Mountain Altitude Sickness for Dummies
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
You are out on a trek and feeling disgruntled for no reason at all. You also have frequent bouts of breathlessness and have trouble sleeping at night. Is there something wrong with the mountain air?
Nothing. These are all symptoms of altitude sickness that you are suffering from. Each of these experienced below 2500 meters would have been brushed aside as symptomatic of you feeling moody. But above that altitude these can be indicative of something sinister.
4Play aims to create awareness about the best practices, specific to the Indian outdoors. And enable you to step out with confidence. By making accessible an ocean of empirical knowledge gathered by the Indian Bear Grylls – Pranav Rawat himself.
Pranav Rawat is a seasoned mountaineer and an ice-climber, with a decade long experience as a summiteer. Pranav is also an UIAA certified Himalayan Mountain Guide and Wilderness First Responder, which makes him an unparalleled expert on climbing and trekking in the Indian Himalayas.
Altitude sickness? Have heard that before but what is it exactly?
The physical distress experienced because of difficulty in adjusting to lower oxygen pressure at high altitude is called altitude sickness. Sometimes called ‘mountain sickness’ altitude sickness is a set of symptoms that can affect you if you climb to a high elevation, too quickly and without adequate preparation. Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness (AMS) can occur in some individuals from as low as 2500 meters.
Yeah, I remember my trek leader talk about it. Are there types?
The first is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS): The mildest and most common form and can almost feel like a hangover – dizziness, headache, muscle aches, nausea, loss of appetite, shortness of breath, disturbed sleep with vivid dreams, general feeling of fatigue accompanied with morose feelings.
Next is High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE): An accumulation of fluids in the lungs and a very serious condition. It is the reason for all the other mild and very serious symptoms and is often accompanied by a fever. HAPE can lead to unconsciousness and can even be fatal if left untreated. In fact High-altitude pulmonary edema is the number one cause of death from altitude sickness.
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And lastly High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE): A build-up of fluids around the brain, HACE can lead from unconsciousness to death within a short duration (10-12 hours) from the onset of first symptoms. It normally takes two days to develop and as the brain swells with fluid, the person’s mental state changes. Loss of coordination, coma, and in rare cases death can follow unless the problem is recognized and treated promptly. It is for these reasons it is always recommended to get a trekking insurance when attempting serious treks, to facilitate evacuation and treatment.
Damn, that sounds serious. What causes it though?
With an increase in altitude, the amount of oxygen available for mental and physical alertness goes down with the falling air pressure. At sea level the concentration of atmospheric oxygen is 21%. At higher altitudes, although the concentration of oxygen does not change, the number of oxygen molecules decreases. To compensate for this shortfall one has to breathe faster and therefore the heart beats faster too. Although this raises blood oxygen levels, it isn’t enough to match the oxygen available at lower altitudes.
To lend perspective, at approximately the height of 4000 meters, each breath you take will have around half the amount of oxygen as compared to sea level. Moreover the dehydration experienced due to an increased rate of water vapour lost from the lungs contributes to the symptoms of altitude sickness.
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Am I susceptible to AMS?
Yes, everyone is. However the rate of ascent, previous exposure to altitudes, current altitude attained, amount of physical activity at high altitude and individual susceptibility are all contributing factors to the severity and onset of altitude sickness. It is noteworthy though that it is not the altitude alone which causes it, rather it is the speed at which one ascends to that particular altitude. It is hence not uncommon to find younger, fitter people being affected by AMS because they are more likely to attempt a faster ascent.
Give me more dope on that. Can I prevent it?
To avoid altitude sickness, plan a sensible itinerary which allows you to gradually ascend and prepares you for altitude acclimatization. Remember you can always hurry back down if required, but ascends should always be gradual. For more details check out Pranav’s tips on how to prevent altitude sickness.
Have you ever experienced altitude sickness on a trek? Tell us more in the comments section below.
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Author: Pranav Manocha
Pranav is a Nepal earthquake survivor with a flair for marketing. Beginning with a Quote T-Shirt business with a school friend after grade 12, he did his graduation in Literature from the University of Delhi. In his free time he loves reading Camus, trail riding and skinny dipping in rivulets around Manali.