Climbing: the stuff they don’t advertise – Altitude sickness

Okay, so you are off to climb your first mountain.

You have done your training, bought lots of cool equipment, got your camera to record those “amazing moments”, and are raring to go.

Little do you realise that you could be one of the many who suffer from altitude sickness.

Altitude sickness can hit anyone. – the frustrating thing is it doesn’t matter how fit or healthy you are, you could be struck down with it!

In my case, on both my trips to Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua, I suffered from it quite badly (check out below – “High Altitude – How It Impacted Me”)

On my trip to Aconcagua, I was so ill that the guide refused to let me go on any further, despite reaching 6,700 metres!

Has this put me off climbing?

No. Why?

1)      I love climbing

2)      My body is acclimatizing to higher altitudes with every mountain I climb. When I climbed Aconcagua, I didn’t start to throw up until ~6,300 metres – Amazing, considering on Kilimanjaro I started to throw up at ~5,600 metres.

This gives me hope that one day I will be able to climb a mountain without throwing up!

3)      I am learning to enjoy the journey rather than focus on the summit. This may mean that I don’t make the summit on a climb (as with Aconcagua). BUT I am not worried about it – I plan to enjoy the experience!

4)      I have guardian angels looking after me, in the shape of the guides. The guides want you to enjoy the experience whilst making sure you come back in one piece. My advice is to listen to them, even though in the heat of the moment you may not agree with their decision!

Midula and altitude sickness

1)      Zero sleep – When trekking up Kilimanjaro I didn’t sleep a wink until after I had summated

2)      Loss of appetite – The day before summit day on Aconcagua, I hardly touched my food. My taste buds had stopped working – Everything tasted of cardboard. Result – I didn’t load up on enough calories for summit day

3)      Continuous vomiting – # of times throwing up on Kilimanjaro summit day – 8. # times throwing up on Aconcagua summit day – 4. Continuous vomiting equals loss of calories and inability to take in food or water. Result – I quickly ran out of fuel.

4)      Queasy feeling – See above

5)      Inability to talk – The mute button was switched on permanently on Aconcagua summit day

6)      Bad Attitude – Despite trying to keep a positive frame of mind, I found I was suffering from a bout of “feeling sorry for myself” on Aconcagua.

Sian and altitude sickness

1)      No sleep – It’s hard to isolate the altitude sickness from just the new surroundings and not being used to camping, but I also got absolutely no sleep for 8 days of trekking on Kilimanjaro and that just zapped my energy levels completely.

2)      Loss of appetite – Now I love my food (see above picture for evidence), but I could hardly eat anything at all. The thought of food made me feel sick and I had no energy to chew.

3)      Nausea – Unlike Midula, I wasn’t sick much (only once), but I had terrible nausea. The worse nausea I’ve ever experienced. It makes you feel so weak.

4)      Diarrhoea – Altitude plays havoc with your bowels and I was really quite ill and had to have diarrolyte and antibiotics.

5)      Negative attitude – I’m known for always smiling and laughing, and being quite good fun, but I was utterly, utterly miserable and negative.

7)      Breathlessness – Even walking from our tent to the dinner tent (up to 100 yards), I was so out of breath.

Reading all of this would make you think why the hell do they do it? But, doing Kilimanjaro and failing to reach the summit was the turning point in my life. Even though, if I’m honest, I didn’t enjoy Kilimanjaro at all, I can’t fail anything so I went off and lost 2.5 stone, got fit running in half marathons and tomorrow a marathon.

For Toubkal (4160 metres), although not as high as Kilimanjaro, I didn’t suffer any of the effects of altitude at all (on Kili I started suffering around 3800 metres) – not sure if this is linked to fitness, but I felt fine the whole time. I laughed a lot, ate a lot (3 course meals 3x a day) and had no nausea.

Prevention and treatment of altitude sickness

I’m no doctor, but I am a scientist and I understand the mechanisms of altitude sickness. Lots of people think that as you go higher there’s less oxygen, but that’s not entirely true. As you go higher, the air pressure is much lower so the oxygen molecules are further apart hence why you may experience rapid breath. Consequently, your body has to adjust (acclimatise) to having to use less oxygen. The other point is that because the air pressure is lower, water starts to leak out of your cells (the sea level air pressure holds the water in your cells) and in some people, that water can accumulate in the lungs and the brain (pulmonary and cerebral oedema).

So here are some of the things I have learnt along the way (most of these are still theoretical as the fact is we still don’t really understand why altitude sickness affects some people more than others):

1) Drink lots of water – you can lose quite a lot of water at altitude so the best thing to do is keep well hydrated.

2) Eat well – keep your energy levels up. Altitude sickness can creep up on people when they are not at their fittest so you need to keep your strength up!

3) Don’t over exert yourself – there’s no point in running around and pushing yourself too hard. Just take it one step at a time.

3) Diamox (250 mg once daily; consult with your doctor before taking) – The most well known treatment for altitude sickness. It’s actually not licensed for treating altitude sickness at all, it’s a drug for glaucoma (pressure on the optic nerve). I have taken diamox and it really helped improve my symptoms, but the jury is out as to whether it actually works or is just a placebo effect.

4) Ibuprofen – some recent research has shown that Ibuprofen may alleviate altitude sickness, although it’s unclear if it’s providing pain relief or actually treating the underlying cause.

5) Gingko – Randomised controlled trials have shown that this over-the-counter plant extract may also help treat the symptoms of altitude sickness. I took this on Kili and I don’t think it did anything at all, but that’s just me. As long as you are not taking any medications that are contraindicated with this (again, consult with your doctor first), it can’t hurt to take it.

Finally, don’t be put off by altitude sickness, remember to enjoy the experience, and always remember to KEEP SAFE to rule another day!


One thought on “Climbing: the stuff they don’t advertise – Altitude sickness

  1. Hi,
    I climbed kili about 5 years ago and started getting bad alt sickness at about 4000 m, at the base camp, I coudlnt eat and was being sick. I made the summit but dont remember much of it and felt awfull!
    I really want to climb acongagua but am very nervous that I will get very bad altitude sickness. I know they take a lot longer to aclimatise but I dont want to have a miserable time!
    How long did you take to do your aconcagua trek and what company did you use?

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