One might think that being born and bred Jo’burgers, many of us would have a distinct advantage when adapting to high altitudes, having lived all our lives at 1753m above sea level (only about 250m below the start of the Kili climb). Well, that remains to be seen. Apparently it’s possible to train your body to adapt to high altitude in very sophisticated and expensive ways. You can hire altitude sleeping and workout systems designed to train you to cope with oxygen deprivation. Or you can just do what we’re doing which is hike as often as possible and engage in interval training. Many people experience some form of altitude sickness on the mountain – whether it is shortness of breath, nausea, loss of appetite, poor quality of sleep or headaches. When people ask me if I am training to adjust to high altitudes, I think of the symptoms of altitude sickness – in particular the shortness of breath and the nausea and how I feel after I’ve climbed the Westcliffe stairs a few times with my backpack on. ‘Definitely!’ I say.
You would be astonished at just how many people you will find training on the Westcliffe stairs – before sunrise! In the cold! There are generally two groups of people – runners and climbers. The climbers are easily identifiable by our gear – boots, backpacks, headlamps, fleeces. The runners are the lunatics in shorts, barrelling up and down the stairs in the dark. By and large, we’re a friendly bunch. Strangers greet each other warmly, ask about one another’s training and politely make room when crossing paths. A couple we meet on Wednesdays (runners) once asked us what we were training for. We told them and then in turn asked what they were training for. The woman shrugged, laughed and said, ‘Life’ as she took off back down the stairs. Now I’m full of admiration for them. It’s true I’ve been getting up most mornings before 4:30 to train but the compulsion comes from the certain knowledge that in my very near future looms a very large mountain. I highly doubt I could compel myself to get out of bed regularly at that time to train… ‘for life’. But maybe they have the right idea. Once you get passed the getting out of bed in the cold and dark, struggling to put on your layers and gear, and then panting up the stairs while your heart pounds and your legs burn, there’s an exhilaration and sense of achievement at having started the day with some physical exertion. I’m not sure I wouldn’t get as much if not more pleasure from an extra hour in bed with coffee and a chapter of my current read. I will tell you this though – those stairs do amazing things for your legs. No wonder the runners wear shorts. If I looked like that, I’d probably want to show off too.
By Tali Frankel