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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

The Manual: Stay Healthy at Altitude

Play it safe against altitude sickness.

by: Randy Stockbridge

Illustration by Supercorn
Illustration by Supercorn

 

 

Recognize it

>> Acute Mountain Sickness
Low atmospheric pressure at altitude reduces air density and makes it difficult for the vascular system to absorb and circulate oxygen. AMS is your body's response to the oxygen deficiency. Symptoms Nausea, vomiting, headache, insomnia, fatigue Severity Similar to a hangover; mild symptoms appear within 10 hours. Probability In Summit County, Colorado, one quarter of visitors experience symptoms of AMS above 8,000 feet, and nearly half do at 10,000 feet.

>> High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
Fluid buildup in the lungs Symptoms Dry cough, shortness of breath at rest, severe trouble breathing Severity HAPE is the most common cause of altitude-related deaths. Probability Severe cases are rare, but one in 100 climbers above 14,000 feet experiences symptoms that require treatment.

>> High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
Fluid-caused cranial pressure Symptoms Mental impairment, confusion, loss of coordination/balance Severity HACE can be fatal; immediate descent is required. Probability Can occur above 10,000 feet, but is rare below 14,000 feet.

Training
The best prep? Spend time hiking above 8,000 feet. But if you live at sea level, build aerobic capacity by exercising at 70 percent of your max heart rate four times a week. Also, maintain your iron level, which helps with oxygen delivery. Take supplements or eat iron-rich foods, like red meat and greens.



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READERS COMMENTS

Maxine henry
Mar 10, 2012

I seldom get altitude sickness when I'm climbing in to a location but have now had it several times when flying in to high altitudes - e.g. La Paz and Quito. I go a day early and plan on being sick for 24 hrs. Nasty headache, vomiting and extreme fatigue. There is no "down" to go to. I drink lots of water, take ibuprofen and electrolytes. Any thoughts or suggestions??

Arnie
Mar 09, 2012

Dont be afraid to use Diamox or Viagra. It helps a lot if you start taking it 24 hours before you start & got me over 19,000.

Erin F
Jan 02, 2012

I LIVE at 5K and if I attempt to sleep above 10K feet on my first night - I get nailed by mountain sickness.

While I agree that one should not be frightened of ascending, one should go cautiously the first time and learn one's own personal needs and possible restrictions.

Descending almost always makes the person feel better. When I first discovered I was susceptible to AMS, it was my first backpacking overnight. I didn't feel well at camp and after an hrs rest (tried to eat, drink electrolytes) I finally decided to break camp, descend 500ft (or maybe 750, def less than 1k), vomiting once along the way, and sleep at a lower elevation. I felt much better when I descended.

Acclimating to 5K or even 10K feet helps, but every person is DIFFERENT. My boyfriend has zero issues with altitude, while I can't sleep the first night above 10K.

I thank the heavens I was with a partner the day I learned my susceptability. Since then, I have managed to backpack up to above 11K, but I'm no fool. I know my restrictions, always try to sleep below 10K the first night (which sometimes requires an extra night) to help myself adjust.

Each person is different, but you won't know your personal restrictions until you try!

Eric Nelson
Nov 07, 2011

My father-in-law and two of my kids (age 12 and 9) and I did a day hike from about 9000 to 12000 feet in CO. My daughter, the 9 year old, had a bad headache at the top. We had a quick lunch, I gave her a couple Ibuprofen (yeah, I know it says it's for 12 an over) and she was fine about half way down. I did not monitor her water intake carefully, but she certianly could have been a little low. We had been at or above 5000 feet for nearly a week so I figured the kids and I were acclimatized. We are from Michigan. We hiked nine miles round trip. They were great to have along, and Grandpa told us all about jackstrawing of the lodgepoles and helped us identify many other western apline trees. Don't be afraid to take your youngin's up high. They'll love it. AND DRINK LOTS OF WATER!!

artmart
Nov 05, 2011

I have only had Altitude sickness twice in my backpacking/hiking career of about 40 years. I have gotten tired as heck because of altitude, but once acclimated I will do great. When you can avoid it it's great, but when it happens, whoa!!! Both times I got it, I aborted and went to lower altitude then was able to recover. The first time it was just headaches, the last time this past year it was headache, severe nausea and some vomiting, but I returned to the trailhead about 1200 ft below and recovered 100%. Scared my friends but it turned out good. It does bring out all had our "altitude sickness" stories.

I do know another father/son story exactly like what was described by Jason W. What do you do when this occurs after some days on the trail? lower altitude and rest!

DyanTX
Nov 05, 2011

AMS hits me going from sea level to 5000 ft. Taking gingko biloba - 250 mg doses 3 times daily - starting a few days before and continuing into the trip reduces symptoms and duration. Limited studies have been done and it doesn't work for everyone. Acclimation is still the best.

Alf
Nov 04, 2011

Ginger is also an excellent anti-inflamatory

Anonymous
Nov 04, 2011

Luke
Nov 04, 2011

Another important detail left out of this article is that just because a few trips may be symptom free, it does not mean that future ones will be as well. Experienced mountaineers and Sherpas have gotten in trouble and/or died of altitude related causes despite having summited many mountains, or in the case of Sherpas, lived at altitude all their lives.

Luke
Nov 04, 2011

I would like to see some of the sources of information used for this article. The article seems to suggest that aerobic exercise will help minimize risks and suggests increasing iron intake. As far as all my research has shown, there is no evidence linking physical fitness and decreased risk for AMS. In fact, altitudereserach.org explicitly states there is no link between physical fitness and susceptibility to altitude sickness. The only way to decrease risk are acclimatization and taking it slow on the way up. In fact, in his book on the subject, Bezruchka suggests that those less in shape may be less inclined to experience symptoms as they tend to be slower, taking longer to gain altitude.

Furthermore, the article suggests eating red meat. Studies have shown that eating red meat may be associated with elevated blood pressure. Given that blood pressure medication is used to treat altitude sickness, I sincerely question the benefit at placing one's self at higher risk for elevated blood pressure while going to altitude. altituderesearch.com suggests taking steps to lower blood pressure while going to altitude (i.e. avoiding alcohol and excessive salt intake).

I hope that the writer of this magazine took time to get all the facts straight before providing potentially dangerous information to readers. I also wish that the editors would be a bit more prudent about fact checking.

Jason W.
Nov 04, 2011

My 12 year old showed signs of AMS (severe headache and vomiting) on the way to Kings Peak at our 10k base camp. Trouble was the trailhead was 8 miles away (in the dark) and only dropped 500' or so. Felt kind of stuck. He survived the night in misery, and insisted on summiting the next day despite my grave reservations. This stuff is real.

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