Adventures with Altitude Sickness

Last year I had the amazing experience of returning to Peru to hike the Huayhuash Circuit. This is a pretty amazing 11 day trek and rates as one of the best hikes in the world. It was my first time ever at altitude and I’d heard a lot of stories.

Before I left, I did a bit of reading on altitude sickness (OK, I Googled it a couple of times) and spoke with a whole bunch of friends who’ve been there, done that.

The strongest messages that came across were these:

  • You can’t predict how you will react to altitude
  • Your reaction doesn’t depend on physical fitness
  • Just because you had a bad experience once, doesn’t mean you’ll react the same again***
  • Take ascending slow
  • Take time to aclimatise
  • Trek high – sleep low
  • Keep your fluids/water up
  • Eat healthy

Well, I can pretty much vouch for all of these. Even though I did all the right things*, I still had a couple of really, super crappy moments up there.

The other interesting bit of advice I received, was that many of the experienced guides in the Huayhuash don’t recommend taking Diamox*. Certainly, our guide (and my friends who did the trek the previous year), felt this way. As a result, I took some with me to Peru, but didn’t start taking it until day 3, after a particularly bad morning.

This little video clip gives a few little insights into how my body reacted to being at altitude. I hope you find it useful!

Oh and if anybody asked me if I’d go back to altitude? I say, ‘there’s so much under 2,228m** that I want to do, it will have to wait***!’

(Stay tuned for the full trip video… coming soon!)

** Australia’s highest mountain is Mt Kosciuszko at 2,228m.

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    • says

      Yes, the trip was amazing!! The other members of my group had already had a week at Cusco, so were used to the altitude. I went from Lima (sea level) to Huaraz 3,052m overnight, where I had a couple of days, including some local walks up some hills, before hitting the start of the track at 4,000m. I took it all very slow… Hence my nickname became Tortuga (turtle) up to the passes, but still had these crappy symptoms.

      I don’t want to be a complainer, but one of the things I love about hiking is that it makes me feel great physically. Unfortunately, in Peru I never felt great, so had to find other things to enjoy about the trip!

      • says

        Fantastic…I’m climbing in Nepal in November 6,000m+ and we’ll spend four weeks there in total, acclimatising as we go, but you know that there will be days that you won’t feel well…!!

        What’s next for you?

      • says

        Next? Hmmm. I tend not to be a big trip goal kinda gal. For me it’s the goal of doing stuff regularly, every week… But the longterm wishlist includes traversing the full length of the Flinders Ranges (along the tops, not Heysen Trail), The Kimberleys, Western Arthurs and K2K in a day (Kanangra to Katoomba in a day: My club runs it every August and this is the first year I think I’ll be fit enough for such a challenge!)

  1. dagraper says

    Alt sickness medication is a dangerous thing: it battles the symptoms (and discomforts), but does nothing to cure the condition itself. Hence, they are very useful to allow you to descend again, but not, as many do, to just feel better and continue ascending.

    Acclimatisation is indeed the key. Keep your fluids up and remember to keep eating and drinking. One of the first symptoms of high alt disease is the loss of any feeling of hunger. Force yourself to eat and drink at regular intervals. I always recommend soup: fluids, fat and salt…three necessities to keep going.

    Alt sickness is not dangerous and lethal at the same time. It can easily be treated by descending, but can be fatal through oedema when it is ignored.

    I personally don’t seem to develop it quickly and was lucky enough to only suffer from mild cases, but I’ve seen it go very bad several times with others before, including hallucinations, loss of conscious, …

    It has always fascinated me ever since…

    • says

      Indeed! It truly is wacky and fascinating how our bodies react. Definitely agree about the loss of appetite though and constant nausea. I understand my case was mild and it can get much worse – it would be very tricky in rough/difficult terrain to get someone down quickly if they’re blacking out.

      My amazing friend gave a presentation at my bushwalking club last night and talked about a woman she met on her descent from Everest who was incoherent and stumbling around. By staying to help her down, Chris ran out of oxygen… she was all good in the end, but the implications for illness or injury at altitude (or anywhere in the wilderness) can affect everyone – not just the patient.

      I’m amazed by our bodies… we truly are awesomely put together and there is so much we don’t know :-)

      • dagraper says

        I had one guy once, up in the Moroccon Atlas mountains, who suddenly started babbling about snakes and pointing to a stick, before blacking out.

        Any injury or illness indeed affects the whole group and even the smallest of afflictions can suddenly become a big deal when you’re in the wild.

  2. says

    I hate altitude sickness, I live at 5600 feet and my backyard is filled with mountains over 14000ft calling to me. But some days it still knocks me off my feet no matter how well I have prepared. Fortunately I have the luxury of it being so close that one bad ascent can be attempted again the next week. Great post!!!!

  3. says

    Hello, I am the director of research for Alpine Performance Labs, a Denver based company that specializes in altitude training and acclimatization science. There are a variety of ways to treat and prevent altitude sickness that have not been mentioned in this post or the comments. First, the use of apnea training and pranayama can be used to improve lung function and enhance the pulmonary aspect of acclimatization that is most crucial at high altitudes. Viagra can also be taken to dilate pulmonary blood vessels to enhance 02 uptake in lungs, prevent pulmonary hypertension and edema. My company has also developed a supplement that allows you to pre-acclimatize the body to high altitude at sea-level. It works by improving carotid body sensitivity to induce hematological acclimatization and and pulmonary acclimatization in normoxia. This is a new development in the world of high altitude mountaineering that is being endorsed by numerous high altitude physicians and professional mountaineers. Hope this information helped!

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