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How to avoid altitude sickness

altitude-sickness.jpgMount Elbert rises to 14,433 feet above sea level. Nothing in Colorado stands taller: the view is spectacular.

But if you ask 14 year old Travis Archuleta what he remembers most about Mount Elbert, it won’t be the view.

“I thought I was going to die,” he says.

He made the summit, but Travis was too sick to enjoy the moment. In fact, he blew lunch all over the side of the mountain.

Was it something he ate? Nope. The flu? No.

Instead, Travis was sickened by the altitude. And it could have been much worse. Altitude sickness can kill you.

Oxygen and you

Your body takes vital oxygen from the air you breathe. As you climb higher, the concentration of oxygen molecules (O2) in the air declines. Mountaineers call this “thin air.”

Your body may react in several ways to the reduced amount of oxygen in every breath, a condition doctors call hypoxia (high-POCKS-see-uh). Shortness of breath, expecially at any exertion, is one sign that you’re getting less oxygen. Headache is another. You may have trouble sleeping at high altitude. You’ll be tired, even if you’re in great shape, You also may lose your appetite, feel nauseated or even vomit.

Hape and Hace

Those are nasty feelings all right, but they usually don’t mean you’re seriously sick. You’re just suffering from thin air.

Sometimes, however, high altitude can cause fluid to collect in your lungs. This is called high Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). Your chest hurts, and it gets harder and harder to breathe, even while you’re resting. HAPE can be fatal if so much fluid collects that it is impossible to breathe.

Fluid also can collect inside your skull. This is known as High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). One symptom is severe headache, seemingly as if an elephant were stomping on your brain. Another is dizziness, or difficulty keeping your balance. A severe case of HACE will squish your brain, killing you even more quickly than HAPE.

You never know when HAPE or HACE will strike. Some climbers have developed serious problems as low as 8,000 feet. Other climbers may have no trouble at all at any height, then suddenly get hit with HAPE or HACE on their 10th or 15th ascent.

If you do develop either type of edema, you must get down the mountain to “thick air” as soon as possible — don’t wait until morning (unfortunately, HACE and HAPE often strike at night). The lower you go, the better you should feel. But make sure a doctor checks you out for possible internal damage.

doctor.jpgTake time to go High

Altitude sickness is never fun and sometimes very serious. But there are ways of preventing it. Before you climb high, a doctor may prescribe acetazolamide for you. Often sold as Diamox, this product protects you from mild sickness. However, it doesn’t have any effect on serious complications.

The best form of prevention is to take very good advice from Dr. Charles Houston, probably the world’s most famous altitude researcher: Take time to go high. Acclimitization, the process of adjusing your body to altitude, takes time. How much? Well, if you’re climbing to less than 8,000 feet, acclimitization probably is unnecessary. Between 8,000 and 10,000 feet is a sort of intermediate zone, where you’re still unlikely to have problems.

If you’re going above 10,000 feet, however, spend a day or two just below that plateau before pushing higher. And when you do, don’t gain more than 1,000 feet per day unless you can drop back to within 1,000 feet of where you were the previous day to sleep. For example, if you sleep one night at 11,000 feet, you can climb up to say, 14,000 feet, but then you should descend to 12,000 feet to sleep the second night.

Because you can blow off a lot of water with all the huffing and puffing, Dr. Houston also advises drinking extra water to avoid dehydration, and to avoid overexerting yourself until you’re fully acclimitized.

Turning up the Volume

You seal a trail snack in a plastic bag at sea level, leaving just a little bit of air in it. Then as you’re about to summit one of Colorado’s Fourteeners — Mountains at least 14,000 feet high — you reach for your bag to discover it now resembles a pillow.

Here’s what happened. Air pressure is a measure of all the air weighing down on a particular point. The lower you are, the higher the air pressure, and vice versa. So, as you climbed, the air pressure around you dropped, causing the air inside your sealed bag to expand, stretching out its flexible sides until the pressure inside the bag equaled the pressure outside.

Next time you fly somewhere, take along a small bag of your favorite chips, and then check it out when you hit cruising altitude. You’ll see that the same amount of air now occupies a much larger volume. That’s thin air.

7 Comments on How to avoid altitude sickness

  1. I am going to be heading to Colorado next month. The family wants to drive up pikes peak but I have not been up there since I was a teenager. I am also very overweight, I am worried about going up. Should I stay behind while everyone else goes or do you think it would be safe for me to attempt?

  2. Himalayophile // May 27, 2013 at 9:31 am // Reply

    So that’s what happened to me when I climbed to 14,000 feet a couple of months ago. I stay in reasonably good shape when I’m home (at sea level) but found it quite difficult to breathe above 10,000 feet. Very informative, thanks!

  3. altitude dosnet effect me i live at 6500 feet and when we went on a backpacking trip at 12500 feet everyone but me had trouble and i have ashama though its probibly couuse i live at 6500 ft which is cool so the artical didnt help me

  4. i am just about to do a high altitude trip, this really helped

  5. Thanks for the tips, especially about HAPE and HACE.

  6. Lightning Mcqueen // August 12, 2007 at 9:53 pm // Reply


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