Believe it or not, your body behaves differently at 5000+ meters – which is why you need to know what happens to it before climbing those high mountains far above the clouds. So let’s talk about the symptoms of altitude sickness and how to prevent it so you can conquer the world’s peaks.
Why is Altitude Sickness Dangerous at 5000+ meters?
Mountain sickness – also called altitude sickness – is caused by oxygen deficiency. You might start feeling symptoms at 2000 meters, but once over the 5000+ meters mark, almost everyone does.
It can manifest suddenly, especially when you exceed your body’s limits. And when that happens – hello oxygen starvation.
It often happens gradually, however. The first sign is general fatigue – regardless of how much you’ve pushed yourself or not, the distance you’ve covered, and steepness of the slope. Muscle weakness, drowsiness, malaise, and even dizziness follow shortly after.
Those who stay at the same altitude or who try to go higher will feel worse – becoming “victims of the mountains.” Symptoms include poor digestion, frequent nausea, and even vomiting. In worst cases, breathing rhythm breaks down, together with chills and fever.
So don’t push yourself to the limit because recovery takes a while.
- The First Stage of Altitude Sickness
The very first stages require no special treatment, in most cases, because symptoms usually disappear after enough rest – a sign of acclimatization..
- The Second Stage of Altitude Sickness
Without enough rest and other factors, it progresses to the second stage – chronic. Chronic symptoms are similar to those in the first stage, but are much stronger and include:
- Acute headaches,
- Pronounced drowsiness,
- Engorged blood vessels in the hands,
- Possible nosebleeds,
- Breathing difficulties ,
- Expansion of the chest, sometimes becoming barrel-shaped,
- Increased irritability,
- Loss of consciousness.
These are serious problems requiring urgent medical care. It also means you need to get back down to lower altitudes – ASAP.
Warning! The above symptoms are often preceded by excitation or euphoria similar to being drunk.
Why Does Altitude Sickness Happen?
Simply put – because of a lack of oxygen in the blood. If prolonged, it affects many of the body’s organs, systems, and functions.
Among the most important of these is the nervous system. An early sign that it’s in trouble is hypoxia – when too little oxygen reaches the tissues. The result is excitation and a feeling of self-satisfaction. Those with hypoxia become cheerful and talkative, while losing control over their bodies and showing poor judgment.
The cheerfulness and talkativeness don’t last, however. What follows is depression -- expressed by sullenness, grumbling, combativeness, and even sudden attacks of violence. Such people suffer from restless sleep plagued by weird dreams and bad feelings.
Hypoxia at 5000+ Meters
At high altitudes, hypoxia severely affects the the higher nervous centers. This results in a lack of physical sensitivity, impaired mental judgment, loss of self-control, diminished interest in things, a lack of initiative, and in the worst cases, some memory loss.
The most noticeable symptoms include:
- Slower reaction times with decreased accuracy in physical movements,
- Poor sense of coordination,
- Mental and physical depression resulting in mental dullness, illogical thinking, slower movements, and poor reflexes.
Despite these, those affected are convinced that nothing’s changed. So they continue as before – or try to. This can lead to dangerous consequences, such as developing:
- An obsession with going on with the climb,
- A conviction that they are absolutely correct in everything, and
- An intolerance of criticism.
A group leader who exhibits such symptoms becomes dangerous because they are responsible for others’ lives. It’s therefore imperative that those being led recognize the signs so they can respond appropriately for their own safety and well-being.
Hypoxia’s Sequence of Symptoms
The ten most common sequence of events signaling the onset of hypoxia include:
- Taking great effort with various tasks,
- Increasing criticism of other hiking-mates,
- Unwillingness to think things through,
- Increasing irritability of the senses,
- Responding to criticism with irritation,
- Difficulty in maintaining mental focus,
- Slow thinking,
- Constant repetition of words and phrases,
- Problems with memory.
Severe heat loss can also result because of the lower temperatures at higher altitudes. Those who succumb become even sicker – hence the need to keep them warm.
Dealing with Altitude Sickness
In order to mitigate the effects of altitude sickness, it’s important to consider several factors, including your body, the pace of your climb, and the environment. If you understand these, you can strategize accordingly.
Since environmental factors change due to weather conditions, terrain, distance from water, and climate zone, altitude sickness can strike at different heights. In the Caucasus, for example, symptoms may strike at altitudes of as low as 3000-3500 meters. In the Altai, Fan Mountains, and Pamir-Alai Mountain Range, it can happen higher up at 3700-4000 meters. In the Tien Shan Mountains, people notice it at 3800-4200 meters, while mountaineers making their way up the Pamir start reporting symptoms at 4500-5000 meters.
