Hike Like a Sherpa

Would you like to hike like a Sherpa? Carry huge loads effortlessly up the steepest hills? Seem immune to altitude and its effects? Well, forget it, you're too late. Sherpas have thousands of years of acclimatization on their side, passed on from mother to child.

Still, that isn't the whole story. There are some things you can do to become more Sherpa-like on your next backpacking or climbing trip.

First, a word or two about what makes a Sherpa a Sherpa. Sherpas are the legendary high-altitude guides and climbers of the Himalayan range--the "roof of the world"--that encompasses Mount Everest (the world's tallest peak) and other notable mountains such as Cho Oyu, Lhotse and Nuptse.

For nearly a century Sherpas have aided Western mountaineers in the exploration and ascent of these famous mountains. What seems to set Sherpas apart from the rest of us is their near-immunity to the effects of high altitude.

Most anyone who has flown into Denver and driven straight to the ski resorts knows the effects altitude can have on the body--headache, lassitude, nausea, sort of a nasty hangover without the fond memories of the wild party.

Climbers on Mount Rainier, who go from sea level to 10,000 feet or so in just a few days, feel the same thing: acute altitude sickness. But altitude sickness also can take more severe forms, such as pulmonary edema (your lungs fills with fluid) or cerebral edema (your brain does the same). Both can be fatal.

Sherpas don't suffer these maladies. Why not? Probably because they have acclimated over thousands of years or, in evolutionary terms, they've adapted. Researchers have found that Tibetan babies (Sherpas' close kin) are able to extract more oxygen from the air than lowland babies, a trait Sherpas undoubtedly share. But there's more to it than that.

Certainly living at high altitudes from birth plays a role--most Sherpas live above 10,000 feet--just as a lowlander can become a decent high-altitude hiker simply by living at elevations for several weeks (although extended stays above even 5,000 feet can have bad consequences over time for many Westerners).

Then there's the fact that Sherpas spend much of their lives carrying loads and hiking over mountain passes. In other words, they're fit.

It's that fitness that most anyone can aspire to, and there are two ways to get it. One is to train properly. If you live in a hilly area, conditioning hikes of several hours are hugely helpful. Don't focus exclusively on uphill training; downhill hiking places different strains on muscles, which is why even extremely fit runners and bicyclists find themselves wobbly-legged after a long downhill hike.

If you can't find a good hill to ascend and descend, then combine running, bicycling or other aerobic activities with weight workouts. Squats in particular (with or without a weighted barbell across the shoulders) help build strength in the core muscle groups that high country hiking demands. Those are freestanding squats, by the way, and not the kind where you use a weight machine; this way, you get the added benefit of improved balance.

The other important step is to acclimate properly. Depending on where you live and what elevation you're traveling to, it can take anywhere from several days to a week or more for your body to adapt to its new environment.

Pushing too high too fast works against that process. You're likely to end up with a nasty headache and upset stomach, or worse. Training at higher elevations before a trip helps, but it's unclear how long the benefits gained from that work last: Maybe a week, but probably not much beyond that.

Lastly, it might be helpful to approach the day's trail work as the Sherpas do. "If you watch Sherpas ferrying loads or climbing, you see a tremendous patience," says Dr. Robert Schoene, a Seattle physician who has hiked and climbed with Sherpas in the Himalayan Mountains. "I think it comes from their Buddhist religion, a sort of joyful fatalism, so that when the s**t hits the fan they shrug and say, 'What to do?' That's hard to train for, but we could learn from it."

In other words, be patient and open to the journey as well as the destination. "We in the West tend to want quick hits, activities with quick gain," says Schoene. "But trekking in the Himalayas takes a different mindset, an almost transcendental state while hiking or climbing."

Face it, the load is large, the mountain tall, and the way to get to the top is to take one step, then another. It's worked for Sherpas for thousands of years. It'll work for you, too.

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