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This summer I'm planning to mount my first 4000 m mountain in Switzerland. So far I only got around 3300 meters while hiking and had no problems. However 4000 meter an above is definitively a different category.

Since my goal requires a little bit of experience how to cross a glacier, I will do this in a guided tour, since it is my first time. There are basically two opportunities:

1) On day 1 arrive around lunch time on a mountain hut located around 3600 m. Do some hikes in the near surrounding and stay there over night to acclimatisation a little bit. On day 2 in the early morning go up to the mountain (4050m) and descend to 500m and go home.

2) Arrive early on the first day, go up to the mountain and in only a few hours back to 500m. This would include a visit of approximately 5 hours on altitudes higher than 3000m.

Now if heard, that if you're staying only a very short amount of time on high altitudes (a few hours) you probably won't get any altitude problems. That would justify to choose option 2. On the other hand, acclimatisation isn't a bad thing, but is less than 24 hours as planned in option 1 reasonable?

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I would not recommend attempting it without any acclimatisation whatsoever, at best you will make it much harder on yourself, at worst you will have terrible headache and ruin your experience. I do option 1 when I am climbing in the Alps. –  Stony Sep 10 '13 at 16:10
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2 Answers

Either option is acceptable, particularly since you aren't going very high. There are rare instances where people get Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) or worse even at relatively low altitudes, and these are more common when there is no acclimatization. However, it is very rare for such problems to suddenly arise and not be fixable (through rapid descent). Each option has advantages and disadvantages.

Option 1:

  • More time at the mountain (more relaxed)
  • Some acclimatization benefit
  • Takes longer
  • Possible sleepless night may mean a rough summit day

Option 2:

  • Quick and easy
  • No acclimatization benefit
  • One big push might be too much for some people
  • No acclimatization increases risks for AMS, headaches, fatigue, etc.

In terms of comfort, this will depend on the person. Option 1 might include a sleepless or restless night, since it is the first night after rising 3100m, which would be very uncomfortable. On the other hand, if you sleep well, the extra mild exertion and time at altitude will help somewhat. Option 2 might be less comfortable due to the hard work at high elevations with no acclimatization. Again, though, the short timeline means that if you are otherwise healthy, rested, and hydrated, there is a good chance you will be rather comfortable aside from having to push a little harder.

Others might lean one way or the other, but honestly I'd focus on staying strong and healthy, and taking the most convenient option.

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I think @Greg's answer is excellent, but I'd add the following. It's true that there's a delay before altitude sickness sets in - this is what makes going up to a 4000 meter peak on your second day possible. However, should conditions on the top be bad, and you end up staying up there, you are at some risk of altitude sickness. For example, if you twist your ankle on the top and going down becomes a much slower affair. I'd still say that both options are doable and not particularly risky, even if it wasn't a guided tour, but it's worth mentioning.

Personally, I'd prefer the first option, but that's me.

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