Everest 2024: Acclimatization Strategies and the Tactics to Reach the Top

Arriving at Everest Base Camp at the bottom of the top of the world, and being all out of breath, just doesn’t feel like the best way to start climbing Everest.

Wouldn’t it be better to stomp in, wind in your teeth, ready to climb higher as the next day breaks?

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Conrad Anker (left), Dr. Monica Pris and Adrian Ballinger, acclimatizing at the coffee bar at Everest Base Camp. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Whether just trekking to Everest Base Camp as we did In Hillary’s Footsteps, or settling in at Base Camp for the longer stay and attempt on Everest, those final small hills up the glacier still leave most of us gasping for air for a few days.

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Island Peak – a mini-Everest: complete with ladders, fixed ropes, pre-dawn starts and just a hint of high altitude. It worked for them in 1953. Photo: Alexander Hillary, 2019

Then the climbers have to make repeated trips under the avalanche prone ridges and through the toppling seracs of the Khumbu Icefall, which doesn’t help your confidence much either.

This year that has started out problematically, with the Icefall taking longer and being fixed later than in many previous years. Climbers must now acclimatize perhaps a bit faster than they would like, in terrain that is even a bit more hostile than usual.

Little wonder that many are opting for alternatives, from acclimatizing on Lobuche, to hiding out in a Hypoxia tent at home for a month or two in advance.

Or you could have just sign up for a rapid or “Flash” ascent and take a month off your expedition time. Then you hopefully sprint to the top with a combination of pre-acclimitazation and an extra dose of oxygen.

The idea of acclimitizing on another peak before Everest, certainly isn’t new and worked well in 1953 when the first ascent team went up the Imje valley and climbed the South Summit of Island Peak.

Approaching the summit on Lobuche, a fun climb in itself, and more lately, also a summit to camp on, before you ascend Everest. Photo: Alexander Hillary, 2019

When Russell Brice at Himex, switched from leading expeditions on the North Side to the South Side of Everest, he popularized the ascent and sleeping atop Lobuche East at 6,119 meters (20,075 ft). With this approach, he cut out a trip through the icefall for his climbers, and perhaps even more importantly, cut down on the resources his Sherpas had to carry multiple times through the icefall.

This proved so popular that other expeditions soon followed, including most recently Mike Hammil’s rapidly growing company, Climb the Seven Summits (CTSS). Now trekkers have taken up complaining that their fine trekking peak just isn’t quite the same when you climb at dawn to the summit, only to find a host of tents and climbers just waking up around you.

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Inside the Khumbu Icefall, Everest. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

For a quicker climb to the top of the world, Adrian Ballinger’s, Alpenglow and Lukas Furtenbach’s, Furtenbach Adventures, extoll the virtues of their “Rapid Ascent,” “Lightening Ascent” and “Flash” expeditions. With pre-acclimitaztion in altitude tents, and oxygen turned on often as low as Camp 2 at 6,400 metres (21,000 feet), it suddenly takes Everest a whole lot lower in terms of altitude.

With more oxygen and more resources required to carry that oxygen, there also comes a higher price tag. Alpenglow list Everest Rapid Ascents at US $98,000 this year, with Furtenbach’s prices for the “Flash” listed at 103,000 Euros.

Of course if your budget stretches to that, and you desire is simply to climb Everest and get it all over with as soon as possible with as little discomfort as possible, you can also upgrade to the “Signature Expedition” for 199,000 Euros (at todays exchange US$213,084.91).

While still in its early days, and benefitting from a number of good weather windows in the last few years, the popularity of this rapid approach seems likely to only increase.

However, it also relies on your oxygen system always working and having a good supply always at hand, as Mark Horrell points out in his well detailed post about rapid ascents.

Being up high for long should anything happen or if you are delayed for any reason, and you will succumb very quickly to the altitude. Long gone are the days when for extra assurance I’d encourage everyone to just carry their own oxygen to the top. Being self contained added a sense of responsibility to an ascent that otherwise simply transferred your life into another’s hands.

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Everest, North Face, in winter, from the Pang La. Still awaiting a bold and needless to say, cold, ascent.  Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

There are still a host of expeditions on the South Side approaching Everest in the time honored up and down fashion, with their 3 rotations, including a trip to Camp 1, then up to Camp 2 and finally a night in the heights of Camp 3. While these are billed as acclimatization, they also give you a very good feel for the mountain, and like doing laps on a rock climb or doing the same trail run repeatedly, your pacing improves. The downside is you need to make all those journeys up through the ever-challenging Icefall.

Though when you go up and down the Icefall a few times, you know when to push and when to relax and what the weather feels like and how it changes. You can hone your gear down and most importantly, be a lot more confident.  With every journey up you are hopefully better acclimitized and are feeling stronger every time you ascend.

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Not far from the top of the world. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

On my first time to the summit with David Hamilton, we were stopped above the South Col at 8,300 meters in a blizzard. We retreated back to Camp 2. A few days later we were back at the South Col again, worried we might be tired out.

However, the previous climb to the heights made the return much easier, the way was known, the steps were in place and we were high on the summit ridge before the sun even came up. It always helps to know the terrain and what you will be climbing through. Our acclimatization also ensured that when we needed to rescue a fellow climber, giving up our oxygen at the South summit, and spending 27 hours out above the South Col, we returned with them in tow, not leaving them alone higher up the hill.

With every method of acclimatizing there are trade-offs. If you “Flash,” it is best to understand that if you are not “Flashing” up high, your end will also be “Flash,” if the conditions or oxygen doesn’t work to your advantage.

Your “rapid ascent” will need to be followed by an even faster “rapid descent.”

If you go for the traditional up and down, and up and down again, you will be spending more time up high, potentially in dangerous areas. You’ll be quicker every time though, and get to enjoy the heights. As much as the Icefall and Lhotse Face are dangerous, they are also incredibly beautiful places to climb. Wandering though the Western CWM is an unforgettable experience, no matter how many times you may do it.

In the middle ground for acclimatization are the options to acclimatize on other peaks, experiencing another route, perhaps climbing another peak and enjoying some beautiful sunrises and sunsets from the heights of the Himalayas.

With the assistance and learnings you might find from high altitude researchers like Dr. Peter Hackett and his recommendations on Diamox, a slow and steady climb to the heights may be exactly what you wish for. Why spend so much timing to train and prepare when all you then do is everything you can to get it over with as quickly as possible?

The Central Rongbuk, Tibet, just after dawn, looking over the Lho La and into Nepal onto the sunlit ridge of Nuptse. Sometimes it is worthwhile to sit down and enjoy the shape of the long shadows cast by the world’s highest peaks. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson

Your best acclimataztion choice may simply go back to your motivations.

Do you want to climb Everest, fully experiencing the heights, the people and the mountain itself?

Or do you want to say you climbed Everest? And get it over with as fast as possible.

It just depends on your approach, your goals, and knowing what you may gain or lose in how you choose to acclimatize.

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Looking down through the jumble of the Khumbu Icefall at Base Camp with Pumori rising above. Photo: Robert Mads Anderson