Why Do Some People Get Altitude Sickness (While Others Do Not)?
Why Do Some People Get Altitude Sickness (While Others Do Not)? 2020-07-20 2020-08-20 /wp-content/uploads/pp-logo-horizontal-color.png Peak Planet https://peakplanet.com/wp-content/uploads/shutterstock_1598376499.jpg 200px 200px
Do you have what it takes to reach the top of Mount Kilimanjaro?
Though impossible to know for sure till your trials on the mountain begin, the odds are already working in your favor. Kilimanjaro requires absolutely no technical climbing expertise. Years of hiking and backpacking are not requisite to successfully tackling the highest freestanding mountain in the world! Many first-time hikers do well on this adventure. People ranging from age 6 to 89 have found their moment of glory atop Uhuru Peak.
Approximately two out of every three attempts are successful. Yet Kilimanjaro has also bested some of the most renowned professional athletes in the world, such as tennis great Martina Navratilova and Super Bowl champion Ray Lewis.
So what exactly makes this mountain difficult to climb?
Your Biggest Obstacle
Most people think that climbing a tall mountain is difficult due to the physical endurance needed to take thousands of steps on an inclined slope. Though physical preparedness is a crucial component to conquering Kili, it is only one of many. While the energy needed to ascend is significant, it is most likely not the reason why an individual would fail to summit.
Acute mountain sickness (AMS), also referred to as altitude sickness, is the real opponent. It is caused by the lack of oxygen at high altitude. For most people, at 8,000 feet above sea level and higher, symptoms can occur.
Milder cases of AMS include symptoms such dizziness, nausea, shortness of breath, headaches, and general fatigue. It is very common to experience mild symptoms of AMS while climbing Kilimanjaro. Symptoms typically will subside by spending more time on the mountain near the same elevations. However, there are those who do not acclimatize well and symptoms worsen with time and at greater elevations.
Moderate AMS symptoms may include diminished sleep, loss of appetite, swelling of hands and feet, and even vomiting. In the most severe cases of AMS, high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) can occur, and these conditions require immediate attention.
What Factors Increase the Incidence Rate of AMS?
The incidence rate of altitude sickness depends on various factors, including an individual’s age, gender, rate of ascent, fitness and health, previous experience at altitude, and their genetic susceptibility to altitude sickness.
It’s Written in Your Genes
The most determinant factor is sadly the one which you have the least amount of control – your genetics. It has been known that some people are inherently more susceptible to altitude sickness than others. Studies conducted over the past decade have revealed a genetic predisposition to AMS.
One such study done by Robert Roach discovered six genes whose expression (or lack thereof) can predict susceptibility to AMS with up to 95% accuracy.
Caution for Young, Strong Guys
One study indicated that younger people might be at higher risk, reporting that individuals who were 18 to 19 years of age had an incidence rate of 45%, while individuals between 60 and 87 years of age only reported a 16% incidence rate. However, the results may be explained away by the higher exercise intensity of younger people as rigorous exercise can cause AMS.
Some report that men have a slightly higher risk than females. But this may also be due to exercising at a more strenuous pace. The risk of developing altitude sickness between the genders is believed to be equal.
The lesson here is to take it very easy on Kilimanjaro no matter who you are. Don’t trudge ahead just because you can.
Take it Slow and Steady
AMS occurs when the body cannot adjust fast enough to the decreasing oxygen level. Therefore, a slow rate of ascent is recommended. Fortunately, this is not something that a climber has to figure out on a guided Kilimanjaro trek once the route has been selected.
The expert guides at Peak Planet control the pace based on their experience with thousands of clients. The elevation gain, the number of breaks, and the camp locations have been tested to increase the safety and success of the climb.
Several trekking routes and durations are available through Peak Planet, ranging from 6 days to 10 days on the mountain. A longer route is always recommended to slow down the rate of ascent. The added time gives the body a better chance of acclimatizing to the altitude. That is why the longer routes have a greater probability for success (as high as 95%) and lesser incidence of severe AMS.
Good Fitness isn’t Foolproof
It is logical that people who are fit have an advantage in acclimatizing over those who in poor health. But the research does not prove this. In fact, tests have shown that physically fit individuals fall victim to altitude sickness at the same rate as those less fit. But don’t take this to mean that training isn’t necessary. Being in good shape means your body does not have to use as much energy to recover from activity and instead use its resources to cope with the altitude.
Peak Planet advises no less than 12 weeks of consistent training leading up to your climb. Though no one plan is one-size-fits-all, it should be understood that you should spend as much time on your feet as possible. Walk, walk, and walk some more, and do so outside the coziness of a gym and, if possible, outside hours you would normally operate so your body gets used to performing under adverse conditions and with little rest.