Though altitude sickness affects everyone, it does so at different levels. Some feel the first signs at relatively low altitudes – 2100-2400 meters, while others only start feeling it at around 4200-4500 meters. Once past the 5000-meter mark, however, almost every mountain climber experiences it.
Acclimatization: Why It’s Important
Prolonged stays at high altitudes force many changes upon the body. To prevent or minimize serious damage, acclimatization is therefore necessary.
Acclimatization is how the body and mind adapts to an environment different from what they’re used to and have become comfortable with. In the particular case – to a much higher altitude.
To do that, you need to spend some time at an altitude that’s much higher than your campsite. Doing so forces your body to adapt to less oxygen, and prepares your mind for the journey to come.
Once there, your body goes, “A-hah! So this is what less oxygen feels like. I’d better adapt.” By the time you get back down to camp, your body already knows what it has to do when next you make your way back up.
- How to Effectively Acclimate Yourself:
- Sleep at a low altitude at night, but climb higher in the day.
This lets you to know the passes at the start of your route and forces your body to begin adapting to less oxygen. The important thing is to only descend in the evening.
- 2. Do not climb more than 1000 meters a day and never sleep higher than 500 meters than you did the previous night.
- 3. Absolutely no alcohol as it aggravates hypoxia.
Your body needs rest to get rid of hypoxia, and it can’t do that with a "good cognac" because alcohol prolongs hypoxia. You can reward yourself with a glass of wine once you’ve come back down from the mountain.
While your body adapts to less oxygen, you may experience the following:
- To ensure that enough oxygen gets to your central nervous system, it will reduce the amount to other, less critical organs – making them sluggish;
- Since your respiratory system is the most sensitive to oxygen deficiency, your breathing will become deeper.
Once you’ve completely acclimatized to 5500 meters, all of your bodily functions (breathing, digestion, heart beat, blood pressure, and others) will return to normal and run as they do while at low altitudes. The same cannot be said at higher altitudes of over 6000 meters.
At such heights, your heart beat, breathing, and cardiovascular system simply cannot return to normal because your body will always be under constant pressure. The solution is to simply get used to having a pulse rate of about 100 beats per minute – even during sleep.
- The most important rules when hiking at 5000+ meters:
- Always consider your health.
Your health, safety, and well-being must take precedence over your pride. Never mind what others think of you because your life is more important than bragging rights. So if you have to rest, or quit and make your way back down – do so.
2. Take responsibility for yourself.
If the team leader doesn’t care about your health and won’t listen to your concerns, then leave the group and make your way back down. Alone, if need be.
- 3. Pay attention to other team members.
If you’re not having problems, but others are, do the right thing and listen to them. Note their symptoms, measure their pulse rate, keep calm, and take appropriate steps.
Preventing Altitude Sickness
Prevention is better than treatment because it can stop the problem in its tracks before it gets worse. The best ways to do so include:
- Ensuring correct acclimatization,
- Alternating descents and ascents while monitoring everyone’s health,
- Athletes have to include anaerobic training – such as running uphill and running with a delay in breathing,
- Taking multivitamins and antioxidants (tinctures of ginseng, golden root, rhodiola rosea, ascorbic acid, riboxin) when climbing 5000+ meters,
- Not taking medicines that affect the pulse rate – such as potassium or orotate. These can cause irregular heartbeats,
- Always bring a first-aid kit with you!
- Taking pills that normalize the water-salt balance, such as rehydration pellets. A little salted water will do.
- If any member feels bad during a climb, they must go down or be evacuated by emergency aircraft.
Helping with Altitude Sickness
Despite their best efforts, there will always be those who’ll fall prey to altitude sickness. The best solution is to act fast to prevent it from getting worse.
First, get them back down to a lower altitude. If they can’t walk, call emergency services right away.
If you can’t reach medical help, for some reason, you need to increase their oxygen intake.This can be done with water or diuretics. If they have problems with a build-up of pressure, use a condition-intramuscular injection. An alternative is to give them one to two aspirin pills to reduce blood clotting and supply more oxygen to their tissues.
To climb 5000+ meters, you need to prepare accordingly. This involves having the right quality equipment, ensuring correct acclimatization, and doing a carefully planned ascent. Those who suffer from altitude sickness require immediate medical care to reduce hypoxia and prevent severe complications. Where medical care isn’t possible, an immediate descent should address most symptoms.
Thorough preparation for your next mountain trip is key. Hike safely and happily!