Most serious mountain climbers and many long-distance trekkers will embark on adventures that bring with them the risk of altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness (AMS). AMS can become a problem at altitudes as low as 8,000 feet for those who are not properly prepared, and can be a serious issue for those venturing to heights of 13,000 feet or higher. Proper acclimatization to high altitude is essential, not just for being able to trek and climb at such heights, but to avoid serious health problems.
Climb High, Sleep Low
This is the core acclimatization technique. It is recommended for altitudes starting at 10,000 feet, but becomes very necessary once one gets above 13,000 feet. "Climb high, sleep low" is a process of setting up a base camp and making regular day hikes to substantially higher altitudes, then returning to the camp at a lower altitude for the night. A few days of this will prepare the body for a permanent move to a higher altitude by boosting the red blood cell count. Examples of this can be seen in most television series or books about climbing a great peak like Everest: months of preparation are spent moving up to ever-higher base camps and then making a series of acclimatization hikes. A more modest example is on the Annapurna Circuit trek in Nepal. Trekkers reaching the 11,500 foot-high village of Manang are encouraged to make at least one day hike up to above 14,000 or 15,000 feet before proceeding on to Thorong La, the world's highest pass at 17,769 feet.
Thin air will dehydrate the body more quickly, and dehydration slows acclimatization. Therefore, trekkers and climbers should keep in mind that their bodies are losing water at a faster rate than normal and drink more to compensate. Also, as consuming alcohol both tends to slow acclimatization in its own right and accelerate dehydration, it should be avoided on the way up.
Acetazolamide can help speed up the process of acclimatization. The usual prescription are 250 mg tablets taken twice a day, starting the day before the move to high altitude begins. Andean Indians also chew on coca leaves (the plant cocaine is derived from it) to help cope with the effects of working at high altitudes.
Be Aware of AMS Symptoms
Altitude sickness symptoms that are easy to identify include nausea, fatigue and malaise, insomnia, dizziness, swelling of the hands and feet and an abnormally high pulse rate. These symptoms should be taken as warnings to move to a lower altitude and spend more time at acclimatization. The signs that altitude sickness has become life-threatening are pulmonary and cerebral edema, both of which demand the climber or trekker return to lower altitude immediately.
Article Written By Edwin Thomas
Edwin Thomas has been writing since 1997. His work has appeared in various online publications, including The Black Table, Proboxing-Fans and others. A travel blogger, editor and writer, Thomas has traveled from Argentina to Vietnam in pursuit of stories. He holds a Master of Arts in international affairs from American University.