7 Summits – Aconcagua 2, It’s all about the mental preparation

‘’It’s 80% mental and 20% physical’’ he replied … ‘’as easy as THAT’’!

In 2010, I was invited to attend a presentation in Belfast called ‘’7 Summits to 7 Seas’’ hosted by my now very good friends Noel and Lynne Hanna.

I was enthralled throughout the presentation and later having introduced myself to Noel I asked, ‘’what does it take to succeed on the mountains?’’. Noel replied, ‘’it’s 80% mental and 20% physical, as easy as that!’’… I was taken back with the simplicity of his response, but it does ring true. It is ‘’life’’ applicable. I mean, when we, or I am presented with a task or challenge to complete I mentally visualise the end, breaking the stages down and working out what’s required. I determine the physical demands and the plan is complete! As Noel said, ‘’It is as easy as that’’, and ‘’it is’’ …

Train your brain!

In his book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, Stephen Covey urges the reader to “begin with the end in mind”, and over time I feel I have improved this process to support my mental approach and preparation. Some of you may have seen this previously and heard me talk about my approach in my talks and presentations.

By mentally visualising the objective and then working your way back, you will clearly be able to identify the stages required in order to achieve your ultimate goal. Try it, use it, modify it, and tweak it to suit you. Believe me, it works!

Begin with the End in Mind

My initial mental mountain preparation begins by reading summit reports, reviews, and by looking at images from the location. I research the dangers, the weather patterns, the threats, the expedition companies, the camps and conditions previous medical notes, articles, books, and speak to fellow climbers and view, on YouTube, the routes to and from the summit to home. ‘’Begin with the End in Mind’’. This phrase is both inspirational and motivational. Without getting too deep into this subject I summarise saying that I prepare meticulously what will be the mental challenges, visualise my summit, my reactions, my feelings, my wellbeing, and my absolute determination to descend safely and return home. The physical preparations are concentrated which I’ll explain. With my participation through the year in triathlons, spotifs, trekking, and adventure racing my training is always on. As the season ends my training becomes more mountain focused, no better place to train for the mountains than in the mountains! Best advice ever!

A usual training week now ahead of my return to Aconcagua is … Monday – rest day. Tuesday, morning run 10km, evening gym, Wednesday morning spin session or open bike ride, evening 5km run, Thursday, morning gym, evening swim, and Friday, morning slow 5km run and rest, Saturday morning bike and rest, and Sunday trekking in The Mournes and rest.

With all this activity it is vital for me to eat well, hydrate well and sleep better. Eating well, I mean plenty of carbs, protein, and calories, fruits and meats. Hydration is also key. I drink minimum 2 litres of water daily and adding to that will be some tea, diuretic, unfortunately, and natural hydration from fruits etc. Very little alcohol when I’m training for the big mountains. Sleep for me is imperative. I need 8 hours minimum but can work on less but do try to work on the 8-hour rule during my training.

With such a schedule how do I fit all of this in around family life and work? The early morning sessions do not impact as I try and get them started before 6.30a.m. which gives me time to recover and have breakfast with my family. A normal day’s work is done and as dinner is being prepared I’ll fit in a session again allowing us all to sit for dinner. I also monitor heart rate levels during and after training and I’m always conscious of how I physically feel which is vital, I don’t overtrain.

This all works as a result of support, understanding, and encouragement I receive from all of my family and of course my work colleagues at Tara Financial Partners. A huge thank you to you all!!

So it’s now all about staying injury free and stabilising my fitness levels. God willing, Mother Nature’s help and the Mountain God’s with me I am determined, focused and very hopeful of getting summit this January. Expect summit push late January. Wish me well.

The entrance to the National Park with Aconcagua in the foreground and Plaza de Mulas Base Camp at 3,780m

Chilling and taking in the incredible views above 5,000m en route to mid-camp at 5,500m

Bring It On! Derek

DBA my friends …. Dream, Believe, and you will Achieve. 


7 Summits – Aconcagua 2, The Dangers of Altitude

Based on my experience at Aconcagua earlier this year, I thought I’d share with you the dangers of altitude and the importance of knowledge around it to climbers.