You should be able to tolerate, with relative ease, 10-15 miles of walking in a day with minimal stops. Building this level of muscular endurance is crucial, as crippling fatigue on summit night will fight you every step of the way. Destroy any notion of a comfort zone as you train, because Kilimanjaro requires it.
Those with pre-existing diseases such as heart and lung conditions should show extra caution when considering ascents to altitude.
Get Up High
If the option is available prior to your climb, spend time at altitude to see how your body reacts.
People who live at sea-level are more susceptible to AMS than those who normally live at higher elevations. If you have been to high altitudes before without experiencing any symptoms of AMS, you are less likely to have problems at altitude in the future. Those who have had a recent exposure to altitude are less likely to develop AMS.
One clever way if boosting your success rate is to lower the mountain so to speak, by increasing the oxygen available to your body. How? Peak Planet offers rental of personal oxygen systems. Should you have doubts about your ability to acclimatize, these systems provide pulses of oxygen as you inhale which can help improve your athletic performance and reduce the likelihood of AMS.
Another way of increasing your oxygen intake is through a medication called Diamox (Acetazolamide). This medication increases your respiration rate, which in turn brings more oxygen into the body through more frequent inhalation. Diamox is typically taken for the duration of the climb and has been shown to prevent and treat AMS.
The Mental Game
Let’s be clear. You can’t out tough AMS.
AMS is a physical condition that cannot be tamed with your mind. If your symptoms are more than mild, it is time to consider turning around. There is no shame in getting sick.
However, barring altitude sickness or injury, a strong mental game can keep you going in those moments on the mountain when physical and emotional exhaustion and harsh alpine conditions put up a proverbial wall. It’s at these moments where the time you spent in the gym are of little use, and you must rely on resiliency to regain your composure.
Meditation is a fantastic tool to have at your disposal, and you don’t need to be an expert enjoy its benefits. Meditation can decrease physical and emotional tension, calm your breathing as you struggle at high altitude, and may even help you find precious hours of sleep when your body has other ideas. There are countless anxiety-reduction and mindful-breathing meditation videos available online.
If you have the desire to achieve something as monumental as a Mt. Kilimanjaro summit, and the drive and discipline to follow through with your physical and mental preparation, you’re off and running. Whether you have years of hiking and climbing experience or not, Kilimanjaro is still within your reach.
The largest and most common hurdle is overcoming symptoms of AMS and fighting through those moments when the mountain asks you if you’re sure.
AMS is caused by a variety of factors. Some of which are in your control and some of which that are not. Make good decisions about the things you can control, such as route choice, being fit, using an oxygen system and taking Diamox. And leave it to the Universe decide the outcome.
Your decision to trek with Peak Planet puts you in the hands of the best guides in the business. Many of them, when asked, will be delighted to tell you how many times they’ve climbed Kilimanjaro if they haven’t lost track. Utilize their extensive level of expertise and breadth of experience to your advantage. They are there to coach you through those precarious moments and they are exceptionally good at it. From those that assist in the planning phase to the guides and porters you’ll share this once-in-a-lifetime experience with, rest assured your biggest concern will be putting one foot in front of the other until you reach the top.
Edward Patrick is an outdoor and adventure enthusiast. As an avid hiker/climber, he has climbed over 100 unique mountains including all 46 Adirondack High Peaks, Mount Kilimanjaro, Mount Whitney, Half Dome, and Huayna Picchu in Peru. Ed also completed the snow-packed John Muir Trail from end-to-end. He lives and works in Rochester, New York as an Epic Analyst, with his wife Jennifer and daughter Etta. Edward and his wife climbed Kilimanjaro with Peak Planet in 2015. He proposed to her at the summit, Uhuru Point. He describes the trip as one of the most amazing experiences of their lives.
Altitude Sickness While Hiking: Symptoms and Treatment
For hikers who aspire to reach the tallest peaks, or even for those hiking at relatively moderate elevations they’re unaccustomed to, altitude sickness is a real concern. Caused by a lack of oxygen at higher altitudes, altitude sickness can bring on headaches, trouble sleeping and other mild to severe symptoms. Luckily, several treatments are available that can address these issues.
First, it’s important to determine whether you have altitude sickness (also called acute mountain sickness). The most common symptoms are the following:
- Throbbing headaches
- Lack of appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dizzy spells
- Shortness of breath
Severe symptoms include becoming confused, feeling faint and having trouble breathing. You may also notice graying of the lips or fingernails. If symptoms become this severe, seek medical assistance right away, and get to a lower altitude as quickly as possible.
