Ultimate Guide to Preventing and Overcoming Altitude Sickness
This blog is a part of our Trekking 101 series, powered by ULTIMATE TREKKER – the Outdoor Leadership Programme for pro trekkers.
The mountains were probably calling and you had to go. The lure of trekking the Indian Himalayas is too much to disregard. As much as the snowy peaks, the luxuriant green meadows and the umpteen gorgeous rivulets delight the human soul, mountains can often be harsh on the human body. A very common manifestation of their malignancy is acute mountain sickness while trekking.
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.
In our consultation with Pranav, our long standing mountain expert, 4Play unearthed a lot of commonly ignored facts on altitude sickness and its prevention.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Whenever trekking in India in a high-altitude region, especially when reaching elevations higher than 8000 feet, one can be certain of some degree of altitude sickness to affect you. To alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness, it is paramount to acclimatize yourself first. Climb gradually and steadily to give time to your body to get used to the rarefied air.
Always follow the golden rule of acclimatization, ‘Climb high, sleep low’. After reaching 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) do not gain more than 300 meters (1000 feet) per day for sleeping. You may climb as high as you wish but make sure that you return to your base camp which is no more than 300 meters (1000 feet) higher than previous night’s sleep elevation. Throw in an occasional day of rest between hikes as it will allow your body to operate well even with the decreased oxygen at high altitude.
Smoking and drinking alcohol at altitude can increase the chances of high altitude sickness because they decrease the rate of respiration during sleep and tend to increase the risk of dehydration.
Taking faster, deeper breaths at elevation also dehydrates you and therefore it is paramount to understand the importance of drinking enough water. One way of finding out if you are taking enough water is to check if your urine is clear and copious. If it is not, you need to have more water. Also increase the intake of carbohydrates as metabolism at high altitude warrants an increased intake of energy. Hence, what to carry on your trek including right clothing for hiking becomes an important factor for consideration.
If you or your friend’s body starts showing altitude sickness symptoms, do not go any higher until they reduce or completely disappear. Giving oxygen, if it is available, keeping the person warm, resting and having plenty of liquids will reduce symptoms. You could use Acetaminophen or an NSAID (such as ibuprofen) for headache relief but rather than trying to suppress the symptoms, if your condition doesn’t improve in 24-48 hours, start descending a few hundred feet to lower altitudes. In case of severe symptoms, the person should immediately be brought down to 1,500 – 2,000 feet while preventing exertion as far as possible.
High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
This is a potentially fatal condition in which the capillaries leak fluid which accumulates in the lungs. HAPE is quite uncommon but people who ascend rapidly to altitudes above 8000 feet (2500 m) may risk having it. As the case with other high altitude illnesses ascending slowly can prevent HAPE. Preventive altitude sickness medicines include Nifedipine (often used to treat high blood pressure), Tadalafil and Dexamethasone but unless you have a history of HAPE preventive medicines are not recommended.
HAPE treatments, besides descend, include providing supplementary oxygen, the most effective treatment and must be started as soon as symptoms arise and can be life-saving in circumstances. Apart from this, treatment in a ‘portable hyperbaric chamber’ may be administered until descent is possible. Oxygen can also be used inside a hyperbaric chamber.
High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
This is a medical emergency and immediate treatment includes descending to a lower altitude. Delay in descend can lead to life threatening complications and can even be fatal as the symptoms can worsen very quickly. Supplementary oxygen should be provided as a temporary measure until descent is possible. Portable hyperbaric chamber can also be life-saving until descent is possible. Dexamethasone should be administered immediately if one develops signs of HACE, with a recommended dosage of 8 to 10 mg orally. One should take 4 mg once every six hours thereafter until complete descent.
The crux of the matter as Pranav puts it is, ‘Monitoring ascend, climbing high but sleeping low and frequently hydrating oneself. There is no bigger reward than the beauty you will get to explore in the mountains but only if you play by their rules’
Have you or someone you know ever suffered from issues of acclimatization and altitude sickness? We are all ears, comment 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.