Read this before you try climbing your first mountain

All photos courtesy of Anh Thai
All photos courtesy of Anh Thai

“Am I ready for this? How do I know if there’s a limit? Can I do it right?” The nagging thoughts plagued Anh Thai, 28, for days before she embarked on her first solo summit climb over 13,000 feet. In spite of her insecurities, she conquered the mighty Gannett, Wyoming’s highest peak and the highpoint of the Wind River Range. It was a 50-mile solo-backpacking trip with a traverse over Gannett Glacier, the largest glacier in the lower 48 states, an impressive feat for any climber, and a week later she went on to summit Cloud Peak, the highpoint of the Big Horn Range in Wyoming.

In fact, this year alone, Thai—the blogger behind The Summit Air and an employee of Kelty and Sierra Designs—bagged four 13ers (climbing slang for a summit 13,000 feet above sea level) and four 14ers over the course of six months. If anyone knows the trials of being a first-timer on a 14er, it’s Thai, and she’s squirreled away a bevy of tips for preparing, enduring, and conquering tough climbs. If you’re thinking about trying your first 14er, heed her tried-and-true advice.

Tell me about your experience on your first 14er.

My first 14er was Mt. Democrat (14,154 feet) in the Mosquito Range of the Rocky Mountains, an easy class two climb to the summit. We started at 7:30 a.m. in the morning and made it to the peak two hours later. There were three other peaks within two miles on the same range, so I decided to bag them all in the same morning—Mt. Cameron (14,173 feet), Mt. Lincoln (14,295 feet), and Mt. Bross (14,177 feet) were all completed in that order by 11:30 a.m. The decent from Mt. Bross was a bit uneasy due to the loose, baseball-sized gravel. We made it back to the trailhead a little after 1:30 p.m., a decent time to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. So, four 14ers, 6 hours, 9 miles.

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What are some things you do to combat the effects of the high altitude?

Someone who’s from the flat land and hasn’t been exposed to an elevation over 10,000 feet may notice some altitude sickness. For me, I’ve been living in Boulder, which is 5,000 feet above sea level, for the past seven months, and I still get affected when I hike above the tree line. Aside from proper training and a carb-filled diet, I take iron supplements one to two weeks prior to any major hikes above 12,000 feet. Iron helps increase red blood cells, which carry hemoglobin. Increasing the amount of hemoglobin in the blood increases the amount of oxygen that can be carried, which is essential at high altitudes. Everyone is different—iron may not affect your body the same way it does mine. But it doesn’t hurt to try some iron, as long as you don’t overdo it.

When did you feel the best on your first 14er hike, and when did you hit a slump?

The incline to the summit was quite brutal. Constant gain on the upslope weakened my every step. Every part of my body felt like it was defeated by the lack of oxygen. No matter how deeply I tried to breathe, it wasn’t enough. Once I passed 13,000 feet, I started to get lightheaded and some minor blurred vision occurred. I would have turned around had my condition gotten worse. When I stooped to drink water, I recovered and felt fine. The moment I get to stand on the summit is an indescribable feeling—all that suck-fest that I suffered through to make it there was totally worth it. It was a great connection to nature, a relief, and an accomplishment. I felt like I was on top of the world.

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What food did you have with you?

The food I bring with me on summit day is comfort food, with low salt content, and it’s always lightweight but provides tons of energy. Low-sodium crackers, raw almonds, several dark and milk chocolate bars, and a bottle of champagne to celebrate my first 14er! However, I wouldn’t recommend anyone consume alcohol above the tree line. It’s the best way to quickly get drunk, then stumble across a boulder field and break your ankles, and you’ll dehydrate yourself. I had one sip just for principle. My hiking partner Joey took care of the rest (he’s a Colorado local and has done several 14ers. To him, this hike was a cakewalk).

Do you alter your diet ahead of time?

My performance is best when I load up on protein and carbs two days prior to the summit day. I ate at least a pound of meat on each hiking day with lots of pasta and rice.

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What gear were you using?

On summit day, I carry a daypack with me to haul my gators, yaktrak, dry-down insulated jacket, rain shell jacket, and rain pants (also great for wind blocking), a pair of gloves, and a camera. Depending on the rating of the climb and weather condition, I will also bring a helmet, crampons, ice axe, and a pair of trekking poles. The one thing I value most is water. Everybody brings water and understands its importance, but not everybody experiences the urgency and desperation of running out of water. I’ve been there, where all I had left was six ounces of water. The five miles back to the trailhead were never so difficult and unbearable.

Do you prefer going solo or with partners?

I love going solo. It’s a luxury of freedom where I’m my own boss. But on my first 14er, I went with a friend who had climbed multiple 14ers. I figured it’d be smart to go with someone who’s an expert in mountaineering, especially since I’d never been that high.

When you’re working towards a climbing goal, what does your training plan look like?

On a weekend hike of 15 miles with about 3,000-feet in elevation gain, I give myself two weeks of training prior to that weekend. I find that push-ups, lunges, box jumps, mountain climbers, burpees, and inclined running give me the best results. And my workouts don’t require a gym. I can do 30 minutes of those moves in the backyard before work, then some incline running in the park after work. Find some stairs and sprint up them for 15 minutes every day. I avoid pushing myself to the point that I’ll be sore the next day. I stop when I feel tired. The key is to listen to my body.

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What’s the most defeating moment in a climb that we should prepare for?

This applies to almost every summit climb I’ve done: the moment I get to the top of the summit, only to realize it was a false summit and the real summit is still very, very far away. I get mentally discouraged and physically fatigued. You’d be lucky to spot the real summit on your first climb.

What’s the best moment to look forward to?

When you get past the tree line and the view of the mountain ranges exposes itself. So intimidating and so inviting at the same time.

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So what’s your best advice for someone looking to do his or her first 14er?

1. Ladies, bring a Ziploc bag for your toilet paper because you are going to pee every 10 minutes. High altitude will do that to you.

2. Go at your own pace. It’s OK if you’re the last person in the group. Don’t ever feel bad you’re holding the group back. Don’t over-exert yourself to catch up—it only makes you sweat more and fatigue faster. You’ll get chilly on the windy summit if you’re soaked in sweat.

3. There will be a point where you’ll find yourself lightheaded, out of breath, with no motivation, and your body is exhausted and you can’t lift your feet to keep going. Take as many breaks as you need. Drink water when you don’t think you need any. My secret is a sequence of alternating between breathing and steps: Inhale, two footsteps (right foot, left foot), exhale, inhale, exhale, inhale, two footsteps, and repeat until you make it up the summit.

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