Climbing 8000m Peaks - Part Two

Article by Roland Hunter
Monday 5th April 2010

In the second part of his article on climbing 8000m peaks, Roland Hunter examines the key points for success on the world's highest mountains: climbing strategies and acclimatisation, altitude medication, rescue precautions, good communications, and porter welfare. Roland is an experienced Himalayan mountaineer and expedition organiser, and is the founder of The Mountain Company.

1) Climbing strategies and fixed rope

Fixed ropes on Kanchenjunga – on the route to Camp 1

In practice if there are fixed ropes on the mountain almost everyone will use them, despite some people’s initial reservations. Conditions change quickly on the route as the season progresses. For example, at the beginning of our Broad Peak expedition there was a moderate snow slope leading to Camp 1, but just two days later this snow had melted to leave water ice below. Many people were surprised by the conditions as they descended after spending two nights at Camp 2. Everyone used the fixed rope on this section as down climbing on the ice was quite difficult and self arrest would have been impossible after a fall.

Fixed rope on the route means progress up and down the mountain is still possible even in poor weather and climbers can if necessary descend quickly to the safety of base camp. Another consideration is the safety of porters and sherpas (see below) – the expedition should minimise their risk while they are working on the mountain. They will often be carry heavy loads along the route and having fixed rope in place will add to their security. On parts of the route where fixed rope is not used it is a good idea to use bamboo wands (with bright flagging attached) to help mark the route.

Climber carrying bamboo wands used for marking the route

One of the common causes of friction between team members and different expeditions is about who is going to fix the rope on the route. On Everest north side there are normally one or two commercial operators who fix most of the route to the summit. All other expeditions are asked to contribute to this cost but in practice they very rarely pay anything.

In 2005 the Chinese Mountaineering Association decided to subcontract this work to one expedition and then collect US$100 per climber from other expeditions. This level of organisation is unlikely to happen on other 8000m mountains and will generally depend upon discussions between team leaders at base camp.

2: Acclimatisation and altitude

The most significant characteristic of climbing at high altitude is the lower air pressure. Air pressure is the determining factor for the oxygen saturation in the blood, and a drop in air pressure will lead to a reduction of available oxygen for the body. This is why climbing at altitude is such hard work! Fortunately the body has mechanisms for adapting to these conditions. In the short term we start to breathe faster and deeper, and over time physiological changes occur in the blood allowing more oxygen to be absorbed.

Building up... Camp 2, Everest northside

Some teams have adopted an increasingly lightweight approach by using no supplemental oxygen. Gary Pfisterer, an American climber, used this style on his numerous 8000m expeditions. In 2000 Gary organised a very successful climb to K2 when six members summitted and in 1998 to Kanchenjunga when his wife Ginette Harrison climbed to the summit (the only woman to climb Kanchenjunga and survive). I was fortunate to join Gary’s expedition to the south side of Kanchenjunga in 2003.

3: Acclimatisation schedule

The build-up and establishment of camps on the mountain normally follows a standard schedule and gives time for your body to adjust to the change in altitude. Our climbing plan on Broad Peak was as follows:

  • Carry group equipment to Camp 1 (5500m) and descend to base camp (5100m).
  • Carry personal gear to Camp 1 (5500m), spend the night and next day descend to base camp (5200m).
  • Several rest days at base camp (5100m).
  • Carry group equipment to Camp 1 (5500m), continue to Camp 2 (6300m) next day and spend two nights before descending to base camp.
  • Several rest days at base camp (5100m).
  • Climb to Camp 2 (6300m), next day make a carry to Camp 3 (7200m) and descend to base camp (5100m).
  • A couple of days of rest at base camp (5100m).
  • Climb to Camp 2 (6300m), next day continue to Camp 3 (7200m) and spend two nights before descending to base camp.
  • Several rest days at base camp (5100m).
  • You should now by fit and acclimatised so with suitable weather and conditions the next time up could be a summit push (8047m).

In practice it is often difficult to rigidly adhere to this plan. On Broad Peak we were delayed by the rescue of a climber with severe altitude sickness and then we had a long period of poor weather. At the end of July we received a forecast of four good days so we moved up the mountain, knowing this was probably our only chance for a summit attempt that season.

4: Pulse oximeter and blood oxygen saturation monitoring

Using an oximeter. This instrument can be a useful indicator of altitude problems

On leaving Camp 3 for the summit I was feeling very tired but was not sure if this was worse than the usual exertions of climbing at that altitude. I measured the oxygen saturation of my blood and found it was well below the typical range of oxygen saturation at this altitude (typically from 70% to 85%). If I had not seen this reading I might have continued until my situation got much worse.

You can measure your blood oxygen saturation by using a pulse oximeter. The reading gives the percentage of haemoglobin molecules carrying oxygen. There are now compact pulse oximeters available at a reasonable price. I have found oximeters to be useful in monitoring the acclimatisation of a group on a trek or climb. Often there is a tendency for members to play down any symptoms of altitude sickness whereas the oximeter gives an objective measurement. This is not an absolute indicator of altitude problems but an experienced leader can combine this with other observations to determine what action should be taken.

5: Altitude medication

It is important that every climber carries a personal supply of altitude medication while climbing. There are three main drugs to bring: diamox, nifidipine/viagra, and dexamethasone. These should be used in conjunction with other treatments and actions – such as a rapid descent, use of medical oxygen and/or a portable altitude chamber (PAC).