We all perform best at sea level, where the concentration of oxygen (O2) is 100%. Oxygen levels decrease with altitude from 100% at sea level to an altitude of Mount Everest’s summit at 8,848m of 32%. The impact of such a reduction in oxygen levels can produce a number of symptoms and possible death. High Altitude Illnesses (HAI) include Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE), and High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE).

The symptoms of AMS are typically felt by most people when they arrive at a new altitude which I felt at base camp Mount Everest (5,300m) and again at a lesser level base camp on Aconcagua at 4,300m.

The most common symptoms include headaches, gastrointestinal upset, fatigue, dizziness and sleep disruption. The more life-threatening condition of HAPE includes symptoms of shortness of breath at rest, persistent coughing, and tiredness. HACE include symptoms of difficulty walking (ataxia), feelings of confusion, or severe lethargy. Descent is the first priority when altitude illness occurs. No questions! Recover and start again ….

So, how do I, as a high-altitude climber, prepare?

I have always worked to a plan which has worked well for me – don’t fix what’s not broken!

The key parts of that plan are; get fit, get organised, get medically checked, get hydrated, get medication, get rest and get re-educated on the health impact of altitude (as above). Easier said than done but good planning well in advance is primary for me.

Hydration is #1 for me when climbing these big mountains. I remember vividly at Kilimanjaro’s Kibo high camp at 4,750m the etching on the wall, ‘’Hydrate, FFS’’! Something which has remained in my mind ever since. It is so very important. It is easy to become dehydrated at high-altitude, and hydration increases the risk of frostbite, fatigue and impairs judgment. Our bodies at altitude require at least 3 litres of water per day. Altitude increases water losses from the lungs due to the cold and dry air. There is also an increased urinary loss of water because altitude and cold have a diuretic effect. Sweating also adds to the water loss. It is recommended to drink a minimum of 1 litre of water every three hours.

Food – what to eat. Carbohydrate is the preferred energy source at altitude. Carbohydrate replaces depleted muscle glycogen (sugar stored in muscles), prevents muscle from being used as energy, and requires less oxygen for metabolism. A high-carbohydrate diet can reduce the onset and severity of AMS and improve physical performance. A low-carbohydrate diet can result in low blood sugar.

Although high-fat foods are energy dense, fat is not digested well at altitude because it requires more oxygen for metabolism than carbohydrate. When first arriving at high altitude your body uses more blood sugar as a fuel source during rest and during exercise. Muscle glycogen is not decreased but the reliance on fat for energy declines.

Put another way, fatigue and low blood sugar levels will occur more quickly at the same intensity of activity at altitude compared to sea level if increased carbohydrate intake does not occur. This is the main reason why most climbers return from a high altitude climb with significant weight loss, as I did when I returned from Mount Everest some 20kgs lighter.

But you must always remember eating whatever is on offer is better than not eating at all as the menu at high camp may not be to your liking. Altitude, believe me, does reduce your appetite so you have to make a conscious effort to eat and force feed yourself! Eating is key, no matter what it is and what it looks like. On average a climber on Mount Everest will burn 10,000 calories on summit day which compounds the need to eat, eat and eat, and of course hydrate, lots!

Coping with altitude is not easy, especially if you are feeling unwell, your physical well-being is paramount and being conscious of this can be vital. If you read my last blog you will understand. It is vital to ascend gradually. It is recommended not to climb above 300–500 meters a day, and after every 1,000 meters take a day off to rest. But as you reach high camp of any mountain you will be fully acclimatised following the rotation routines – climb high, sleep low is the general rule.

On all my high altitude climbs I have taken Diamox and it has worked for me. Diamox fools the body by registering excess CO2 and increases deeper and faster breathing, which in turn increases the amount of oxygen in the blood. It is also a diuretic and reduces any excess fluid on the vital organs. Some side effects which I’ve found very tolerable. I’d rather be well and enjoy my climbs than suffer throughout! Aspirin or Nurofen can be used.

Preparation; physically and mentally, is always key. Arriving at these high mountains with no doubts makes for such a more enjoyable expedition and summit. Till the next blog ….

Bring It On! Derek

DBA my friends …. Dream, Believe, and you will Achieve. 

Derek, is supporting the mental health charity, GROW, raising mental health awareness. If you’d like to donate please click the link: Donate to Derek Mahon 7 Summit Challenge Charitable Fund.