Backroads Pro Tip
Altitude sickness can take up to a day to occur, with symptoms often becoming worse at night. It can also often be mistaken for other illnesses or conditions, including dehydration and the flu.
If going to the doctor is not an option, there are a few ways you can treat altitude sickness while on the go.
Go to a lower altitude
Descending to a lower altitude can help alleviate any symptoms you feel, and it’s the quickest and safest fix for altitude sickness. Often it won’t take much of a drop in elevation to start feeling significantly better.
Acclimate to the altitude
If descending is not possible or if symptoms are mild enough, stay at your current altitude and let your body acclimate. Rest up, stay hydrated and take it easy as your body gets used to the altitude. As a precaution, you should always work up to a higher altitude by resting before your ascent. Let your body acclimatize to each new level of altitude slowly as you hike.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you’re on a multiday hike at high elevation, it’s good practice to, after making camp for the night, take an additional short hike to gain some elevation, then drop back to your camp. This more gradual elevation gain approach can help your body better acclimate to higher elevations and avoid the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Ask your doctor for medicine ahead of time
Various medications can help control the effects of altitude sickness. Consider asking your doctor for a prescription for medications such as Diamox or Procardia. Your doctor may also have advice on what over-the-counter medications may help alleviate any mild symptoms you may encounter.
Drink and eat well
Drinking plenty of water and eating meals heavy in carbohydrates (think pastas, cereals and bread) can help alleviate symptoms of altitude sickness.
Avoid smoking and alcohol
Since altitude sickness can cause shortness of breath, avoid smoking. Alcohol is dehydrating, which can worsen symptoms of altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness is a serious matter, but with a bit of knowledge and preparation, you can be ready to recognize symptoms and to put the right treatment into effect.
Humphreys Trail – Hiking The Highest Peak in Arizona
Humphreys Trail is an out-and-back trek that takes you to the highest natural point in Arizona, above 12,000 ft. The trail is full of lush alpine forests and mountainous scree fields. Hikers will witness some of the state’s most magnificent views.
Mt. Humphreys, along with Mt. Agassiz and Mt. Fremont, are within Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks. A mountain range located right outside of Flagstaff, Arizona.
This range is believed to have reached an elevation of 16,000 feet, right before a volcanic eruption that occurred more than 1,000 years ago.
As one of the more difficult trails in Arizona, Humphreys Trail isn’t for first-time hikers. Overall, the trail itself is very steep and can be very rocky at times, with an elevation increase of 3,000 ft.
This makes the journey challenging. That’s not to say that new hikers can’t submit the top, but hikers will need to persevere.
How to Get to the Humphreys Trailhead
The Humphreys Trail trailhead is in the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, north of Flagstaff.
You can access the trailhead lot, Hart Prairie, from Hwy 180. If you are heading in from Flagstaff, drive North on Humphreys St. and turn left onto Hwy 180. You can also type in Hart Prairie Lot into your GPS.
Humphreys Trail Guide
This is an extensive hike, so be sure to start early to ensure enough time to make it to the summit and back before dark. To start, you will pass under a ski chairlift. Then continue through a meadow full of wildflowers and high grass.
The trail will take a slight left, and you will enter a thick forest with pine trees, aspens, firs, and spruce trees. You will continue to follow the trail through steep and lengthy switchbacks. This will seem like the longest part of the hike.
This trail is well marked with directional wooden signs.
As you approach the 3.75-mile marker, the tree line will begin to thin. You may even notice the air thinning as well– this may make it more difficult to catch your breath. Be prepared for a temperature decrease as you gain elevation.
You will soon reach the saddle between Agassiz Peak and Humphreys Peak. Take a left to continue to Humphrey’s summit. The Weatherford Trail veers right towards Agassiz.
At the saddle, be alert to the weather as you are above the tree lines, and the route is no longer covered. Thus you will not be protected and will be exposed to the elements. During the winter season, expect ice and snow on the trail.
The trail will zigzag through rocky terrain and large boulders. The footpath remains visible, and the wooden stakes will continue to guide you.
The final mile is strenuous and has a few false summits. Keep hiking. You will know when you made it to the top when you see the legendary sign with the elevation, 12,633 ft.
Rest, regroup, and take in the 360-degree views. On a clear day, you can see the Grand Canyon to the north, and the Mogollon Rim to the south.
Once you have had your fill of the incredible panorama views, head back down the same way you came up.
What to Pack For Hiking Humphreys Trail
Below is an example of essential day-hiking gear for Humphreys Peak in September.
To learn more about what you should pack for a day hike, check out our expert guide – How To Prepare For A Day Hike & Packing Lis t .