With working lives busier than ever before, climbers and expeditioners are looking for new ways to cram more adventure into less time. Taking this approach, “Flash Expeditions” have appeared on the offerings of several high-altitude climbing companies in recent years.
ExpedReview caught up with Lukas Furtenbach of Furtenbach Adventures to find out a little more about Flash Expeditions and what they entail.
So what is a Flash Expedition?
When we use normobaric hypoxic systems (i.e. an aclimatisation tent) to acclimatise at home - with the goal of reducing the duration of an expedition - we call it a Flash Climb or Flash Expedition.
For example, climbing Everest in three weeks, instead of the usual eight weeks. This year we had a climber who climbed K2 without supplemental oxygen in a 21-day round trip from New York.
Tell us about acclimatising in the tent at home?
Acclimatisation using hypoxic tents means exposing the body to normobaric hypoxia (normal pressure, low oxygen) and thereby initiating the process of acclimatisation.
A filter extracts oxygen from the ambient air and then blows it into a tent. The filter can be regulated, simulating oxygen levels at a particular altitude. In contrast to hypobaric hypoxia (low pressure, low oxygen), the air pressure within the tent remains the same.
Studies show that air pressure only plays a minor role, if at all, in the acclimatisation process. Regular systems can simulate altitudes from 4,500 to 5,000 meters (depending on the altitude at which it is situated). With specialist systems and certain procedures, an altitude of up to 8,000 meters can be simulated in your home.
Do climbers use the tents for long periods in the run-up to an expedition?
Depending on your particular goal, you can sleep with one of these tents set up over your bed for a certain number of weeks, gradually increasing the simulated altitude to fit your programme.
Similar to a ‘real’ altitude situation, symptoms associated with acclimatisation can occur such as disturbed sleep, headaches or Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Just like at real altitude, these symptoms differ from one person to the next.
For the best results (i.e. full preparation for very high altitude) we use instruments to measure the oxygen level in the tent, the person’s blood oxygen saturation levels and breathing rate at all times.
A distinction must be made between the use of hypoxic tents from a training point of view, as in professional endurance sport, and using them for acclimatisation to prepare for moderate to high altitudes and shorten or do away with the time required for acclimatisation on the ground.
So you actually spend more time at altitude then?
For an Everest Flash Expedition, the total time of altitude exposure is actually more than on a regular expedition - eight weeks in a hypoxic tent compared to four weeks on the mountain.
Based on the current thinking in altitude medicine, which claims that the risk of altitude-related physiological complications decreases when longer acclimatisation times are undertaken, then it follows that the level of risk on a Flash Expedition is lower than on a regular expedition.
Another important element of our Flash Expeditions is monitoring vital signs like the climber’s blood oxygen levels and their heart rate. This now changes the way we can climb high mountains, because decision making on the oxygen flow rate can be objective and based on data, instead of a traditional subjective estimate by a climber or guide.
Why take this approach?
The number one goal is to make expeditions safer. I was a participant in a study on hypoxic pre-acclimatisation at the University of Innsbruck almost 20 years ago. Since then I have used and experimented with the concept of normobaric hypoxic acclimatisation.
I went on my first expedition with hypoxic preparation about 15 years ago. We [Furtenbach Adventures] used the hypoxic program on Broad Peak and Cho Oyu about 10 to 15 years ago, and have used it successfully on both sides of Everest since 2016.
For example, in 2018 we had the shortest successful commercial Everest expedition ever related to our own hypoxic program with a customized piece of hypoxic equipment. From leaving their front door, to reaching the summit, it took our clients 21 days.
Flash Expeditions require a lot of experience with hypoxic programs, and the right approach on the mountain. Without this experience, there is a high risk that things can go wrong. But if done right, it can definitely make expeditions safer.
So after pre-acclimatising at home, when you get to Base Camp (let’s say Everest for example) how is the usual acclimatisaion schedule reduced? Can you head straight up to Camp One as soon as you reach Base Camp?
Yes, our hypoxic training program allows clients to go without oxygen directly to Camp One on Everest at 7,000 meters (interim camp at Advanced Base Camp), and back. This is a safety rotation, and then the next rotation is the summit push.
Could you do a Flash Expedition without supplemental oxygen?
Yes. We had Flash climbers going without oxygen on Broad Peak and K2 this year.
For Broad Peak, it was 14 days from home to the summit, and for K2 ,21 days. On Everest we had a Flash climber without oxygen up to 8,300 meters. We eventually told him to use oxygen because he became too slow to keep up with the group (as agreed beforehand). I am very confident that Everest can be done in a 14-day roundtrip without oxygen.
For those doing Flash Expeditions with supplemental oxygen, are the average flow rates different to a normal expedition?
Yes and no. Flow rates are always set individually. Blood oxygen monitoring (using a pulse oximeter) shows how important it is to give a climber exactly the amount of oxygen that they need. Not a standard flow rate that might work for one person, but is too much or not enough for another. We also use eight-litre regulators to allow climbers to pass crux sections faster (e.g. second step on Everest).
It sounds like Flash Expeditions might make things safer in terms of altitude problems, but does reducing time on the mountain have a negative impact on climbers’ mountain sense (e.g. ability to read the weather, avalanche status, knowing when to turn back etc.) and the sharpness of their climbing skills?
We follow the approach that our climbers should already have climbing skills when they go on expedition and not learn them on Everest. Weather reports are very accurate today, and the avalanche situation has to be evaluated on a daily basis anyway. So no, I can't see any negative impact. Only positive.
As part of expedition life is being around Base Camp, soaking up the views and meeting new people, do people miss out by spending less time on the mountain during Flash Expeditions?
No, they also meet other people and they can enjoy the same views. They still spend a lot of time in Base Camp. It is just the endless, boring waiting days and weeks that are cut out.
What reasons do climbers give for wanting to do a Flash Expedition?
Their job or family situation doesn’t allow them to go on a trip for eight or nine weeks. Three to four weeks is somehow doable for most people if it is a once in a lifetime experience.
Check out all of Furtenbach's Flash offerings on the Furtenbach Adventure Guide Profile Page here on Expedreview!