Fitness for climbers: why descending from highest peaks is the hard part, and how to get in shape for summits – Hong Kong mountain guide
Having summited Everest three times and with 24 years’ experience, adventure guide John Tsang knows the risks and what it takes to reach the top of the world safely. He talks about altitude sickness, acclimatisation and the perilous descent from the peak
At 8am on May 17, John Tsang Chi-sing summited Everest with Wong Wai-kin. This was the third time he has reached the top of the world, having scaled the highest point on the planet in 2009 (when he was the third Hongkonger to do so) and in 2013. This time, however, he reached the top as a guide, helping two other Hongkongers achieve their Everest dream: 46-year-old Wong on May 17; and 55-year-old Raymond Ko Kam-fai the next day at 6.50am.
Tsang’s first two ascents were done at his own pace. “[Because I knew the situation and my body condition] I could push myself a bit more … I always climbed with one of my Sherpa friends … I [felt comfortable to] push myself hard,” he said of that first attempt in 2009.
Now, as a professional guide, his priorities have shifted. As founder of commercial guiding outfit Alpine Adventure Travel, which he established in 2014, the safety of his clients is the top priority. As a result, this experience felt “completely different”.
His responsibilities include discussing clients’ climbing schedules with other commercial operators and setting out specific guidelines to ensure they return to camp safely.
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Tsang says the most challenging part of the trip is the descent from Everest to Camp Four. “When climbers know it’s summit day … they push themselves hard to reach the top. Once there, they tend to run out of energy; that’s why most accidents happen during the trip back down.”
A lethal scenario is when a storm hits as exhausted climbers are descending. That happened in the 1996 disaster that became Everest lore, as told in John Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air and the film Everest (2015), in which several people from expeditions led by elite alpinists Rob Hall and Scott Fischer (including the two guides) died when a blizzard hit during the descent.
“We make sure they have a certain amount of time and speed to walk up to the top and we keep in contact with the Sherpa team to check what’s happening,” he says. If concerns are raised that climbers lack strength during their ascent, they will be told to turn around.
With 24 years of mountaineering experience – his love of climbing began in his college days – Tsang is familiar with the risks.
In 2007 he found himself in a potentially perilous situation during a trip to Cho Oyu, an 8,188-metre (26,864 feet) mountain and the sixth highest in the world. Tsang and a doctor friend ran a non-governmental organisation called PCA 8000 at the time, to raise funds to build schools in third world countries. They attempted to raise money for this project by climbing the Tibetan peak, but that journey was cut short.
Two of the doctor’s fingers had frostbite. Tsang suffered a bad fall, resulting in a broken right leg, and had to be rescued.
Now, Tsang’s main concern is frostbite. Since he climbs at his clients’ pace, which tends to be slower, Tsang is more at risk of cold or frostbite. This is common among expedition leaders.
Mount Everest remains one of the deadliest peaks, having claimed nearly 300 climbers’ lives since 1922.
To avoid a deadly fate it is a good strategy to weed out those unqualified to conquer Everest. Tsang says that while this is still not a common practice, his operation evaluates candidates’ backgrounds, climbing history and more to assess their ability to scale a major peak such as Everest.
This year, he agreed to lead the two Hongkongers to Everest as they had the prerequisite experience. Ko had been climbing for nine years. Wong’s athletic prowess, as a well-known runner and coach in Hong Kong, shone through in his application. He had been a member of a trio that ran from Hong Kong to Beijing and was no stranger to climbing, having summited peaks such as North America’s tallest, the 6,190-metre Mount Denali.
Still, he has turned down several Everest dreamers, advising them to scale lesser peaks first. “It’s to assess whether their body condition could handle it and [how they deal with] altitude sickness,” he says.
Climbing season is in spring. Once in Kathmandu, Nepal in early April, they spend around two months at base camp, the bulk of that time journeying back and forth between various camps, including higher perches such as Camp Four, to acclimatise to the oxygen-depleted atmosphere. When weather permits, the guides evaluate whether a climber is ready to attempt the summit.
Many don’t realise this journey is a long, “quite boring” process, mostly spent in acclimatisation. “Sometimes when the weather is bad there’s a lot of waiting around,” says Tsang.
How does the 46-year-old mountaineer manage to stay in shape to guide climbers who are mostly younger and in their physical prime? Tsang offers an analogy to the differences between an older and newer generation iPhones: “Your charging time is much longer than the new phone and you spend energy more quickly.” He adds: “The performance is almost the same but your battery does not last as long.”
Exercise is fundamental to this mountaineer, who regularly does trail running and mountain biking. If he has time, Tsang climbs in Hong Kong almost every month. “I still have to keep my fitness and training up all the time,” he says.
“If [the next] expedition is a tough one, maybe I’ll train every day for two to three hours.”
To stay limber, the pro climber takes a week off from high training to adopt a low-intensity regimen that involves easy cycling or trail running to let his muscles relax.
Tsang says he has an edge over younger climbers in that his body has adapted to high altitude over the years.
He plays a crucial role in giving climbers support as they endure brutal conditions.
During the acclimisation phase, tragedy may strike. Should another expedition team get seriously hurt or killed in an avalanche, for example, the scenes can instil fear and doubt in climbers who witness them.
It is common to find climbers reeling at base camp with high-altitude-related symptoms such as projectile vomiting, to the point that they begin to doubt their ability to climb higher.
“I tell them this is one of the challenges you have to go through before you summit,” says Tsang. His team prescribes rest and medicine and takes seriously sick climbers to lower altitude areas. Once adjusted they return to base camp, emboldened.
At such moments he encourages steely optimism. He has seen several climbers survive such challenges, then embark on a summit push to finally realise their Everest dream. “So stay positive,” he says. “You have to stay positive – all the time.”
This is the first in a series of three stories on mountaineers.