by Uphill Athlete David Goettler
Many people have asked me why I go to the small village of Chukung high in the Khumbu Valley of Nepal to do an annual “training camp.” Actually, “training camp” is a bit of a misnomer; really it should be called a “pre-acclimatization camp.” Even though once I’m there my main focus is running and fast hiking, the primary goal is to jumpstart my body’s acclimatization to high altitude.
The reason that calling it a training camp isn’t quite right is that, at altitudes this high, the body won’t respond to training stimuli in the usual way: neither fitness, speed, nor strength will improve, and full recovery between workouts won’t take place. The changes that do take place, however, are all based around being able to tolerate the thin, oxygen-depleted air; these are precisely the changes that I am hoping to induce.
For the past three years I’ve incorporated a similar “camp” into my pre-expedition preparation: a two-week stay in Chukung, followed by four weeks or so at home before leaving on an expedition to a 7,000- or 8,000-meter peak. I’ve found that this helps my acclimatization enormously in the first couple of weeks of the expedition itself, allowing me to push harder earlier in the expedition, which means I lose less strength and fitness and ultimately feel stronger throughout.
I know from experience that my body deals fairly well with altitude, but this is something that varies greatly between individuals so everyone needs to figure this out for themselves. I know I can go from Lukla at 2,600 meters to Chukung at 4,700 meters in two days without feeling unwell—no headaches, no medications—but like I said, everybody will need to work out their own pace for this move. In Chukung, I base out of a wonderful lodge whose owner and staff have become good friends of mine. Living there allows me to recover as well as can be hoped for at this altitude: there’s a warm hangout space for stretching or yoga, the food is great, the rooms are comfortable, and there’s even a hot shower for use on a sunny rest day!
I know the area pretty well and plan runs of different lengths and elevation gains depending on the weather or how acclimatized I’m feeling—and sometimes just on a whim. Because I’ve been going to Chukung for several years now, I can use specific run times from previous years as a benchmark for my current fitness. As it turns out, this year I was really happy with my times; some were quite a bit better than last year’s. In part, this is a result of training, but it is also undoubtedly due to increased confidence in how hard I can push at these altitudes.
After my two-week “camp” this year, I feel confident that I’m physically well prepared for my upcoming expedition, including the kind of terrain we expect to find once we get there. I feel the benefits of the acclimatization and no detrimental effects to my fitness—as I need it to be for alpine climbing at high altitude. However, if I were specifically a runner, I’m not so sure that my running fitness wouldn’t have suffered over time at such a high altitude. Sure, if as a runner you want to experience what it feels like to run at 5,000 meters, then it’s the perfect place to go, but don’t expect it to improve your race times once you’re home.
My final long run of the trip was a beautiful and impressive 60-kilometer route that goes over three famous 5,000-meter-high passes. The idea to try and run this route in a day came from my friend Ueli Steck; we ran it together in 2016. I missed his company and motivation this year but enjoyed aiming to better our time. It’s a very popular trekking route that usually gets done in eight to twelve days, but I would recommend it to any ambitious trail runner who would like a taste for what the Khumbu has to offer. The route covers big terrain with glorious mountain views, some steep uphills and downhills, a bit of loose rocky scrambling, and some short glacier crossings (no rope necessary). There are numerous lodges on the way, which means that stopping for warm drinks and snacks (or even a night’s sleep) is easily possible. I start in Chukung and end in Namche Bazaar and have usually done it on my way back down the Khumbu at the end of my days in Chukung. It’s a fabulous way to say “until next time.”
Comments from Master Coach Scott Johnston
For those interested in the numbers, here is the data for some of the timed segments that David has done the past few years. Note that elevation is in feet, and no pre-acclimatization of any type was done before these trips.
Lukla to Namche Bazaar: Run on day 1, 11.2 miles with 4,000 feet of gain (from 8,450 ft to 11,100 ft)
Namche Bazaar to Chukung: Run on day 2, 15.5 miles with 6,300 feet of gain (from 11,100 ft to 15,300 ft)
Island Peak from Chukung: Run on day 6, 13.4 miles round-trip with 4,700 feet of gain (from 15,300 ft to 20,000 ft)
Three Pass Run from Chukung to Namche Bazaar: Run on day 9, 37 miles with 9,900 feet of gain (13,900 ft of loss)
2017: Didn’t do it that year
Before David left for this year’s Khumbu “camp,” he expressed concern that he might not be as fast as last year, when he felt very strong and improved his time on Island Peak. If that ended up being the case, he feared it might undermine his confidence for his upcoming expedition. Luckily that did not happen, and our confidence grew as his times dropped on every outing. I attribute the improvement in his times and fitness to the fact that David has been on a consistent program for over three years. We have worked closely to target aerobic capacity. There are no secret workouts. His fitness (non-climbing) training focuses 90 percent on basic aerobic capacity, with a sprinkling of muscular endurance and higher intensity aerobic work to supplement.
I agree with David that this sort of “training” would not help a mountain runner become faster. The altitude is just too high. Two weeks is enough time to get some benefit of the altitude without losing too much fitness. Now he has one month back at home to put the final touches on his fitness before leaving for his next big mountain goal.