High altitude trekking has picked up currently as compared to some decades back. The equipment and trekking gear available is now state of art and continues to evolve. However, the perils of High Altitude still remains. Any altitude above 12,000 feet is considered to be sufficient to induce altitude sickness in a trekker. Every individual has different capacity to endure high altitude. Some might develop AMS symptoms at 12,000 feet while some continue to frolic around merrily even at 20,000 feet. But, taking necessary precautions is advisable for all.
I completed Stok Kangri Trek recently and you can read my detailed experience here. I derived my learning from this trek as we climbed up to 20,100 feet.
Before we come to the 5 rules, let’s have a quick look at what is AMS. An abbreviation for Acute Mountain Sickness, AMS is a condition which occurs due to desiccated air and lack of oxygen. Human brain cells function normally because of adequate oxygen is drawn in by lungs from the atmosphere. If the air doesn’t contain the normal level of saturation our lungs are used to, the supply of oxygen to brain cells is hampered. As a consequence, symptoms related to brain functions start appearing. Headache, nausea, disturbed sleep, lack of appetite and shortened breath are some of the basic symptoms. Advanced symptoms can be blurred vision, lack of judgment, fainting etc. These are nothing but AMS (altitude sickness) symptoms.
Many folks attribute a slight headache after a day’s trek to AMS. But, a light headache can’t be AMS related but mostly due to fatigue. Headache which is caused due to AMS is a splitting one and it feels like a nail being pounded right in your forehead. So, take a walk around and relax before attributing the headache to altitude sickness.
Coming back to AMS, acute mountain sickness has two advanced levels. Known as HACE & HAPE, these two stages are considered to be dangerous for a trekker. HACE & HAPE stand for High Altitude Cerebral Edema & Pulmonary Edema respectively. In HACE, fluids start filling your brain cells and in HAPE, lungs are affected by fluid induced swelling. Both are a dangerous situation and if the Trekker is not descended to a lower altitude immediately, death can occur within minutes.
Not dissecting the affects of AMS further, let’s now see how to avoid altitude sickness. The tips shared here will work for most. However, AMS can strike even after following these tips as every individual human body has a different capability to cope with atmospheric change. So, I would recommend you to at least follow these tips. Rest, we can leave on destiny and hope for the best.
1) Drink adequate water & eat well
Drinking enough water will help you stay dehydrated and keep oxygen level sufficient in your body. I would suggest drinking one liter right after waking up in the morning. Before leaving for the day’s trek, finish another liter around breakfast. During the day’s trek, if you are carrying sip gradually and complete at least another liter. Once you reach the camp, finish another liter till sun set. Around dinner, till you sleep, another liter should be okay. Following this will add up to 5 liters a day which is an adequate amount of water to acclimatize well.
Eating at regular intervals will also help you to stay energized and acclimatize well. Keep breakfast heavier than lunch & dinner. The lightest meal of the day should be dinner.
2) Strictly avoid Drinking & Smoking
This is a complete no for trekkers. Drinking directly affects your oxygen level to fall off the charts. Additionally, it also causes dehydration which again isn’t good for trekkers at high altitude. I know the temptation to sip old monk in cold. But, if you are above 12,000 feet, please fight this temptation away! Smoking directly affects your lungs and your reduced capacity in thin air deteriorates even further.
3) Climb High, Sleep Low
If you read my Stok Kangri experience, you will see that I have mentioned acclimatization walks almost every day. These walks are important for you to acclimatize well.Let’s say your camp is located at 15,000 feet. Before retiring to your tents, you should hike up any mountain, gain some 500 feet altitude, spend some time there and return to your camp before sunset. This hike is nothing but an acclimatization walk. Any acclimatization walk helps our body to acclimatize better to the camp altitude as the body was actually trying to acclimatize to the higher altitude.
So, don’t reach your camp and directly crash in the tent to take a nap. Wander around, explore the surroundings and let your acclimatization begin.
4) Don’t cover your ears while wandering around
After reaching the camp, you will roam around to acclimatize. While doing so, make sure to keep your ears uncovered.
Ears are considered to be a good indicator of atmospheric condition to the brain. Do you remember popping your ears during a flight or scuba dive? Well, that’s because your body is adjusting to the change in pressure. Your inner ears traps some air and when you are at a high altitude or below sea level, the actual pressure and air pressure trapped in inner ears differ. This cause imbalance and to restore balance, you need to pop that trapped air out.
Similarly, keeping your ears open will indicate a change in atmospheric surroundings to your brain and it will start adapting faster.
At the same time, covering your head is equally important. You don’t want to just avoid AMS but cold too. Roll your skull cap up till your temple, keep your ears open and head covered.
5) Ascend slowly
In my Himalayan treks, I have seen Trek mates rushing too fast to reach the next camp earlier. Had the trek been a race, this would have been justified. Don’t be in a rush. Ascend slowly, but steadily. This will help your body to acclimatize well with the increasing altitude. This is an important point to follow in order to prevent altitude sickness.
To avoid altitude sickness, many start taking Diamox. This medicine helps in acclimatizing to the higher altitude. However, it doesn’t guarantee that you wouldn’t develop altitude sickness symptoms. Additionally, if you are not on a Diamox course and suffer from altitude sickness, you shouldn’t take Diamox to cure AMS. It doesn’t work like that. Diamox is more of a preventive measure than a cure for altitude sickness.
A Diamox course should start at least 2 days before the trek starts and continue till you are back at the altitude when you started the course. Discontinuing the course during the trek can trigger altitude sickness symptoms rapidly. Diamox has some side effects like strong sensation in the mouth and on the tongue, day mouth and increased urine amount which dehydrates your body quicker than normal. So, if you are on a course of Diamox, it is recommended to consume 6-7 liters of water every day instead of 4-5.
An alternative for Diamox is Coco which is an Ayurvedic medicine to fight altitude sickness.
So, these 5 tips should help you avoid altitude sickness. Make sure to religiously follow these tips and enjoy the trek.
Have you completed a high altitude trek before? How did you avoid altitude sickness? Let me know your experience in comments.