the only factor of the climb within your control.

The mountain is going to do what the mountain is going to do.  There may be bad weather, hot weather, avalanches, or difficult terrain and the climber must account for all of these factors in training.  If you are at your peak physical condition, there will be no question of preparedness should an adverse situation arise.

Mountain climbing gear
Gear required for a high altitude climb

2.  Be Mentally Prepared

Just suck it up! It’s going to be hard, and no one likes a whiner.  You just have to remember it’s okay that it’s hard and you’re going to have to deal with it.  I like to remind myself of the first time I was in the Himalayas attempting to climb Cho-Oyu.  My team was making the ascent to Camp II around 23,000 feet and it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, to date.

I had to climb the face of a section of the mountain with a frozen ascender (jumar). The teeth of the jumar were iced up and would not grip the rope; therefore, it was useless to me.  Consequently, I had to climb the face by wrapping the rope around my arm several times, painfully, pulling myself upward, while slamming my climbing boots and crampons into the wall to hold me in place.  Over 8 hours later, I finally reached home sweet home for the night, a tent at Camp II.  Thankfully, after a bad night’s sleep at high altitude, my team retreated back down to ABC (advanced base camp), still sitting at over 18,000 feet.

Later that day, I made a call home to my family in the States, giving them an update and progress report.  I recanted my success thus far, however, when I finally got to speak with my daughter, I broke down into tears. I told her how difficult the climb had been and how tough the expedition was.  She was so sweet and supportive.  She said. “Mommy, you can come home.  You know we love you even if you don’t make the summit.”

I was shocked.  I instantly reported back to her.  “Come home?  I don’t want to come home.  I’m just telling you how hard it was.”

3.  Have a Good Sense of Humor

Be able to laugh at yourself and at the present situation.  It’s not about you, so just take you out of it.  It’s all about the experience and the fun you’re having.  I have been snowed in, buried in, frozen in, and guarded in, yet I have never lost my sense of humor.  On the contrary, it’s what keeps the whole expedition enjoyable for me.

On Antarctica we were triumphantly, the first expedition of the season, unfortunately, that only equated into unpredictable temperatures with unstable weather. It so happened a late season weather system came through the middle of our expedition, exposing my team and me to -40 F in our tents.  The extreme temperature caught me off guard and it resulted in a frostbit nose, not to mention shivering constantly for two days.

The first morning after the temperatures dipped, I woke up in my sleeping bag, screaming in pain.  The tip of my nose was out of the sleeping bag while I slept and therefore got frostbit.  Instead of reaching for my medical kit, I reached for my camera and instantly started taking pictures of my tent mate and friend.

Her night sleep caused condensation to form into long icicles right above her face.  They dangled just above her nose forming exquisite crystal formations, not to mention, that the site was hysterically funny.  I shot away, only thinking of the story it would tell later on after the expedition, and completely forgot about my own pain and injury.

4.  Know Your Strengths

I can carry and pull anything, so I like to think of myself as a small powerhouse.  A close friend of mine, who is also a guide, likes to think of himself as a mule.  It’s important to use whatever it takes to visualize your strengths.

On the other side of the coin, I know I am not very speedy at climbing steep inclines when I have an extremely heavy pack.  Perhaps it’s because my legs aren’t as long as my teammates, or maybe it’s due to the weight ratio of my pack to my body weight that plays a key role, and literally weighs me down.  I really haven’t analyzed it in great detail. All I know is that I lose distance with regard to my teammates when I am climbing a steep incline while carrying a heavy pack.

However, being able to recognize my weakness is a strength.  I know I need to make up the time and distance on other portions of the climb and I know I’m a beast when it comes to descending. Loose hips and knees, the effect of gravity, or maybe just because it’s fun usually creates an advantage for me when compared to other climbers. I can usually make up lost distance on the downhill portion.

All packed up and ready to go!
All packed up and ready to go!

5.  Practice, Practice, Practice

Climbing big mountains isn’t child’s play; therefore you had better bring along confidence, experience and skill.  If you happen to be a woman, you need to practice a few things (tasks) in which specialized equipment is required.  When roped up to a climbing harness on the side of a mountain to a team of two to three other climbers, going to the bathroom seems like a horrific proposition.

It’s a much wiser idea to practice these skills while in the privacy of one’s own home, than to try to figure things out while out on a rope.  (Personally, I don’t know any woman climber who has not had a least one casualty while perfecting this technique, no matter how seasoned she may be.  I think it must be a right of passage.)

Climbing ropes, climbing harnesses, and extra clothing are extremely burdensome.  For that reason, mastering the use of all equipment is essential for a climb.  While artfully managing a climbing rope is a learned skill, personalizing a climbing harness lends itself to efficiency and security. Exposing yourself to extreme weather conditions prior to your climb not only introduces you to the elements you will encounter, but gives you a sense of spatial orientation and proprioception in all those layers of clothing. Preparing yourself by practicing before an expedition for as many possible conditions that you may encounter will only increase your statistics for success.

When compiling a packing list, toothbrush and deodorant are immaterial. What is most important is the mental, physical and spiritual training that you have done prior to your departure.  These are the essential items you must bring.


  1. says

    All good tips. I don’t think I’d ever make it up Everest, but Jack and I do like to climb mini-mountains. Or… I guess, tall hills :)

    In all seriousness, can’t agree more than #5. Practice until you can do it in your sleep. Managing your ropes becomes so different when you add the element of exhaustion, cold, and semi-darkness.

    • says

      I’ve yet to do any climbing on snow or ice, but I think it’d be fun and challenging to take a mountaineering course some day.

  2. says

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this post from such an experienced and knowledgeable climber. You have made so many great points here. I particularly like your point on having a good sense of humour. You can prepare all you want and do all the physical training in the world, but if your mental attitude sucks, your going to fail, period. Being able to brush off adversities and smile when it’s tough is a massive part of this. Great point.

  3. Meg says

    I’m an industrial design student and I’ve been tasked with redesigning an oxygen mask for mountaineering, I would really appreciate it if anyone that has experience using oxygen masks while climbing could take my survey! Your insight is incredibly valuable and would help so much! Thank you! Here is the link, its completely anonymous and you don’t have to sign up to take it or anything: Thanks again!

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