Diamox can reduce the symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS). A dose of 250mg every eight hours can be effective, and it can also be taken as a preventative with a reduced dose of 125mg every eight hours.

Nifidipine can prevent and treat high altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) with a dose of 10mg to 20mg every eight hours. Viagra has recently been shown to be effective at treating HAPE.

Dexamethasone can help relieve the symptoms of high altitude cerebral oedema (HACE) by taking 8mg initially then 4mg every six hours. It is a good idea to have injectable dexamethasone for use with an unconscious person who is unable to swallow pills.

6: Rescue and evacuation

Relaxing at base camp. Even here, recovery from HACE might not be possible

There is a range of problems experienced on 8000m expeditions but a large number tend to be altitude related. It is vital that there are plans in place for rescue and evacuation.

On Broad Peak my team got involved in the rescue of a climber from another expedition. At Camp 2 (6400m) he was unconscious and our expedition doctor diagnosed HAPE and HACE. The next day he was brought down the mountain and evacuated by helicopter to a hospital in Skardu.

The rescue worked because we managed to get him off the mountain quickly (using the fixed ropes) and because we had the right equipment and medication to give him. Most base camps are still at an altitude where recovery from HACE is not possible, and in our case the climber was put inside a portable altitude chamber with a supply of medical oxygen while waiting for the helicopter rescue.

In Pakistan a rapid evacuation by helicopter can only be arranged if a US$4000 bond has been paid at the beginning of the expedition. The helicopters are owned by the Pakistani army and will only fly if they have the required funds in their bank, so even if you have good insurance there could be a delay. The other advantage of paying the bond is that they give you a briefing in Islamabad about helicopter evacuation and the necessary equipment for making a landing zone (a wind sock and an H pad).

7: Communications

For keeping in touch with the outside world – a solar panel, satellite phone and PDA

It is essential to have a satellite phone for coordinating an evacuation by helicopter. It can also be helpful for organising a resupply of provisions or a recruitment of porters at the end of the expedition. On Broad Peak in 2004 there was a shortage of porters due to a number of large expeditions on K2 for the 50th anniversary, so we used the satellite phone to contact several local villages to find out if there was anyone interested in portering for us.

On Broad Peak we had a Thuraya Hughes 7101 satellite phone, which is light (220g) and not much bigger than a mobile phone. We also took a lightweight solar panel to recharge the batteries. A very useful service available on a satellite phone is SMS text messaging. Not only is this an inexpensive way to keep in contact with family and friends but you can also get free text weather forecasts from We took the Thuraya satellite phone to Camp 3 on Broad Peak and received forecasts every day.

It is possible to link the satellite phone to a PDA in order to send and receive emails as well as accessing the internet. have developed software called Contact 3.0 which can be used for sending emails and dispatches back to a website. They also sell a complete package of hardware for expeditions, plus technical support – which could save a lot of time trying to configure the setup by yourself!

For keeping in touch with the team – compact VHF radios

It is also important to have the means to communicate between the different teams on the mountain. There are various compact VHF radios available which have a sufficient range from base camp to the top camps (but not on Everest north side). Every camp on the mountain should have a radio but it is better for all climbers to have one. In this way everyone can always communicate with each other – especially useful on summit days when people might be moving at different speeds. At other times on the expedition it is worth setting up fixed times for radio calls between all the camps.

8: Porter working conditions

Porter welfare is an area often neglected by expedition organisers although there has been an increasing awareness over the last few years. It seems only fair to treat the porters with care and respect; after all, their hard work will contribute to the success of the expedition. The International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) has five guidelines to help protect porters who work on climbing and trekking expeditions:

  • Adequate clothing should be provided to porters for their protection in bad weather and at high altitude. This means windproof jacket and trousers, fleece jacket, long johns, suitable footwear (leather boots in snow), socks, hat, gloves and sunglasses.
  • Above the tree line, porters should have access to shelter, either a room in a lodge or tent (the trekkers’ mess tent is not good enough as porters are often left hanging around till dinner is finished), a sleeping pad and a blanket (or sleeping bag). They should also be provided with food and warm drinks, or cooking equipment and fuel.
  • Porters should be provided with the same standard of medical care as you would expect for yourself, including insurance.
  • Porters should not be paid off because of illness or injury without the leader or the trekkers assessing their condition carefully. Sirdars must let their trek leader or the trekkers know if they are paying off a sick porter. Failure to do this has resulted in many deaths. Seriously ill porters should be sent down with someone who speaks their language and understands their illness along with a letter describing their complaint. Sufficient funds should be provided to cover the cost of their rescue and treatment. They should never be sent down alone.
  • No porter should be asked to carry a load that is too heavy for their physical abilities. Weight limits may need to be adjusted for altitude, trail and weather conditions. Good judgement and careful observation is needed to make this decision. And if you are going to a remote area, select strong and experienced porters!

See for more information. The Mountain Company are Camp 1 financial sponsors of IPPG.







Attempting one of the highest mountains in the world is a great personal challenge. But joining an expedition is about more than the climbing. It gives you a reason to visit other countries, encounter different cultures and meet interesting people in incredible landscapes. From the planning to the walk-in and from base camp to summit, it is a unique and unforgettable experience.

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The Mountain Company specialise in organising expeditions and treks in the Himalayas and to Kilimanjaro. For more information have a look at their website: or give them a call on 0207 4980953.

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