Avoiding Altitude Sickness

You should be prepared for the possible onset of altitude sickness. If an ascent to altitude is undertaken too quickly, altitude sickness is inevitable and may cause the sufferer to have to descend again, causing disappointment and an excessive use of the body’s energy stores. Altitude sickness generally doesn’t occur below 10,000 feet, but people have suffered its symptoms lower than 8,000 feet.

High altitudes are stressful on the body, and lack of oxygen up high can produce slightly debilitating effects, such as fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, and a drunken gait. A good knowledge of the signs and the effects of altitude sickness will enable the climber to prevent severe health disorders, or even death, which may occur in a short time. The following symptoms manifest altitude sickness:

– Acute indisposition with headache, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, dizziness, weakness and general health decline.
– Cerebral edema, with severe headache, violent vomiting, mental or visual disorder, instability, nausea, coma, inability to urinate, extreme fatigue.
– Pulmonary edema, evidenced through dyspnoea, cyanosis (blue colour on ears or lips), tachycardia, shortness of breath, coughing, unsteadiness, etc. (These symptoms most frequently appear in the evening after a hard day of ascent).

Both types of edemas are serious and must be treated urgently. The individual suffering from them must be removed from the mountain and seen by a medic as soon as possible. All these symptoms, however, may be prevented through proper acclimatization. Of course this doesn’t guarantee an easier time when up high, but it can enhance your lungs’ ability to cope with the challenges of high elevations. Less severe symptoms can be relieved through rest and through drinking plenty of water.

There’s not much else you can do to prevent this problem, but there are ways of alleviating its effects. The key to doing this is simple: take it easy and don’t panic.

1. Take a day or two before beginning the walk in to acclimatise yourself to the elevation. Play by the “climb-high, sleep-low” theory of ascent: go on a short hike to a higher elevation, then return to the (lower) elevation at which you’ll sleep.
2. Go at your own pace, and don’t take chances. Even if you’re in excellent shape, don’t be fooled. The lack of oxygen at such high altitudes can definitely throw your lungs for a loop.
3. Don’t carry too much weight.
4. Make sure to hydrate yourself regularly, drinking 4 to 5 liters of water per day; camelbacks can be mountain companions because of their convenient water portability. You can attach a 1 litre bottle to each side of your backpack so that you can reach them easily without removing your pack.
5. Taking antioxidant vitamins (A, C, and E) also helps reduce the effects of high altitudes.

People affected by altitude sickness can recover fairly well by coming down to lower altitudes as promptly as possible. This is not the case with affected people who stay exposed to high altitudes for longer periods. There is a certain level of altitude sickness which is tolerable and is perfectly normal. In these cases, a climber does not have to descend unless the symptoms worsen. A loss of appetite, being unable to sleep and feeling sick are all common and do not pose too much of a risk. A slow ascension is highly recommended from this point, and it is even worth remaining at the current altitude until the symptoms have reduced, at which point it is okay to continue gaining height.

Surefire signs of impending illness include extreme fatigue, headache, loss of appetite, and shortness of breath. If you experience any of these symptoms, the best thing to do is take a break from climbing for a couple days to acclimatise. Once the symptoms disappear, it’s safe for you to continue. If the symptoms persist or get worse, you should descend to a lower elevation.

There’s no way to predict who is more susceptible to altitude sickness although trekkers who overexert themselves, those who are panting or breathless, and those who stagger far behind the rest of the group are likely candidates. Past excursions to high elevations without developing symptoms is no guarantee against getting sick.

Increasing tiredness, severe headaches, vomiting, and loss of coordination, and are indicative of acute mountain sickness (AMS). If such symptoms appear, don’t hesitate to get immediate medical attention. If serious symptoms go ignored for more than 12 hours, they could have dire–even fatal–effects, such as accumulation of fluid in the lungs or brain. The most important symptom of AMS is loss of coordination. If someone staggers or walks in a drunken gait, check them out for further signs of AMS. A good test is, essentially, the police’s test for drunkenness – ask the person to walk in a straight line, placing one foot directly in front of the other without staggering or losing balance. If the person cannot perform, he or she should descend immediately – and never alone. Go slowly and without exertion, and ideally while it’s light outside. The descent should continue until symptoms begin to decrease; relief usually occurs within 1,000 to 1,500 feet.

Besides the physical illness, the psychological factors in the acclimatization process are very important. Symptoms such as nausea, headaches and appetite loss are perfectly normal – they’re part of the acclimatization process and nothing to worry about, but confidence about them only comes with experience.

Today in the Aconcagua National Park, a climber’s first duty upon arriving at Plaza de Mulas or Plaza Argentina is to go for a mandatory health check. This check involves having your blood oxygen level, heart rate, pulse and blood pressure taken to see whether you are fit to climb. The issue is that while you’re acclimatising your heart rate, pulse and blood pressure all go up sharply as your heart works harder to pump oxygen around the body. This is perfectly normal. People acclimatise at different speeds, and slow acclimatisers are going to have readings at the high end of the scale, suggesting they are less healthy than fast acclimatisers, but this doesn’t mean they’re going to perform poorly once they’re fully acclimated.

Fear of altitude sickness can help to bring it on. If an inexperienced climber who is perfectly healthy but suffering from mild altitude headaches sees a doctor’s reading which might indicate a dying person at sea level, they are likely to have the scare of their lives, increasing their chances of making themselves ill. So keep calm and try to postpone the base camp health check for as long as possible. This gives you more time to acclimatise, and your medical readings will be much healthier.

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